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.
Well 2017 was certainly another fantastic year with lots of swimming adventures. I will get the boring statistics out of the way first:-
But they of course do not tell the whole story, so here is the summary of the year.
In January I continued my winter skins swimming in Scotland, with the coldest water of 4.0c on New Years Day in Loch Lomond.
In February I competed at the British Ice Swimming Championships in the 50m sprint event, and took a silver medal to another Australian. It sure felt great for us warm water swimmers to take the first two places. The water was 4.2c that day, and there were snow showers blowing across the event location on the shores of Loch Lomond.
In March and April I continued my skins swimming in Scotland as the water warmed to 6c in March, and then to 10c by the end of April even though winter had finished. The thermal properties of water is something you become very aware of: it takes longer to warm up then the land, and longer to cool down too.
May was the visit to Corfu for some wonderful swimming in The Ionian Sea, which was extremely pleasant after swimming through the Scottish winter. Before moving to the UK, I would have struggled to swim in that Greek water, but now it was a breeze to have the private beach to myself. I would go for a swim at dawn before breakfast, and another swim in the afternoon.
Upon my return to Scotland I swam around Inchtavannach an island in Loch Lomond. This is a wonderful 5km swim with amazing vistas and is also a good chance to stay in the water for a couple of hours.
June mid-summer in Scotland with enough light to swim in from 4am to 11pm. It would be a crime not to take advantage of that, so I did. The solstice dawn swim on 21 June was one such day, where we hit the water as the sun rose at around 4am. This required a departure from home at 3am to get to Loch Lomond, but what a glorious morning it was. The water was a warm 16c, and the colours in the sky were just amazing.
I also did a 7km swim n Loch Lomond to support a channel swimmer in training, and also swam in the sea at Troon several times with a relay team that were aiming to swim to Scotland from Northern Island. This MAD mother and daughter team did just that, becoming the first such team to swim the North Channel, and then 2 weeks later they did the English Channel. Huge effort.
July was the trip to Corryvreckan, which is the 3rd largest whirlpool on the planet. I had organised 3 swims for around 35 swimmers over the weekend, and we were fortunate that the weather stayed favourable. We had a great time staying a few nights close by, and having a lot of fun. I did swim the Corryvreckan in skins with a whale passing by, and that water was doing odd things, even at slack tide. A very memorable experience made so much better by the company of such good friends.
I also did several longer two and three-hour swims in the Scottish lochs, as the water warmed up to 16c, sometimes in skins, and sometimes in a wetsuit. One such swim was a three hour swim in Loch Ard with a guy who was training to swim the length of Loch Lomond (35km) in the late summer (which he did, well done Gary).
On a non-swimming event, I also had the honour of attending a Garden Party hosted by Her Majesty the Queen at Holyrood in Edinburgh. I was fortunate to get a ticket through the Australian High Commission who are allocated tickets each year. It was so much fun seeing so many Scots dressed in kilts on a cold July day, and to be within five metres of the Duke of Edinburgh at one stage.
The month of August gave me the opportunity to do many 2 to 3 km swims in the warm waters of the various local lochs. You really have to take advantage of the short summer. I also competed in two events, the cross Clyde swim, and one of favourite events the boutique Pier to Pub in Loch Lomond. I did both of these in wetsuits for a change, and the Pier swim was a tough one, swimming into a strong wind and chop the whole way. To give you an idea of the impact of that: the race is always over the same course. In 2015, I did the distance in 36 minutes in a wetsuit. This year wearing the wetsuit again, it took 49 minutes due to the impact of the conditions.
September was a big month of swimming. At the start of the month, there was the Ten Lochs Challenge, where we swim in 10 lochs in one day. I decided to try to do one km in each loch in skins, but fell just short doing 9km over the day. A truly memorable day with 30 other swimmers all having fun, and enjoying the best of Scotland. Each loch is different, with different scenery, different tasting water, yet so close together. Hopefully we can make this an annual event.
