Suddenly the week of the big swim was upon me, something I had been training for since August. This was going to be the longest swim I had undertaken, and of course I wondered if I was ready for it.
But first some background of Loch Rannoch. The loch is situated almost in the middle of Scotland, and is east of Glencoe, that infamous place where the Campbells are still not welcomed after more than 200 years. The legendary Rannoch Moor, a desolate, boggy alpine marsh drains partly into the western shore of Loch Rannoch via Loch Laidon and the River Gaur. Loch Ericht drains into the northern shore of Loch Rannoch via the River Ericht. The River Tummel drains the loch on the eastern edge. The loch is around 10 miles (16 km) long, and around one km wide, and is in places is around 133m deep.
To get to Loch Rannoch via road, you must come from the east, via Pitlochry as the there is no road access from Glencoe. The drive up from Glasgow up the motorway was supposed to take two hours, but road works offered me another route. That route was via Callander, past Loch Lubnaig ( a loch I had provided water cover for an event in August), past Loch Tay to Kenmore and then to Tummel Bridge to arrive at Kinloch Rannoch, a very scenic journey of two and a half hours.
It is an isolated loch, that is quite beautiful, but is prone to strong winds blowing down the loch from the west.
We had booked to stay two nights in an old school-house in the village for the 15 of us either swimming or supporting. We enjoyed the banter of watching the opening game of the 2015 Rugby World Cup where the three English supporters were drowned out by the 11 Scots and an Aussie supporting the Fijians.
There were seven of us swimming the loch, and it took a while to finalise the arrangements for getting the swimmers and support kayaks up to the far end of the loch to start the swim. As Saturday morning dawned we were greeted by a thickening fog, with the forecast of lifting fog, sun and light winds. A perfect recipe for swimming on this loch, as the prevailing westerly breeze can create a large wind chop as it flows down the loch.
Up we went to Rannoch Lodge where the bemused locals took lots of photos of these crazy people getting into the water. The air temperature was about 2c and there were banks of fog rolling through the loch reducing the visibility to around 100m. The local boatman suggested we wait an hour or so for the fog to lift, but we were keen to start. So we stood for the photos, and went into the deceptively warm water. Now we did not have a thermometer, but it felt like it was 11 or 12c, so I was glad to don the gloves, boots, and skull-cap to ward off the cold. I had lots of gels ready to consume on the estimated six-hour journey.
Off we went in a line, and soon the Plymouth warrior was well in front, with the Englishman by name leading the rest of us. It was like an outdoor set of phantom of the opera with the view of a kayaker in the mist leading the way. Fortunately, Stewart had a compass on his kayak and we knew we had to head east into the sun.
The water was silky smooth, with the only wash from the group of seven stroking through the loch. Suddenly the fog lifted and we were surprised to see ourselves near the folly on a very small island, about one and a half miles into the journey. We waited for the balance of the group of six (the warrior was well ahead by this time), and we swam over to the island for our first feed stop. It was a glorious morning, with banks of mist hanging over the hills to the east, with the sun valiantly attempting to warm the water.
Off we went again, and I was concentrating on keeping my form together, and following our local boatman. After a wee while, it must have been another hour or, Cam our rib man came up to me to give me some food that Stewart had passed onto him. I gladly had some food and drink, but did not take some on board. Even though I was swimming with a float, it is not practical to put food into it for this model, as to access the inside, you have to deflate the float. I suppose it would be good for an emergency stash, but it is easier to give some to the support crew and take it from them. This was the first time I had to think about a feeding program for a swim.
I waited for Jess and George to swim up to me, and the three of us stuck together like a band of sea wrecked sailors, as we swam further and further down the loch. Jess would gladly yell out significant distances covered, and it was like a very slow count down….6k, 7k, 8k. By this time we noticed that the breeze was starting to pick up, but luckily it was behind us pushing us home. I did start to think that the chop would only get larger the further we swam…little did I know.
After a while I noticed that George was struggling, and David our escort kayaker dropped back to see if he was ok. He had a back injury, and the cold water had defeated him, so he exited the water after almost 11 km, a great effort. That left Jess and I to continue. There was no truth to the rumour that he only got out to get away from the evil troika (the banker, the oilman and the taxman).
