This year my swim season has been very compact; very few winter events, no swimathon or 2swim4 life. This year 99% of the race distance will be squeezed into just 5 months; May to September. Plenty of long swims, but one event stands out, one that’s over twice as long as any other individual swim.
As I sit writing this first section before that swim, I look back at my preparation over the winter, the last three and a half months of events and wonder will it be enough. I have been swimming training regularly in the lake, the river and the pool but I suppose I am someone who finds that extra motivation from the competitive side, that push to finish, to not slow down. However, I have covered over 250 km in 28 events so hopefully enough to race myself fit to a certain extent. To date these include 12 that fall into my definition of a long event; 10km or longer where the clock doesn’t stop. These were
So, what comes next you may ask… isn’t it obvious, next comes 13!
Maybe I’m not the most superstitious person, it didn’t/ hasn’t bothered me that the one and only time I told someone I loved them was on Friday the 13th despite the difficult outcome, but this 13 makes me nervous, not due to its number but because this 13 is Loch Lomond.
I may have done lots of swims of 10, 12,15k but the office distance is 21.6 and that’s 21.6 miles or 34.8km this could require 11,12,13 or 14 hours of swimming.
So, when did this start; in many ways the first time I discussed Lomond was in 2016 the last time the Lomond swim was held. If I recall correctly I was in Windemere (l’m guessing now this was after the Lomond swim had happened) and chatting to SG, Lomond was mentioned. No plans to do it but maybe the idea stuck.
Fast forward to the end of 2017 and I was looking through the list of 2018 swims for something different. After, success in the 2017 Humdinger (unlike the 2018 one) there was only one longer event on the list, Lomond; the idea gradually became real and planning started. JW the swim organiser was very helpful, laying out what would be needed, but there would be lots to do.
With the swim nearly a year off the task at that stage was simple, to even have a shot at the swim you need 1) a boat and 2) crew.
In some ways the boat wasn’t too hard to find ( a bit expensive though). After some searching a suitable boat was found so by the end of October it was all booked; a whole 10 months to spare.
Crew was trickier, at least two were needed, tricky but SG to the rescue, volunteering to crew and helping to bring in JM. With the boat and crew in place there was nowhere left to hide, official entries went live at midnight on January 2nd; I received confirmation my entry was in at 01:33.
Since then lots of swimming, the Swim Trek channel and long distance training camp, some more planning for travel and feed stops and we are at today, under a week to go. Let’s jump forward and see how it went.
As I’m still here on the other side of the temporal vortex you can deduce one thing, I didn’t drown, or did I?; got to keep up that suspense otherwise I won’t be winning that Pulitzer. Let's assume I didn’t for now, after all not drowning would be a very low bar to judge the success of a swim.
The obvious question is, was my lack of triskaidekaphobia well founded? (When deciding whether or not I had to look that up consider these facts; I can use the title Dr, I got a D in my GCSE English mocks, when I was nine I would have got 100% in a spelling test after spending ages memorising how to spell manoeuvres, but deliberately got one wrong to make it believable).
Leading up to the swim there were always a few hurdles that could trip things up, would my crew arrive ( of course they did), would I get a good night sleep the night before (not too bad), would the taxi taking us from the finish to the start arrive (right on time) and finally would the hire boat be at the start waiting for us, sure. Add to that a reasonably warm run up, 17⁰ earlier in the week according to the Great Scottish swim website and 14.8⁰ was the pronouncement at the start. I had spotted a few waves from the taxi on the way up but nothing that bad and wind usually drops overnight, so basically things were as good as they were going to be. We even had time for tea and chips in the Ardlui Hotel before things started to get serious.
At the briefing we were told the weather would turn around 2am with rain and a head wind but in the end it was mill pool flat all night with the rain delayed until around 5am, but I get head of myself.
Things were good, we were happy, chatting over the plan and marking out the 6 checkpoints along the route. The boat was loaded up and we were almost ready to go. True there was one issue at that point, the expected oars were not present instead only a paddle, but we were assured by the boat guy that there was plenty of fuel in the motor. Not the end of the world, but top crew SG and JM had been putting in extra time on the rowing machine to be ready so maybe it wouldn’t be the adventure they had planned for; this would be something different…
This is the story of three people traveling from Ardlui to Balloch, a tale of pirates disembodied voices and secret channels; my view was from the water, only a third of the full story.
While I made my final preparations, they set off 15 minutes early to take the boat for a spin and that was when everything changed. At speed the boat was fine, but as soon as the engine speed was reduced it would cut out, and with it all steering control would be lost. They knew this on the boat but back on the beach I was oblivious, eating the last of my flap jacks, lubing up and stripping down to my scary budgies.
