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The smiles after making it across from Jura to Scarba

The Gulf of Corryvreckan is a body of water that separates the islands of Jura and Scarba off the west coast of Scotland. Most bodies of water are quite tame, but this one is famous for its treacherous whirlpool, which is the third largest whirlpool on the planet. When the spring tide runs, this whirlpool can be heard up to 10km away, and boats are advised to stay away.It is the place where George Orwell almost drowned as he was writing 1984.

A link to an article about the area:-

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gulf_of_Corryvreckan

Here is a link to a video of a boat trip through the area  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yoOdnqODHNs

It has been a dream of mine to swim this body of water, and in July 2017, I organised a trip for 30 intrepid adventurers from Wild West Swimmers to do just that. Now, a swim can only be done on this trip when the tide is slack, at either high or low water. The actual swim is quite short at around 1.3 km, but the maximum window is about 45 minutes.

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A pod of swimmers starting out at Jura at the start of their swim

I had hired a local boat captained by Duncan, who had been taken swimmers across this gulf for around 15 years. He has forgotten more about this area of the coast than most people will ever learn. As soon as I stepped on board, it was obvious that he knew his trade, and I felt quite safe. There were 10 swimmers on our journey that morning, with another ten to follow in the afternoon, and the last ten the next day.

We set out from the village of Craobh Haven early on the Saturday morning, with clouds trying their best to hide the sun from us, and with a fresh breeze keeping us cool. Two of our group, had opted for a two-way swim, while the rest of us decided on a one way. Of the eight doing the one way, two of us were doing it in skins (including me). We changed on the boat on the short 30 minute journey out to the Gulf, and waited for the water to slow, as the second safety boat checked out the conditions, and we listened to the safety briefing. The two-way swimmers Vince and Alistair jumped in and they were off.

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A minke whale passing us as we swam across

We watched them head out on their challenge, and then it was our turn to jump in . The water was quite cool around 13c, but I could only think of the swim ahead. Off we went, with Tony leading the way. The water was not still, and it reminded me off my younger days of swimming off the beaches of Australia, and it was great to have that feeling again. I soon settled into my familiar pattern, and was enjoying the swim, keeping an eye on Scarba ahead of us, and the boat to make sure we were heading roughly in the right general direction. We were all so absorbed, that none of us saw the whale that swam near us (the passengers and crew on the boat saw it).

Now one of the things about this swim is that you swim in an arc, because that it is the way the water moves. We were pushed to our right as we started but as we got closer to Scarba, the water flow reversed and we started to head left. The trick is to make sure you compensate for this at the start, as you do not want to get too close to the whirlpool. The closer we got to Scarba, the more we could feel the gently rise and fall of the ocean swells, a feeling I had not experienced for a long time. Soon we had finished in around 25 minutes of swimming, and as we climbed back on board the smiles on everyone faces were huge. The two-way swimmers also managed to go across and back, a huge achievement.

 

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The boat, the swimmers, and goal achieved

A short ride back to the marina, and then off to the pub for a lunch and a whisky or two to celebrate our swim. I even managed to catch a game of AFL from Sydney on the tv. That night we all celebrated at our campsite, sharing yarns about swimming through the maelstrom. More than one person asked me if I was going to organise another trip next year, and with a twinkle in my eye I said maybe, as this was wild swimming at its best, with strange currents, salt water, sea creatures, legends, and superb company.

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Jura is the island on the left, Scarba on the right, with the Gulf in-between

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A piper at the IISA GB Ice Swimming Champs

The International Ice Swimming Association were holding the 2017 Great British Ice Swimming Championships in the waters of Loch Lomond in early February 2017. Our group of swimmers decided to enter, but at the time of the close of entries I had not progressed my training enough, so limited my entry to the 50m sprint. Others were entered in the 1km, 500m and 200m events. The rules were simple, swim with one cap, one pair of goggles and one pair of swimmers.

The event was held at a function centre situated on the banks of Loch Lomond. Usually at this time of year this location is sheltered from the prevailing westerly winds. However, for the few days before the event, and on the actual day, a cold east wind blew in from Europe, meaning there would be a large chop in the water. For the efforts of the various swimmers to be recognised the water had to drop under 5c, and the temperature had stubbornly sat at just over 5c. Luckily for everyone, the effects of lots of snow, and cold temperatures resulted in the water dropping to 4c on the day.

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Part of the course with Inchmurrin in the background, and Conic Hill just visible through the snow squalls

I had volunteered to time keep on the day, meaning I had to stand out in the cold weather to record the times of the swimmers as they pushed themselves round the one km course in testing conditions. The air temperature was just above zero all day, with snow showers blowing through with Ben Lomond and Conic Hills taking turns to disappear from view as the day wore on. To keep warm I would think back to my days of timekeeping in Australia where I had a hot sun burning my back.

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Officials and water safety wait for the next heat as the waves get larger

It was inspirational to watch swimmers from around the UK and the world swim in these testing conditions. It is hard enough to swim one km in water this cold at the best of times, but when there is a large chop on the water it became even more difficult. Fortunately for Scotland, a local swimmer of some renown won the one km and 500m events in very fast times (he also holds the record for the fastest skins swim of Loch Lomond).

