**Updated December 2022 with brief section about water cleanliness**
I had a heated debate recently with a fellow Wightophile about the best Isle of Wight beach for swimming. Voices were raised slightly, fists were gently thumped onto a table and there may have been some finger wagging. I exaggerate only slightly.
The best beach for swimming may not be the best for other reasons - such as the practicality of clambering down a hundred steps with a pushchair. No, an ideal beach for swimming needs to have water which is the right depth, smooth sand underfoot and a lack of suspicious floating things.
There are lots of lovely Isle of Wight beaches that are just too shallow for a proper swim. I once walked out for a swim at Priory Bay (Seaview) at low tide and ended up in Gunwharf Quays Shopping Centre in Portsmouth with my trunks still dry. I've had similar problems at St. Helen's and at various other popular spots around the east Wight (Appley at Ryde and Bembridge can be like this at low tide).
There are other beaches which are just too stony underfoot, so without wetsuit boots on it can be like walking across a landfill site.
For example, Hanover Point is perhaps my favourite spot in the whole world but there is a huge stretch of rockbed, which has the cheek to remain hidden at high tide. Many visitors happily run into the sea from the golden sands and stub their toe a few seconds later. If you listen carefully you can hear expletives echoing around the bay.
The rocks also have peaks and troughs so even with wetsuit boots on you find yourself up to your neck one minute and then up to your knees the next.
Totland is another stony beach - the outlook is gorgeous and it tends to be quiet, but it is hard work with great big pebbles rolling around beneath your feet. Freshwater Bay is pretty rocky too, although it does have a really interesting and varied landscape. At high tide, the gradient of Freshwater Bay means that it gets deep very quickly which is fine for confident swimmers but scary for wobbly ones.
Steephill Cove near Ventnor tends not to be very stony but sometimes has so much seaweed that you feel you are wading through tickly purple treacle. When the tide is low, I like a quick dip in Gurnard, but it can be a bit stony too.
My experience with suspicious floating items in the seas around the Isle of Wight has thankfully been scant, although I've heard some tales, usually recounted by toothless barflies with beards and eye patches. ("Yarrr, twas as big a turd as I ever did see in me life, and twas coming roit for me.")
However, we can get some clues from which beaches get Blue Flags, which at the time of writing are Sandown, Colwell, Ventnor and Yaverland. Incidentally, wouldn't it be better if the blue flags were actually pictures of turds with a line through them to indicate the cleanliness of the water? Anyway, I digress.
I enjoy swimming at Yaverland and I'd certainly recommend Colwell (at low tide ideally as there is very little beach for skilfully getting into your trunks without mooning onlookers otherwise) and Sandown. Shanklin is very similar to Sandown as is the stretch of beach in between the two, which is called Dunroamin Beach. They tend to be a good consistent depth so you can actually swim and there aren't usually many waves.
Whitecliff Bay is another good option as it is nice and sandy, although getting there is difficult as you have to walk through a holiday park and then down a hill so steep that it almost requires crampons.
However, my vote goes to none of the above. For me, Compton Bay is the best beach for swimming on the Isle of Wight. In my view, sea swimming is most fun when the waves are choppy. You rarely hear anyone overwhelmed with hilarity on an entirely flat sea. You also tend to warm up much quicker because standing still isn’t an option when there’s a wave coming.
As I said earlier, Hanover Point is rocky, but if you walk towards the Compton Bay end of the beach it is much sandier and there are frequently big waves. It might not be ideal for training for a swimming competition, and it doesn't ever have lifeguards so you do need to be a bit cautious, but it is unbeatable for some traditional seaside larking.
For more on beaches, see our snazzy interactive map. Needless to say, it is well worth reading the information boards at beaches and understanding the tides, unless you want to end up heading for France on a lilo.
Update 2018: since we wrote this guide, the Isle of Wight Council have taken the decision not to apply for Blue Flags. However, we have discovered this great map from Surfers Against Sewage which gives regular update on water cleanliness.
Another update - December 2022: the issue of water cleanliness around the UK's coastline has been in the news a lot recently. This isn't just an Isle of Wight problem, so it shouldn't put you off visiting but I'd like to reiterate the value of checking the latest data on water quality. I haven't done a full comparison, but there seems to be regular water quality issues around the Isle of Wight in winter.
You might also like to write to your MP...
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