LIFE CHANGES  2021

A short swim after another successful coaching session in Loch Lomond

I am writing this blog post in early December 2021, thinking it has been far too long between blog posts. This is not a year in review for 2021 as I hope to have that post up in early January 2022. However, I wanted to explain why there has been such a long time between blog posts.

The year of 2020 was a year of massive change for a large number of people, and for me it was no different. My plans to visit Australia for the first time since 2014 to spend time with my father, attend my son’s wedding, and meet my granddaughter, were made impossible due to the pandemic that spread across the globe faster than a bushfire in a heatwave.

However, 2021 has turned out to be a big year of change for me as well. I had been coaching clients in openwater skills in Scotland since around 2016, on a part-time basis, fitting it between my full-time grownup job, and my work in Greece as a swim tour guide. During the lockdowns, there has been a huge surge in popularity in swimming outdoors in the UK, and to my surprise, it lasted over winter, as the benefits of cold water swimming in troubled times became apparent. I decided that this was a good time to see if I could turn my part-time hobby into a full-time role. So in April 2021, I handed in my notice and left the security of a well paid job in the UK Civil Service, to work full time as an openwater swim coach in Scotland.

A serene view of Inchtavannach

Now some of you might think I am crazy, as why would anyone chose to swim in Scotland, where in a good summer the sea might get to 14c, and Loch Lomond might nudge 20c? To say nothing of winter when small lochs freeze over, and large lochs can regularly drop to below 5c for a couple of months of winter. But there was is a huge interest in swimming outdoors, and to be honest, Scotland does have a lot of clean fresh water, with amazing scenery and opportunities to explore, without the threat of any marine predators.

I also had the security of being offered a couple of months of work as a swim guide in Greece with the wonderful Big Blue Swim (check them out if you want an adventure in warm clear water). I updated my swim coaching qualifications in the Cairngorms in early May, and a late cold blast that left snow on the hills forced us to move indoors for most of our assessment.

Another coaching session

Fairly soon, I was busier than ever, conducting one-to-one coaching sessions with a huge range of clients, ranging from those who wanted to learn to swim front crawl (or freestyle as I knew it), through to those training for ironman triathlons. I was working long hours, gaining a huge amount of job satisfaction watching people learn to swim with the water, becoming more efficient so they could swim further for longer without getting out of breathe. By August I was doing 5 lessons a day in a range of locations across the West Coast of Scotland such as Loch Lomond, Loch Lubnaig, Loch Venachar, White Loch and Balgray (before they were closed due to outbreaks of blue-green algae), sea locations like Barrassie and Troon, and a few other places on the Firth of Clyde. I also started doing some small group coaching sessions at Loch Lubnaig every Monday morning, to which people came from as far away as Fife for sessions. I must admit that the beauty of this loch meant I never had a feeling that I did not want to go to work on a Monday. I also had the joy of helping the Mermaid gain experience as she assisted me in coaching sessions when she was in Scotland, after she had also gained her open water coaching qualifications.

A dawn session in summer

As the summer went by, I was very busy, working long hours that flew by. It was fantastic to see the smiles on faces as swimmers gained confidence and skills to master the open water. Some of the highlights of the season included:-

  • Having a regular early morning client in Loch Lomond who started the summer doing only heads up breaststroke, but by the end of summer swimming several hundred metres front crawl in deep water. She even kept it up every week right up until the end of November, as the water temperature dropped.
  • Teaching a lady in her 70s to swim front crawl. When she first saw me, she would only swim with her head up in water she could stand up in. By the end of summer, she was doing front crawl as well, and going into water where she could not see the bottom, and letting everyone know about her wonderful Aussie coach.
  • Showing the skills to a triathlete who had entered his first event, a half-ironman, which required a swim of 1.9km. He could barely swim 50m, when we started, but after just a handful of sessions, he was soon able to do swims of a couple of kms (and yes he finished his event).
  • Taking a wonderful group of swimmers on their first explore swim in Loch Lomond, doing a 2km swim to the northern point of Inchtavannach, and a small sub-group doubling the distance with a swim back round wee peter statue.
  • Helping swimmers with various conditions to improve their swimming so as to enable them to swim in 3km openwater events.

These were just some of the highlights, there was many many more. I realised that I was a good coach, and that I enjoyed seeing the progress made by all of my clients. They all shared a passion for swimming outdoors and wanted to improve, and I felt honoured that I could help each and every one of them achieve their goals and dreams.

Loch Lubnaig in late summer, with SUPs and swimmers

I even managed to get back to Greece for a guiding tour as well during the summer. While my season there was not as long as I had hoped, I was very grateful to be able to travel at all to one of my favourite locations to work (though a number of friends do not believe that I am actually working as to them it looks like paradise).

The Ionian Sea in Greece

And my coaching has continued right up till December, in the great outdoors, and in local pools. So if you are wanting a coach for any aspect of outdoor swimming, please get in touch with me via the comments. I can teach you how to adjust to the icy waters of a Scottish winter, ensuring your safety at all times, teaching you how to manage the risks of this extreme activity. Remember I am one of the very few openwater swim coaches who has competed in ice swimming events, where the water temperature has to be under 5c for times to be ratified.

I can also help improve your technique, making you a much more efficient swimmer for an triathlon, an openwater swim event. Or maybe you just want to gain the confidence to explore the beauty of Scottish Lochs in a safe manner. Or you want a guide who can swim with you as you swim around the islands of Loch Lomond, swim the length of Loch Lubnaig or Loch Voil or Loch Venachar. Or maybe you want to swim ten lochs in a day.

