Corryvreckan Gulf, Inner Hebrides, Scotland.
The Corryvreckan Gulf is home to the world’s 3rd largest whirlpool. The whirlpool is created when the tide races through the narrow gap between the 2 islands of Jura and Scarba. As the water rushes through this gap, the seabed level changes dramatically, and to add to this, there is a massive underwater stone pinnacle. As the water hits the pinnacle, it is forced upwards, and at the top of this an underwater tornado is created. (For a much better and fuller explanation, I suggest you visit Whirlpool-Scotland and Hebridean Wild.
Although the Corryvreckan is the world’s 3rd largest whirlpool, I was totally oblivious to it until 2009. I was sea kayaking with Patrick Winterton, when he first told me about it. He said that during slack tide, it should be possible to swim the 1200 metres, or so, from one island to the other. He had heard of a handful of people who had done it, and that it would be a great one to do. (At the time of writing – August 2011 – there are believed to be less than 50 people to have swum it, and if I was successful, I would become the first registered blind person to do it.)
At the end of 2010 I met up with Patrick again, and mentioned my English Channel swim plans. I told him that I had a short attention span, so needed to have smaller goals en route to the big one. I told him that I was thinking about doing the Corryvreckan swim, and he said he would be very keen to help me do that. Also, his fiancée, Cathy King, was keen to do the swim too. Fantastic!
Swimming 1200 metres, or thereabouts, is not a huge challenge on it’s own. However, knowing that you have to do it in a certain time, or risk major discomfort does make it a tad more exciting. The challenge would be in getting across whilst the whirlpool is sleeping, and not getting caught when it wakes up. The whirlpool can switch from 0 knots per hour to 4+ knots per hour in just a few minutes. If I was in the water when it got to 4knots per hour, I would be dragged into the whirlpool, and there was no possibility in surviving that.
As with most things I do, risks have to be calculated, and the relevant risk management taken. In this one, the main focus was to get the swimmers across the Gulf during the narrow window of time that the slack tide offered. If there were any problems in the water, the swimmers would need to be pulled out before getting into harms way.
As a top level sea kayaker, Patrick has a great understanding of the sea and knew what safety measures would be required. His plan was to bring along a team of experienced sea kayakers, (Paddy’s Paddlers – Andy & Kate Dickson, Caroline & Anthony Shearan, and Richard Eagan), who would keep an eye on the swimmers, as well as what was happening around them. If a swimmer was to get into difficulty, the designated paddler would come and provide whatever assistance was needed, whether it be a throw line or a full pull-out of the water, and a lift to shore. As well as the usual safety kit that the team would normally carry, Patrick got the swimmers to bring along some swim fins, which the paddlers could pass to the swimmers as a first line of action.
Along with the sea kayakers, I suggested that it might be good to have a RIB alongside. (A RIB is a Rigid Inflatable Boat with a motor.) The reason for this was two-fold. Firstly, it would be a fast vessel to have in case of a major incident, and secondly, it meant that Rhona would be able to come along and watch the swim.
Patrick gave me the contact details of a local RIB owner, Tony Gill. I contacted him to see if he would be interested in coming along, and much to my delight he was very keen. It turned out that Tony has been involved in many of the Corryvreckan swims, acting as a support boat, so knew exactly what we were planning. (I found out later, that Tony was also the man behind a video I had repeatedly watched on YouTube called Corryvreckan Challenge.)
The swim was set for Sunday the 7th of August, and everyone involved met up, just outside Ardfern, on the 6th. The weather that day had started off very nice, but by tea time the clouds had come in, and there was a spot of rain. Patrick, Cathy and headed out for a wee paddle, while Rhona and Stumpy put our tent up. (Sorry Rho.) I hadn’t gone out for a paddle just to get out of putting the tent up. Patrick had suggested that to make the whole trip more “fun”, as well as swimming the Corryvreckan Gulf, we should paddle the 5km out to it, and then after the swim, we should paddle the 5km back again. As I had not done any sea kayaking since 2009, a refresher was called for.
Around 08.30 on the 7th, Patrick and I jumped into a two-man kayak, and Cathy climbed into her single. Paddy’s Paddlers would follow on behind us. Rhona, along with our 2 friends Derek and Linda, and Stumpy made their way down to meet Tony with his RIB Moon Raker. The paddle would take us around 45 minutes to an hour. Moon Raker would do it in around 10 minutes.
