With G7 leaders in Cornwall this weekend and Surfers Against Sewage (SAS) taking to the seas, Ali Wood is reminded of an unusal swim she had in Bournemouth
The red flags were flying when I went for a swim at Boscombe Pier. I thought nothing of it. Yes, the sea was a tiny bit choppy, but I had my tow-float, and I was only planning a quick dip in shallow water, swimming parallel with the shore.
So I gave the RNLI hut a wide berth.
The lifeguard came running after me. ‘Wait!’
I groaned. He was going to tell me off, and now it would be awkward if I still wanted to swim. But what he said surprised me.
‘I wouldn’t advise going in today. The water quality’s not very good. There’s been a sewage overspill after the storms.’
Sewage? No, please! Not on my beautiful beach.
But apparently after heavy rains the run-off is common. All this time, I’d assumed the red flags were just there to warn of rough seas.
In fact, Boscombe – one of the beaches the UK flocked to during the Covid pandemic – was identified in a recent Guardian report as being one of those where untreated wastewater is discharged.
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Boscombe is not alone. According to the Guardian, sewage discharge happened 2,900 times last year. Water companies are supposed to treat sewage rather than dump it in the sea, explains Amy Fleming. However, ‘good days’ are increasingly rare and the system is so far over-capacity that even drizzle can make it overflow.
A report by Surfers Against Sewage lists discharges at 262 bathing locations across England and Wales In 2019/20.
I had a look at the blue dots on the map, and yes, one of these is my local area, managed by Wessex Water.
It’s horrible, I know, but when you’re stood on the beach in your gear, the sun’s shining and you’re desperate to go in the water, do you really want to turn around and go home?
The RNLI lifeguard offered a solution. ‘Why don’t you go further down the beach?’ he suggested. ‘You should be alright nearer Southbourne.’
I guess no-one knows really at which point a beach near a sewage outlet suddenly becomes ‘safe’ but that would do for me.
Suddenly a voice popped up behind me. Another swimmer, I’d not seen before.
‘Yes, yes, we’ll do that, lifeguard, thank you very much,’ she said. Then she turned to me: ‘Come on then!’
Obediently, I followed her along the beach, wondering if maybe we’d met before. She asked me how many groynes I was planning to do. I said maybe two, she persuaded me to do three, then we had a chat about flippers – whether to wear them or not. Soon we’d forgotten all about the sewage on our local beach.
‘I’m a slow swimmer,’ she said. Decked in her smart Orca wetsuit, changing robe and cap, I didn’t think she would be, somehow.
She also showed me her homemade spray (baby shampoo and water) for keeping her goggles clear.
It wasn’t until we’d walked a good few groynes and were about to get in, when she said, ‘It’s really great to meet you Marilyn.’
‘I’m not Marilyn.’
‘Where’s Marilyn then?’
It turns out my new pal Helena was meant to be meeting Marilyn for the first time, and I happened to be in the right place at the right time wearing a wetsuit.
‘Stay there! Don’t go anywhere,’ she said, and rushed off in search of Marilyn. Ten minutes later she reappeared with a lady she’d found by the shower block. We all introduced ourselves and went for a swim together.
Helena was, indeed, fast. In fact, it turns out she’s a swimming and yoga instructor and underwater performance artist. I let her go on ahead, and I swam with Marilyn instead, who was a similar pace to me. We then met up at the groynes.
The water seemed fine – I had no ill after-effects – and it was really nice to swim in company for a change. What’s more, the showers – which had been closed for over a year – were finally open, so we finished in a steaming hot shower, exchanging numbers.
I came away with a new WhatsApp group on my phone. Whilst Helena and Marilyn go out a lot more often than me, it’s nice to know I have a new group of friends I can text next time I fancy a wild swim.
And as for the red flags… yes, I’ll definitely be keeping an eye on those in future and listening to the RNLI beach lifeguards.
I’ve also signed up to Surfers Against Sewage. With the huge number of people enjoying Britain’s beaches, I agree we’ve absolutely got to tackle sewage. It’s not good enough to simply avoid beaches after a storm – not with climate change, the increasing number of storms… and the fact that the surf is always best at that time!
Here’s hoping the G7 leaders pay attention to the Surfers Against Sewage campaign group, who took to the water en masse off Falmouth yesterday armed with kayaks, SUPs, surfboards and bodyboards to stand-up for a healthy ocean.
The G7 (Group of Seven) is an organisation of the world’s seven largest so-called advanced economies: Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK and the United States.
The G7 summit, which includes Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Biden, who’s making his first foreign visit since taking office, finishes today in Carbis Bay near St Ives.
I wonder if they’ll all finish with a nice dip in the sea … imagine that!