I had entered the 50m event, and as my time approached I left the beach to get changed in the warmth of the function centre. It was cold as I walked down to registration where I learnt I was going to be in heat one of the event. We walked along the beach and entered the water. It was bracingly cold, but I knew that if I swam fast I would be finished in under a minute, hardly time to get cold. The gun went and we were off. I soon swam to the front, and kept my head down ignoring the screams of my body telling me it was cold. I crossed the finish line in first place, and obtained my time. I stood and watched the second heat, and watched as my winning time was surpassed by one other swimmer, but at least he was a fellow Australian (well done Nick). Yes the Australians had managed to come first and second on the podium in an event that we should not do well in.

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My medal and swim cap from my race

I walked back up to the function centre and got changed into warm gear. A bunch of our group from the Wild West Swimmers (all of whom had done extremely well in swimming on the day, with some winning medals) went down to Balloch for a nice pub feed. The event finished with a traditional ceilidh (pronounced keilie), which is a dance with fiddles and pipes. It is very much like a bush dance in Australia, and it was a lot of fun.

Maybe next time I will enter the longer events such as the one km race, as by next winter I would have had more training behind me.

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This gives you an idea of  size of the chop on the day

 

 

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A snow-capped Ben Lomond overlooking swimmers in Loch Lomond just after dawn in early January 2017

It seems like months since I have posted a swim story on this blog, so you probably think that I have been out of the water. Well, no I have continued my swim adventures, and now after the summer of 2017, it is time to get more up to date.

I swam through the winter of 2016 in the lochs of Scotland wearing a wetsuit, and yes it was not pleasant, but a big challenge. For the winter of 2017 I decided to set myself another challenge of swimming through in skins (ie no wetsuit). Now it is one thing to say that; it is another thing entirely to try it, and get the body to adapt to the cold water. I must stress that this is not something that should be attempted lightly, but once you are aware of the risks, and manage those risks, it is a very rewarding experience. I should remind you that the place where I had swum most of my life the water might drop to 13c or 14c (55F to 57F) in the middle of winter. Here in Scotland it is not unusual to go for a swim in summer when the water is that temperature; and in winter the water usually drops to 4c or 5c (39F to 41F).

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Dawn at Luss on Loch Lomond looking towards Inchlonaig and Inchconnachan

My plan was to get back into the water after my swim adventure in Greece in October 2016, but it was not until December that I commenced my cold water swimming. By this time the water had dropped to 6c, and I would go in with gloves and boots to try to acclimatise. I would go on and take ten minutes walking in up to my waist, and then would swim 200m or so, with lots of stops as my face adjusted to the cold. Then I would get out quickly. Another day, I just sat in the water up to my neck for 20 minutes getting my body used to the intense cold.

Over several weeks, I would go in, and swim slightly further each time, always conscious of the risks of hypothermia. After several weeks, I went in without the gloves or boots, just wearing my swimwear, and a swim cap. Yes it was cold, very cold, so cold that it took your breath away. But to swim in stunning beauty of Scotland after a snowfall, or when the dawn sun broke through morning mist over a still loch was an absolute delight.

 

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A swim at Duck Bay in early December 2016

I was always swimming with other nutters in the loch, some who like me were not in wetsuits, and others who did wear them. The good thing about swimming with others is that we keep an eye out for each other, and can assist someone if they stay in too long.

I have mentioned the risks of swimming in cold water. I must stress that cold water can be dangerous, and you must be aware of your own limits, and the impact of a cold morning, wind chill and precipitation on your body. You recognise that when you first go in the body goes into shock and you will start panting, though at dawn in January the water is often warmer than the air. Once your face is in the water, you start swimming slowly, until your breathing gets into a regular pattern again. You notice as you swim your arms change colour and start to get heavy. That was my signal to get out soon. I always made sure that I would swim parallel to shore and would have an exit point available at all times. Then a quick walk back to the car on frozen feet, get changed as quickly as possible, and then have a warm drink and some food.

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My swim on Australia Day in 2017

Each time I swam I would try two things: reduce the time it took to go from standing in waist deep water; and to increase the distance I could swim. Over the winter, I managed to increase my distance swum from 200m up to 1100m. I would also be able to walk in, splash myself, and then start swimming within 30 seconds or so. It was never easy to convince myself that this was a good idea, but would just get on with it.

The hardest part of the swim for me was the walk on frozen feet back to the car, knowing that it would be a few hours before my toes felt like part of my body again. If I had stayed in too long, the fine motor skills in my fingers would be non-existent too. But I always ensured I had several layers of clothing, gloves, two pairs of socks, a thick beanie, a coat, a warm drink, and sit in the car with the heater on to warm up. There was also the local coffee shop we would go to after to sit by a nice warm fire having cake and coffee to roast in the exhilaration of swimming in cold water again.

My winter swimming was successful, I swam on Boxing Day, New Years Day, celebrated Australia Day, swum with snow on the hills around me, and by the end of winter increased my distance up to 1km. What was more, I had done this in the company of friends who take equal pleas

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Another view of Ben Lomond with the winter mist rising off Loch Lomond

 

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One of the highlights of the year, the swim down Loch Tay

The year 2016 in review. I used to do an annual review talking about the 20 or so open water swim events I had competed in. But 2016 was different, because even though I swam in nine events, the highlights were definitely what is called wild swimming in the UK. This involves just getting in the water and swimming: and we are blessed with so many choices here in Scotland.