The other adventure was going to Montenegro for a swimming adventure holiday with George, Vince and Kirsty. Now that place is breathtaking with its vistas, as we swam in fjords, rivers, lakes and The Adriatic. And a trip to that part of the world has to be bookended by a few days in Dubrovnik. An incredible trip, with lots of new swim friends made.
The last three months were the slide into winter, trying to acclimatise myself to swimming skins in the lochs, as mentioned in my previous blog entry.
Overall a pretty good year. Bring on 2018.
After my return from the trip to Montenegro and Croatia, it was time to prepare for winter swimming. I was planning to swim through this winter without the wetsuit or as they say in this part of the world skins. My plan was simple, keep swimming in the Scottish lochs in skins while the water temperature continued its slide into winter. I had made some progress the previous winter, but this year I wanted to keep the wetsuit in the cupboard as the temperatures dropped.
It was a shock to return from the warm waters of the Adriatic to the 12c of Loch Ard in early October. But within a couple of weeks, the water had dropped to 10c in Loch Lubnaig. My strategy was to stay in as long as possible with successful half hour swims in 12c water, and by the end of October 10c water. Sure it was never easy to get in at those temperatures, but it was a matter of training and acclimatisation of the body. I learnt to observe how my body reacted to the cold water. Firstly I would get short of breath, but I would swim slowly until it returned to normal. This would take a couple of minutes.
Then as I swam, I would feel my extremities get colder, first my toes, then my fingers, then my legs. But if I kept swimming I would ward off the cold as my skin cooled. I would swim until the point where I felt my muscles were not working properly. At that point I would scan my body and see how cold it was. If it was ok I would swim for another couple of minutes (a watch is vital as a safety device), but would head closer to shore. Then I would head to the edge and get out, trying valiantly to stand on feet that just would not respond to the messages my brain would be sending them.
Into November, and as the nights drew in, and the water temperature dropped still further, down to 9c, then 8c, then 7c as the first snow of the season dusted the hills. Some days I would only stay in the water for 20 minutes as I battled to swim a reasonable distance.
As the festive season came, the water temperature dropped further, down to 6c, then 5c then 4c, and on the cold frosty mornings, it was a struggle to swim when your back was getting cold. But at this time of year it is often warmer in than out. I would never swim alone, but would ensure others were close by. Our favourite swimming spot was Luss on Loch Lomond as at this time of year there were no boats around, and we had the long beach to our selves. It was possible to do a loop down to the pier (smile for the tourists and their cameras as you swim past), and back up to the point, a distance of 600m or so. Do that twice and it was a 1000 metres.
Gingerly get out, and get dressed as quickly as the frozen fingers let you. Always a good idea to lay out your clothes beforehand in the car. Have a warm drink from a flask, something to eat, and then once you feel capable, get in the car to drive to the local establishment for an open fire and more hot drinks.
I really enjoyed watching the seasons pass over the autumn, as the leaves changed colour before dropping onto the ground in huge blankets. over a few months you are very conscious of the drift from autumn into winter.
It was not all loch swimming as I also had the opportunity to swim in a 25m outdoor pool at New Cumnock in mid December. This pool which was recently renovated was open for a night swim, and of course the heat was not on. There had been a light dusting of snow that day, and it was so much fun to swim in the pool in skins with the stars above, and snow on the edge of the pool, The best part was standing under a nice warm outdoor shower after the swim.
By the end of December, I was swimming 1km regularly in around 25 minutes or so. Sure this was slower than I would do the same distance in a pool, but that was because my muscles were cold, and it was also fresh water. My aim was to swim up to 1200m each time I swam, but I knew that some days were easier than others. But when the vistas are as stunning as these it was easy to get distracted.
The end of September 2017, and time for a wee swimming adventure with some of my swimming buddies. George and Vince from Glasgow (who went to Milos in 2016 and have shared many adventures in Scotland with me), and Kirsty from London (who shared the Loch Rannoch adventure amongst others) ventured to Montenegro for a week of sun, warm water and some swimming.
