Situated in the Scottish Inner Hebrides, between the impressive islands of Jura and Scarba, is a narrow strait of water that measures barely 1.25 kilometres at its narrowest point. Known as the “Corryvreckan” its name has struck fear into many a mariner as it is home to the world’s third largest whirlpool.
Currents racing in from the Atlantic combined with sudden changes in depth of the seabed create massive whirlpools and standing waves. As the rising tide is squeezed between the islands it generates currents of up to 8.5 knots (about 10 mph). The resulting waves can reach heights up to 10m and their thunder can be heard over 10 miles away.
Such a wild stretch of water naturally has its share of myths and legends attached. One concerns Breacan, a young Viking prince, who set his heart on marrying the daughter of the local lord of the Isle. The lord challenged the young man to hold his boat steady in the whirlpool for three days but on the third night the gallant prince was drowned.
Fortunately a more recent story had a happier ending. Eric Blair, while staying on Jura in 1947, decided to take a boat trip but got caught up in the Corryvreckan. The powerful waves tossed the boat about and ripped off the outboard motor. Blair, better known as George Orwell, and his companions, including his three-year old son, only just escaped with their lives. If they hadn’t, then one of world’s most famous books, 1984, would never have been written.
In addition Eric Blair/George Orwell has another connection with the Corryvreckan. His brother-in-law, Bill Dunn, became the first known person to swim across the Gulf of Corryvreckan in 1984, which he did to celebrate the year named in Orwell’s book. He achieved this despite only having one leg after losing the other in the war.
Duncan Phips, a pilot who has taken swimmers across, says, “You’ve got to respect the Corryvreckan. I’ve seen boats spinning like a top, literally going round and round, being battered by 30ft waves. It can be one of the worst places in the world to be in a boat, absolutely wild and unnavigable at certain stages.”
Richard Williams, a former international swimmer who has swum the Corryvreckan not only one way, but two and three ways, recounts how he first heard about the Corryvreckan as a keen sailor 30 years ago. Eight years ago he sailed through it when the Corryvreckan was at full flood.
“I was in awe of the place. There were standing waves, metres high all around me,” he says.
He first thought about swimming across it when he watched Robson Green’s Wild Swim programme where Green swims across the Gulf alongside me.
His memories of the place are the sheer rugged coastlines along both sides of the crossing and the visibility of the water to over 10m.
“I spotted porpoises and schools of codling when I was swimming as the visibility of the water was excellent. To be honest, I found the whole experience very humbling,” says Williams.
Yves Watt, who organises swims across the Corryvreckan for SwimTrek says, “It’s all about timing and the time of the tide. You certainly don’t want to swim in the middle of the flood tide, when the water is moving from the Atlantic to the coast through the Gulf and the whirlpool is at its strongest and most ferocious.”
Instead, he says, “wait three hours and you will reach slack water, when there is minimal water movement. As long as the wind isn’t too strong the Corryvreckan will be much more benign and the whirlpool will have disappeared.”
As well as the physical challenge of beating the currents, Watt says the local wildlife adds to the appeal.
“The Gulf and immediate surrounding area is home to eagles, other raptors, red deer, seals, whales, dolphins, porpoise and basking sharks plus much more.”
Although the distance may be less than a mile, the Corryvreckan is a challenging swim where a matter of minutes can make the difference between a successful crossing or being picked up short of your goal. Its waters, steeped in folklore down the centuries, are a great challenge for any open water swimmer.