But first some raw stats. I competed in nine events in 2016 to take my overall tally to 93 events competed in since November 2008 when I did my first event. I managed four top 10 places overall, and swam a total of 45.4 km in those races. I competed in my first and second 10km swims, did a 8.4 km swim, and two 5km swims. I even competed in my first race in Europe in Croatia where I swam a one km and a 5km swim. Of the nine swims, two were in Croatia, one in the Lakes District in England, and the other six were in Scotland.

So my racing highlights would include doing my first ever 10km event, which was down the River Spey in the Scottish Highlands with a water temperature of 12c. I also competed in the Great Scottish Swim 10km race in Loch Lomond in August and swam faster than I had downstream in the Spey. I used to be in awe of those swimmers who had swum those distances, but now I am one of them.

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Just after the start of the River Spey swim

The races in Croatia were fantastic for the atmosphere of tuna steaks on a bbq for the post-race snacks, and the fashion in which I escorted a 5k newbie around the course and the applause from fellow swimtreckers at the finish line. It was great to race without the wetsuit again for the first time in two years.

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The handshake at the end of the Croatia 5km

I also completed my first race in Scotland in what is called skins, which is without the wetsuit. I did the Pier to Pub swim in skins, and yes it was cold, but magic.

Now that I have done 93 swims, I am within site of that magic century. Will I get there in 2017, or will I do more wildswims?

Speaking of which, my recreational or wild swims were awesome in 2016. I started the year swimming in the freezing lochs in Scotland in my wetsuit, including one memorable swim in Loch Chon when we swam alongside the ice. As the water slowly warmed from 4c in February, the swim times increased from 15-20 minutes up to 45 minutes.  I can honestly say that you notice the temperature when it gets to 10c and want to celebrate the fact. In June we had a few weeks of relatively warm sunny weather, and the water in our playground in Loch Lomond jumped to 16c.

I did two Swimtrek trips over the year: one in Prvic Luka Croatia, and the other in Milos Greece. Both trips were amazing, and it was great to be go back home to Prvic Luka where the local people are amazing. It was great to make my first ever trip to Greece, and to meet people from around the world who share my love of swimming.

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The harbour in Prvic at sunset after another day of glorious sun and swimming

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Only one example of the amazing water in Milos

Back to Scotland for swimming, where I did three long swims over the summer. The first one was from Ardlui to Tarbet at the upper reaches of Loch Lomond, a distance of 12.6km in just under four hours of swimming. The second one was from Tarbet to Luss, the middle reaches of Loch Lomond, a distance of 13.7km in just over 4.5 hours. Both of these were with a social group of intrepid swimmers from Wild West Swimmers, and doing these long swims with friends is always fun.

There was also the group who swim most mornings at Balloch on Loch Lomond, another group of swimmers who were great to swim with, though I could not get to swim with them often enough.

And how could I forget Loch Tay, my longest swim to date of 16.7km in just over five hours. True I did not manage to make it from one end to the other (a total of around 23km), it was an incredible swim that was only possible due to the generosity of an amazing group of people (you know who you are). Each and every one of one helped make that weekend one of the highlights of the year for me. Special mention to Vince who swam the whole length, and George who paddled alongside me the whole way.

Lots of swimming, explored new places, swam in  yet more Scottish lochs (Loch Leven, Loch Tay), and added Greece to my list of countries I have swum in.

I am conscious that my outdoor adventures in the water have changed from racing events to recreational. In Australia, it was not common to swim long distances in the oceans outside of events, due to the inherent dangers from the natural inhabitants of the marine environment. Now I live in Scotland, I can swim in the lochs without fear of marine life, and only have to worry about the cold water. That does change your focus somewhat, but I still enjoy the thrill of competing and pushing myself against the clock and the field. I also enjoy the challenge of long swims with friends, supporting each other, and learning about your own limits.

The year finished with great swims in Loch Ard and Loch Lomond in December (but that is another story).

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In we go to start swimming down Loch Tay

 

Milos Greece

 

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Just some of the sea caves and arches in Milos

A week after our grand adventure up Loch Tay, it was time for some relaxing swimming in warm water. A Four of us ventured out to Greece to swim on a Swimtrek trip on the island of Milos. The island is located in the Aegean Sea between Athens and Crete. After making it through the delights of a Scottish summer we were looking forward to a week of sun and warm water. The island is famous for the Venus de Milo statue which stands in the Louvre in Paris.This statue was found on the island in the early 1800s and the locals call it Aphrodite which is the Greek name of the Roman god Venue.

Now I have swum in some amazing places around the world, including the golden beaches of Australia, coral reefs in Vanuatu, the pristine waters of Croatia, the stunning lochs of Scotland, and in and around New York City. However, I have never swum in a place like this. We swam over sunken cities, into sea caves, around sea stacks, through sea tunnels, down and through underwater arches, over sulphur vents and volcanic rock piles that heated the water.  Each day there were objects to explore and amazing things to see. I even set a new personal worst for the slowest 400m swim with fins of 25 minutes as I drifted in and around the incredible formations around the volcanic island. To swim with a warm sun on my back in warm water, having left the wetsuit behind was fantastic. Sure there were times we had some swell to deal with as the wind blew from the north, but I really loved the challenge of bouncing around in the sea once more, which is something I do not get to do often enough. However, we mostly were able to find places out of the wind due to the local knowledge of the crew.