Montenegro is a new nation formed out of the former Yugoslavia. It is located south of Dubrovnik, north of Albania, and also has a border with Bosnia, Serbia, and Kosovo. We caught a flight to Dubrovnik, then drove for around 90 minutes to arrive at our rooms on the shores of the Bay of Kotor, which is one of the most beautiful waterways I have ever seen.
The three gentlemen ventured out early for a few days, having fun staying in a shack on the shores of the Bay of Kotor. We swam each morning for an hour or so in lovely warm 23c water before having breakfast. It was great to swim without the fear of getting cold, and to explore. Our shack was right on the shores of the Bay of Kotor, so we could access the water from the front door.
On one of the days we ventured into the city of Kotor, which reminded me very much of Dubrovnik, with its walls and old town. We had a nice wander through the city, and found a some good places to have a cold beer and nice local food. I introduced the others to the octopus salad, and they were not disappointed.
After a few days in the sun, we moved base to Perast to meet up with Kirsty and the other adventurers on our swim holiday. For a change I was not the only Australian on the trip, but I will leave it up to the others to decide if two of us was too much. The group bonded with a swim around the magnificent chapels on Our Lady of the Rocks, and St George at Perast, which have World Heritage Status.
One of the great attractions of this trip is that we got to stay in a guest house that was exclusive to us. It was a superb guest house with breathtaking views of the cruise ships making their way into Kotor. There was only 113 steps up from the street o our rooms, not that I counted.
Another great attraction of this trip was the variety of swimming. We swam in the Bay of Kotor, doing both coastals and crossings: swam in the river Moraca that feeds into Lake Skadar (the largest lake in eastern Europe, and forms the border with Albania), as well as the lake itself; and swam in the Adriatic in caves.
After a week of great company, new friends, excellent food, and some of the best swimming, it was time to say a sad farewell to Montenegro. The four of us headed up to Cavtat for a few days in order to explore Dubrovnik (after a recommendation from a fellow swimmer). This village which is just near the airport is a great spot to access the famous city, with lots of daily ferries making the 30 minute journey. It really is one of the best ways to arrive at Dubrovnik, arriving into the old harbour, leaving plenty of time to explore the city made famous by Games of Thrones.
Like all good things, our time in the sun had to end. By the end of the ten days, I had swum 17 times for a total distance of 27.5km, made new friends, and had fun adventures with old friends. If you ever get a chance to go to Montenegro, take the opportunity before it becomes more popular. As you can see from the photos, the scenery is stunning, the weather is fantastic, and the food is excellent (try the octopus).
The eighth loch for the day was Loch Chon, just upstream from Loch Ard. It was only a short drive, but due to recent changes to the camping rules, it took us some time to get past the rangers and down to the beach. By now it was a glorious day with a heatwave of 20c (68F) in this sheltered loch, and warm 16.2c (61.2F) water. The loch itself is located at 90m above sea level with high forested hills on the western shore.
It was such a relief to have warm sun on my back as I swam my one km, feeling the water warming my chilled body. There were late season flowers blooming on the edge of one of the islands we swam past. I remember swimming in this loch in February a few years ago, with ice covering most of the loch and only a small channel to swim along. That was my first time swimming near ice, and the sounds of the ice cracking and humming as we edged along were magical. But not today.
Off we went from Loch Chon in our convoy on the way to Loch Katrine, the ninth loch on the adventure. This loch flows into Loch Achray, and has a few steamships that ply their trade for the tourists. It is famous due to Sir Walter Scott, and his poem The Lady of the Loch, and for the book Rob Roy. It is also the main water supply for Glasgow, with swimmers only recently allowed to bathe in the pristine waters.
We had decided to enter the loch at Stronachlachar, a place we had swum from earlier in the summer. Unfortunately, today the water level was much higher, so the wee beach was not accessible, so we had to walk further around through recently cleared trees to find a safe place to get in. It was also cold, as the wind picked up, and the clouds blew in. We doubted the official taking the temperatures were entirely accurate with an air temperature of 16.4c and water of 15.9c. It really felt a few degrees lower than that, but perhaps we were chilled and tired at this time of day.