White Loch looking pristine

What ever you seek, whether it is getting into the lochs or sea to swim, get in touch with me, I look forward to hearing frpm you. Go on, you will gain confidence and skills and will start doing things that you never thought possible. Hey if this native of the Sunburnt Country can learn to swim outdoors in Scotland year round without a wetsuit, than a lot of other people can too. And it is so much better if you learn from someone with the background and experience.

So taking the plunge into making my hobby a full-time job, has turned out to be one of the best things I have ever done. I am able to work outdoors for many hours a day, get to swim in lochs much more often than I ever used to, and meet a huge range of wonderful people, who share the joy and passion of outdoor swimming (I refrain from calling it wild swimming, even though that phrase is much more common).

Bring on 2022, it is going to be an exciting year.

WINTER SWIMMING IN SCOTLAND

Sunset in Crete at the end of the season

I recently wrote this blog entry for The Big Blue Swim, and thought I would share it here with you. The Big Blue Swim (https://thebigblueswim.com/ ) operate swim adventure holidays in Greece over the summer. I have had the very good fortune to have worked with them as a guide since the summer of 2018 in two of their locations in Crete and Lefkada. Swimmers come from around the globe to enjoy a week long holiday in stunning clear water and warm sunny days. The locations are absolutely amazing, with great company, good eating and the knowledge that you as a swimmer are safe at all times. You get to explore caves, islands, high cliffs, warm clear water, and underwater scenery.

The mother ship moored at lunch as we swim in the caves

You might be wondering what a Big Blue Swim Guide does in the off season, away from the warm calm waters of Crete, Santorini or the Ionian Sea? Well, this one swims of course, even though I live in Scotland.  For those of you who do not know me, I was born in Australia and moved to Scotland in 2014. The part of Australia where I lived until then would suffer freezing cold water of around 14c (57F) in the depths of the deepest darkest coldest winter, and if you dared to swim in those frigid temperatures, a wetsuit was compulsory. Even the winter swim clubs who would swim in ocean baths (lidos) in the winter would have to put ice in the water to make it cold enough.

Upon moving to Scotland I found that in summer the water in the lochs would stay below 14c until the middle of May and in a cool winter would not rise much above 16c (61F). Even the sea would stay around 14c. This was a culture shock, but I decided that the water was too stunning to stay out of, so I would wear a wetsuit year round to keep me warm.

After a few years, I decided to swim without the wetsuit in the summer to enjoy the feel of the refreshingly cool water. Then in 2016 I decided to try this winter swimming and swim without a wetsuit year round.

How do I transition from the 25c (77F) water in Crete in October back to the 10c (50F) water in Loch Lomond? One way is to go and sit in the cold water currents that creep across Vrissi Beach in Chora Sfakion which have been measured at 14c. Upon my return to Scotland there is a process, and it involves some pain as the water hits you, and a lot of experience. My return swim might only be for 10 minutes or so before it gets too cold. I would then increase my time in the water each time, and before long I would be able to stay in for 40 minutes or so before it gets too cold.

Then as the water temperature drops down to 8c, then 6c, I try to stay in the water as long as possible each time, swimming with others at all times and making sure I get out well before I get too cold. All of us know that some days the cold affects you more, and it can be as simple as tiredness, too much to drink the day before, or a cool breeze blowing across the water. I always have several layers of clothing ready to put on afterwards to help my body warm, and a hot drink and food. There is also the car heating system on maximum heat as well to help warm up afterwards.

The winter of 2020/2021 has been the coldest winter in 10 years in Scotland. The water in Loch Lomond was down to 3c before the latest lockdown hit, curtailing my swimming activities. I really love swimming in the winter with the air below zero, and snow on the hills around the loch, and when the sun shines it is absolutely stunning. There is something special about driving to a swim and passing snow ploughs and gritter trucks working to keep the roads open. The attached picture gives you some idea of the scene that greets me at Loch Lomond in the winter.

A snowy Queens park in Glasgow in early February 2021 looking pristine

I have also found some smaller lochs closer to home that froze over for most of January, requiring a hammer or ice-axe to break the ice, making a small channel. This picture is one such day when the water was -0.1c (32F) and the air was -3c (26F). That was the coldest water I have ever swum in, and even though the swim was only 5 minutes that day, it was an amazing experience.

If you want to try this winter swimming, please be aware of the risks involved. Find some people in your local area who do it and talk to them. Start slowly and try to stay in slightly longer each time. Cold water shock is real, and is the way your body reacts to the cold water threat. Learn to recognise it, control it as it does not disappear. Have plenty of warm clothing for afterwards, and enjoy the experience. It is a potentially dangerous activity.

And then when you do get back to Greece for a Big Blue Adventure, you will relish that warm sparkling clear water even more.

On the way to Kefalonia for the 5km crossing to Ithaca

REVIEW 2020


I am writing this blog entry in early January 2021 looking back on that year of 2020, which will be remembered by so many people as a year of loss, isolation and lockdown. It was of course the year that a virus swept the world to create a pandemic with a range of responses around the world. My nation of birth Australia quickly went into full quarantine quite early, closing its internal and external borders, with a working track and trace system, with around 900 losing their lives. My adopted country of the UK adopted an approach of exceptionalism, kept its borders open, reluctantly entering into lockdown too late, and having an ineffective track and trace system, with around 70,000 deaths.

But I think it is far too early to make judgements as that will take more time to develop. No this blog is about the impact of the virus on my swimming adventures in 2020.

The year started with a midnight swim in Loch Lomond to watch the various fireworks displays to bring in the New Year. Later in the day I joined the loonies for a swim at Duck Bay on Loch Lomond, and then the annual dook with the Wild West Swimmers at Luss. Three swims on day one was a great start to the year.