Over the week I swam 25 km with the longest swim just under 3.5 km. But this trip was not about getting the distance up, but more about exploring and finishing the summer swim season with a bang. The guides were fantastic, the local boat crew were incredible, and all the swimmers were great company.

For regular readers of this blog you will know that I tend to write a description of the swim, and include a few photos. Well this time I will let the photos do the talking.

If you want a swimming holiday with lots to explore, on an island with so much history that you can reach out and touch, with great weather and good food, then I would suggest this one. But shhh do not tell anyone else….

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Swimmers going through an arch towards a sea-stack

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The water really was this clear

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Look at that blue sky and we swam around this cove too

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The sun forming a curtain around the swimmers

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Wow nice tunnel

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Just another cave to explore

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Caves used by pirates in days of old

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Ah the blue Aegean

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Around each corner there is something else to explore

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The first load of adventures out to the yacht at the start of the day

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The rippled sand on the seabed

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The scene at lunch one day

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That is the yacht we were on each day when we were not swimming

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The clear water gently lapping the shore

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One of the pinks easing through an arch

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The island of Polyaigos

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Swimming towards the light

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The Aphrodite our vessel for the week

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It says it all really

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The colourful fishing boats at Pollonia the village we stayed in

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Our final swim at dawn on the last morning

Loch Tay Scotland

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A perfect morning for swimming in Loch Tay with Ben Lawers behind the mist

The idea of a long swim had been on our minds for a few months, especially after our swim down Loch Rannoch in September 2015. We had examined maps of Scotland trying to find a loch that was longer than Loch Rannoch, but still not too far from Glasgow. In the end we decided on Loch Tay, which is a loch about 23 km long ( or 14.5 miles), and around 1 km wide at the widest point.  The loch is the sixth largest in the UK, and the 10th largest peak in the UK Ben Lawers overlooks the loch (height of 1200m). It is also known as a cold loch and is often hit by strong winds that blow down the loch between the hills on each side. It looked like a decent challenge, and was around 50% longer in distance than our big swim of 2015.

The plan was to swim from Killin at the head of the loch,  downstream to Kenmore at the outflow to the River Tay.There wasa lot of logistics to organise for a swim like this, with two kayakers, a boat, a stand up paddle board (who had a unique motivational technique), plus support crew on land.We stayed at a nice lodge on the banks of the loch on the Friday night, and the harvest moon that greeted us after dinner was a good omen. The plan was for Jess, Vince and myself to start the swim at 7am at Killin with George in his kayak. We would then swim the 4km to the lodge, be joined by the boat and the other kayaker, and have Victoria and Mark join us to Lawers. They would then get out and then meet us at Kenmore for the finish. At least that was the plan.

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The start of the swim at dawn

The weekend before the marathon, I had joined Vince Alastair, Big Mark on Loch Lubnaig with a plan to swim 10k. On that day, despite the presence of George in his kayak, I could only manage 6.5km with the last hour very tough, as my body screamed at me to stop due to fatigue. I realised that I had been training too much, and would have to rest up in the week ahead. So I did a couple of gentle swims during the week.

On arrival on the Friday night as we talked over our plans, I was convinced that I would only swim to Lawers a distance of around 12km. However, I told the others that if I felt better on the day of the swim, I would swim further.

 

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The three swimmers soon after starting

We were up before dawn with a good breakfast, and as much sleep as could be achieved with four grown men in a small room. We drove to our start point, with the knowledge that the weather forecast looked as good as good be expected for this time of year with lots of sun and only light wind. As we waded into the water we wished each other luck, deep in our thoughts. Vince soon pulled away from us,  but Jess and I kept fairly close. We had talked about trying to keep to the left hand shore as much as possible till we arrived at the lodge.

Once my body settled into its now familiar pattern, I was pleasantly surprised by how much energy I had. After an hour or so we arrived at the lodge, and Jess decided that she had no fuel left and wanted to exit. I was sad for Jess as we had shared so many adventures in the water, and we normally swam at the same pace. I had a good feed, and told George that I was going to keep going, and that I would go as long as I could. I felt really good with 4km behind me, and wanted to swim while the conditions were ideal, and I knew that I could easily make it to Lawers today. I told George to wait for Victoria and Mark and once they had entered the water, he could then catch up to me. By this time Vince was another km or so ahead, and had the other kayaker and boat with him.

 

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An unusually calm Loch Tay with clear skies

Now I was on my own, with no kayaker, and no swimmer near me. I took time to enjoy the stunning day, and look around me at the breath-taking Scottish countryside. My form was good, I was not tired, and I felt like I could swim for hours and hours. It is at times like this that your mind wanders and you fall into a trance like state, with only the sound of your breathing and the water falling behind you. These photos taken by George give you some idea of the vista.