As the minutes counted down I was ready and a 5min call went out; I wave out to the boat to come back in to pick up my swim bag and shoes, but the engine was refusing to start and they were drifting aimlessly around 50m away. In case you were wondering, this isn’t the sort of thing you want to see before the start of a swim you’ve been building up to for most of a year and it was clear from their faces that this was a stressful time in the boat too.
As the minutes continued to drop I had to abandon my bag and flip flops, to be taken out to the boat after the start and line up ready for the whistle. The motor started just in time, so at least I could have a few seconds where I could think this may still work.
That positivity didn’t last long; after passing a few moored boats it was time to get into the formation required ready for the next 21 miles or so. There was the boat, leading the way, but it wasn’t letting me catch up, it was getting further away. What was happening, it was so unclear from the water, I hadn’t set foot on the boat and was deliberately further away when the boat controls were explained; piloting the boat wasn’t my role. All I knew was the boat wasn’t where it should be, for reasons unknown at that point.
The safety boat approached and told me to follow one of the other swimmer’s boats for a bit which I did hoping my boat would reappear and all would be fine.
Eventually my boat started to reappear in my vision, slowly cruising up my starboard side (remember port=short=left); perfect as I breathe to my right. Level with my feet, inching ahead, into the perfect position, slightly ahead then pulling into the distance. Eventually it stopped swung wildly to the left the paddle was deployed to repoint to nose and it was ready to go again only now 10m to my left. This was made all the trickier by the alpha flag fastened to the bow of the boat (maybe not the best place for it in hindsight). Variants of this pattern were then repeated over the next tens of minutes (keeping any track of time in the water was so hard, all I could use to judge time were the feed stop schedule)
Over those first couple of hours it was impossible to be positive, I was angry, any second it would be all over all that build up wasted. I was so sure the safety crew were just giving us a pity swim; do a few miles while the sun was still up before the inevitable words and I’d be out.
After something like 90minutes a safety rib loomed into sight, usually a pleasant sight but not with my thoughts at that time. But, I was too pessimistic, instead a new plan was hatched, instead of trying to follow the erratic path of my boat I would start doing my own sighting and my boat would gradually pass me then either wait or circle back; the pretence of swimming 2-3m apart was gone, gaps of 10-30m was the best we could do. Not ideal, but immediately a massive improvement, I could take a straighter route and didn’t have to worry about being in such proximity to a slightly erratic boat and that extra distance made the boat easier to control. Stress levels all round were starting to reduce but there was still plenty of swimming ahead.
After two hours we started to pass the hydro power station at Inveruglas; check point 1 had been reached, just in time for feed stop two. Continuing on, the light was rapidly fading so time to start flashing; that is switch on the strobe lights on the back of my goggles and trunks; both green, the recommended swim colour. Not sure why this is, maybe just because green usually means go.
Night proper was now upon us, with the cloudy sky I had expected to struggle to see anything, but it remained surprisingly clear; lighter skies, dark hills and the water somewhere in between, all that was needed to navigate. The one or two lights on the horizon or the passes of the safety boat were now really clear.
Looking round there was a slight disturbance, was it the loch Lomond monster (apparently it looks like a crocodile and eats ducks), no, extra lights on my support boat, it had been boarded; Pirates!!
While bloody thirsty privateers weren’t really what I was worried about, this wasn’t a good sight. By now I had assured myself that we would be allowed to continue through the night, but they had obviously changed their mind; I’d had my pity swim and would now be dragged off and dumped on some remote Scottish road to live out the rest of my life as a wild man in the woods. Once they had my clothes and survival stuff off the boat that would be it. I looked up “keep swimming” came the reply from the safety boat that was alongside while “things” were happening on my support boat.
Carrying on, my boat eventually returned to its usual pattern and the safety boat fell back, still there were three in the boat, maybe they were trying to fix the motor. Eventually the bright white light came on indicating it was time for the next stop, I had decided to switch to 30min stops after the first few hours, and with our boat issues more communication than normal was needed. I was surprised to see that the occupants of the boat had returned to the original two. The extra light, I had thought was a head torch was actually an extra light added by the safety team to improve visibility of the boat (admittedly we had only attached glow sticks on the port side). The engine hadn’t been fixed, but I was happy; after this I was sure we would be allowed to continue, providing I could keep swimming and remain coherent (naughty hypothermia would not be allowed).
As the hours of darkness continued we continued to make progress along the “narrow” upper section of the loch. From the maps this part looks really narrow, so easy to navigate, but in real life the width is noticeable at about 1km. We ended up closer to the east side and passed the next two check points at Tarbut and Inverbeg. Next up would be the town of Luss round a slight headland on the western bank. In my mental plan this represented almost 2/3 of the way home, after that just a quick trip through the islands back to Balloch. When I got there, I could get in my orange safety bag and go to sleep on the beach I told myself (unfortunately this fantasy didn’t come true). I also had an image of Luss in my head as it was the Northern most point of a ferry trip on my prior visit to Loch Lomond for the 2016 great Scottish swim (10k of course). Although I must say it was a bit of a shock when first looking at the maps in detail to realise that the ferry trip had only covered around a third of the overall length.
