Our first autumn storm arrived today! Things kicked off early with a “pre-storm swim storm swim” by Lottie and Iona. While having our pre-storm swim cuppa we were able to watch a speedboat break its mooring and head for the beach, where it was intercepted by my intrepid cousin Hans, fully dry-suited, who bravely held the boat’s bow to the wind, while the local farmer whizzed down to the beach on his tractor and the boat was dragged to safety. Whew! The next dramatic event unfolded before our eyes, as, still gobbling coffee and tea, we watched the unbelievably intrepid Captain Duggie stride down the jetty, fully doubly wet-suited, and plunge into the foaming waves. He swam out to his yacht Wild Rose, climbed Tarzan-like up onto the deck and set off into the maelstrom with a handkerchief sized sail up. As he disappeared from sight we shot down to the jetty and, wearing our “bouncy suits” as Lottie comically describes them, jumped shrieking into the breaking waves. Whooping and laughing we played in the waves and surfed ashore, high as kites and feeling as if we’d drunk several glasses of bubbly. There followed a short pause in which we consumed several thousand calories, before it was time for the “actual storm swim” for which we were joined by three keen but possibly slightly nervous chaps. By this time Duggie had sailed his boat 16 miles, swum ashore at Tayvallich and jogged 2 miles home in his wetsuit! He was dispatched to the shower while we headed once again (fully wet-suited this time) into the waves. Despite a tentative start, the lads quickly gained confidence and soon we were having the time of our lives plunging and surfing, yelling and screaming, as the huge waves thundered down on us. Everyone bounced up like corks, with huge beaming smiles – happy lucky swimmers!
Once again a super-exciting swim was suggested by Duggie, who took the Tuesday swimmers out in his beautiful sailing boat into the middle of the Sound of Jura, to race the flood tide round Ruadh Sgeir. This is a dangerous reef with a lighthouse upon it, within sight of Barnhill, the house on Jura made famous by George Orwell, who wrote 1984 while living there.
The expedition was carefully planned by Duggie; the swimmers would head from the boat to the rock and gather there, before swimming close to the shore, rounding the south end where a huge eddy sweeps towards Jura, and shooting with the tide up the west side, scrambling round the north end and battling the current back up to the starting point. Lorna and Rob volunteered to row the safety boat, while I (being a rather feeble swimmer) decided to be the photographer.
The current was tremendous and at first even the strong swimmers really struggled to make headway; often the only way to get round was by grabbing onto rocks and pulling themselves along. After rounding the south end the swimmers had the tide with them and shot along like corks out of a bottle, and in the last stretch, against the tide, the safety boat had to be pushed through a narrow channel (by Duggie of course!).
This swim was a tiny bit scary for some, as the prospect of being swept into the jaws of the notoriously terrifying Gulf of Corryvreckan was indeed a faint possibility! Everyone managed to get round and all agreed it was the highlight of our swimming season. Many thanks to Duggie for planning the trip and taking us all out there.
We’re enjoying a beautiful and never-ending Indian summer on the West Coast of Scotland – now in our third week of sunshine and calm weather. People are swimming, kayaking, bramble picking, cycling, sailing, walking, gardening and picnicking day after day. Today we gathered to swim over the narrow Loch Scotnish to a favourite sandy bay called Starfish Bay, some of us stopping en route to dive and jump from high steep rocks into the clear, jellyfish-free water and returning to the starting point for a slap-up picnic, during and after which we digested the results of Scotland’s Referendum – much to discuss and reflect on …..
