Ramsey Sound is one of those places that you stand in awe and wonder at from the land. It forms a passage between mainland Pembrokeshire in West Wales and the long thin expanse of Ramsey Island to the west. It’s north-south alignment means it is perfectly placed to funnel the ebb and flow of the tide so that the water accelerates as it squeezes through the gap. In fact this area experiences some of the greatest tidal movements in the UK with measured speeds of nearly 9 miles per hour on Spring tides. And this is why Ramsey Sound recently hosted the testing of a prototype tidal turbine for green energy generation.
Even more thrilling to behold from a boat the Sound is popular with wildlife tour boats that run trips around Ramsey Island to experience the atmosphere of the place and the wildlife that abounds in its rich waters. It is a hotspot for Harbour porpoise that use it as a feeding and nursery ground, and Atlantic grey seals breed on Ramsey Island’s storm beaches. In early summer the sea cliffs of the island are crowded with seabirds that also gather to breed and nest. For kayakers it provides challenging conditions and a line of rocks called the Bitches is revered as a white water play spot; it certainly sets my heart fluttering every time I venture there. But people don’t go there to swim.
So when one summer evening husband Tom said “Why don’t we swim down Ramsey Sound tomorrow” my heart lurched in my chest as I knew even the suggestion meant we would do it. After consulting the tide table and applying our local knowledge of tidal flows in the Sound, we deduced the tide would be flowing south at its maximum speed around lunchtime. We could jump in at the north end and use the tide to assist us along its length. With fair weather forecast the plan was set.
Though I’d spent many hours in recent months watching its surface for porpoise and seal activity for work and we’d both experienced it’s changing moods from a kayak, swimming Ramsey Sound would be a first for both of us.
The next day I spent the morning sea watching for marine mammal activity at the north end of the sound then hurried back to the car park at St Justinians to meet Tom. Considering the nature of our swim we decided to ring the Coastguard to let them know our plan; we didn’t want concerned passers-by ringing the emergency services on our behalf. When the phone operator answered Tom informed him “We are going to be swimming in Ramsey Sound today, starting at Point Saint John and getting out near the copper mines at the south end”. The operator replied “Ok and what’s the name of your vessel?” Tom was a little confused and paused before deciding “Um, vessel name is Tom. “ We guessed they didn’t get many phone calls from swimmers. Tom let him know what time we would be off the water and promised to ring back when we were safely back on dry land.
We changed in to our wetsuits and strolled north along the coast, searching out a vague fisherman’s path down a rocky promontory to the water’s edge. We had an exit point in mind, two and a half kilometres south and just before the tide would whisk us off around Pen Pedol headland.
Perched on the rocks we adjusted our goggles then plopped in to the swirling water. The tide was gentle at this point and seemed to barely be moving us along. Tom announced that we needed to swim out in to the middle of the sound, where the tide would be flowing at its fastest. Against my instincts to want to hug the land I agreed and we put our heads down and began stroking towards open water. Vulnerability and excitement increased the further we got from the mainland.
We ebbed with the tide, two humans bobbed along with the pull of moving water. It was like being in the middle a great, wide river. We would swim for a time, heads down ploughing through the cool water, then rest a bit and take in the view sailing past. Nearing the middle of the sound Tom stopped me and said he thought he saw a shape swim beneath him. “What do you think it was? Maybe a porpoise heading south to feed in the tide? “ Then suddenly a loud snort announced the arrival of a large bull seal just 20 metres away. He was clearly checking us out. It was nearing pupping and breeding season for the local Atlantic grey seals and I wondered if we looked like a couple of skinny females “ I hope he doesn’t try to hump us” I remarked, feeling distinctly vulnerable so far from the land and in his territory. “Well, I hope he doesn’t try to eat us” Tom added on reflection. Over the last two years there had been reports of seals catching and eating porpoise in Ramsey Sound which I would witness myself less than a year after our swim. Being about the size of a porpoise and much less agile in the water we could be on the menu for this powerful seal. Threat from wildlife wasn’t something we’d considered when planning our trip so this added a new layer of excitement. He seemed to have got the measure of us though and slipped back beneath the water surface with a slap of a fore flipper and didn’t bother us again.
I forced myself to put it out of my mind and focused on the swimming. Head down in front crawl and alternating my breathes I got a brief view of Ramsey Island on the right, then a glimpse of the mainland left. The cycle of breath and arms pulling were like a moving meditation and we whisked along at an impressive pace so that it was soon time to angle back to the mainland and our exit point; we steered a course for the rocks just before it to ensure we didn’t get pushed past in the flow of water. As we neared the land a local pot fishing boat drew near us and asked if we were OK with an air of disapproval, “Marvellous thanks!” We had expected to attract attention but this was the first boat we’d seen.
Putting on a spurt to reach the rocks I caught sight of some kelp billowing in the tide beneath us. Easing in to the shallows I wallowed amongst the slippery fronds feeling that all was good in the world. Tom joined me and we congratulated each other on an afternoon well spent, beaming from our achievement. Walking barefoot and wetsuit-clad back along the coast path we planned our next wild swimming adventures. The coast had taken on a whole new perspective and we were filled with renewed enthusiasm for familiar places that could be swum. Islands, sounds and headlands near and far beckoned to us…