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Looking back towards Killin

I had been swimming for a while when I broke out of my trance to see my trusted kayaker George nearby. I stopped him and asked for food and water and had a chat about who was where. It was great to have him close as he understood how a swimmer feels on these long swims.

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A kayaker’s view of me: note the bubbles and wake

As we swam past Lawers I had noticed that it was so calm I could still see the track left by Vince as he speed off into the distance. Now I had past the 12km mark, the boat came back to me for a change, and George tied his kayak and jumped in with me. It was great to have another swimmer close to me in the water, as I did not feel so alone. He stayed in for around 20 minutes for which I was very grateful.

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Amazing swimming conditions

By now I had been swimming for several hours, and I could feel that I was starting to tire. I made sure I stopped every 45 minutes to an hour, and had more drink and food. While my form was still good, the water temperature was starting to get to me, and the wind was starting to rise, even though it was a tail wind. I was determined to get to the point where I had swum 17 km to make it a longer swim than last year. The last hour was getting harder and harder and I stopped more and more often. I told myself that once I  turned the final corner where I could see Kenmore I would get out. That last km or so seemed to take an eternity as I could feel my limbs getting heavier, and my body sinking further into the water as my form dropped to the bottom.

I sighted the bridge at Kenmore and stopped, looking at my watch which showed I had swum 17 km in a little over five hours swimming and six hours from when I entered the water. My speed had been good the whole way, but now it was time to stop. While there was about six km to go, it would take at least another two hours and I knew that was beyond me. I signaled to the support boat and clambered in. Sure I was disappointed, but also very pleased with how far I had swum. When I entered the water I thought that doing 12km would be a challenge, but I had managed 17km. As my exhaustion hit I focused on the distance I had swum, which was a new personal best.

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What a day

Now it all about Vince. Even though I was exhausted we motored up to Vince who was the only one still in the water. By this time the wind had risen and there was a decent chop in the water and more boats buzzing around. We cheered him on as we floated past and gave him a big thumbs up. We went into Kenmore to meet the rest of the support crew and to have some food. We waited on the beach for our champion to finish.

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Vince heading towards the end as the chop increases

We all waited on the beach for Vince. He had done it, an amazing swim from one end of Loch Tay to the other: a distance of 25 km in seven hours. He looked exhausted as he tried to stand in the shallows, but his smile was huge.

Out group had conquered Loch Tay. Vince had swum the whole length, Jess had swum 4km, Victoria had done 8 km to Lawers from the lodge, Mark had run and swum the same distance, and I had made it three-quarters of the distance. We could not have done it with the support of each other, and the other support crew in the boat (David), kayakers (Kenny and George), stand up (Sir Harry), and the land crew  (Kirsten). Congratulations to all,and a huge thanks for your contributions. Special mention to George for his tireless support in the kayak and his incredible photos. But biggest mention to Vince who beat Loch Tay.

 

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Old Man Coniston overlooking the finish the evening before the event

The weekend after the Great Scottish Swim, it was a trip to the Lakes District in England for the annual Coniston End to End event. This race is one of the more popular events held on Coniston Water over a distance of 5.25 miles (8.5km), from one end of the lake to the other. The lake is famous for the world water speed record attempts (successful and otherwise) held in the 1960s. It was also featured in a recent movie Amazons and Swallows.

Coniston is a three-hour drive (around 250km) south of where I stay in Glasgow, and the trip on the day before the swim was quite uneventful. I picked up my entry pack the night before the swim, and took the opportunity to upgrade the offered tow float to a doughnut one. I have found this to be extremely useful on long training swims as it is easy to access food and drink when compared to the other bag type (which is better for holding clothing).

A number of my swimming buddies from Wild West Swimmers had also entered this swim, due to its excellent organisation, and for us the relatively warm water. There is also the chance to do the swim in skins (non-wetsuit). I was placed in Wave 5 based on my entry time, the second fastest wave.

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A tranquil view of the finish point

The swim cost included bus transport to the start tent at the southern end of the lake. While the day had started cloudy but dry, by the time we had boarded the bus, the skies had opened. we were going to be getting wet anyway once we hit the water, and I would much prefer rain to a day of sun and wind.

We lined up to get our safety briefing to be told the water temperature had dropped to a cold 16c. You could hear the groans from the English, and the cheers from the Scottish swimmers. Our course was to swim up the eastern side of Coniston Water passing inside of Peel Island. There would be marker buoys every mile, and feed stations at 1.5 miles, 2.5 miles, 3.5 miles and 4.5 miles. My plan was to stop and feed at each of these, and I was happy to hear that each station would have fruit, drinks and gels.

The actor was in skins and in my wave, as were Big Mark, and Swim Buddy (SB) who had followed me down Loch Rannoch last season, and who I swam with regularly. My plan was to go steady until the first feed station, then increase my pace, and keep enough in reserve to avoid another fatigue situation. We entered the water in dribs and drabs as our time would not start until we walked over the timing mat. I wished everyone well, and followed SB into the warm water. It felt good in my wetsuit not to have that cold water sensation down the back for a change.

I started my swim, concentrating on getting my normal pattern going, and dodging other swimmers. I noticed SB was just ahead of me, but was not concerned, as I knew she normally started quicker than me. At times I feel like a diesel engine on a cold morning, and it can take up to a km before I settle into my stroke, and today was one of those days.