My birthday was celebrated with a visit to Pembrokeshire in Wales with the Welsh Mermaid, with winter swims at Barafundle Bay and Broadhaven South Beaches. The walkers rugged up for winter could not believe it when we exited the water wearing only our swimwear. It was great to be back swimming amongst small clean waves in the sea again.

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The end of January was a visit to Armagh in Northern Island for the Irish Ice Swimming Championships, where the mild winter meant the water was not cold enough for the 1km swim attempt to be recognised. It was 5.7c which was 0.7c too high, but we still had a great time, enjoying the warm towels, sauna and hot tub for the post swim recovery. The highlight was seeing Dave slash five minutes off his one km time, which was a reflection of how much work he had undertaken and how much his stroke had improved with some coaching from me.

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February was highlighted by a visit to Cheltenham in England for the GB Ice Swimming Champs in a 50m unheated lido. After all my training in Loch Lomond in temperatures just under 5c, it was disappointing that the mild winter meant the event was held in water of a tropical 6.4c. Once again I competed in the one km event, but my time was fairly slow, even with a cheer squad present.

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The first weekend in March had the Scottish Winter Swimming Championships at Loch Tay again, and I competed in the 450m, the 50m freestyler and the 4x50m relay. This year we had an outdoor hot tub to ease the pain of the 4.2c water, and even picked up a medal. Little did I know that this would be the last event of the year.

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I had planned to visit Australia the week after the Scottish event to attend my son’s wedding and to stay with my elderly father, see my new-born granddaughter and catch up with old friends. This would have been my first trip back to Australia since my departure in 2014, and I was looking forward to it immensely. But the virus had other ideas, and I decided to cancel my trip 24 hours before my planned departure. The last thing I wanted to do was to expose my father to the virus as I would have been on planes for 24 hours and who knows what I could have picked up.


In the end that weekend I spent having one last night in my local pub, and sure enough about a week later came down with the dreaded cough. Luckily, that was the only symptom that I had, and while I could not get a test due to a severe lack of them, it felt like a very mild case.

Four generations 1991

In late April I received news from Australia that my father had suffered a stroke and was admitted to hospital. I had lengthy discussions with my family about whether I should make the trip down under, but as I was would have to spend two weeks in quarantine in a hotel, it was felt that it would be better if I stayed in the UK. Then just as he was getting ready to be discharged and admitted to a nursing home, he suffered a relapse with his health taking a turn for the worst. He declined the operation offered to him, and passed away 36 hours later. I had missed my chance to spend one last time with him due to the virus, and now I could not even make it to his funeral. I watched the streaming of his small funeral at 2am UK time in early May, with tears in my eyes and a very heavy heart, feeling so far away from them all.

A lockdown, meant we could only go outside for one hour a day for exercise, and no travelling to the loch for a swim. As the rules were eased, I did make it back to the loch, and we formed a pod of five who started swimming several mornings a week, with swims of around 2km in the warming waters of Loch Lomond. Over the summer we did the circuit of Inchtavannach a few times, and of Inchconnachan, a 8km swim around Inchmoan, an end to end of Loch Lubnaig (6.7km), and an end to end Loch Venachar with visiting Cate and Rob from England (5.5km). At times it felt like the virus had receded and perhaps we were through the worst of it. As the summer continued, I had my busiest August and September ever coaching clients, helping them to understand the risks and rewards of swimming outdoors.

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I had expected to be working with Big Blue Swim again for the month of September in Lefkada Greece, with Cate and Rob. Two of my Scottish pals Vin and George had booked on the last week of the season and we had planned to spend some time in Kefalonia afterwards to finish off the summer. However, the virus meant these trips were cancelled so there was the real prospect of no work at all for me in Greece in 2020. Then in mid-August I was offered the chance to work in Crete for one week as there was the real prospect that I would have to go into self-isolation upon my return to the UK. This was not an issue for me, as I live alone, and my day job was performed from my home office. That 10 days in Crete made the summer for me, and I felt extremely lucky to have been able to make the journey to this special place full of such wonderful memories. The journey through Heathrow was a delight, with the terminal very quiet and the flight to Greece only 30% capacity. To get off the plane and feel the sun and warm air on my skin was such a delight again.

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Once I had returned to the UK, the swim pod and I continued our swimming in Loch Lomond, aiming to swim once again in skins throughout the year. As the water temperature slowly dropped to 10c and then 8c, our swims became shorter and shorter. We even started night swimming with lights in our tow floats lighting us up like Chinese lanterns, and a light on the beach for reference. Before this I had not been too big a fan of swimming at night, and I know that is growing up in Australia played a role in that. However, once I got over my nerves, I found that I really enjoyed the sensation of swimming, as it felt like you were actually not moving at all, until you noticed that you had got to the turning point. We were lucky to swim under clear skies a few times, and to have starlight and even moonlight to steer by was a sheer delight.

I did manage to keep swimming right through December 2020 as the temperature of the loch dropped to 8c then to 5c. There were times when it was difficult to get in, as I knew it was not going to be easy. But, the feeling of achievement is huge after challenging the body to perform things that I would have thought were impossible not that long ago. When I think about it I think it is mundane that someone would swim for 30 minutes or so in water around 6c in only a swimsuit. But then I have to think of where I came from, where the only time water was this cold was when the bathtub was filled up with ice to keep the tinnies cold for a bbq. I can remember swimming at Bondi in 16c water in a wetsuit and looking at a fellow swimmer in just his speedos with a sense of awe that anyone could swim in those cold temperatures. But the human body can adapt to many things and learning to swim in cold water is one of those. When I stop and reflect I have to recognise that an average swimmer like me, brought up in a warm climate, could take up cold water swimming and enjoy it and achieve a number two ranking for his country.

