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In the twelfth and final instalment of our Sea Signs series, William uncovers what you can learn by watching people in and around the water.

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One thing there’s no shortage of around our coast is people, and we can learn a huge amount about the tides, waves, winds and currents by watching them. People-watching is a fine art, and the skill comes with working out who ‘knows their stuff’ - we can then emulate their actions and learn from their wisdom. But having said that, wise people can sometimes be caught out, so you should never follow someone blindly; always trust your instinct and look out for the clues we have explored in this series. What is guaranteed, though, is that by observing people’s interaction with the natural world, we can learn a lot – regardless of whether they’re doing something of incredible genius, or remarkable silliness.


Swimmers tell us a huge amount. Or in some instances, a lack of swimmers can speak just as loudly. When I first visited West Bay in Dorset, I was struck by the fact that there were no swimmers, despite the calm, clear waters. When I tentatively went in, full of caution [why was nobody else swimming?] I noticed that the seabed dropped suddenly and I was out of my depth very quickly. And when I tried to get back to shore, the steeply sloping beach created an unusual wave motion that made it difficult in those last few metres getting back to dry land. In contrast, there are always huge amounts of swimmers in Brighton, year round - because the beach is fantastic for swimming. This is highlighted when they wade in with the water waist deep for a long while out, telling us that the seabed stays shallow. This is great for safe swimming, especially with kids. And when you watch two swimmers going different directions it becomes very clear which way the tidal currents are flowing. Despite having similar speed of stroke, one will be racing along, while the other is almost stationary. 


On beaches with waves, it can be difficult to get a sense of scale without people. In Kingsdown, where I used to work from our van in the mornings, there was a day one winter when beautiful peeling waves were breaking on the reef opposite the van – but against the empty sea I simply could not tell how big they were. There was only one option; to go out and see for myself. Anyone watching me riding those waves would then have instantly got a sense of the size and power of those waves, quickly deciding if they were suitable. This is an important safety measure; waves often look much smaller from the beach and it’s not a nice feeling to underestimate the swell and find yourself surrounded by huge waves well beyond your capabilities. 


As I write this, a small fishing boat is chugging past me, close to the beach. It’s an open, clinker style fibreglass craft with a single outboard engine, two men and a pile of pots. The fact that the boat is so close to shore tells me there’s a high probability they’re heading against the current. This is because the currents are weaker in the shallower water close inshore, so the cunning old seadogs make use of the gentler conditions, consuming less fuel and getting to their fishing grounds quicker. And when they return, they’ll do so further out, tapping into the faster currents offshore. This technique can be applied when swimming, sailing, kayaking and paddleboarding – and it’s particularly useful when racing because it will give you an advantage over competitors [unless they’re also reading this feature].

“tidal streams are usually weaker in the shallower water close inshore”

Fishermen on the beach can also provide invaluable information about the tide and wind. The secret is in the arrangement of their shelters, protecting them from the driving rain and biting winds of long winter nights. These shelters are generally three sided, with the open face downwind. The rod is then mounted on this side, so that the fishermen can sit out of the wind and watch their rods, waiting for the tell tale jerking that indicates a tasty fish at the end of the line. And because these fishermen are often out on the beach for long periods of time, they are careful to set up their shelters as close to the waters edge without any risk of being swamped by a wave at high tide. This means you can lay out your picnic hamper on the same level as them, confident that you won’t be interrupted mid-meal.


And now comes the time to wrap up the ‘Sea Signs’ series. It has certainly made me look at the coast in new ways – always looking out for clues of what’s happening – and I hope you have learnt something new. And while it’s fascinating to learn and observe the processes that make water and air move around our shores, for me the ultimate satisfaction comes in putting that knowledge into practice; of turning knowledge into power so I can go further, faster, expending less energy getting there so I can have more time to enjoy the adventure and nature around me. 


Being able to read the signposts of the sea – buoys, birds, boats – means we can navigate the sea with confidence, easily avoiding the dangers and making the most of opportunities. Joshua Slocum, the first person to sail single-handed around the world, once said, “to know the laws that govern the winds, and to know you know them, will give you an easy mind on your adventure; otherwise you may tremble at the appearance of every cloud.” Slocum is a perfect example of the power of knowledge. Sailing singlehanded on a low budget in the 1890’s, he safely navigated the world’s oceans with an old tin clock and a sextant. This shows that you don’t need all the fancy gadgets to have successful adventures; understanding the natural world in which you are passing is far more useful. I hope this series has helped grow that knowledge, and interest, of what’s happening around our coast. 

Learn more about the sea in William’s Explorer Pocket Guides

About this series

Every day the sea is different, a  result of the ever-changing interaction between the moon, sun, tides, wind, waves,  buoys, boats and the beach. While the picture may appear complex, like a piece of classical music, it is essentially just an arrangement of simple elements, or notes. By dismantling the machine into its component parts and exploring each one in detail we can create order out of chaos; clarity out of confusion. That is the  purpose of this series 'Sea Signs'.

When we are young we learn to navigate urban environments; what traffic lights  mean or how to cross a road. What many of us aren’t taught is how to read nature’s  signposts; how to judge wind by watching birds or what weather different clouds  bring. Then there’s a whole technical world of buoys and boats with different light  sequences, colours and signals communicating messages. My goal in this series is to  share with you all the signs – both natural and man-made - that you may encounter in  your adventures along the coast so you can read them as well as any yachtmaster  skipper or crusty old seadog. 

With this knowledge, nothing is going to slip under your radar.

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