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. So, where did Kate swim today?
Where did Kate swim today?
I’ve done it! I can now say I have swum a channel. Obviously not THE Channel but nonetheless there is something quite different about launching yourself into an expanse of water when the only exit point is the other side of that channel, with no shoreline to follow for security. I have said to myself many times, standing on a beach looking out to the horizon with no land in sight, that it takes a brave soul to step in and take those first strokes. This was different as I could see land all the time but I still had to think about the fact I was swimming across a busy shipping route, from one piece of land to another.
As an organised swim I was safe knowing the timing had been carefully considered including the tidal aspect of the swim. We were advised to aim for a little white house about 2.5k away and I am chuffed to say I did that really well. My watch shows I managed a pretty straight line which is always good for the confidence (I will only share which watch if they pay me to so Garmin if you are reading this…).
The relatively small group of us swimmers, about 40 or so, first had to get a ferry across to the island before swimming back to the mainland. Having seen a lion’s mane jellyfish from the boat and on pointing it out to my friend (the same one who left – see my blog ‘Last swim with a friend’ 31 October 2018) she decided that it must have been a piece of plastic! What a good friend. Interestingly that fear was not with me as I threw myself off the appropriately named slipway into what, unlike some of the other swimmers, I thought was a really manageable water temperature, which I have to say made me feel a little smug. However, my granny used to say pride comes before a fall…
I was lucky enough to experience being able to gauge the depth via a strata of moon jellyfish through the clear and deep water. I did find myself post-swim suggesting it was even a bloom of jellyfish but I may well have been exaggerating to promote my hardiness. Still, if not quite a bloom there were certainly many of the almost translucent white moon shaped creatures, each with a square of four purple circles evenly visible on their domes, spread out across the channel. I was not disconcerted at all as I marvelled at them suspended, floating, as if in space. No reaction, no apparent feeling, just there. I have heard many swimmers describe the beauty of jellyfish, alien like creatures, but I have never felt it before. I was also treated to my first sighting of a barrel jellyfish. It was great to be able to see something I’ve never come across before.
As I swam I felt like a piece of flotsam bobbing about on top of the water, always at the mercy of the powerful surge beneath me. When I neared the rocks of the coastline I realised that the current I had thought would carry me to the exit point had in fact not done so. I now needed to go directly to my right, swimming parallel to the shore. I was tired now and starting to feel cold (yup, cold, see above about pride) both which annoyed me. I’d trained at this distance with no qualms at all so it was frustrating. Still, when asked if I wanted to join others getting out into one of the safety boats to avoid having to climb on the craggy rocks, I clearly said no. I was swimming to the end no matter what. The swimmers who chose to get out here had finished the swim, they had reached the end, but I was determined to climb out at the planned exit point. It was here I picked up one of the kayakers to guide me round the curve of the rocks and onto the beach. I am eminently grateful for his support. He encouraged me just by being there and gave me a taste of what it might be like to do a solo swim. Food for thought. After what felt like an age of tired and probably sloppy strokes I finally staggered out over the stony beach. I’ve heard when people triumph arriving in France, the beach on which they exit the water is similarly tricky. After 3k it was bad enough so I have no idea how those legends manage steps over rocks and stones after 21 or so miles.
I soon realised at that point it would have been a good idea to have left my Outdoor Swimmer flip-flops ready to step into to make that short and not steep climb up to the rendezvous point but no, I had not. Ouch…but yay, I have swum a channel! My first swim with the Highland Open Water Swim group was a fantastic experience that I highly recommend.
I want to swim there too
I am pleased to say I completed the Sound of Mull swim organised by the Highland Open Water Swim group (HOWS). Although I am about to describe how to get to the start of the swim this is definitely not something you should do without any organisation, on your own or without any local knowledge. It is a busy vessel route and with difficult currents that could not be safely navigated without support. BUT you should definitely do it.
The start is on the Isle of Mull and you swim back to the mainland. This swim has a cut off time of 1k in 30 minutes or less which was easily doable. This is to manage the tides and vessel traffic. The only way to get to the start is to drive to Lochaline via the A884 if you’re coming from the south. From the north you would come on the A830 down to the Corran ferry. From the south you would come on either the A82 from Glasgow or, from the east, the A84 or A85. The latter joins the A82 at Crianlarich. When you get to Corran you take the ferry across to then take the A861 south, turn left onto the B8043 and then left onto the A884 all the way to Lochaline. From Edinburgh it takes about 4 hours so requires some commitment but it is a beautiful drive that takes you via Loch Lubnaig and Glen Coe.
If you go to www.highlandopenwaterswim.com you can sign up for one of the excellent swim challenges they organise so well. There were excellent safety measures in place including a brief prior to the start. HOWS offer events that range from shorter to more challenging ones and are financially very accessible to most swimmers at the cost of a donation to the charity chosen for the year. This year the money they raise is going to The Brain Tumour Charity. HOWS are run by volunteers and they do a cracking job. I would like to thank them for a really positive experience. A friendly group of people working for a great cause. I highly recommend one of their swims.
Read about Kate's other swims
Tell me where to swim next!
If you have any suggestions of places I could swim email me on firstname.lastname@example.org or find me on Instagram @kategillwood4