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So in summary 2020 started well, until the virus came. The resulting pandemic prevented my visit to my homeland for a family wedding. It prevented me from attending my father’s funeral. It meant working from home for at least nine months. It forced me to learn to live by myself again. It saw my coaching business having its busiest ever months in August and September as people took up open water swimming. It meant the five person swim pod was able to stick as a small group and support each other as we swam in the beautiful Scottish lochs. However, one of the best things was the support I gained from a very special person, who was there for me every single day. Thank you to all of you who shared a swim with me in 2020.

Let us hope that in January 2022 we can look back on 2021 as a better year than the one before.

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Dawn over Loch Lomond

Most of my blog entries are about races, long swims, or swim holidays. Today I thought I would just write about the routine fun swims that I do in Scotland over the summer. My normal place to swim is Loch Lomond, but this loch is 36km long, so there are plenty of places to get in to go for a swim. Normally I swim in the mornings with a group of swimmers from the Lomond Loonies, a group formed around ten years ago. It is a very sociable group with a number of triathletes who have done ironman events, others who have conquered the loch (swum the length of Loch Lomond), or undertaken channel swims. Others in the group just love to swim either just in the warmer months or year round and are not interested in any of that running and biking stuff. They also have an annual festive season dinner function which is always well attended where we share yarns about the crazy things they have done over the last year or so.

 

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Always a time for a chat and decide on where to swim

An early morning swim time means a very early exit from the bed, as it is a thirty minute drive from my flat on the southside of Glasgow. There is rarely much traffic, well apart from the taxis getting people to the airport for those 7am flights to London ( I know where I would rather be), as I leave home just after 5am. I like to get to the meeting point early to take a water temperature, and some photos, and to chat to other members of the group.

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Shooting the breeze on yet another still morning

From our starting point, there are various options. One option is the black buoy at The Cruin, a 2km round swim, with the advantage of shallow water round the buoy. Another option is Cameron House which is about one mile round swim. Another option is the black buoy near Cameron House Marina, a return swim of about 2.5km. Some have even swum across the loch to near Balloch Castle and back. Another option is to swim to the sticks at Balloch and return, a distance of around 3km.

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Balloch Castle on the far side of the loch

No matter which option I take, I know that there will be other swimmers around me, though most of them are in wetsuits while I swim without mine. At that time of day there is rarely any boat traffic, apart from the occasional rowers.

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Morning mist over the loch

At that time of day it is often quite still, and the vistas are just stunning. It is a joy to be alive on these mornings to feel the cool water running around the body as you undertake that aquatic meditation. Just have a look at some of these pictures taken on various mornings.

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It is always sunny in Scotland

Like most open water swim groups, the swim is just an excuse to meet for coffee and snacks afterwards, and these are heartily consumed particularly on weekends. During the week there is always the decision to be made to battle the peak hour traffic into Glasgow by staying for a coffee, or trying to beat the worst of it.

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Barely a ripple on the water

I also swim with another social group called Wild West Swimmers, but that tends to be more in the evenings or on Saturdays. On the weekend we would swim somewhere in Loch Lomond, for example the Inchtavannach loop. Other times we would head up into The Trossachs to swim in some of the other loch like Lochs Ard, Chon, Lubnaig, Drunkie, Venachar or Voil. It is always an adventure with these folk too, with lots of banter, cake and coffee.

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What a view

I know that I am lucky to be able to swim in this part of the world. To organise a swim, all I have to do is look at the weather forecast to see the wind direction, and then decide on a route and meeting point. I do not have to worry about tides, swell, marine life, parking at a crowded beach, sunburn or flies like I used to when I lived in Sydney. Sure the water is colder here, but the scenery is superb, and I can now swim for hours at a time if I want to. Plus like a lot of open water swimmers around the globe that I have swum with, the locals are a nice bunch of folk, with that added bonus of having that wee Glasgae banter.

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Ben Lomond reflected in a still Loch Lomond

 

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Dawn breaking

 

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Even on a cloudy day, it is still stunning

 

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The warm waters of Loch Lomond

I am writing this blog entry during the late May bank holiday weekend in 2020. Normally at this time of year, I would be swimming as often as possible, enjoying the relative warmth of Loch Lomond as the spring sun heats it up past 10c. I used to think I would die when I first exposed myself to water of that temperature; but now I celebrate it, as I know that summer is coming. However, 2020 is the year of the great pandemic lockdown, and swimming in Scotland is not allowed at this time, unless you are lucky enough to have a waterway within walking distance of where you stay. These restrictions will be slightly eased from next Thursday though, which is a reason for celebration. So, at this time it is good to look back on my swimming in past years and write about them, enjoying the pictures and the memories.

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The start of our swim at Balloch slipway

The week after the swim with Gary from Balloch to Luss, we hit the water again in Loch Lomond to swim from Balloch past Luss to Inverbeg; a distance of around 17km. Inverbeg sits on a wee peninsula virtually underneath Ben Lomond on the western shore of Loch Lomond. This part of the loch is quite open, with no islands to protect you from adverse winds, and is where the loch begins to change from a narrow highland loch to a broad lowland loch with a scattering of islands along the highland fault line.

 

After our swim to Luss the previous week, we were both fairly confident of making the distance. The water was still toasty warm at 19.5c, and the weather was good too, with a fine start to the day forecast, with strengthening breeze from the south and chance of some heavy showers. That breeze would push us north to Inverbeg.