As the swim was based around slack tide, this meant we would be paddling towards the Gulf hitting the fast moving tide head-on. This made for an interesting paddle. Fortunately Patrick could read the water very well, and he was able to take us through the better parts of it. When we were about 2km from the whirlpool, Patrick said that he could see it. As we were just a few feet above the water level, this meant that the whirlpool must have been pretty big!
After the tough paddle, we made our way to Jura, and I was dropped off. I had to clamber up a sloping cliff for about 10 metres, but then found a nice wee gap to settle down into. I waited there for 10 minutes, whilst Patrick and Cathy secured their kayaks around the corner and made their way over to me. Whilst waiting there, I heard the RIB and then Paddy’s Paddlers arrive. I also listened to some seals swimming around. Obviously wondering what was going on.
A few minutes after Cathy and Patrick arrived with me, Tony shouted from the RIB, that we should start getting ready. The tide had pretty much stopped on our side. Then just as we were getting changed he told us to wait. He nipped over to the Scarba side of the Gulf and found that the water was still moving at around 1.5 knots per hour.
We waited for another 5 minutes, and then it looked good. We still had very little movement on our side, and the Scarba side had dropped right down to 0.5 knots per hour. We now had to get going.
Cathy and I clambered down to the water’s edge. We were both wearing swimming caps, goggles and ear plugs, but that was all that was the same. Cathy was wearing her wetsuit, but I had decided to wear a little less. I was wearing my new SailFish Jammer swimming shorts, which had been donated to me by Discover Swimming. Most people had thought we were both going to be wearing wetsuits, so there were a few surprised faces on the boats. I dived in first, and Cathy came in just after me. The water was very cold, (around 11 degrees Celsius). Even though I wasn’t wearing much, the water felt OK. I had been doing a lot of open water swimming in Scotland, so my body was getting used to the cold. But I think in this case, it was probably the adrenaline pumping around my body which helped keep me warm.
To help keep me going in a straight line, one of the kayakers, Andy, had put his bright orange throw bag in the water behind him, attached to his kayak by a safety line. My job was now to follow this bag. So long as I was within 2 or 3 foot of it, I would be OK. This meant that Andy had to keep checking over his shoulder to check his speed and my location, whilst trying to keep going forward in a straight line. (Not very easy for most people, but I was told by those on the RIB that he made it look effortless.)
Once I had entered the water and got my general direction, I started swimming. Andy then got himself positioned in front of me, and I was now able to follow his throw bag. I just put my head down and got moving as quickly and efficiently as possible. I knew I had limited time, so no point in wasting it.
I was able to follow the throw bag for around 80% of the swim, but occasionally I would lose the bag and head off on my own. Fortunately Andy would recognise when this happened, and he would be able to bring his boat back around so that I could find it again.
On one of these “lost” occasions, I thought I saw the throw bag off to my right, so swam straight for it. Just a couple of strokes away from it, I suddenly realised that it was not the throw bag, but a big jellyfish. Close call!!
I had a couple of jellyfish “close calls”, but fortunately nothing too close.
As I came up for breath, I would sometimes see the RIB, or a kayaker. I felt very relaxed, and knew that I was in very safe hands. So the thought of the whirlpool never really bothered me.
I also took a couple of looks forward to see if I was getting any closer to Scarba, but could not tell. So I did not bother looking again. It was only when some rocks appeared just under me that I knew I was coming to the end.
I completed the swim in a little under 23 minutes and Cathy came in just 3 or 4 minutes later. We were both across, and the whirlpool had not got us!
Although I was across in just under 23 minutes, I then spent another 4 or 5 minutes in the water, swimming out to the RIB, etc. I was high as a kite, and wanted to make the most of my time in the water.
However, when it came time to get back into our kayaking kit, I was starting to really feel it. The uncontrollable shivers were on, and simple tasks like putting a t-shirt on became very difficult. I knew that once we started paddling back to the mainland I would warm up, but Patrick had a wee surprise for me. As I was putting my trousers on, he gave me a Blizzard Heat Pad. He suggested that I put it down my trousers before getting into the kayak. Wow, what a delight! This certainly made the paddle back a much more pleasant experience!!
I would like to take this opportunity to thank the whole team – Patrick Winterton, Cathy King, Tony Gill, Andy and Kate Dickson, Caroline and Anthony Shearan, Richard Eagan, Derek and Linda Alexander, and of course my wonderful wife Rhona and Stumpy. Without you guys n gals, this probably would never have happened. THANK YOU!