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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A few of us had decided to enter the Highland Open Water Swim event at Resipole in late April 2018. This swim was advertised as a mile swim across a sea loch called Loch Sunart, with swimmers escorted across by boat to the far shore and a swim back. A fairly accurate description of what transpired. I like to support the Highland Open Water Swims when I can, as they raise money for good causes, and they swim in some amazing locations.
Resipole is located 200 km north of Glasgow, a three hour drive, on the Ardnamurchan peninsula, with the only access a single track road once you get the ferry across the Coran narrows. The peninsula is renowned as one of the more isolated parts of the UK, and also has the distinction of being the westernmost part of the UK mainland. To get there the drive from Glasgow takes you up past Loch Lomond, through Glencoe (that spooky spectacular valley), then on the Corran ferry for a short 400 metre ride across Loch Linnhe, before driving through Strontian (gave its name to the element strontium). It is a very lovely drive as you skirt the sea lochs, keeping your eyes out for deer and sheep grazing by the side of the road.
As the swim was scheduled to start early on the Saturday morning, I decided to stay overnight in the village of Corran. Despite been only 400 metres across from the very busy A82 road, it was a very quiet and beautiful place to spend a stunning evening watching the sky change colour as I looked up the Great Glen towards Ben Nevis, Fort William, and the start of the Caledonian Canal. There was still a hint of winter in the air though, with the hills around Glencoe still graced with patches of snow.
I left the hotel after a hearty Scottish breakfast and drove down to the registration point at Resipole campsite, where several of my friends had stayed in their vans the previous night. It was an idyllic spot, facing Loch Sunart, a sea loch that runs west to east. The registration process was quick and easy.
We gathered for our briefing at the finish point of the race: the slipway near the campsite. We were to be ferried across to the southern side of the loch and our job was to swim back to the slipway. The distance was around a mile, but if the tide started to run, or the wind picked up it would be a longer swim. For this event, as the water was only 8c I had decided to wear all my neoprene: yes the wetsuit, gloves, boots and hat. Most competitors did likewise, but there was a few swimmers doing it in skins, and they had my admiration. The day was cool at 12c, and the wind was to forecast to pick up during the race creating a push from right to left.
We waited our turn to be whisked across in the ribs and support craft. It is a fun way to start an event, been driven to an isolated point, dropped off and told to wait for all swimmers to assemble. The skins swimmers had the honour of been the last to arrive, which is a sensible safety precaution in these conditions.
The sun was nice and warm in our sheltered spot. I looked back to the campsite and tried to pick out some features of distinctive hills and buildings to sight off. I could see the wind was slowly picking up strength, so I decided to head to the right of the slipway to allow for the movement of the water to push me to the finish point.
I must admit it was a very odd start to a race as we clambered down off the rocks and through the kelp and weed to commence our swim. Then I remembered that while this was an event, it was not actually a race, and more of an experience to enjoy a swim in the wilds of Scotland. As I swam away from shore I kept my eyes on my sighting point, and glided past several swimmers and watchful kayakers.
The swim was enjoyable, and it was great to have the taste of salt water again. As we got further into the loch, the side push became more obvious, but it was fairly consistent which made navigation easier. Fairly soon I could see that there were only a few swimmers in front of me, of which one was the windmill arms of Mr V as he headed to another first place. For me though, it was not so much about racing, but more about enjoying the opportunity to swim in a place like this. So I was very surprised to see that I came third when I arrived at the finishing point. After we arrived, we chatted and waited for our other friends to finish the event, and they all had huge smiles in their faces.
A thoroughly enjoyable event, that made me want to enter more of the swims this group run. If you want to do some swims in amazing places on the west coast of Scotland, then do yourself a favour and make the effort and look up Highland Open Water Swim in your search engine. The water safety do a vey good job, and the support crew are friendly and make the event memorable. I would thoroughly recommend doing one of their many events.
As the winter settled in Scotland, I took some time to get over the disappointment I felt from the ice km event. I knew that I had to get more cold water swims in all-weather conditions, to prepare me for any future attempts. Luckily, the area around Glasgow is ideal for winter swimming, with plenty of locations to choose from. Our normal swim time is 9am on a Saturday morning, and in mid-winter that is daybreak at these northern altitudes. That means driving to a swim in the dark.