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Going past the golf course as the rain falls, but we could not get any wetter

Once again Gary and I did the car shuttle, leaving a car at Inverbeg, before driving back to the slipway at Balloch where we were to meet Captain Dave and First Mate Karl. We had decided that today Gary would navigate, as he was now more familiar with the various sighting points, and I would swim on his left, so that he could keep me in his eyeline. Into the warm loch we ventured at the slipway once again, once again in skins (no wetsuit). It was actually quite nice to wade into warm water: it was hard to believe this was Scotland.

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Sliding past Aldochlay, I am the onoe with the tow float

We settled into our stride, up past Duck Bay, the tip of Inchmurrin, KK Bay, with feed stops every hour again. I did find that my mind went into a meditative place, while still very conscious of the direction I was swimming, and with Gary and the boat close-by too. A very serene feeling to get on a long swim, your eyes are seeing this beautiful landscape all around you, and it just tells the body to keep that rhythm going.

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The rain did stop

Just past KK Bay as we went past Loch Lomond Golf Course, the heavens opened with heavy rain. We had to feel very sorry for our boat crew as they quickly put up the tarp, but they were almost as wet as us. We did a laugh about that at our next feed stop. But we also noticed that the wind was starting pick up from the south, which could make it very interesting as we swam past Luss.

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What, is it time for a feed stop already?

Fairly soon we sighted Inchtavannach and today we avoided the shallow water that delayed us last week. Up the channel pasty Aldochlay, and we were both feeling strong, and before we knew it, we had made it to Luss.

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Luss in the background, the place we finished last week, but not today

I had swum the opposite direction into Luss a few years ago and ran into a steady headwind, so I knew how choppy this part of the loch could get. Well today as we swam past Luss, the wind picked up from behind us, and pretty soon we were swimming in one metre wind chop, which luckily was pushing us along quite nicely. I find swimming in a following chop is quite hard as it disrupts my stroke, as the body lifts and falls. I had decided at one point to swim to the boat to climb out, but when I looked over at them, I could see that climbing aboard would be virtually impossible. So, there was nothing to it, but to just put the head down, and try and keep Gary in sight over the waves and chop, and not stray too far from the boat.

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Our crew bunkered down as the rain fell

We slowly headed over towards the western shore, so that we would be able to more readily get to our exit point of a small boat harbour that would provide a modicum of protection to our trusty boat. We guided the boat into the harbour, as it is a very small entrance, and could easily be missed from the loch. We waded ashore and glanced at our watches. We had swum for just over seven hours to cover the 17.2km. We hugged each other with big smiles on our faces. This was my longest swim in terms of time and distance. We took our gear off the boat and had a very quick chat. Captain Dave was trying to talk me into keeping on going, but I declined. Sure, I felt strong and knew that I could probably make it all the way up the loch today, and that the loch would calm down on the other side of Inverbeg. But my head was focussed on only getting this far, and besides the car was waiting for us.

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We made it, and note the waves in this protected wee harbour

Gary and I pushed the boat back into the loch, and waved them off, grateful for their assistance, but secretly happy that we were not onboard pushing into that headwind and chop all the way back to Balloch. We really could not have done it without them. Gary was also quite pleased as he felt more confident now about his attempt in the length of the loch in late August.

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We both look quite fresh after a 17km swim

 

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Our escort boat on its way to the Balloch slipway

One of my swim pals Gary was training for a non-wetsuit attempt on the length of Loch Lomond, a swim of 36 km. As part of that training, we had done the Inchtavannach and Inchconnachan loops several times, building up to distances of 5.5km.  The warm summer of 2018 had continued, with the water in Loch Lomond between 19.5c and 20.5c, which was very pleasant for my 2km morning swims with The Lomond Loonies (a magnificent way to start the day). One evening a few of us went to Loch Ard for the full moon, and the water in the shallow loch was 26c, an almost unheard of temperature for a Scottish loch. Just a shame that the midges that are the curse of the Scottish Highlands were out in force on that warm still evening.

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The two of us entering the water at the Balloch slipway

Gary had decided he wanted to swim from Balloch to Luss, a distance of around 12km, and asked me to join him. I jumped at the chance to swim south to north in skins (no wetsuit), having done the reverse direction a couple of years ago in my wetsuit. I met Gary at Balloch on a late July morning and drove to Luss to drop off one of our vehicles with our dry clothes. We drove back to Balloch and got our snacks and drinks ready, as we had organised to meet Captain Dave with his crew and the trusty escort boat at the slipway at 6am.

 

We were a few minutes early, which gave us time to observe the conditions for the day, overcast with a light easterly wind, and nice and warm with a chance of showers. Good Scottish swimming conditions. I mentioned to Gary that he could set the pace, but if I found myself tiring, I would jump into the boat. This was my going to be my longest swim for a couple of seasons, and I was aware that Gary was slightly faster than me after our previous swims around the islands.

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Past the Maid of the Loch

The boat arrived, and the requisite pictures taken of us entering the water at the slipway. I must admit I was a bit nervous, but also excited to swim in the loch that I knew so well, and to see it from other angles. The plan was to have the boat follow us, and it would come alongside for our hourly feeds. The first point of reference was the eastern tip of Inchmurrin. Up past the old black buoy, Cameron House and Duck Bay, places very familiar to me for my regular morning swims. They did look great in the gentle early morning light.

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Looking south down Loch Lomond towards Balloch

Our first feed was just off Inchmurrin, and by this time I was conscious that I was swimming slightly faster than Gary. We talked about our next reference point being Loch Lomond Golf Club, and I advised Gary to swim slightly to the right of the agreed sighting point, as the wind was picking up and would push us slightly to the left. I had noticed that he was tending to drift slightly off course with the small sideways push. After all we did not want to swim further than we had to. It is a learned skill to swim outdoors and to take into account the wind and the push of the water and keep on line.