The first mile past quickly, and Peel Island swept into view. I was keeping up with a group of other swimmers, one of who was SB. How did I know this? Well even though she was wearing exactly the same coloured cap as everyone else, she has a very distinctive style. At the first feed station we chatted about how we felt, and we both felt great. Those gels soon worked their way into my system, and I could feel the power boost.

Past the second feed station, with a drink, some food, and another chat. We were neck and neck at this stage, and had managed to be swimming mostly by ourselves, despite the 500 people doing the swim. The rain had eased, and the wind had picked up a little creating a small chop that I knew would be to my advantage. The pleasure steam gondola passed us in the distance as we started catching swimmers from the earlier wave.

Another feed stop, this time at the 3.5 mile mark, and we were still within 10 meters of each other. We had swum behind a chap with a big kick for a while, and looking at his technique I doubted he would have been able to continue that for very long. Sure enough he tired, and we swept past. Not sure what he would have made of my complete lack of kick.

I  was still feeling strong as we passed many swimmers from the early waves. I like to look at different swim techniques in these long events to see what advice I would give them to improve their efficiency (maybe I will take waterproof business cards for my coaching next time and slip them into their goggle strap). Though I must admit their tenacity and determination to complete the event.

The last feed station required me to sprint to get to the boat before a group of 50 or so slower swimmers. I could have given the feed a miss but I was wary of tiring without energy. By this time I had lost SB as we dodged slower swimmers to grab our food. I pushed off from the boat feeling smug that I just might beat her. After 5 minutes of swimming I looked ahead to see SB swimming. How did she get there? Oh no. My tactic was to go on her blind side with a few swimmers between us to try to get in front. But no matter how hard I swam, I just could not do it. By this time of the swim the dreaded weeds were everywhere, making it more difficult to get a good pace going.

Into the finish line, and as I walked over the finish mat, there she was just in front of me. I tapped her on the shoulder and congratulated her. She was surprised as she thought I was ahead too. Officially she beat by three seconds in a swim of 2 hours 34 minutes. Though if we add in a handicap based on age and water displacement I would have beat her by several minutes.So once again SB has bragging rights from an event.

We got a warm drink and stood in the water as the rest of our friends finished, cheering them on. A huge effort by the Van Man who was in the fast wave and finished 15 minutes or so ahead of me.

I was very happy with my swim this week. I had managed my feeds well, and felt strong the whole way, finishing in the top 15% of the field. My GPS watch told me I had swum 300m less than last week, but eleven minutes quicker. I had been told this was a great swim, and now I believed it.

My congratulations to Big Mark, the Actor, and all the other WWS swimmers who all swam so well.

If you ever want to test yourself over a swim of 5 miles, this is the one to try. Maybe next year I might do it in skins….

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A view of the course with Peel Island just visible in the distance

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The start of the 10km race going past the Maid of the Loch

The Great Scottish Swim returned for their annual swim at Balloch on the shores of Loch Lomond on the weekend after the Pier to Pub swim. This year they had introduced a 10km swim event on the Friday afternoon, and I entered during the winter based on the plans to make each lap 2.5km. However, as the event got closer, it became clear that the 10km event would use the standard course, meaning we would swim six laps. Not the best outcome, but hey this was only my second 10km race, and the first one without the support of a river current.

My training had gone well, with several long swims in the loch, and lots of shorter swims with the 545am morning crew, and the folks from Wild West Swimmers. The good thing about that was that I was very familiar with the course, as it was like swimming in my own backyard training pool.

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The crowded start point with me up the back adjusting my goggles

I arrived in plenty of time for the 4pm start, having made arrangements to meet the actor who was also competing. We took our time putting on the wetsuit making comments about our race on Tuesday without the suit. This event requires all swimmers to wear a wetsuit which is understandable as most competitors are not used to the cold water in Scotland. However, we had trained in this body of water, and would have liked the option of non-wetsuit. Though I still would have worn the wetsuit as I appreciate the extra buoyancy and the warmth.

My eating strategy was to use the food supplied by the swim (which was going to sweets and cold water), with some gels that I tucked inside the ankle of my suit. I would stop after the 2nd, 4th and 5th laps to keep up my energy supply.

We had the warm up which is rather desultory for this type of event, as all of these swimmers would have their own routine and would not need a talking head to try to motivate us. I just wanted to start and ignored most of the action, as I stood towards the back of the pack. Though I did listen closely to the words of the GB Olympic 10k swimmer who was interviewed in front of us.

My goal was to finish in under three hours, which meant each lap would need to be done in 30 minutes or less. I wished the actor luck and off we went into the water, down the slipway. There seemed to be less churn and melee at the start of this race, maybe because most people realised that 10km is a long swim, and there was no need to sprint.

Now I have not mentioned the weather conditions for the race. All I can say is that it was a typical Scottish late summer day with plenty of cloud, and for a change only a light breeze. During the race we managed to experience wind, rain, sun and cloud, so we had it all.

My first lap was a doddle, as I soon settled into my stroke, and used the time to focus on exactly where the buoys where, as I was going to pass them six times. The second lap went well, and I did keep a good line going up towards Cameron House, and on the return. I stopped after this lap at the feeding station, which was a chap in a small dinghy handing out sweets and cold water. I also had one of my gels.