In the middle of February the New Cumnock outdoor 25m pool was opened for a night swim. This pool had recently been renovated and the night of the swim had us greeted by a blanket of light snow on arrival in the village, around a one hours drive south of Glasgow. The water was a delightful 12c, and it was good to swim in water that warm under the stars. The best thing was the hot outdoor shower after the swim.
At the end of February, we ventured to Loch Lubnaig for what turned out to be the coldest swim of the year. There was ice on the edge of the loch as we shivered in the -2 air, and the water was a brutal 1.7c. I managed a mere fifty metre swim that morning in skins, and it was painful. I am full of admiration for hardy swimmers who brave those conditions.
The winter of 2018 was proving to be the coldest since my arrival on these shores in 2014. In late February the whole of the UK was tortured by the so called beast from the east. Cold winds blowing in from Siberia hit Glasgow with a big snowstorm that dumped 30cm of snow. Roads were impassable, with drivers caught on the motorways overnight trapped by the ice and snow. The railways shut down, mainly because the train drivers were finding it difficult to report for duty. Schools and offices shut as the city closed, fearing a repeat of the bad storms of 2010 where people had to walk home along the motorways. Glasgow turned into a winter wonderland, and I had the joy of watching people on skis, snowboards, sledges (or Toboggans or sleds) on the streets as the cars slowed to a crawl. It was great to hear children laughing and playing the in the snow. I was amazed that there were virtually no vehicles with snow-chains on their tyres, and I recalled many a time putting them on driving to the Australian ski-fields. They did give extra grip in these conditions.
The good thing about the cold weather was that it dropped the temperature in the lochs. The bad thing was that I could not go for a snow swim as I was unable to get my car out for a few days after the snow stopped falling.
By the time I managed to get back to the lochs for outdoor swims, I had too long a break, with over 4 weeks between dips. When I went back in I could not even put my face in the water and only swam for less than sixty metres. Even though the water that day was only 3c, I knew that if I wanted to get longer in the water I would have to put the wetsuit back on.
So that is what I did, and it did confuse a few of my fellow skins swimmers to see me decked out in neoprene again. I was back to swimming a mile in the wetsuit, as the water slowly warmed up to 5c at the start of the April, and then to 6c by the middle of the month. I had even managed a swim from Luss to Honeymoon Island and back, which is always a good test of water tolerance.
I was now well on the way to be ready for my summer of swimming ahead.
I had noticed that an ice swimming event had been arranged at Bardowie Loch on the north side of Glasgow, to be held in February 2018. After dipping my toe in the water of an ice event at the GB Champs in Loch Lomond in February 2017, I decided to train for this event. My plan was to enter the 1km ice swim.
Now you might ask what an ice swim is? The International Ice Swimming Association requires an ice km to be swum in water of 5.0c or less wearing one pair of goggles, a cap and one pair of swimwear. They also have an ice mile distance, which requires a swimmer to cover a mile (or 1660m) under the same conditions.
My training earlier in the winter had me swimming eight times in water under 6c over distances between 800m and 1200m. So I was quietly confident that if I could do more swims in January as the local loch waters cooled further, I would be able to swim on the day of the event. My regular swim with my buddies from Wild West Swimmers was to head to Luss on the western shores of Loch Lomond on a Saturday morning for a dip. Over the month of January I manged to get six swims in and I would try to stay in for 25 minutes or so, and swim between 1000m and 1100m, with water temperatures of between 4.5c and 5.5c.
You might ask why I would choose to swim in cold water without a wetsuit, especially for someone raised in the warm sub-tropical waters of eastern Australia. For me, it was just a natural extension of a challenge to undertake in swimming. I had started swimming in open air sea baths in Australia, doing a km or so. I had swum numerous ocean races in several countries, and now having emigrated to the UK, the challenge was to swim all year. I am fortunate that I stay in Scotland, where there are so many stunning places to swim within a short drive of my home. I had spent previous winters in wetsuits, so now was the time to push myself to the next level.