The swim out to Factors Island was cold, with some very cold patches. We were making our way back to shore when we noticed the Lady of the Lake coming along. The tourists on board were rugged up on this windy afternoon, and they must have wondered why anyone would swim in these frigid waters either with or without wetsuits. Next time we would check the timetable to keep out of the way.
I was glad to get out of the loch, as for the first time today we had some wind and chop to deal with. It was clear to us that we were in The Highlands, and that summer was definitely over. I only swam 600m here, which probably meant my goal of 10km today was not achievable. I was not the only swimmer to notice the cold.
Out last drive in wet swim gear lay ahead as we would our way from Stronachlachar to Inversnaid on the shores of Loch Lomond. this loch was to be the last, and was a fitting one to end the challenge with. It is the largest body of freshwater in the UK, and drains into the Irish Sea via River Leven and River Clyde. Every second year the BLDSA do a marathon swim race down the 35km length of the loch.
As we assembled for one last photo the wind picked up once more, chilling us further. It was also late afternoon and any heat the sun had graced us with at Loch Chon was long gone by now. There is a waterfall that drains from Loch Arklett, and this made this one of the colder places to swim today, with the official temperature of 14.6c. It was cold going in, and I knew that I would not make up the distance I had dropped at Loch Katrine. But hey this was all about having ten swims in ten lochs on the one day, and anything else was a bonus. I did manage to get my total distance up to 9km for the day, with a tough swim into increasing chop before turning back to the waterfall and harbour to exit.
A small number of the hardier swimmers finished off the day with a shower under the waterfall. The smiles on the faces were huge as everyone reflected on the achievement. What had started out as a short conversation had morphed into a fantastic day bringing 30 swimmers together to enjoy a huge challenge. While our swim group is quite large, it is rare for so many of us to get together for a swim more than a few times a year, due to the huge range of swims on our doorstep. Today though we had celebrated our love of swimming in the outdoors, had raised money for charity, and introduced some people to our passion.
Maybe we could make this an annual event. But if we do, we might do it in July when we would have more daylight hours and could be more leisurely with our timetable, or even try to swim in more than ten lochs.
A huge thank you for each and every swimmer who took part in this day: for the drivers who swam and drove; for the people who organised and prepared the lunches; for the shaky temperature person who also organised swim caps, shirts and hoodies; and lastly for Scotland for having enough rain to fill all these bodies with fresh clear water. The day was one of the best days of swimming I had ever done, with a lot of distance, fantastic scenery, and excellent company.
We also had an article published in the October 2017 edition of Outdoor Swimmer if you can find a copy.
Our ten lochs challenge continued to Loch Venachar. This was only a short drive from Loch Lubnaig, and the conditions were excellent for swimming. There was hardly a breath of wind whispering over the calm surface as we invaded the loch from the car-park. Most times I have swum here I have witnessed the wind swirling around from multiple directions, so it was a welcome change to have calm conditions.
According to several sources, this loch sits at 82 metres above sea level and empties via Eas Gobhain into the River Teith, which is the source of water for Deanston Distillery. In turn, the River Teith flows into the River Firth which flows past Edinburgh out to the North Sea.
But enough geography. This swim was so pleasurable, with it being so still that the bubbles caused by the swimmers moving through the water staying visible on the surface. I had to stop several times just to watch the wake from some of my fellow adventurers. The water felt very warm at 15.8c (60.4F), and the air was warming up nicely to 12c as the morning grew longer. I did an easy 1km to keep myself on target.
Our next loch was Loch Drunkie, another of the lochs that I had yet to swim in and I had been looking forward to getting in after our reconnaissance. A few of our group had been here during the week working on a film, and enjoyed it. The loch sits in a shallow basin just above and drains into Loch Venachar, just below Duke’s Pass. I am not sure of why the loch has that name, but there must be a good story behind it.