The third lap also went well, and at the halfway mark, my time was just over 80 minutes, well within the three-hour schedule. By now the sun had come out after a short squally shower, and I did enjoy the views of Ben Lomond and the Luss Hills to distract me from swimming round the same course six times.

Lap four and I stopped for more sustenance, and I was still feeling good. My stroke was good, there were no niggles from my shoulders, and even my normal leg cramps were quickly shifted with some kicking.

Lap five was completed with the race leaders sprinting past me in their quest for glory: they are amazing to watch with their windmilling arms There was also the contestants doing the swim run event entering our course as they undertook the 800m swim leg which was to be followed by a 5 km run. They had started two hours after us, and as I swam past them I admired their efforts in the water as it was obvious they were struggling. Of course if I had done that event I would have struggled on the run, as I cannot run out of sight on a dark night.

I stopped for my last feed and saw that based on my pace till now I might even get close to 2 hours 30 minutes. Half way up the last lap, I hit the wall. My arms grew heavy, my hips dropped in the water, and every stroke was a huge effort. I even resorted to some kicking to try to get my body position back. Each stroke was harder as my pace slowed as my energy levels leached out of me.

Finally I emerged from the water and almost fell over the finish line, having used all my experience to make it to the finish. I was surprised by this as in my training swims I had swum for longer times, but I had stopped for longer rests to have a feed and shoot the breeze. Race conditions are different with only short breaks to refuel before ploughing on once more.

My finish time of 2 hours 45 minutes was well within the three-hour goal I had set, so that was pleasing. However, I suspected the course may not have been 10 kms which in this day of gps devices must be a problem for organisers (my device said I had swum 9 kms only).  I was also happy with a top ten finish in my age group, and an overall placing in the low 40s. I also suspected that some who had a faster official time may not have completed the six laps as there was no way the organisers could know whether a swimmer had completed all six laps.

I bumped into some friends on my way back tot he change area, and they expressed concern over my condition. Apparently I looked exhausted, a look they had rarely seen during our social swims. I managed to assuage their concern with a promise to consume the food and fluids I had waiting for me in the change area.

As I took my time changing I reflected on the achievement of completing the event, which was my very first non-current assisted 10 km race. I can remember that it was not that long ago that I used to admire those athletes who could swim that far. I used to glance at those swimmers in my squad in Sydney who did the annual 9km South Head Roughwater from Bondi to Watsons Bay and think there was no way I could ever swim that far. Well I had now done it. Maybe it is time to call myself a distance swimmer.

A big thanks to the various photographers whose shots I have used: you know who you are.

 

 

 

The view from the pub on Inchmurrin over Loch Lomond

The view from the pub on Inchmurrin over Loch Lomond

I had swum in the Pier to Pub swim in 2015 and I was lucky enough to get a spot in this invitation event. The race is 2.3km event held on a mid-week evening from the western shore of Loch Lomond at Arden, to the hotel on Inchmurrin, the largest island in the loch. After you swim over, the three generations who own and operate the hotel provide dinner, and then the ferry takes you home as darkness falls. All the funds raised from the swim go to one of the local charities.

This year the weather gods were not so kind, with heavy rain falling as we drove up the motorway from Glasgow. I was going to swim without the wetsuit for this race, my first “skins” event in Scotland. I had been doing several swim sin the loch over the previous month in skins in preparation, including a delightful one hour swim from Aldochlay one evening the previous week. Now when I say delightful I mean it was a beautiful clear calm evening as the sun set and that wonderful Scottish light descended over the hills. Of course the water was quite refreshing, and each time you took a stroke the bottom of your arm and hand would enter a colder layer of water.

Aldochlay at dusk

Aldochlay at dusk

As we arrived at the starting point for the race, the rain stopped and the wind dropped. There were three males swimming in skins, and I knew both of them, having swum regularly with them over the last year or so. My aim was just to make it across, and as I entered the water I was definitely having second thoughts as I looked enviously at the rest of the field shivering in their wetsuits.

The start of the race with the destination the island in the background

The start of the race with the destination the island in the background behind the moored boats

Our briefing was perfunctory: swim to the right of the moored vessels, then aim for the right hand edge of the island, swim around the point and finish on the beach between the second and third jetties. As I had done it last year, this was no issue, but Vince the van man (who was hoping to finish in the top 3) had to have the course explained to him. I stood near swim run Mark, and director Gary the other skin swimmers, trying to get warm. We started, and I went slightly faster than normal in an attempt to warm up.

We swam around the moored boats and I was behind Gary but not so close as to be accused of drafting. I settled into a nice pace and soon found that I was passing some other wetsuit swimmers, which surprised me. I looked to the right and saw the spectator fleet and safety vessels and hoped that I would not need their assistance tonight.

Some of the field soon after the start

Some of the field soon after the start: I am on the extreme left with bare arms and a yellow float

Out past the boats e went, and Gary and I had a good speed going. But I noticed that he was not going in the direction I wanted to so I pulled up next to him, and then slowly edged in front. We were near a group of three other swimmers, and I increased my speed to get on their feet, as I thought I needed every advantage I could use.

