Diary of a Wandering swimmer – yellow tangs from a lava field

Kate Surfing With Her Sister

Kate Gillwood was born in Galashiels, Scotland, raised from three years old in Yorkshire, found herself in London for 30 years and eventually escaped back to Scotland. She was raised to swim in rivers (the Wharfe at Appletreewick, for example), open air pools (Otley) and the sea, so open water swimming is not new. She started taking part in organised events about 10 years ago, putting on a wetsuit for the first time for the Great Scottish Swim in 2011. Now living just a few minutes from Portobello beach, one of her favourite things is to start the day with a sneaky swim in her local waters. She also likes to explore new swimming spots and share what she finds. However, with the current lockdown restricting her physical movements, she's resurfacing memories of earlier swims, such as this one here.


The swim(s)

I am holding my breath and not in the way you do when you dive down into the blue. No, like all of us, I am waiting for travel restrictions to ease and the time when I can venture again to waters new. In the meantime, I continue to look backwards and reflect on the privilege of past watery experiences. This one is special.

It was 1992, or was it ’91? I am not entirely sure and given it was pre-internet I can’t check as easily. Anyway, I spent three whole months on this paradise island, far from home and entirely different to anything I had experienced before. There were so many swimming opportunities on this one small lump of lava-strewn land that I was spoilt for choice. From wide golden beaches with towering surf that tossed me around, washing-machine style, to the turquoise waterfalls inland. The rainforest-type inland waters offered respite from the mosquito-laden air, damp with the heat. I marvelled at the bright colours of the sea life I had only previously ever seen in pictures that came alive in front of my eyes. I played in the water with yellow tangs, moorish idols and blue jacks. The clear Pacific Ocean offered me a window to a world I had only ever dreamed of. It was of course tinged with a respectful fear of what might lurk off the shelf or under the rolling surf fed by tales of people ‘taken’ by great whites.

Baldwins Beach

Baldwin's beach above and top picture, Kate surfing with her sister

We trekked across lava fields to a small, relatively shallow bay and dipped in a natural salt-water fish tank teeming with life. Wearing a laminated card to learn by putting colours to names was, I found out, merely an attraction for many fish. Apparently, they like shiny things and shocked me as they darted around me in numbers. My sister and I enjoyed a return to a playful childhood surfing the smaller waves together and snorkelling side by side, only to be faced with a teeth-baring moray eel. I may have invented a new backstroke that involved some squealing into my mask. It was one of the most fun times I had ever had. To spend such precious time with my sister and my mum was like gold dust in my hands.

Kate Snorkling With Her Sister

Snorkelling magic

Of course, we had to be respectful of this nature-dominated world with harsh, powerful sun beating down on our backs. We trod carefully into the dormant volcano crater and through the Iao Valley, where I discovered a couple clearing the non-indigenous and invasive guava bushes trying to preserve the island’s natural flora and fauna. I tasted fruits, some I had barely heard of let alone seen, all growing wild on bushes and trees ready to pick at will. Star fruit, carob and passion fruit among them.

It was a dream-like place to be and to swim in waters so clear and alive was simply incredible. Never to be repeated and never to be forgotten.


The location

I was on the Hawaiin island of Maui, where my sister lived at the time. It was incredible if not a little dangerous but that was part of the fun. It is a small island but packed full of things to experience from the volcano crater of Haleakala, home to the Silversword found nowhere else on Earth, the cooler forests of the higher ground with Red Cardinals sitting in the trees and of course the ocean teeming with life. I highly recommend it but fully appreciate that it is out of reach for many. It is a very expensive place to visit and stay and that was a long time ago. To get there I had to fly from London via San Fransisco to the main island Oahu where I was able to visit Honolulu beach. Then a final flight to Maui to be presented with the traditional lei. I am so lucky I was able to see that. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity.


Contact me

If you have any suggestions of places I could swim email me on k.gillwood4@gmail.com or find me on Instagram @kategillwood4

Please also take a look at my new website: www.swimfreedom.co.uk


Read more about my swims

01 Cover July 21

Issue 51 July 2021

  • Linford Christie on his new interest in outdoor swimming and the secrets behind his success
  • The Icebreakers, a group using cold water swimming to support men's mental health
  • Triple-amputee and former Royal Marine Mark Ormrod on completing a 1km sea swim and inspiring others
  • James Pittar, the first blind swimmer to complete the Triple Crown of Open Water Swimming
  • The frontline workers finding solace in outdoor swimming France’s hidden wild swim spots
  • The revolution in women’s swimwear

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