He counted us all out and he counted us all back again. Over 50 of us, all shapes, all sizes and plenty of ages, some raring to go, others striving to quell rising anxiety, herded on to the 15.15 CalMac ferry from Lochaline across the Sound of Mull.
Half an hour later, as we watched the ferry return to the mainland, Jeff began counting. Each swimmer had a small numbered disc and unless all were hanging back on his wooden board outside the pub in Lochaline within a couple of hours then Jeff would be on the phone to the Coastguard.
Ahead lay a crossing of 2.5-3km (depending on how straight you swim and few swim straight in open water) with the tide on the term and yachts, fishing boats and larger vessels making their way north to the Outer Hebrides or south to Oban. Jeff, as main man behind the Highland Open Water Swim, had to be sure we all got across.
I wasn’t sure if I would make it. Not to the extent that Jeff would be calling out the Coastguard, more that I would have to raise my hand halfway across and call over one of the rescue boats. Would it be too much for me to manage physically or, more likely, mentally (I’ve a very rational fear of jellyfish and there were flotillas waiting out there)?
I’m a late comer to open-water swimming and have all the zeal of a convert with time to make up. It wasn’t until we moved back to Scotland five years ago that I first tiptoed out of the safety of the local pool. It wasn’t love at first dip because that first go was terrifying. For a while I thought it would be my only go. It was in Loch Lomond, off the beach at Luss, a windy day, the water choppy and dark, so dark you could not see beyond the reach of your arm. And cold, so cold it hurt your face to put it in the water, quickened your breath to make finding any sort of steady stroke seem impossible.
But Karen and I stuck with it. The next time was better, the time after that better still. We entered events, enjoyed them, kept coming back. In every swim the first 10 minutes are the low point. I typically spend them swearing at myself and promising I will never ever do this again. The worst was our first Pier to Pub, an annual 1.6 mile swim in Loch Lomond out to the island of Inchmurrin. It was windy and wave after wave broke over me. It was exhausting, difficult to take a decent breath. Halfway across I stopped to tread water and swear some more. The water was as black as my mood. I looked around; mountains rising away to the north, folding into each other, peaks trying to outdo their neighbours, the other way Conic Hill’s curious humped shape rose from the loch, all around the wooded shores and islands. This was breathtaking. I was hooked.
Not hooked to the extent of the true adventurers – looking around the Sound of Mull swimmers suggested here was a hardcore – but hooked in my own way. I’ve not done anything like the distance or achieved the crossings compared to many of the inspiring people I’ve met or read about, but that is the wonderful thing about outdoor swimmers – this is not a competitive world. First out or last in everyone is applauded home and slapped on the back. It’s about doing it for yourself and it will make you feel better about yourself.
My friend James, training to swim the 11 miles of Lake Windermere, took me in Loch Lomond in April. It was so cold I couldn’t speak when we got out. But I felt amazing, exhilarated and you see it in the faces of your fellow swimmers. You float through the following few days, the world’s your oyster because you’re pretty damn sure you could dive down and pluck it off the ocean bed.
That’s the loch though. The sea? I have an irrationality when it comes to the sea, probably a rational irrationality as I’m sure I’m not alone in looking at a stretch of sea and thinking Jaws. On holiday all it takes is a tickle of seaweed on my leg and I’m out quicker than you can say “It’s a carcharodon carcharias. It’s a Great White.”
But this is what open-water swimming is in part about for me – that initial 10 minutes is about conquering fears. It’s doing something I never thought I would be able to do, proving something to myself and for myself.
The sport – or is it a past-time? – has surged in popularity in recent years, mirrored in recent books and films. To pluck three that have caught my eye there’s Jenny Landreth’s Swell about the history of women in swimming; Swim Wild by Jack Hudson, one of the Wild Swimming brothers; and Wild Swimming Woman by the late Lynne Roper. The BBC recently showed the wonderful Hampstead Ponds film, which floats you away to a magical place in the middle of the capital for a happy hour (there’s also a lovely film on the Guardian’s website with Lynne Roper). When you do it, it’s easy to know why participation is growing. Water is a place to lose yourself, to let your troubles float away – your mind fills with the swim and only the swim. And when you get out, cold but invigorated, you are ready to conquer the world, or at least your little bit of it.
“It’s a spiritual experience, sliding through wild water,” wrote Lynne Roper. “Worries dissolve, my mind is liberated; thoughts flow and glide and play like dolphins. My soul swims wild.”
Mull is a special place to me and I knew as soon as I found out the Highland Water Swim ran an event from the island I would do it – whether I liked it or not. This is no-nonsense swimming, no t-shirts or medals or timing chips. Instead there is camaraderie and a well-earned cup of hot soup at the end.
James was making his sea debut too and as we drove into Lochaline a bolt of lightning cracked into the sea between us and Mull. The mini-storm passed swiftly but I could have sworn it had widened the Sound. The far shore looked a long way away.
I look nervous in photos taken pre-swim (and shattered in the ones afterwards). Pre-swim anxiety wasn’t mine alone. Mary hadn’t made it across last year but was back to try again. Morag, who has swum the entire length of Loch Lomond, the equivalent distance to the Channel, was worried about her lack of preparation.
Morag was one of a dozen wearing just swimsuits. Just swimsuits! I went gloves and swim socks – not for warmth, for keeping off the jellyfish. “Wetsuits are for boys,” laughed one woman in a swimsuit.
“What about the orcas?” someone asked as Jeff finished his pre-swim briefing. The previous Saturday a pod of killer whales had swum up the Sound. “Well, you’ll swimmer quicker then,” replied Jeff. “Now in the water.”
We had half-an-hour to complete the first km. Take longer and you’re pulled from the water before the tide pulls you somewhere else. It meant I started quickly, no time to think about jellyfish or Mull’s unique man-eating seaweed. I wanted to get across. I really wanted to get across.
I did. Take that jellyfish. It was tough, the toughest swim I’ve done by a distance. At one point I seemed to be stuck in the same spot, stroke after stroke, pulling hard into the water and when I looked up the jetty I was aiming for appeared no closer. Waves broke over my face as I breathed, I swallowed mouthfuls of salty water. I swore at the waves, I imagined the Botanist G&T I’d have when I got home – the first one down in a couple of mouthfuls, the second to savour – and the pier came closer, and then the beach. I did it.
It took me an hour to do 2.9km (I didn’t go straight). It’s not quick, it’s not a long way but that’s not the point. The point of open-water swimming is to do it, however you do it. It’s about getting in the water, wild water, feeling it surround you, feeling, for a short while, part of it.
When I clambered on to the beach at Lochaline – there is no dignity in getting out after a swim – I told myself that was it with me and the sea. Once was enough. James said the same… well, hang on, maybe one more – how about the Corryvreckan, the straights between Jura and Scarba that swirl into a vast whirlpool. It nearly did for George Orwell when he tried to cross it in a boat while living on Jura and writing 1984. But when the tide is right you can swim it. Imagine how great that would be. Fancy it?
The Guardian – Wild Swimming for Beginners