It was a twenty minute drive from Loch Venachar, down dusty forest tracks to get to the water’s edge. There were lots of tents pitched by the side of the loch as we went in. The water was not as clear as some of the others, but it was a warm 16.1c (61F) according to our official shaky statistician (though it did not feel that warm). I did an easy 900m, stopping to look at the forest surrounding the loch on all sides. This would be a beautiful spot in the autumn to see the trees show off their colours before going into hibernation for the cold winter. This was loch number five, and we were half-way to our goal.
The process of drying off, and getting into the dryrobe and maybe getting a small drink, and driving to the next loch was now getting into a routine. Our next stop was Loch Achray, which we had actually already driven past on our drive between Loch Venachar and Loch Drunkie. We had decided to swap entry points to the forest side of the loch after our inspection the previous weekend as it was less muddy than the normal place we used.
Loch Achray is a shallow loch, that also drains into Loch Venachar. Our entry point was adjacent to a campsite, and the campers were fascinated by a pod of thirty swimmers laughing and smiling as they entered the refreshing 15.9c water. A group of us swam across the loch to a small chapel that is used as an idyllic wedding venue. I was starting to notice the chill, and only did 820m on this swim. Six lochs now finished, only four to go.
There were lots of photos taken by other swimmers, and I have put some of this in the blog. One of the interesting observations about the day was that each and every swimmers had a different experience of each swim, but they all were enjoying the day.
After Achray, we had the longest drive of the day, up and over Duke’s Pass and down into Aberfoyle, and then to Kinlochard. Here we had booked the hall to have our lunch break, after we of course had swum in Loch Ard. This small loch is one of the sources of the River Forth, and it is one of our favourite places for a swim. Today, the fog of earlier had cleared and it was starting to warm up, with the air at 17.5c (63.5F), and the water a tropical 16.5c (61.7F).
We had a couple of fox terriers greeting us as we entered the water, running up and down the stone jetty looking confused about these people going for a swim. The wind was still light, and even though there were some dinghies sailing, we were moving through the water quicker than they could. I swam just under 1100m to get me back on track. It was great to see everyone still eager to get in and swim.
Into the hall we went for a well earned hot soup and cakes (after all what is an outdoor swim without cake) and hot drinks. I managed to talk to a lot of people I only get to see a few times a year, and the smiles on their faces and the joy in their eyes were wonderful. We even had a few hardy souls who decided to embark on their wild swimming adventures today. Not for them a leisurely swim in one loch: no ten swims in ten lochs for them.
Too soon it was time to drag the now partly refreshed bodies back into the cars to head for loch eight at Loch Chon.
A short conversation in early July at Loch Ard with Gillian the Yoga guru swimmer along the lines of how it would be great to swim six or seven lochs in The Trossachs over a weekend during the summer. I thought we could do better than that. So I entered a short comment on our Wild West Swimmers group page about the possibility of swimming ten lochs in a day. I thought we might get at most a dozen interested people. Soon we had up to 50 people keen to do this, so the Ten Lochs Challenge was born.
What was the Ten Lochs Challenge? Well it was the possibility of swimming in ten lochs on a one day, with the ultimate challenge of one km in each loch. It would be possible, but of course a lot depended upon the weather. It would also give me the opportunity to swim a few lochs I had not yet swum in.