It was great to swim with my swim buddy, as we had spent many hours training together for this swim, and we tend to swim at around the same pace on these social swims. It is only when she competes that Jess shows how fast she can swim, with her beating me at Coniston and Inchmurrin. Both times she almost had enough time to get dressed, and have a cup of tea and biscuit, before I emerged from the watery depths. And to think it was only four years ago that she could not swim freestyle (or front crawl as they call it here….they laugh at the term Australian Crawl). Now if I could only fix that unique right arm action she could challenge the warrior more often, but that could wait…we had a loch to swim.
Now one of the great things about this loch, is that it is big and wide, with few bays or headlands. But that is also a bad thing when trying to swim the length, as it is difficult to fix on a landmark to swim past to get a sense of attainment. I did remember seeing a stand of distinctive tall pines on the right hand or southern shore that seemed to take an eternity to swim past. So I started to look left for the power line towers, at least they were every couple of hundred metres or so. There was a distinctive pale coloured building way down the loch, and I used that as a sighting point, the trouble was, it never seemed to get any closer.
By now, the cloud had thickened and the wind had strengthened, and even our local boatman looked cold huddled his craft, keeping warm with one cigarette after another. The chop was quite noticeable going from my right hip to my left shoulder. Breathing to the right was awkward with that chop, so I mainly looked left. I was still swimming quite well, just starting to get hungry and thirsty. We stopped for a welcome drink, and Jess told us how far we had to go: we had done 12k, then 13, then 14.
Our paddler had urged us to move closer to shore to try to get smoother water, as he was struggling to balance on the chop. So we headed to the northern shore. We knew we had to head that way to ensure we finished at the beach and not be swept down the River Tummel. Over close to shore we went, and it was nice to see the bottom again through the clear cold water. I knew there was a big hotel complex on this shore, but due to the local topography I just could not see it. That was odd, because I had seen it earlier in the day from well down the loch.
By now I was getting cold, but I was still swimming well and was determined to finish. Suddenly, the hotel came into sight, and we both stopped knowing we were almost home. I looked to the beach about half a mile away and saw a band of people waiting for us. Suddenly Mel appeared stroking towards like a mermaid. She had swum out to escort us home, but had feared she may have missed us in the chop. So Jess and I looked to each other and said we are almost there, just one stretch to go.
Off we went, through the chop, which reminded me of swimming on Aussie beaches in a stiff sea breeze, without the warmth. That last stretch was not easy, but I knew I could make it. Into shore we came like two lumbering creatures of the deep. We had made it. Now for the difficult bit, standing up for the first time in a few hours, with slippery rocks and chop to deal with. I drifted into shore until I run aground, and tried to stand then walk. The last thing I wanted was to fall flat on my face. Finally out of the water, with a huge cheer from the waiting crowd. Jess followed me, escorted by David. We had done it, we had conquered the cold loch. As we got into our warm clothes, we chatted about the swim. Our time was 5 and three-quarter hours, and I was wondering why people had trouble understanding me when I talked. I thought it was my harsh accent amongst the Scottish burr, but no it was my blue lips and nose making me sound like a I had drunk too many drams of the local brew.
The warrior was waiting for us, he had finished in four and a half hours: he is a machine and when he dons that suit, he is a barracuda.
It was not long before the other two swimmers finished. A magnificent effort.
So out of the seven who started, five finished, a great effort from all. What a team. Well done Kirsty, Gary, George, Jess, Sandra, and Kirsten. We could not have done it without the support of those on the water in the kayaks and boats, and those on the shore as well. Thanks Stewart, Cameron, John the boatman, David, Mel, and several others I have forgotten (but I am sure they will let me know).
My longest ever swim in terms of distance and time, and all in cold water, on what I used to call a cold mid winter’s day. I could only admire those souls who could swim this distance and time without a wetsuit…maybe one day that could be me. I was amazes that I had actually done it, especially as I only trained for six weeks.
We certainly celebrated that night, and those beers I had tasted all so sweet.
As I drove home the next day, I thought of a grand summer of swimming, and started to think about next season. How many 10k swims would I do? Would we get together again for another weekend and do this loch again, or try another one? Who knows, but the grand thing about Scotland is that there is always another loch to explore, another patch of clear cold water to immerse yourself in, and stunning scenery to take your breath away.
Yes this is a long report, but it was a long swim, and was a big goal right from the time I said I would do it. I have to thank the various photographers for the snaps they have taken that I have used in this post.