Swimmers nearing the end of the swim and their reward of dinner

Swimmers nearing the end of the swim and their reward of dinner

By the time we hit the island I was in front of him, and still swimming strong, though starting to feel the effect of the cold water as my fingers started to have a life of their own. I was glad I had done several swims in skins so I knew what to expect.

With 200m to go, out of the corner of my eye I noticed Gary increasing his stroke rate. I was not going to let him beat me, so I started to kick and increased my speed in response. We edged closer to the finish line, and he was not getting any closer. I swam into the shallows, stood up, and saw him 10m behind me. We gave each other a hug as we exited the water. There in front of us Vince who was third male overall.  Mark the swim run man was third skins, so a very successful event for all us.

So I had finished my first skins race of 2.3km in just over 41 minutes. Sure this was a few minutes slower than last year when I wore a wetsuit, but I was still very happy with my time. Now what will be my next skins event?

Once again a huge thank you to the hotel owners who put on an amazing event with lots of prizes for the swimmers, good food and a beautiful location. I hope to be back in 2017 to do this for the third time. I am lucky to live in this part of Scotland so close to so many incredibly beautiful places to swim.

A view towards Conic Hill from Inchmurrin

A view towards Conic Hill from Inchmurrin

Glencoe 5km

Part of the Glencoe course in Loch Leven

Part of the Glencoe course in Loch Leven

Several of my friends from Wild West Swimmers had swam at Glencoe in the summer of 2015 and thoroughly enjoyed it. So when the summer schedule was up, and the swim had avoided a clash with the Great Scottish Swim I thought I would have to do the event. For those of you with knowledge of Scottish history, you will be aware that Glencoe is infamous for a massacre by Clan Campbell in the later 18th century. That was high up in the hills through which the A82 road from Glasgow to Fort William runs, and whenever I drive that road I feel the brooding atmosphere of those hills pressing down.

The event was being held in a sea loch called Loch Leven at a place called Ballachulish. Despite having lived here for a couple of years I still struggle with some of the place names, but I have learned you just make a sound like you are clearing your throat and that is close enough.

A group of four of us drove for two hours north from Glasgow on a typical Scottish summer day with rain and wind forecast, and low clouds. The A82 took us up the side of Loch Lomond and I was able to look at the loch from the road, and compare it to the view from the water when I had swum it over the two previous weekends. It really was a long way to swim.

Competitors at the start of one of the earlier races

Competitors at the start of one of the earlier races

I had entered the 5km event in the afternoon, and we arrived early enough to register and watch the morning 5km event. The course was out to the left hand side of the island, turn right, then turn right again to return to the cove, and do that for three laps, with the last lap requiring a short swim out to the head of the cove and back to the start line. We watched the swimmers as they headed for the island, and I had already noticed that there was a strong current out near the island going from left to right. A number of the swimmers mis-judged this current and had to swim against it to get to the first turning mark. I made a note of this for my event.

The turn point inside the cove

The turn point inside the cove

I managed to catch up with lots of friends doing some of the other distances and took advice from them on the conditions. They had told me that swimming along the island with the current was fun, but that the current was pushing you towards the island and away from the second marker. Good to know.

We were marshalled for our event and as we entered the water for the in-water start I took note of the conditions. I planned to swim along the left of the course to wards the island, aiming for the left of the first marker, as it would push  in the right direction. It was good to do an event again when you had to think about some tactics as the straight line route would not be the quickest.

The hooter sounded and off we went in the normal splash of arms and legs. I was up towards the front of the pack and could see the van man and the not so slow one just ahead of me. My tactics were working well, and I went around the first marker on an excellent line and did not have to swim against the current. There were a group of four swimmers just ahead of me, and I swam behind them as we headed for the second marker, getting a big push from the current and wind. I had picked out the marker by using the peaks of the hills behind, and soon noticed that this small pack were not heading for the marker. That decision time, use the drag and swim further, or swim shorter by myself. I chose the latter, and when I turned at the second marker this group were 10 behind me.

Now this third leg was back into the wind and chop, and while it was easy to sight by the hotel behind the starting line, it was not an easy leg. But I was enjoying the challenge, and by the time I hit the third marker at the end of my first lap I was 50m in front of the group. Though I had seen the van man and the not so slow one ahead of me.

Lap two was a repeat of lap one, except the cloud had descended over the hill I had used for sighting. Luckily one of the rescue craft had positioned themselves in line with the marker to assist with navigation as the rain started to fall.

Third lap was the best as I was loving the challenge of swimming in the chop and current, and getting further ahead of the group behind me, though not any closer to those in front either.

I felt nice and strong throughout the race and even started to think that 5km was rather short after my swims of the previous couple of weekends. I crossed the line in a  good time of 1 hour 21 minutes, which was about 15 minutes quicker than the 5km race I had swum in Croatia at the end of June. not all of that was down to the wetsuit I am sure.

Swimmers gather for the briefing before their race

Swimmers gather for the briefing before their race

The event is very well organised and the setting is quite stunning. They have been unlucky with the weather the last two years, and maybe next year we will be able to swim around the back of the island.

It was a great place to have my 90th race, and we had fun sampling some fine food and whisky in one of the pubs in Glencoe on the return trip home. It was worth it just for that stunning drive.