George (yes the friend I had swum into the rocks in our pier to pub swim) went for a drive the weekend before the scheduled swim to get timings for the itinerary. We had a great time driving through The Trossachs on a stunning summer day. We came up with this plan for our day on the first Saturday in September:-
First swim – Loch Earn 07.00 – 07.30
Drive to Loch Voil 07.30 – 08.00 (15 min)
Loch Voil swim 08.00 – 08.30
Drive to Loch Lubnaig 08.30 – 09.00 (15 min)
Loch Lubnaig swim 09.00 – 09.30
09.30 – 10.00 Lubnaig – tea /coffee snack & catch time
Drive to Loch Venachar 10.00 – 10.30 (15 min)
Loch Venachar swim 10.30 – 11.00
Drive to Loch Drunkie 11.00 – 11.40
Loch Drunkie swim 11.40 – 12.10
Drive to Loch Achray 12.10 – 12.30
Loch Achray swim 12.30 – 13.00
Drive to Loch Ard 13.00 – 13.45
Loch Ard swim 13.45 – 14.15
Soup sandwiches & chat @ Ard 14.15 – 15.30
Drive to Loch Chon 15.30 – 16.00 (10 mins)
Loch Chon swim 16.00 – 16.30
Drive to Loch Katrine 16.30 – 17.00 (15 mins)
Loch Katrine swim 17.00 – 17.30
Drive to Inversnaid 17.30 – 18.00 (15 mins)
Inversnaid Loch Lomond swim 18.00 -18.30.
The total distance to drive for this would be about 60 miles ( or 100km), pus the distance to the start from Glasgow of another 60 miles, and back to Glasgow from Inversnaid of another 45 miles, a total of 165 miles ( or 260km). So it would be a long day with lots of driving and swimming.
The day started with a 530am pickup from my driver for the day: The Actor. Our drive up through Stirling past the castle and The Wallace Monument as dawn was breaking was magical. The weather forecast was for a sunny day with calm conditions until mid afternoon. As we arrived at Lochearnhead, it as cold, with an air temperature of 6.5c. There was an excited buzz in the carpark as the 30 or so swimmers fell out of their vans and cars to get ready for the day. Some wear wearing the full wetsuit, others in skins (no wetsuit). It was great to so so many eager people with huge smiles on their faces, with a love of open water swimming.
I had decided to try to do the whole day in skins, and to try and get one km in each loch. I knew that the water temperature should not be a problem, as I had been swimming most of the summer in skins. However, the challenge was going to be staying warm and fed between swims.
After the photo shoot was over, we all went into the water. And yes Loch Earn was cold, with the water only 13.8c. But it was stunning, with the mist sitting on the water waiting to wrap the swimmers in their embrace, calm conditions, and the rising sun flooding the loch. I managed to swim just under 1km to start the day.
Back in the car, and the convoy shifted to Loch Voil. Our car went first as I knew where we could access the loch. We planned to enter the River Balvaig, a short 8km long river that connect Loch Voil to Loch Lubnaig. We would enter and then swim 200m upstream into the loch. Now this was the first time I had swum in this loch, and I had been looking forward to it. However, as we arrived, the fog had closed in, and the visibility was down to a few hundred metres. As we entered the river, and made our way through the weeds the fog thickened and visibility dropped to 50m or so. But the water was slightly warmer at 15.4c, a lot warmer than the chilly 7.9c air temperature.
As we made our way into the loch we could hear the shrieks behind us. It was only afterwards that we learnt that a weed monster had appeared to terrorise some of the swimmers. A group of us did make into the loch proper, and it was a different swim in the slowly lifting fog that slowly revealed the beauty of this hidden loch.
Back into the car, keeping warm and dry in my dryrobe. I had swum another 900m in Loch Voil, so was just under my target distance. two lochs down, only eight to go, as we drove down to Loch Lubnaig.
The third loch on our challenge was Loch Lubnaig, which is a loch we often visit during each year, because of its beauty. Today, it was on its very best behaviour with the smooth waters just begging to be swum in. The water here was a pleasant 15.1c, and by now the fog had lifted and the air had warmed up to 10.4c. Out into the water I went, and swum across the loch and back, and then up a short way, getting out after 1100m, which put me back on the schedule. It was then time to refresh with some snacks and warm drinks and chat to the other swimmers, who all had huge smiles.
So three lochs down, and our timetable was working well. Everyone was having fun, the weather was fantastic, and eager for the challenge ahead.
To be continued.