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One of our feed stops and in good spirits

Our second feed seemed to come around very quickly, but I was aware that I had a nice smooth stroke going and time seemed to disappear as my eyes took in the sights of Inchmurrin was we inched past, and KK Bay as we drifted along. I had to stop and wait a couple of times for my comrade, which was not a problem in the warm water.

 

Our next point to aim for was the bottom of Inchtavannach. At our feed stop I would point out to Gary where we were headed, and make sure he could see it. We also picked other reference points up in the hills to help us. The southern end of Inchtavannach was familiar to us, but after talking to the boat crew we decided to keep slightly left (west) of the channel markers as there was some boat traffic, and this would be safer for us. My feeds of gels and water were going down a treat, and I was still feeling strong, which pleased me. Gary was doing ok too.

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Oops, we strayed into shallow water

Unfortunately, as we navigated the channel we drifted too far left and were soon swimming in knee dip water as we hit a mud bank. I stood up and laughed and headed into deeper water. It was nice to have a distraction. Up the channel we went, past the Wee Peter Statue, past Aldochlay.  It is a relaxing feeling doing a long swim in familiar waters, as the need to constantly work out bearings is reduced, as you focus on just swimming in a direct a line as possible, feeling the water brush past you.

 

Our last feed was just around the corner from Luss, and we were pleased with our pace, and that we were both still feeling strong. We knew the pier at Luss would be busy with boat traffic at this time of year, and we agreed that the boat would lead the way into the pier, and we would follow. I knew it was around 800m from Fraoch Island to the pier, and we hoped to make that distance in next to no time.

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Approaching our destination at Luss

Oh, it was a good feeling of achievement to stand up next to the pier at Luss, a place at which I do a lot of my ice swim training during the winter. We were greeted by a family of swans, and a very welcome hot coffee from our crew. The crew had done a great job of keeping us safe and feed on this long swim. I would not like to do this swim without the boat for a few reasons: they hold your snacks and drinks, which reduces the weight in your tow float; they keep you on course; they let other boats know there are swimmers in the water; and they are a back up in case things go wrong.
Captain Dave needs a special mention. He gives up his time to guide swimmers in the boat, those swimmers with dreams and ambitions of swimming the 36km length of Loch Lomond. He does this to help them achieve their goals and has guided around a dozen swimmers from his morning swim group down the loch. Will I do it one day….maybe.

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We made it

Congratulations to Gary too, he swam well even though conditions were not ideal as we hit squalls on the way. But we both kept going and made the 12km distance in just under 4.5 hours. The next training swim was to swim from Balloch to Inverbeg, another 5km north of Luss.

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Some people drive to Luss, others ride a bike or walk, but we swam

Loch Voil End to End

Loch Voil looking back towards the starting point

The stunning early summer weather was continuing in early June 2018. A few of my friends had been discussing an attempt to swim the length of Loch Voil. This loch lies in an east west position in the middle of Rob Roy country. The man himself is buried in the churchyard at Balquhidder, having died in 1734. It is also the site of the last part of the Jacobite Rebellion from the 1740s (with that rebellion featured in Outlander). Both of these events would be ancient history in Australia (settled by Europeans in 1788), but in Scotland, that is much more recent event (they still talk about a battle that took place in 1314).

 

The loch itself is stunning nestled between hills and is about 125m above sea level. The outflow the River Balvaig flows into Loch Lubnaig, about 8km away. Eventually the water from this loch flows into the River Teith and then the River Forth to exit into the North Sea at Edinburgh. The loch has a single-track road alongside its northern shore from Balquhidder to its terminus near the Monachyle Mhor Hotel. It is around a 90 minute drive north of Glasgow, or about 60 miles. It is around 5.6km long, and 27m deep at its deepest point, with the foreshore of about 13.5km.

Swimmers just about to start

The organisation for the swim was not easy, as we had to arrange to leave a number of cars in Balquhidder and ferry the 20 or so swimmers up to the eastern end. We would then leave the cars there, and after the swim take the cars from the finish back to the hotel to collect the ones left behind at the start. Simple. But the problem was the forecast for the day was in one word idyllic, so we had to limit the numbers who were going to attempt the swim to twenty or so.

 

It was an early start leaving Glasgow in the dawn light, driving up past Stirling Castle and The Wallace Monument. The glimpse of the morning light on the peaks of the Highlands is always beautiful and this day was not different. The forecast was right, there was not a cloud in the sky, and more importantly, no wind at all.

The required photo at the start of the swim

Upon arrival we organised our kit which we put in our tow floats. For most of us this would be food and drink, and perhaps footwear in case a walk back along the ride was required. I was not feeling confident of making the distance as I had not done enough swimming, with the only long swim been a swim around Inchtavannach earlier in the week. However, I was still on a buzz from the filming with Billy Connolly the week before.

In we go

We piled into the cars and drove up to the starting point of the swim. It was a perfect day for a swim in a gorgeous location. I had decided to swim without the wetsuit, expecting the water to be nice and warm (by Scottish standards) around 18c.

 

A short walk down from the carpark (thanks to the hotel for giving us permission to leave our cars there) to the start of the swim. It was truly magical. In we went, and the water was warm. The plans were to swim closer to the northern shore for access to the road if required. The loch is only around 400m wide for most of its length, so it was a straightforward swim. The exit point was to be a field to the left of an island that sits at the end of the loch.