Now when you enter the water, it is cold, but it is often warmer than the air. As I walk in and the water creeps up to my waist, I question my sanity and resolve. But I often visualise a warm day swimming at Bondi or Caves Beach, with warm water, and a hot sun beating down. When I started, I used to take my time to start swimming at this stage, but I realised that this couple of minutes delay meant I would miss out on some swimming time. So I would take a breath and glide down into the water and start swimming. I would feel my body feeling the shock as the cold water hits the face and chest, and the heart rate elevates. I would swim fast for around 10 to 20 strokes, taking deep breaths, and then I would force myself to get back into my regular stroke pattern. After around five minutes of swimming, I can feel the coolness in my toes as the body starts the process of moving the blood towards the core. After around 15 minutes, I would notice that my arms would be starting to get cold as the cold seeps into the skin. Around now I start to feel that the swimming gets more difficult as the muscles work harder to keep working. By now I have usually lost all contact with my toes, as they feel like ice on the bottom of my legs. If it is really cold with a wind blowing, around the 20 minute mark the fingers get cold. At that point I head closer to shore so that if I need to exit quickly, I can stand up and will be closer to shore.
I usually stop around at that point and look at my watch to check the time and distance. For winter swims, I find this is a major safety device, as it gives you direct metrics, as sometimes your mind is not as clear as it could be. I would always try to stay in as long as I could to cover up to 1100m or so, and up to 25 minutes, and would always get out while I was still thinking straight. The two hardest bits came next…squeezing the toes into the flip-flops, and unhooking the tow-float from around my waist. It was always good to have a helper to assist with this process.
Then it would be a walk back to the car, and get dressed as quickly as possible. The issue here is that despite been out of the water, the body temperature is still dropping, so it is vital to get dressed into long-johns, lined trousers, a t-shirt, a long sleeve top, a thick jumper, a big coat, a beanie, two pairs of socks, ugg boots, and if I was really cold, gloves and scarf and then sit in the car with the heater going as hot as it could go. I would also ensure I had a warm drink ready, and some snacks. It is not unusual to get the shivers and shakes several minutes after getting dressed.
The event at Bardowie was in early February, and I knew the loch would be cold. I had swum there the week before the event in water of 3.6c which was a new record low temperature for me.
The day of the event dawned, and there was a real international feel to it. There were people from Ireland, Scotland, Wales, England, Italy and Australia competing in events ranging from 1 mile to 450m. It was good to catch up with my fellow Aussie Nick who I had met at the GB Champs in Loch Lomond in 2017. He was attempting the ice mile.
The day started calm and cloudy, with the water officially measured at 3.3c. I watched the ice milers go around in perfect conditions, and Nick completed it, and in the process became the first Australian to achieve this distance. I felt proud to have witnessed it, and we broke out the tim-tams to celebrate.
It was soon my turn to go and I was in heat 2. My swim buddy Dave was in the first heat, and I had noticed that the wind had started to pick up, and was increasing in strength. He managed to do just under 800m before making the tough choice to withdraw. A fantastic effort anyway in conditions where the wind chill was in negative figures.
The course for the 1km was two laps of a 500m course. I must admit that I thought four laps of a smaller circuit would have been a better choice for the organisers. I knew that the toughest part of the swim would be the last 250m or so, and at that point the swimmer would be at the furthermost part of the course. Soon it was my time to enter the water, and it was cold. I was joined by tow wetsuit swimmers also trying toe do the one km distance as part of their swim targets. I wished them luck, they returned to favour.
We were off, and by now the wind was quite strong, with the first leg into the wind. Soon I was swimming by myself as the wetsuiters swam away from me. I made the first turn and the side chop made it quite bumpy, and I noticed that I was getting cold a lot quicker than I normally did in my training swims. I made the second turn and started the leg back to the starting point, with the waves coming behind. I find swimming in those conditions quite tough as it affects my body position and stroke, and I was getting very cold. All down that leg, I was having a lengthy debate about whether I thought I could make the second and last lap. It was a long debate, but as I approached the finish line, I just knew that I did not think I would be able to safely swim the second lap. I also thought that I should get out while I was thinking sensibly and logically.
Reluctantly, I indicated to the officials that I was going to withdraw. The first time I have ever not finished an open water swim event. While I was very disappointed, I also knew that I would get other opportunities to complete a recognised ice km swim. Today was not the day for me, but I would get another chance in the future.
I was also conscious of the impact of seeing me in this state had on my support crew. I resolved to keep up the swimming and try again another year to achieve my aim. The lochs will always be there, and I have to be conscious that this is an extreme sport.
A big thanks to all the supporters who showed upon the day, and well done to all those brave swimmers who made attempts to swim in these conditions. It was very tough conditions. A huge thanks to Stewart and his aquatic safety crew, you are excellent at your role and have the respect of the swimmers.