The middle of August 2017, and time for the annual Pier to Pub swim. This is one of my favourite swim races, and I was lucky to be doing it for the third year in a row. The race starts at Arden Pier on the eastern shore of Loch Lomond, and finishes 2.3km away at the hotel on Inchmurrin, (the largest island in the Loch, and the largest fresh water island in the UK). In 2016 I had swum the race in skins, but this year I decided to revert to the wetsuit due to the conditions,, with a freshening headwind forecast for our swim east in the late afternoon.
I was joined this year by Vince, who was aiming to win the non-wetsuit or skins category; and George our erstwhile kayaker and sometime swimmer who was making his debut in the race. Both of them had been part of the swimming adventure in Milos Greece in 2016. Also joining us was Emma our channel swimmer in training, both Davids the men who was only happy when the water was cold, and several other Wild West Swimmers. I also saw several swimmers from the weekday swim group that I often joined for dawn service on Loch Lomond.
This race is magnificently organised by the owners of the hotel on Inchmurrin, and is a fund-raiser for local charities. The briefing at the start was short and to the point: start here, go to the right of the moored boats, then aim for the cruiser stationed half-way across. Then keep Inchmurrin on your left, the mainland on your right, and exit between the first and second jetty in front of the hotel.
This year, I was doing the swim for a bit of fun, and would be happy just to make it across. I had not swum as much this summer as I had in 2016, and as not in as good a shape as I would have liked. Regardless, this race is always fun.
I started on the left hand side of the start line, mainly to keep away from the rest of the 60 or so swimmers in the race. I noticed that the wind was starting to pick up even as we had waited for the start. Away we went, and I was quickly passing other swimmers, and went out past the moored yachts. I noticed Vince steaming past me, as I recognised his distinctive windmill stroke, and his bare arms. I let him go, as I did not think I would keep up.
After around 500m I noticed that Vince was taking a good line and was no more than about 30m in front of me, with another swimmers in-between. I thought I would try to catch him, as the wind had definitely picked up, creating a small chop hitting us head on. These conditions tend to suit me, perhaps because of my experience of swimming in waves and chop in Australia. Within another 500m there were two of us jostling to get on Vince’s feet to get that small amount of drag.
Past the cruiser at the half-way point we went, with the three of us battling the increasing chop from the rising wind. It was tough to get a consistent pattern going, with a battle for every stroke to try to keep balanced. These conditions were getting tougher, but still we swam on, and still we swam no more than 5 metres apart.
We approached the island, and I sensed this year’s swim was taking longer than the previous year. The chop racing through the channel had pushed us too far north, and we battled to keep out of the shallow water along Inchmurrin. Suddenly I noticed another swimmer join our pack, and he looked fresher than us. I decided to use an old trick as we approached a shoal of rocks, and managed to force this anonymous person to ground onto a shallow bank as I kept going in slightly deeper water Was this fair? For an event like this probably not, but George and I joked about it over a beer in the hotel (yes it was George I forced to run aground).
Finally we got neared the finishing line, and Vince had put on his infamous burst to get away, and he was just ahead of me. With the support of the cheer squad on the jetty, I tried to catch him, but as you can see from one of the photos, he beat me by about a metre or so. Great swim for a determined swimmer in skins up against other wetsuit swimmers. George had recovered from his premature beaching, and was just behind us.
My time for this 2300m was a slow 49 minutes, in a wetsuit. I had swum the same distance in 2015 in a wetsuit in 37 minutes, and in 2016 in 41 minutes without the wetsuit. The difference was the tougher conditions, swimming into a strong wind and chop.
Once again a great meal was provided to the swimmers in the hotel. Vince did win the non-wetsuit category, George won a raffle prize, and I managed another top ten finish overall. I also won a prize, a signed book by Adam Walker about his efforts to become the first British swimmer to swim the Oceans Seven (the English Channel, The North Channel, Catalina Channel, Straits of Gibraltar, the Molokai Channel, Cook Strait, and Tsugaru Strait). Was this a sign from the universe of what I should aim for into the future? I contemplated this on the ferry ride back to the mainland.
Once again another fantastic swim. I hope to be back in 2018 for four years in a row. A big thanks to Kim for some of these photos too.