All for the swim

I’ve mentioned on here a couple of times that Scarlett and I have begun wild swimming in the loch. We even took a visiting friend in with us in August.

We had been driving alongside the loch most days and walked around various parts of the shores in our early months here and looked longingly at it – it looked cooler than the inside of our car during heatwaves, it looked beautiful and inviting and exciting. When we started doing the marine identification workshop and surveys and learned more about the plants and animals living in and around the loch it was even more attractive to think we’d be sharing the water with starfish, anenomes, crabs (the small ones at least!) and so many varieties of beautiful seaweeds.

Then I interviewed a local swimming coach to write an article for the paper and that felt like the final prompt we’d needed. We booked a guided swim session with her, initially planning to hire wetsuits from her but the same week found bargain wetsuits on offer when we did our food shopping (one of those supermarkets with middle aisles filled with non food items you didn’t even know you wanted or needed in your life until you spot them there!) so we arrived for our guided swim clad in our own wetsuits. I had not previously left the house without cleavage on display since about 1992 and Scarlett hates anything restrictive so we were tugging on our necklines and wriggling about uncomfortably feeling both exposed and restricted. By the end of that first hour we were converted!

Fast forward a couple of months and we now both own two wetsuits each, have snorkel masks and goggles, gloves and tow floats and towel ponchos. Our downstairs shower is almost always host to at least one dripping wetsuit and I seem to wear waterproof mascara more often than I did in my tearful teenage years! We keep a stock of ‘after swim pear drops’ in the car and my instagram feed is filled with pictures of us looking dry and anticipatory or wet and happy before and after shots of our swims.

We are both able swimmers having had swimming lessons as children – in my case rather more years ago than in Scarlett’s, at the same swimming pool in Sussex, albeit 30 years apart. When Davies and Scarlett were having their lessons I started swimming again in fact. I was not a fan of sitting in the overly heated viewing area and never really clicked with the other swimming lesson mums chatting about schools so I used the time instead to get in the water myself. In 2010 I did two charity swims and raised nearly £500 shared between Marie Curie and Aspire. The first was a 2.5km all in one go swim and the second was the cumulative total of the English Channel over a 12 weeks period.

Since then though with the occasional exception of a couple of isolated swimming pool opportunities and the odd dip in the river on Rum swimming has not been part of our lives. Both of us have flaws in our techniques and I was a committed breast stroke swimmer with a firm aversion to getting my face wet. Wet suit swimming in salty water is not best suited to breast stroke though as the added buoyancy gives you a funny curve to your back if you keep your face out of the water and the words of the swimming coach who did life guard duty and watched me swimming up and down that pool nearly a decade ago have never stopped echoing in my head. She said I had all the stamina and determination of a good swimmer but needed some help with my style and that I would be a good candidate for adult lessons.

So I’ve had a few lessons to try and get my front crawl sorted and while I am still not totally there and may well have a couple more lessons to really crack it my confidence has soared. I’ve done a couple of group lessons too and found the camaraderie and support of fellow learners to be a brilliant motivator. Sufficient enough for Scarlett and I to sign up for two wild swims with the fantastic Highland Open Water Swim charity. We signed up months ago when October 5th seemed like a date so far in the future we needed even think about it yet. We had grand plans for training schedules and proper preparations and every so often I’d get email reminders or look at the website and then close it down again with a nervous fizzing in my tummy. August was so busy and even though we were in the loch several times a week we did a lot more looking in wonder at the world beneath the waves and leisurely floating on our backs gazing at the sky and marvelling of the beauty of being at loch level than we did actual swimming.

Suddenly the date was edging really close and just as we’d started to start thinking about measuring distances and looking at timings I fell ill with a really nasty cold. We managed just two dips in the weeks leading up to the swims and if I’m honest I was feeling very underprepared indeed. I’d met several others who were doing one or both of the swims and we all seemed to share the same anticipatory feelings of ‘it’s going to be amazing!’ and ‘I am utterly terrified!’.

And then it was yesterday – the day of the swims. I was finally better and recovered sufficiently to feel underprepared but well enough to swim. We had all the details printed out, knew where we were parking and what time we had to be there, which ferry we hoped to catch but had a reserve later one just in case we missed it, or it was full. Ady had the evening off work, Davies (who is largely nocturnal) was primed ready to get up many hours before his usual awakening time to come and cheer us on. I woke with butterflies ready to start easing myself into my wetsuit only to hear the distinctive sound of coughing and nose blowing coming from Scarlett’s bedroom. Sure enough she had been awake most of the night struck down with the very germ that I had finally seen off after three weeks suffering. Scarlett was out of the game and I was swimming alone.

