Matt Barr is a wild swimmer and the Corryvreckan whirlpool is the wildest water in Britain. Let battle commence…
A wild September Sunday in the heaving waters of the Scottish Inner Hebrides is hardly the ideal day for a swim. Yet along with ten other intrepid ‘wild swimmers’, I’m getting ready to attempt a swim across the Corryvreckan Whirlpool, a mile of swirling, gunmetal water that separates the island of Jura from northerly Scarba.
Rumour whirls around this forbidding, murky place. They say it is the third largest whirlpool in the world, that the Royal Navy classify it as officially ‘unnavigable’, and that an unfortunate Norse king was swept to his death here at some point during the misty past. What is certain is that George Orwell (he was staying on Jura to write 1984) almost drowned here, and that the PS Comet, the world’s first passenger paddleship, came a permanent cropper at the whirlpool back in 1820. Yes, this is a piece of water with a fearsome reputation. And the worried look on the face of Peter, the pilot of our tiny boat (which is being tossed around alarmingly by the waves) isn’t doing much to make me feel any better.
‘You’ve only got half an hour before the tide changes, so you just have to go as quickly as you can,’ he says with convincing urgency. There’s nothing for it but to fling myself over the side, put my head down, and swim as if my life depends upon it.
Today, Britain is officially wild swimming crazy. There are TV shows (even if Robson Green’s Wild Swimming Adventure does sound like something Alan Partridge dreamt up over lunch with Tony Hayers), books (two at the last count: Kate Rew’s Wild Swim, and Daniel Start’s Wild Swimming), huge organised charity events (such as the nationwide Great Swim series) and endless media coverage of this burgeoning new lifestyle sport.
Author Kate Rew, who also runs the Outdoor Swimming Society (www.outdoorswimmingsociety.com), thinks the main reason for the explosion of interest in wild swimming is the freedom it offers. ‘I think what makes it popular is the joy of getting off prescribed paths, and experiencing the freedom that comes from wending your own way, in your own time, down rivers, across lakes, and in the sea. As soon as the idea was out there it kept spreading, with every swimmer a bit like an aquatic missionary with this unwritten wild swimming gospel that got more people in: we now have 10,000 members, and there are tens of thousands more who jump in.’
The other catalyst of the movement has undoubtedly been the holiday company Swim Trek, who organised my Corryvreckan swim. Run by the Channel swimmer Simon Murie, the company offers safe, guided open-water swimming trips everywhere from the Virgin Islands to the freezing Finnish lakes, as well as one-off specials, such as Alcatraz in San Francisco, the Hellespont and the Corryvreckan.
My first real foray into wild swimming, a 2007 crossing of the Hellespont (the stretch of water that separates Asia from Europe in Turkey), was also organised by Swim Trek. Like many bitten by the bug, I’d been inspired by Lord Byron, official patron saint of all wild swimmers and the first man to swim the legendary strait back in 1809. I found the swim challenging, but was truly hooked by the mix of physical challenge and cultural machismo that open-water challenges like this seemed to involve. Soon, I began to cast around for other swims – which is how I eventually found myself poised on the stern of a tiny vessel, bobbing around in the boisterous Corryvreckan.
My fellow swimmers had similar stories to my own. John had been inspired to take on the swim after seeing Robson Green tackle it as part of his TV series, Wild Swimming Adventure. Diana and Jennifer were taking it on as part of their training for a cross-Channel relay swim in 2011. Whatever their backgrounds, everybody was tense and excited as we listened to our pre-trip briefing.
The Corryvreckan owes its unpredictable nature to some unique underwater topography, and strong currents that race through these features from the Atlantic. As it does, the tide swiftly reaches a speed of 8.5 knots and produces the violent waves, whorls and whirls that define the maelstrom. It also means that the only possible times to swim across are at ‘slack tide’: basically when the flow of water is at its most benign. Comforting words on dry land. Less so when faced with a formidable body of water looking a lot more whirlpool-like than I’d been anticipating. And there are other, more workaday dangers to consider.
During most open-water crossings, the main threat is the cold, and so it proves here. It’s so perishing – despite the full wetsuit – that I experience the reflex action familiar to everybody who has sleepily turned the shower on the wrong way in the morning. My heart starts racing, my throat constricts and breathing is suddenly extremely difficult. Still, I force myself to relax, put my head under and try to get into a rhythm.
There’s always a slightly eerie feeling at the beginning of any open water swim, a primordial fear of nameless deep-sea monsters. But part of the enjoyment is banishing these fears. Soon, my breathing is under control and I begin to enjoy the challenge of battling the current and waves as I realise I’m going to make the crossing with enough time to spare. I clamber back into the boat and gratefully grab a cup of tea. I’m shaking, a combination of tiredness, adrenaline and endorphins. And the fact that I’m still bloody freezing, obviously. True, I haven’t managed to beat the 30-minute target time I set myself, but it is an amazing feeling to accomplish a goal that I’ve been working towards for the last few months. I’m almost ready for the next one.
Now, what was that about a cross-Channelrelay swim?