Look at that sun on the walk to the start

Off we went, and the fast swimmers in their wetsuits took off like dolphins compared to my relaxed pace. I knew this was going to be a swim of at least two hours or so, so there was not rush. Just settle into a nice rhythm and try to achieve that sense of moving meditation. Like a lot of my longer swims it seemed to take around a km or so before I felt totally comfortable, but I have learnt to expect that. Today was no exception but gliding through that still warm water was just amazing, following the bubbles left behind by some of the other swimmers.

 

Fairly soon I was swimming by myself, but I was not worried. I knew there were lots of swimmers both ahead of and behind me, and it was not far to a shoreline. There was also a shore-based team patrolling the road in case anyone needed assistance. Swimming on a day like this was not a chore, but a delight, with stunning vistas whether I breathed to the left or the right. After 80 minutes or so my body was telling me it needed a fuel stop, and I headed for the southern shore. I had a gel and a drink, and just sat and admired the view.

Another swimmer with their tow float

On the way again, and before long I was clambering out through a muddy shoreline at the end of the loch. I was pleasantly surprised to see that I had done the 5.9km swim in just under two hours. Shortly after I finished, I noticed several others also finishing so I waited for them to get out. Like me they were on a high after a swim like that on a perfect day.

We made it

A short walk through the field to the car park, and back to the cars where we had left our towels and clothes. Lots of excited chat from all the swimmers, some of whom had just done their longest swim ever.

A final view of Loch Voil

It was then back to Mhor 84 for a well-earned lunch. What a day. A huge thanks to Vince for doing most of the logistics for this swim, and to all the swimmers who made the day so enjoyable.

 

A pod of swimmers having a rest at the narrows

Loch Lomond in which I swim throughout the year has many islands in it. One of the joys of the early summer is going on the first swim around Inchtavannach, often in the early evening. The summer of 2018 was proving to be the best since the amazing one of 1976. If that was the reward we were given after the Beast from the East in late winter, that was fine by me. All that it took was for the clouds to clear for a few weeks, enabling the sun to beat down, and turning the normal lush green grass of the local parks to the more familiar brown to this Australian’s eyes. This was the summer that Glasgow recorded its highest ever maximum temperature of 31c (where I grew up that was the temperature after the cooling sea breeze had blown the heat away).

Enjoying the views in the narrows

A bit about Inchtavannach, which translates as Monk’s Island, as there used to be a monastery there. These days, the 70 hectare (around 170 acres) island has one farm with only a couple of residents. The swim around the island is 4 km or so. It is separated from the mainland by a narrow channel approximately 400m wide. In the winter that distance is just too far to risk for a swim, as we would wait until the water gets up to around 10c.

Swimming towards Ben Lomond

Inchconnachan sits to the east of Inchtavannach and they are separated by the narrows that are around 50m wide. It is uninhabited, its name means island of the Colquohon (a local family) and is about half the size of Inchtavannach. Its major claim to fame is that it is home to a mob of red-necked wallabies that were introduced to the island in the 1940s. A swim around both islands is around 5.5km.

Swimming down the narrows

One of my swim friends was planning a long swim in Loch Lomond in August, so he wanted to do several swims to get his fitness up. So, over the months of June and July we swum around Inchtavannach four times, and around Inchconnachan once. We would normally go in the early evening, and in June and July it is easy to start at 730pm, and still have plenty of light to finish the swim. We also started one swim at 5am, and there is something more beautiful swimming in the stillness of the dawn.

Looking north towards the top of Loch Lomond

The entry point for our swims is normally at Aldochlay, but it is also possible to swim from Luss, which would add another km or so onto the swim. For some reason we normally swim in a clockwise direction, but that would also depend upon the wind direction. I must admit the first I swam it in the reverse direction I had to be more careful with my navigation at it does look so different.

The resident Highland Coos of Inchtavannach

A clockwise swim would start with the crossing of the channel and then heading north, keeping Inchtavannach on the right, swimming towards Ben Lomond. There is something magical about the early evening light in Scotland as it hits the hills, especially on a clear day.

The Joshua Tree sitting on Inchconnachan

Around the northern point, and then swim towards the Joshua Tree that sits on Inchconnachan. Turn right up the narrows, and if you are lucky you might catch sight of the resident highland coos. Wind through the narrows, which makes you doubt you are in Scotland, with the lilies out in flower and the water smooth as glass. Then through the back bay, keeping an eye on any boats moored to the shore as they fire up their barbecues for dinner.

The lily pond in the narrows

We would often stop at the southern entry to the bay, with views southwards towards Inchmurrin and Duck Bay, as there was a nice shallow bank to rest one and eat any food or drink that we had in our tow floats. Then along the south east shore keeping off the shore to avoid the shallows, and a fence line that wades into the loch.

Time for a refreshment break, looking back towards the narrows

The southern tip of Inchtavannach would be the next sighting point, with the channel markers just offshore a useful reference point. Around the corner, and then back up the channel to Aldochlay. A wonderful way to spend an hour and a half or so, with amazing warm water (we had around 20c to 21c) to enjoy in skins, and you never tire of the vistas.

Ben Lomond looking majestic in the evening light

The swim around Inchconnachan is similar, but at the Joshua Tree you keep going around, avoiding the narrows. Coming around the eastern side of the island you swim between it and Inchmoan and aim for the shallow bank on the Inchtavannach swim.

The final part of the swim along the channel towards Aldochlay

I hope you enjoy the pictures. I cannot wait to get there again this summer, as nothing says summer in Loch Lomond like these stunning swims.