Last month we were thrilled to welcome to Argyll some plucky cold water swimmers from over the border. Lynne, Stef and Queenie came up to swim the Gulf of Corryvreckan (and did so very successfully) then swam in various locations round about, finally bumping into our small group in Tayvallich. We did a wonderfully atmospheric swim in a secret fresh water loch, where Lynne’s dog Honey was the star of the show, powering through the water very bravely. This loch is reached by skirting a small lochan then climbing uphill through mixed oak forest, and tumbling down through blaeberry bushes to the water’s edge, and striking out through water lilies into the dark water, all the while keeping a look-out for wild beavers. In the evening Lottie and Duggie welcomed all to their cosy house to look at the view over to Jura, chat and eat delicious shared food, warmed by the roaring wood burning stove. Lots of “swim talk” took place and many other topics were eagerly discussed. On Sunday morning the girls found themselves in an enchanted wood, where they entered the Polar Bear’s “Wagonworld” – a mystical experience in a forest setting, encompassing canal swimming, gorgeously warm cast iron hot tub, artistic flourishes and displays and, of course, cake! – accompanied by tea made in a samovar (a decorative early version of the Kelly Kettle, purchased in a charity shop and much envied and coveted by all of us). A great visit and a great pleasure to meet Lynne, Stef, Queenie and Honey.
A few weeks ago the Swift Swimmer had the opportunity to swim once again in the loch where, 66 years ago, she earned the sobriquet ‘The Swift Swimmer’. Loch Scavaig, ringed around by the Cuillins of Skye, is as dramatic in all its savage beauty as it was on that long ago summer morning when she swam from our yacht Silver Strand, under the beady eye of the Elgol ferryman, astounding him with the speed of her progress. His comment, in his soft West Highland accent, was so charming that she had not the heart to shatter his illusions by revealing the reason for her swift swimming – she was wearing flippers (rare in those days)!
This return visit was made in the Glen Tarsan, in which, for a not inconsiderable sum, the Captain and crew provide a week of undiluted luxury amid Scotland’s matchless scenery.
This lovely book, a gift from fellow swimmer Lottie, is reviewed by enthusiastic swimmer Fraser MacIver AKA The Polar Bear:
‘SWIMMING IS AN ART’
‘Everyone ought to know how to swim. We are a nation of sailors, are proud of everything that appertains to the seas that wash our shores, and yet swimming is an art, even today, which is strangely neglected.’
Readers may be astounded to learn that Montague A Holbein wrote these words one hundred years ago in his practical ‘How To’ guidebook: ‘SWIMMING’, from Bloomsbury Press.
The short book is a delightful window onto the vanished ‘can do’ world of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, with its growing passion for outdoor ‘physical culture’.
One hundred years later it’s a gem-like addition to the libraries of anyone interested in the current resurgence of ‘wild swimming’ … (a somewhat ‘louche’ term now used to describe any form of swimming not done in a chlorinated heated pool as opposed to ‘open water’, lakes, rivers, canals, reservoirs and the sea. Holbein makes no great distinction, probably because, from time immemorial, most ‘swimming’ was done in the outdoors, and only latterly in public indoor swimming facilities (excluding of course the famous indoor baths of the ancient Roman Empire).
Holbein takes the novice swimmer through concise step by step guidance on: ‘making a start’, ‘floating’, ‘treading water’, ‘swimming like a dog’, among many other (twenty-one) chapters in total. Informative, and sometimes inadvertently humorous; his chapter on ‘Long distance swimmers and their feats’ attests to Holbein’s public renown at the time as a long distance Channel swimmer in his own right and in training for it himself.
His frank inclusion of two failed attempts in August 1902 to break the 1875 record (then held by Captain Webb) are published here in the form of two separate eye-witness accounts from the Daily Express and The Sportsman respectively from August 1902.
On both of these occasions the tides defeated him and on his second attempt he remained in the water for nearly 22 and a half hours, but had to be pulled from the sea within 2 miles of the Dover shore, ‘suffering intense agony’ with the huge effort required in adverse tidal conditions, despite not achieving his goal (no small feat in an age of no wetsuits, against cold, and wearing primitive goggles made of mica ‘affixed with collodion to his face’).
The book is illustrated with charming drawings of the time, showing basic swimming postures and movements; these are accompanied by Holbein’s idiosyncratic prose style, which often gives pause for a chuckle… – as in ‘even when one has become a good swimmer, floating is always a useful, enjoyable and graceful pastime’. Or upon… ‘entering the water, turn your face to the shore, grip your rope tightly, and suddenly bob down, immersing yourself completely. Don’t shirk it – go right under.’
