The third largest whirlpool in the world sounds like a perfect, if rather sporting place for a wild swim. It’s been done before, of course; first off by George Orwell’s one-legged brother-in-law in the 1950s, while Orwell himself came a cropper in the Corryvreckan with his boat, but survived. There are now fairly regular organised trips, but those tend not to be my thing. And so it was that I picked up three “guerrilla swimmers” from Lincolnshire on the Outdoor Swimming Society Facebook page, who were looking for people to share a boat and do the swim in an “organised but not organised” fashion.
Stef and Queenie volunteered to join me, and so, in mid-August after a whole day of travelling, we found ourselves sitting outside a cafe by a lock on the Crinan Canal with the rather glamorous North Norfolk Crawlers, who were wearing matching kit and false eyelashes (Queenie: “Can you tell we’re from Devon?”). The guerrilla swimmers rocked up next, and then a lone wolf from New Zealand via London. We joked around a bit, then made our way to the boat. “Look what you’ve got me into, Roper!” Grumbled Stef, not for the first time. “It’ll be fine, we’ve got 40 minutes!” I replied, breezily, while my innards trembled. Sandy (helped by his young assistant) from Venture West was our fabulously knowledgeable and skilled guide. As we approached the boat, a passing, tall and long-bearded man expressed some concern about us doing the swim, but we assured him we’d be fine. It was blustery, but there was sun, and some puffy clouds. Borderline conditions for the swim said Sandy. Our boat was rather flash; orange and blue and adventurous-looking with a thrusting prow, Victorian explorer meets Star Wars. We set off at speed, accompanied by a rib crewed by two fit young men, who were there to whip swimmers from the jaws of death if necessary. By the time we’d neared Jura, which had materialised darkly from a misty blue form in the distance, we were all best friends. Stef continued to mutter about what we’d got her into, while the guerrillas plotted a two way swim. I stressed slightly about my shoulder and lack of fitness, and wondered whether I should have brought my wetsuit. The female Crawlers said the sea had been face-freezing on the previous day, so we were expecting anything from 10-14 degrees. The feeling of speeding over water, the smell of the sea and and a brisk salty wind in your face soon puts paid to any real terror, though and I began to feel trepidatiously excited.
Suddenly, in the chop of the grey-blue sea, a glassy-smooth circle of water materialised alongside the boat, widening, reflecting and distorting the sky, like the earth from an approaching space ship. Another appeared just ahead expanding like the ripples from a giant raindrop, then mushrooming up from its centre to a diameter of maybe forty meters. I ducked into the forward area of the boat, to question Sandy. First he showed me the depth on the screen that included charts of the sea bed and the famous basalt pinnacle which is a key part of the topography that causes the pool to whirl. The sea is 190 meters deep on the seaward side of the pinnacle, then rises quickly to where the pinnacle point is 30 meters below the surface. This and the narrow gulf between the islands of Jura and Scarba, and the tidal stream that hits Jura and accelerates along its 20 mile length, causes the kind of force you can’t really imagine, Sandy told me. So our incredible circles of shiny water, and the mushrooms, result from the uprush of water from the deeps. “I’ve heard them called tidal roses doon sooth” said Sandy in a soft, west coast accent that luffed through his ginger seafarer’s beard.
We were near the end of the ebb tide, and we sat to await the right time to swim. This part is judged by eye and decades of knowledge and experience of these tantrummy waters. As we waited, Sandy pointed out we were doing around 3kts, at rest. The reason he’d refused to take three swimmers in the rib is that this larger, more powerful boat has the ability to outrun the currents. We were all ready to go, then we powered across to Scarba and jumped in from the side on the very end of the ebb. The water was less cold than I’d expected, maybe 13 or 14, enough for a nip but not too bad. We swam to the rocks and touched land, then set off. Almost immediately, another largish boat appeared, driven by Alexei, the man we’d met earlier with the long, pointy beard. We later discovered he’s a local singer, and he’d been so worried about us he phoned Sandy and came out to help.
We began to swim, and Queenie and I, both non-wetsuited, quickly found ourselves alone. Stef had vanished with the main gang, while some of the crawlers and the guerrillas took off. There was quite a chop and Queenie swam to the seaward side of me. I tried to settle into a rhythm, and gazed through the deep turquoise wondering how far from the bottom we were. Then I saw a large, undulating blob of umber and cream, shadowed with a dark mane of anemone-type tentacles pulsing beneath it. It was bigger than my head. This, of course, was one of the infamous Lion’s Manes jellyfish which often crowd the sea here so that it’s impossible to swim. Then I saw a second one. Both were several meters from me, but I quickly realised I’d been stung on the legs, neck and arm. Beneath the lion’s mane they trail invisible tentacles that can reach tens of feet in length.
We stopped, while Alexei our guardian angel fretted about what we were doing, worried eyes above the Russian fairytale beard. “Just taking some photos” says I, while we had a quick chat then set off again. We stopped once more, then weird things started to happen. I could see the last of the others coming ashore, while the racing eels were already back on the big boat. John the lone wolf was being pulled into the rib. We swam in their direction, but were getting further away. I was buffeted, a feeling not unlike standing on the tube platform while a speeding train passes, but colder. I saw another jelly, right next to me and arched and skulled around it, but this time the current took its tentacles away. Alexei shouted, and I saw Queenie accelerate. He shouted again: “The tide’s runnin’! Swim!” (Bridge to Enterprise, Warp Factor 9!) so I did. Waves picked up and ran diagonally from front right (seaward) to back left, while I felt my body being pushed to the right in what must have been an eddy, since this was the flood hitting us. Buffets walloped by legs and body from underneath; I imagine this is how a worm on top of a washing machine on spin cycle might feel. The rocks, maybe thirty meters away, weren’t getting any closer and I could see and feel kelp. Queenie had turned to landward and was nearing the rocks, so I headed towards her and went flat out (if I giver her any more, Captain, she’ll blow…!) As I grabbed the kelp at the edge, the men in the rib shouted and I turned and forced my way back out towards them.
Then I scrabbled to mount the side of the rib, before something hoiked me over to land with a splat next to Queenie on my back on the fishy-scented bottom, with one leg over the side. “I saw your Mary Jane!” she shouted. “You can’t talk!” said I, watching her flounder, beached and giggling, as the rib took off at speed. We climbed aboard Sandy’s boat, laughed, swapped tall tales, changed and drank bubbly provided by the head guerrilla. One of the Crawlers had lost a nail, and I had some nice jelly stings, but we were otherwise unscathed. We passed a row of seals on a rock, lined up like plump men at a bar. It was only later, as we all met for dinner at the Tayvallich Inn, that the lone wolf told me the swim had been arranged off the back of the springs in order to make it “more challenging”…hence the concern of dear Alexei. So instead of the 40 minutes we’d assumed, we’d actually had a 20-minute window; Queenie and I took rather longer than that. We might not have taken photos had we known…