Looking over Inchmoan towards Conic Hill

 

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The book cover

Now you might well be wondering why I am doing a blog entry about The Big Yin, or Sir Billy Connolly, the favourite son of Glasgow. He is a revered figure in Glasgow and has even had three giant murals of him installed on the Glasgow Mural Trail. He has been given the Freedom of the City alongside Nelson Mandela and Sir Alec Ferguson, which allows him to fish in the River Clyde, and graze his sheep on Glasgow Green. To say he is revered is an understatement. In 2018 he returned to Scotland to film a two-part TV series called Made in Scotland, which highlighted various parts of the Glasgow that he grew up in. The show was broadcast on the BBC at the beginning of 2019 and has since been broadcast around the globe. A book was published in late 2018 as well.

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One of the murals in Glasgow

 

One of the stories featured in the book and TV show was how it was common for Scottish people of his generation to wear woollen knitted swimwear when they went on their summer holidays to Scottish coastal resorts. We of my swimming friends was contacted by the production company to see if he could organise up to six people who would be interested in appearing in the TV show wearing knitted swimwear. No choice really, swim in a loch close to Glasgow, and meet Billy Connolly, who could pass up that opportunity.

The gang of six post swim, squinting in the sun. Very stylish

Our measurements were forwarded to a group of knitters from the southside of Glasgow, and they sourced old patterns to fashion one bikini, a one piece, and four pairs of trunks. We tried them on the morning of the shoot, and then bussed up to Loch Ard for our afternoon of filming. We based ourselves at one of our favourite cafes on the shores of the loch and spoke with the director on what he wanted us to do.

 

You may be thinking that swimming in knitted swimwear in a Scottish loch would not allow us much time in the water. Well, we had been blessed with an extended period of warm sunny weather, so despite the shoot taking place in early June, the water was a very pleasant 20c. Of course, we could not predict how the swimwear would keep its shape while we swam.

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Getting our instructions from the director

The shoot took place and involved the interview of Billy Connolly while we swam in the background. Several times we were asked to return to the shore, but the water was that warm and we resisted attempts to get us out of the water. We were just having too much fun. However, after about 45 minutes of enjoying the warm water, we reluctantly went ashore. We did manage to leave the great man bent over laughing at the sight of us walking out in those knitted trunks. It was great to hear him laugh and crack jokes.

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That is us swimming in Loch Ard

 

All of this was captured on film, and if you look at episode 2 of the series you will hear an Aussie accent chatting to the Big Yin. Then it was off to the café to get changed and have a well earned coffee and cake. We all managed to get a photo with Sir Billy who was very gracious. I even had a chance to chat to him about Australia, and he had great memories of his trike tour down under in the late 1990s, and even remembered visiting my home town.

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Chatting to The Big Yin like old mates

A great day had by all. The only problem we faced was that were unable to put anything on social media until the release of the book in November that year. But the six of us knew what we had done, and it was even better to see ourselves on the TV when it was broadcast in early January 2019. I knew when the show was broadcast in other places like New Zealand, Australia and the USA, as various friends from those countries would tell me that they saw me.

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It was a warm day for our shoot at Loch Ard full of laughs

 

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Dawn breaking over the Greek mainland

This entry is been written during the great Covid-19 lockdown of March and April 2020; that odd time of a pandemic with people told not to leave home. A time when borders are closed, and airlines no longer fly all around Europe and the rest of the world. A time to look back on the period before the virus when short haul flights to Greece from the UK were quite normal. A time when it was normal to line up in a confinced space, surrounded by strangers. A time to spend a week at a luxury resort, with only concerns been what time to have a meal, and where to have it; what time to go for a swim; and which seat would I get on the flight. Nostalgia is a wondrous thing.

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The calm seas at dawn

In May 2018, it was back to Corfu for another week’s holiday at one of those resorts where you had access to three meals a day and a several bars. Where there was a large beach looking towards the Greek and Albanian mainland, and day loungers carrying the weight of fellow guests scattered around one of the two swimming pools.

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One of the two pools at the resort

My daily routine was well established. I would get up just before dawn, and walk down to the beach in my shorts and t shirt (a novelty for a resident of Scotland). I would then go for a leisurely swim as the sun was rising, watching the staff on the early shift starting their day. To be in the relatively warm sea at that time of day was the best way to start the day. I would often go a few kms down the coast and back again, and watch the light changing intensity as it hit the hills and lit up the water.

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The beach at dawn: so calm and peaceful

I would then go back to the room, and have a shower and get ready for a nice breakfast overlooking the sea. Ah that coffee was good, and the fresh fruit with eggs and bread. Then back to the room for a nap, and then another swim before lunch. I always swam in the sea, letting the lifeguard know that I intended to swim around the perimeter, so that he would not worry. By this time, he knew me well, as I was one of the very few guests going for long swims in the sea. We would chat if he was not busy about swimming, living in Corfu, and the state of the Greek economy

I would sometimes go to the local taverna for lunch, a nice little place sitting right over the water, with wonderful fresh food and a few pints of the local ice cold beer. Or a bus trip into Corfu Town to wander around the old town and soak up the atmosphere of the city, with its Venetian, British and Greek influences.

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Swimming up to the taverna for a refreshing drink and meal

In the late afternoon, I would then go for yet another swim. At this time of day it was not unusual for the wind to have picked up somewhat, creating some chop to make my swims more fun. At this time of year the days were still very sunny and warm, and it was such a wondrous thing to feel the sun on my back, after a long Scottish winter.

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Cheers

Another shower to rinse off the salt, and then off to dinner and then the bar for a few drinks. Repeat each day for a week. For those interested in my stats, I only swam 24 km that week.

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Just another sunrise over the very calm sea

Ah, from where I sit now writing this, it all seems so exotic. Those days of freedoms that we only dream of at this time. Those times of just jumping on a plane and flying to Greece for a holiday with a choice of flights. Let us hope those times come again very soon.