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Guest blog: Swimming the Gulf of Corryvreckan

Written by Fiona August 20 2012

Nick is a friend through the Glasgow Triathlon Club and also one of the founders of the Southside Six event. He tells us about his recent swim at the crazy Gulf of Corryvreckan.

He writes: Last year, my friend Mark and I decided to swim Scotland’s infamous Gulf of Corryvreckan. This mythical stretch of water between Jura and Scarba boasts the world’s third largest whirlpool and, in our minds, it was just begging to be crossed! Unfortunately a gale force westerly conspired against us, driving a mountainous swell through the channel.

Nick and Alex PIc credit: Nick Vaughan

Nick and Alex PIc credit: Nick Vaughan

The organisers, SwimTrek, promised the trip would be on again this year and as soon as it was announced we signed up. We managed to convince some other crazies to join us, too.

The day arrived, I picked up Lexy and we collected Mark from his deli in Giffnock (Mark’s Deli). Leaving an overcast Glasgow, we headed towards Argyll, stopping for a tasty lunch at the famous Loch Fyne Oyster Bar and arrived in Craobh Haven just after 5pm.

The SwimTrek crew had the tents erected and the kettle on. We caught up with our friends Alastair and Nick, who were both to swim, and Duggie, who was providing safety cover with his RIB.

The sun was shining as we all introduced ourselves over a cuppa: Two lads from Yorkshire, a woman from Liverpool and a woman from Gloucester were our companions and everyone seemed thrilled to be there.

The three SwimTrek leaders, Dewie, Chris and Yves, went through a brief talk about safety, cold water and hand signals and then we donned our wetsuits ready for an assessment swim.

With Yves and Dewie already in the chilly water we had to swim in a loop around a couple of buoys and then back to the pier. This allowed the guides to assess our abilities and put us into corresponding groups. Climbing out of the water, we were treated to the sight of two grey seals playing in the bay.

Swimming the Corryvreckan Pic credit: Nick Vaughan

Swimming the Corryvreckan Pic credit: Nick Vaughan

After a hearty supper at the Lord of the Isles in Craobh Haven we settled down for the night. I awoke at 3am to the sound of a strengthening wind blowing the tent and had a fitful sleep dreaming about cancelled expeditions.

I was up and out of the tent at 6am, relieved to see flat calm water in the bay, not a breath of wind through the trees and the sun rising brightly in the sky. Oh, and the SwimTrek team cooking up a feast of bacon, sausages and porridge. Perfect!

Preparing to swim  Pic credit: Nick Vaughan

Preparing to swim Pic credit: Nick Vaughan

We were soon on board the good ship Farsain skippered by Duncan from Farsain Cruises and heading out of the marina towards Jura. The trip took around 40 minutes and the water looked calm and peaceful at high tide. It was time to swim!

The first group jumped overboard and set off swimming. They were about 100m into the 1500m crossing when the captain shouted “Shark, shark!” and pointed at a large black fin slowly making its way through the gap between us and them.

This basking shark was over five metres long and while harmless to humans, it  gave us all quite a thrill. It was amazing to see such a large sea creature up close.

Stunning Argyll scenery Pic credit: Nick Vaughan

Stunning Argyll scenery Pic credit: Nick Vaughan

The second group jumped in and set off with Duggie guiding them in his RIB. Mark was their strongest swimmer and could be seen leading them across the channel, stopping occasionally to let everyone regroup.

It was finally our turn. Alastair, Lexy and myself jumped in together, caught our breath from the shock of the cold water and started making our way northwards. The once-smooth water gradually began to churn as tidal flows started moving and the forecast winds began to grow.

Opposing waves began to collide creating walls of water which, although not high, made taking breaths trickier than usual. Jellyfish could be seen a few feet down in the crystal clear blue-green water, their long stinging tentacles just out of reach.

As we made our way towards Scarba, the swirling currents spread the three groups out over the width of the channel, but with a safety boat per group we were in safe hands.

Lexy, our strongest swimmer resorted to backstroke to let Alastair and myself catch up. Both of us stopped at times to catch our breath in the rough water. We all regrouped once in a while to gaze at the surroundings, revelling in the scenery and feelings of (mis)adventure.

Pic credit: Nick Vaughan

Pic credit: Nick Vaughan

Slowly but surely we made our way across the gulf under the watchful eye of Captain Duncan and his crew on board the Farsain. The further across we got, the stronger the currents became and the choppier the sea. I was having the time of my life swimming over the swell and although I was constantly getting pushed off course, I loved the feeling of powering through the waves and fighting the force of the ocean.

After about 35 minutes of strong swimming we drew towards the coast of Scarba, the seabed began to appear and rose steeply towards the shore. We quickly made landfall and retreated to deeper water before the waves could push us on to the rocks. Elated, we climbed aboard the Farsain and waited for the other groups to arrive. The wind was much stronger now and Captain Duncan was constantly manoeuvring the boat away from the shore.

Once everyone was on board there was much high-fiving and cheering and congratulations but with the rising storm the captain was eager to get back. We left the Corryvreckan as the waters prepared for their twice-daily maelstrom.

The journey back was over roughening seas as the winds grew. At sea, it always amazes me how quickly conditions can change. We had been lucky, the window of opportunity had remained open just long enough. We were told, in no uncertain terms, that had conditions been like this earlier we would not have left port.

Later on that day, Duggie was kind enough to take us out on his RIB to see some of the tidal flows in full force. Whilst we kept well clear of the Gulf of Corryvreckan it was impressive to see the force of nature in action.

I will almost certainly return to this amazing part of Scotland. Perhaps under sail or with a sea kayak, perhaps on a longer SwimTrek adventure or perhaps just to swim across that enchanted gulf again.


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