The approach to Luss seemed to take forever, a straight section with hills to the right waiting for the final turn round the headland into town. After several 30minute stints we eventually rounded the bend and saw lights; that must be it I thought but it wasn’t it was a hotel. Luckily there were some more lights in the next bay a few hundred metres further on; “I can see houses” I shouted to the boat. I’m not sure they were totally convinced but followed on. Reaching the lights, it wasn’t completely convincing as the second biggest town on the lake, a house or two some dark shapes and unknown structures hidden in the darkness. “Do you think this is Luss?” I called out. A voice replied, but not from the boat, a voice from the darkness (yes it was a bit of a shock). It was FZ, one of the timekeepers. I guess he was standing on the darkness that I was assuming was Luss Pier, or maybe I imagined the whole thing, but we asked for directions to the “secret channel” and the safety boat suddenly appeared and lead us in the correct direction.
After a few minutes we were told to go out to the lights in the distance signifying the location of the second safety boat. Strange it was around 45degrees out into the lake, not straight down the western shore at all, maybe we were going the other side of the islands, I could clearly see the channel home on my right hand side and that wasn’t where we were heading.
Eventally (maybe 10 minutes later) we reached the boat and they shone their light on a buoy and instructed us to make a 90 turn into the channel. A bit of a diversion but necessary to avoid shallow water, clearly the trip in so close to Luss wasn’t the quickest route to this buoy, but for me it was a big psychological boost; we were going to make it.
Travelling up that channel past the islands was much further than I expected; who’d have guessed that mental maps aren’t 100% accurate. My arms were still OK at this point, but I was finding it harder to take in the necessary nutrients, so had to add more water to my energy drink to make it easier to process. On we went, maybe a little slower, with a bit more faff at the feed stops but I was still OK temperature wise, so we’d get there, maybe just a bit slower than planned.
Leaving the smaller islands, it was still dark, but the finish was now in site, that bright light on the horizon, or maybe that bright light on the horizon. Either way it was over there.
Passing Inchmurrin island, with checkpoints 5 and 6 at the north and south end respectively, the end was (do you think I can get away with this?) inching closer. The sun was now starting to approach the horizon and the sky was lightening. This made things … much worse.
Instead of a clear target marked by the bright light the shore was now much more nondescript. From the boat the instruction was “look for the row of lights”, unfortunately they weren’t visible at swimmer height. SG moved the boat further forward to guide me in and we continued over the last couple of miles in light drizzle. One last feed and the decision was made, this time it’s to the end. We were now moving up to Balloch inside the last km and were approached by the safety boat, “You see the marquee over there, that’s the finish” and I could see it, no stopping us now.
After the obligatory 100m sprint (if the race official doesn’t think you’re trying hard enough, you will be disqualified), I could see the ground rising up. First a few weeds, then clear view of the sand and gravel on the loch bed. I could hear cries of “Stand up!” from the beach and with water just over knee high I rose to my feet.
Fourteen hours, six minutes and forty seven seconds in the water, seven minutes slower than my official time estimate and maybe an hour or two slower than I had secretly been hoping. But given how it started just being here was all that mattered. Of the 8 starters 6 finished and all of us arrived within 22minutes of the 8am target, anyone would think that was planned somehow.
A big swim, but only possible due to the amazing group of people on and around Loch Lomond that night. My crew, enduring a miserable night manhandling the boat, the safety crews, officials and the race organisers.
Figure 2: End
Yes, I was tired but no major issues, my neck and shoulders were fine, if anything I was feeling it more in my wrists and legs. Of course, the one thing that was messed up was my body clock. It’s just not normal to end up in ASDA at 2am on a Monday.
The boat issues weren’t a great experience (and much worse for the crew), but looking back now it does add a bit to the story of the night (how rose tinted is that, I even signed up to St Marys Loch before leaving my hotel near Glasgow). The only lasting down side was we didn’t really take any pictures during the swim (although I’m not sure how well they’d have come out overnight and the morning was a bit drizzly and miserable)
If you fancy a challenge, Loch Lomond will be back in 2020, maybe it’s always there (at least when it’s not off on its holidays), and you could have a go at swimming it. All you will need are:
• Crew, two or three people willing to share a night of adventure, or misery depending on how things go; people who won’t give up.
• A boat; my advice is, get a better one than I did
• Plenty of swim practice
• A tested feeding plan with spares and contingencies
• Determination to get there
• Maybe a little luck
And of course, that little bit of courage to say, I can do this, I can overcome those fears that may stop me trying no matter what they may be; fear of: deep water, the dark, loch monsters, pirates or maybe even the number 13.
PS No monster sightings in the end, but I don’t remember seeing any ducks either.
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