Ady, Davies and (well wrapped up, tissue toting, sad faced) Scarlett in tow I arrived ready to go for round one. We headed across as foot passengers on the ferry, joining a crowd of fellow wet suited up people one way across the Corran narrows, which is the closest two points in Loch Linhe, where a ferry crosses every half hour during the day to make the trip from the Ardnamurchan peninsula to just south of Fort William. It’s about 380m but is very tidal so the drift means all but the very strongest swimmers end up covering rather more of a distance as they fight the tide.

There were 90 of us, some in wetsuits, some brave and hardy folk just in skins (swimsuits) and as the ferry left to head to the other side so did we. Accompanied by kayaks and ribs with safety support off we went. The large group soon spread out – the fastest swimmers were going there and back and before I was two thirds across there were already swimmers heading back and crossing me in the opposite direction. I have no record of the time I made other than knowing Ady, Davies and Scarlett were still on the other side when I got out of the water so it was within the half an hour window. By the time I had cheered on some fellow swimmers, posed for some jubilant photos and walked along the shore a bit they were coming in on the next ferry. We crossed back over again to hand in my tag (all swimmers were issued with numbered tags referenced to our personal details and emergency contacts incase of problems) and grab a cup of soup and then headed back for home to have lunch and try and get my swimsuit and wetsuit at least partially dry.

Then a few short hours later it was time to head off again. Leaving by now even more poorly Scarlett behind with Davies to look after her Ady and I drove back (using the ferry this time!) heading towards Glencoe. The second swim of the day was a night time one. Twice the distance of the daytime one although not quite so tidal with the added excitement of night falling while we swam. I gathered with fellow swimmers, this time adorned with glow sticks attached to us for the second safety briefing of the day before getting back into the water. This time it was Loch Leven and a swim around the Ballachulish peninsula, a headland that juts into the loch and is around a kilometre in the water.

The double distance, the falling light, the buffeting of the incoming tide pushing me towards the land and the fact it was my second swim of the day meant this was more challenging. I had completed the first swim with a grin on my face the entire way. This one was longer, closer to an hour in the water (although again I have no absolute record of the time) and allowed me time to go through all sorts of feelings as I swam. I felt alone and small, but mighty and powerful, just me and the tide and the waves. I felt part of something bigger, although I was not interacting with any of the swimmers around me I kept pace with the person infront wearing two glowsticks in the band of their goggles, motivated to swim that bit faster again when they pulled ahead, reassured I could slow up a bit again when I caught them up. I was aware of the kayakers close at hand and as the light faded and the people around me went from clear arms out of the water and faces with goggles turning to the side to breathe to blurry glowsticks and splashes in the darkness I also felt safe and surrounded by others doing this crazy thing.

I knew that this ‘race’ was my own. At any time I could call it over and make for the side and wait for the rib to collect me without anyone judging me but that I wanted to do it and that the feeling of achievement if I swam to the end and walked out of the water would be huge. As the mountains of Glencoe went from clearly defined peaks in the distance to looming shadows, the sky turned from grey to black and the tide grew fiercer creating waves that engulfed me and gave me mouthfuls of salty water I was super aware of my place in the world, at one with nature, yet the lights of the hotel I was aiming for, tail lights of cars driving that iconic road through Glencoe and the intermittent flash of the camera taking photos of people as they emerged from the water up in the distance along with the feel of my wetsuit and my spluttering out of every gulp of loch reminded me with every stroke that I was human and not really designed for being immersed in water.

As the ending lights grew nearer and I started to hear people on the shore my marker buddy ahead and I both sped up. I told myself that it would be less than 100 strokes to the end. Then I told myself it would definitely be less than 100 strokes to the end when I reached 112 and started my counting again. Finally my third ‘last 100 strokes’ proved correct and I could hear Ady calling out to me and it was me causing the flashes as the photographer captured my emerging images.

I’ve done some pretty mad things in my time and had some very memorable experiences. Yesterday definitely makes it high on my list of top memories. I am really sad not to have shared it with Scarlett and I missed her with every stroke as I know how much she wanted to do it and would have enjoyed it. I could hear her voice urging me on and see her face as I have done so many times in the loch over the past few months as we grin at each other and say in unison ‘this is amazing!’ when we spot a starfish, emerge breathless from a big wave or float on our backs in the middle of the loch with mountains all around us.

The best thing of all though is that our wild swimming adventures have only just begun. There are more places to discover, more skills to hone, more challenges to meet.