Kate Rew is the author of Wild Swim and founder of The Outdoor Swimming Society [OSS], with 70,000 followers worldwide.
In this #SeasThePower interview, Kate describes a close-to-death 'incident pit' experience during a mid-winter sea swim off the coast of Devon, sharing the lessons she learnt.
PHOTO CREDIT : DOMINICK TYLER
Kate, can you set the scene?
It was just after Christmas in 2006 and my sister Lisa was over from Montana. She’s really sporty; she skis, climbs, kayaks and everything else, so we thought it would be fun to swim a loop around Burgh Island off the coast of Devon with my friends Michael and Kari. It’s about a mile all the way around and quite a novel adventure because you leave the bucket and spade safety of Bigbury-On-Sands and swim around the other side of the island. Out there you’ve got a very wild landscape with seabirds and tall cliffs, and it gets quite choppy.
One of the features around the back of the island is a rocky chasm dubbed ‘Death Valley’ [pictured above on a sunny summer day] that, at specific tides, amplifies the surf and the chop and the waves. Once through there, our plan was to continue the counter-clockwise loop of Burgh Island, passing the lovely 1930’s hotel with a tidal pool and then back to the safety of the beach.
Burgh Island on a calm day Credit: Dominick Tyler
When did things start going wrong?
We swam around to the back of the island and it was really, really choppy that day. It was one of those seas that made it really easy to lose sight of each other when you were in the troughs of the big waves. So Lisa kept coming in and out of view and it was difficult to stay together as a group because the surge of the waves kept pulling us all apart.
When we got close to Death Valley we had a little discussion with Michael and Kari, who are both experienced swimmers - should we go through Death Valley or not? I didn’t think we should go in there; it looked too rough and there was a danger of being thrown against the rocks by the crashing waves. So I thought we’d agreed to go around the outside and avoid the danger, but the next thing I knew Michael and Kari had shot off towards Death Valley, leaving me and Lisa to go around the perimeter of this island on our own.
" it was one of those seas that made it easy to lose sight of each other "
I shouted after them to stick together but it was already too late, within a few strokes they were gone - the waves were too big, the surf too noisy, and my voice got lost. It's surprisingly hard to communicate when you're in water, and you're cold, and the sea is rough - on one level you're having a fun day out, but on another it's about survival, and self preservation kicks in. We had obviously mis-communicated - I couldn't believe they'd gone off, and when we talked about it later Kari was actually irritated that we had gone somewhere else.
Just after we lost Michael and Kari, I realised the tide had turned. I looked at Lisa, and her lips were blue. It occurred to me then both that my sister was really, properly cold; her wetsuit, borrowed from Kari, had holes and didn’t fit her properly - and also that she wasn’t a strong swimmer. We had to fight against the tide to get back to shore, and she just couldn't make progress now the tide was going out. I knew my rescue techniques weren’t going to help; I wasn't making much progress against the tide doing full front crawl myself, there was no way I could drag my sister. So I kept saying ‘Lisa, swim, swim’, encouraging us to put our heads down and swim for ten strokes. I would then look up and I’d be much further ahead than her, so that didn’t really work.
Our situation had suddenly become serious, but Michael and Kari didn't even know we were in trouble. When I asked Kari what she remembers, she says ‘we weren't worried about you…you swam off in a different direction and we knew Lisa was athletic; it never occurred to us that she was having a difficult time!’
Kate Swimming Credit: Chasing the Sublime
So how did you get back to safety?
I was giving Lisa swimming tips so she could move more water and go faster, but it was clear that her swimming technique was slower than the tide. I really don’t know how we did it, but somehow, eventually, we managed to cling onto some rocks. Lisa says she remembers I made her do star-jumps on slippery rocks to warm up, then hugged her a lot! We got back to shore by a mixture of clambering on barnacled rocks, getting quite cut up, and swimming through the calmer areas.
This experience reminds me of something scuba divers call an ‘incident pit’, where lots of small things develop into a big problem. Would you agree?
Absolutely; this was a typical Incident Pit! I would say there were lots of little things that we did wrong; we hadn’t checked that Kari’s wetsuit fitted Lisa properly and we hadn’t checked that she was acclimatised properly, because we were taking everyone’s general fitness for granted. And because we hadn’t seen each other for a long time, we were so busy catching up that we didn’t double-check what time we got in; usually we time the swim for Slack Water, but in the excitement we got in too late. The delay meant the tide turned when we were still halfway through the swim.
Because we had all driven a long way to get there, we were determined to swim, come what may. This means we didn’t do that normal assessment of ‘is this actually suitable?’ It then kept getting one step more chaotic as we went along, and I guess the final step was just not communicating properly what we were going to do about Death Valley, so Michael and Kari shot off one way and we went the other. I would say that was when we were totally in the pit; Lisa and I off the far side of the island, on our own, barely able to swim against the tide with no sense of anyone coming to help us.
Kate learnt valuable lessons from her experience Credit: Outdoor Swimming Society
What lessons have you taken from the experience?
I learnt that it's important to assess the swimming ability of who I'm with; not just their general outdoorsiness and resilience. Someone can be super outdoorsy, super resilient, super fit – but actually not a swimmer.
Lesson two - no matter how familiar a swim is to you, it’s fresh every time depending upon water conditions. So be that swim nerd! You might get caught up in the excitement of a festive occasion, or fun day out, but you still have to look calmly at the water. Remember that you are literally going to be out of your depth soon in a body of water that is far stronger than you are.
" no matter how familiar a swim is to you, it's fresh every time depending upon water conditions "
And finally, you have to be so vigilant in groups, because even experienced swimmers make bad decisions in groups - and things go wrong quickly in a group. It’s very difficult to make sensible decisions when there are lots of people in the water and things are going wrong, so it’s important to communicate properly.
Thanks you so much sharing your experience Kate. And to finish off, a thought on the sea's power …
Some days, when it’s grey and overcast, the water can look really hostile and sinister - but with a bit of sun on it, the sea suddenly looks friendly; this doesn’t mean it has lost any of its power.
For someone in Kate’s position, as President of the Outdoor Swimming Society, there must be a pressure to be the perfect swimmer, to make no mistakes. So it shows her strength of character to stand up and say; “yes, we didn’t analyse the conditions, we didn’t check the tide, we didn’t communicate properly.” But the fact is, when you’ve driven a long way to get to the beach, getting more and more excited the closer you get, meeting friends you haven’t seen in a long time, it’s very easy to overlook the cold, precise details of planning and preparing for an adventure. If you’re feeling fit and strong, and you know your friends are too, it's easy to forget how powerless you are against the sea.
I learnt a huge amount from my conversation with Kate; the importance of clear communication, of taking time to analyse the conditions and to assess the challenges in relation to the weakest person in the group. If it had been just Kate, Michael and Kari on that swim, there wouldn't have been any drama - it would have been a fun, energising, and bouncy adventure. What made it a mis-adventure was the fact that Lisa wasn't a stong swimmer, despite being a fantastic athlete, and the seas overpowered her.
Perhaps the most important lesson is that just because you’ve made the effort to get to a certain point, you're not tied to carrying on. Disasters are rarely a single event, but often progression of minor mistakes - and as Kate said 'things just got more and more chaotic'. The skill is to spot the early signs of an incident pit and take evasive action before things get out of hand and you're around the back of Burgh Island in rough seas, battling the tide with a companion who's not a strong swimmer and is borderline hypothermic.