In Chapter Six we learn that what we might today refer to as a variation on ‘front crawl’ is quaintly referred to as the ‘over hand stroke’. Holbein warns that, ‘on no account seek to acquire it before you have a thorough knowledge of the side stroke’ and that … novices ‘if they do attempt it, suffer the penalty of loss of speed and a slovenly style.’
In Chapter Nine: ‘Underwater swimming’, we are informed that ‘in underwater swimming, in whatever direction the head is pointing the body will follow.’ …. ‘and, do not forget, too, before starting, to empty and thoroughly refill the lungs.’
In his Chapter on ‘Training’ Holbein tells us that he trains three times a week, swimming for a total of 13 hours altogether. He informs us that, ‘Constitution is Everything’, and warns us to… ‘smoke very little, if at all’, and to ‘give up the use of alcohol gradually’…. ! ‘Be out of bed at 6am – a cold tub with a big sponge and lots of water, followed by a severe rubbing with a rough Turkish towel ought to be the first item of every swimmer’s daily programme.’ Along with numerous other tips of sound avuncular advice, he says ‘keep your hair cut short, or colds may be caught’, and, ‘if your practice is being taken in a bath, swim! Do not play about.’
As the book progresses, the more entertaining it becomes.
In “Water Tricks’, Chapter Fourteen, the reader is instructed on how to successfully perform certain feats of skill in and under water:
‘The Spinning Top‘, ‘The Fugitive‘ and ‘The Pendulum‘ among other tricks, are all described in graphic detail. Likewise, ‘Smoking Underwater‘, wherein we are instructed to ‘smoke a cigar until it is well alight, then take up your stand on the diving board. Inflate the lungs, and just on the instant of diving, rapidly thrust the light end into the mouth’!! Though surely he knows we may by this time be gasping for air, he says to ‘use the breast stroke beneath the water, and whilst doing so blow gently at the cigar, care being taken on no account to draw inwards. This action causes the smoke to issue from the other end of the cigar and to ascend to the surface of the water in curls. The smoke can be distinctly seen by the spectators, and “how it is done” excites much speculation.’
In the Chapter on ‘Sea Swimming’ Holbein confidently asserts that, … ‘even in fairly calm weather, the force of the breeze at the seaside is often sufficient to lift a man off his feet and throw him down at full length into the water.’ But, that … ‘to those who are conversant with entering the water properly, there is no danger in swimming even in very rough weather.’
‘The best time for sea swimming is undoubtedly in August’, he says … ‘Nobody should swim in the sea before June or after October, for the night frosts are about and are dangerous to the health of a naked person’ though, ‘there are many men, of course, in residence around our coasts who indulge in a daily swim all the year round.’
The book nears its close with a listing of ‘Long Distance Swimmers and their Feats’. Byron, Captain Webb, J B Johnson, Agnes Beckwith and Emily Parker are all noted, among others. One, Dr Bedale of Manchester, in ‘Doctor Bedale’s Enjoyment’ is recorded as having ‘once swum from Liverpool to Runcorn in 1837… and on another occasion from Bangor to Beaumaris, and up the Menai Straits. The doctor was frequently seen floating in the River Mersey, having attached to his body a light mast and sail secured in a belt, by means of which he enjoyed himself for hours’. (!)
This early intrepid willingness to brave adverse conditions is everywhere evident in Holbein’s book. One hundred years on, in an age of stringent ‘health and safety’ regulations and mass desensitization from much of the natural world on numerous levels, this modest offering from a little remembered risk-taker and open water athlete is an inspirational and entertaining read for anyone who knows or feels the magical primal allure of swimming; for freedom, health, physical recreation and the exhilaration of the soul.
One of our swimmers just “escaped from Alcatraz” – here’s the story…. by John Anderson (thanks a lot John, a bit more exciting than our usual swims!)
ESCAPE FROM ALCATRAZ, 2014
What an ‘AWESOME’ event! I think that must be one of Americas favorite words but I can’t think of a better one for now! The short version is that I loved the swim and survived the cycle and run. If you want the long version then keep reading:-
The day started with a 3am alarm, quick breakfast and a 20 min walk to the bus stop. The MUNI bus was on time at 4.17 and all the buses have bike racks on the front. 30 mins later the bus driver told us to “have an awesome day” and we headed to the transition area to rack my bike. As I hadn’t road tested my bike I jumped on it just to check the brakes/gears. At this time in the morning my brain couldn’t quite grasp why the bars went one way and the front wheel went the other!! I’d forgotten to tighten the bars!! ‘IDIOT’ said Rosie laughing. With the bike racked and everything tight it was time to get on the bus to the boat.
2000 of us squeezed on to a triple decked ferry boat and headed out to ALCATRAZ as the dawn broke. I’ve never felt such a buzz at the start of a race. The Elites and under 40’s were on the lower deck and us oldies up stairs. Once the boat is in position they play the national anthem and the boat tips over as everyone goes to the port side to watch the pros start. Then it all happens fast as everyone else walks to the doors from the warm, carpeted lounges crossing the timing mats and jumps in to San Francisco Bay. AWESOME. The water is not too cold (14C) but it is a bit rough. I swim for about 100M and then just to check reality roll on to my back and look up at Alcatraz Island and the ferry boat. A sight I’ll never forget!
The swim- It was pretty rough so I settled into a pace that would allow me to breathe every 2nd, 3rd or 4th stroke depending on the waves and tried not to bump into anyone. Sighting was tricky as you had to pick out different features as the current took you along the coast but I must have been about right as I didn’t see any of the safety craft. It felt pretty good getting out at ‘Crissy Field’ to lots of “Awesome man” cheers after 41 mins. I guess at this point I should mention that I was suffering from a stinking cold that struck me on the Friday. I had promised myself that I would do the Swim and drop out if I didn’t feel up to completing but thankfully I felt OK.
The Cycle- Once out on the bike I warmed up quite quickly with the hills but didn’t push too hard as I wanted to make sure I could enjoy the run. Just enjoyed the sights of the Golden Gate Bridge, the Pacific Ocean and Golden Gate Park while eating and drinking. At the top of every climb there were more enthusiastic volunteers cheering you on with more “Awesome mans”. After just over an hour it was time for the run.
The Run- A hilly 8 mile run ahead and the sun was out (HOT). Miles 1 & 2 – flat and water with lots of “Awesome mans”. Miles 3 & 4 – over the hill of the bridge and down to the Pacific beach Mile 5 – Holy shit! They had not exaggerated about the sand ladder. At the top I was starting to believe that I was AWESOME MAN!! Miles 6 & 7 – I think the heat and exhaustion were getting to me as the volunteers were calling me Super Man! Mile 8 – You guessed it. I was passed by F******* ‘SUPER MAN’. All done – 3hours 7mins – I’d ESCAPED FROM ALCATRAZ! !!!!!!! AWESOME !!!!!!!!!
Hot sunny days are here at last and, with the tide coming in over the hot sand all afternoon, the water is balmy and evening swims are wonderful. The Swift Swimmer (my mum aged 85) has been swimming daily this week. We now have our tiny caravan “Bunty” parked up by the beach, so post swim snacks are readily available and afternoon naps are happening quite frequently for those exhausted by swimming constantly all day!
As you’ll know from watching Springwatch and reading national press we in the West of Scotland are under attack from midges. Last night’s swim at Loch Leathan saw the swimmers setting record times for getting changed and into the water, dashing in half zipped up, the air black with midges and blue with oaths uttered under severe provocation. Once in, calm was restored, and all enjoyed the lovely warm fresh water and swam round the crannog, enjoying the respite from the little biting devils and glorying in the still and serene reflections of reeds, hills, trees and clouds in the dark water.
Tonight’s swim was entirely different – sunny, breezy and not a midge to be seen. Three swimmers arrived by bike, scooter and car, to swim in the delightfully warm nearly landlocked sea loch called Linne Mhurich. We all swam informally (i.e. no wetsuits) and Martin did especially well as it was his first informal swim of the season. To celebrate, once on dry land, he did a wonderful headstand on top of a grassy knoll, which vastly impressed and mystified Lottie and Iona; certainly something new and which may further enhance our reputation as complete nutters!