Day 3 of this adventure was going to be my first day of swimming. I woke up both nervous and excited about the prospects of swimming in the Caledonian Canal. We planned to get up at 8am but we were all up by 7am. We sorted our stuff out and had breakfast. Somehow two and half hours had gone by and we started running a bit late.
We had arranged to meet a freelance photographer who was working for one of the Scottish newspapers at 10am. I tried to contact him, but once again Scotland provided ‘no service’ on all of our phones. My family and I, vacation down in a place called Castletownbere in West Cork. It’s one of my favourite places to go, but the Internet and phone signal is something from the 1960’s. I thought nowhere else would match this level of poor infrastructure. But Scotland won the prize for having the worst Wi-Fi and phone signal I have ever experienced. So as a result, we couldn’t contact this photographer and tell him we would be late.
We arrived down at our start location and the loch keeper allowed us to drive our rented car down as close to the slipway as possible. By the time we were ready to get on the water, it was 11am. We were mad late, but we were finally off… or so we thought. The journalist had other plans. We posed for a couple of very cheesy pictures, before we finally set off to take on the famous Loch Locky.
Instantly, I noticed how bloody cold the water was. “Had I underestimated how cold these lochs were? Is my body going to be able to withstand this cold water for long periods of time?”. An element of doubt surrounded me for a brief period of time. Doubt can be very contagious within a team, so I kept all these thoughts to myself, and tried to focus on the task at hand.
Just before we left the shoreline, we noticed that we had a head wind. This wasn’t forecasted and nobody had any idea why it happened. What was going on? The lock keeper said wind from that direction does not happen too often in these parts. We had planned this adventure from Fort William to Inverness, not the other way around, because of the prevailing south westerly wind direction. Once we left the initial sheltered bay, we noticed the chop straight away. “Uh oh!!!” I said to myself. “This is going to be a real slog of a swim”. The waves were about a foot high, and were relentless.
In a swimming pool I can hold about 4km/hr quite comfortably. But out here I was doing 1.8km/hr. We were really struggling. To try and keep myself upbeat, I thought back to a documentary I watched a few years ago about a young Canadian man, who attempted to run across Canada, against the prevailing wind, with one leg. That documentary has always stuck in my mind when I’m struggling with any endurance swim. I was getting battered by Mother Nature, and had no choice but to keep going.
Whilst swimming through Loch Locky, I couldn’t help but take in the amazing scenery that the Caledonian Canal had to offer. The mountains rose up from the loch on both sides, towering above, and watched us take on this vast expanse of water. Loch Locky was more beautiful than any of us imagined it would be.
Claire Palmer and Luke Palmer would have loved to just sit and float whilst looking at the surroundings, however this was not an option. Whenever they stopped paddling, waves battered them back. They were working hard to just keep up with me swimming, due to the strong winds!
As if things couldn’t get any worse, after about 30-minutes of swimming, I could feel my feet lose all circulation. I knew they had gone white. I haven’t swum in water like this since March. It was freezing cold!!! I kept going, and swam harder and incorporated in some kicking (which I never do while swimming outdoors in a wetsuit). We unfortunately did not have a thermometer to read the water temperature, but I’m going to guess it was between 8-10 degrees at most.
At about the 45-minute mark, my feet were numb and I was now shivering. I told Claire and Luke that we have to get out fast. We had to sort my feet out, as they were ready to fall off!
We found the nearest exit point and spent about a half an hour pouring hot water into my neoprene socks. I would then run around, doing jumping jacks. This did the trick, but it wasn’t a permanent solution, it was a short-term fix. Luckily, Claire is probably the most prepared and organised person I know, and she offered me a spare pair of wetsuit socks that she had packed. The only way we could get something that would keep me remotely warm was to put the spare socks over mine.
I put my feet back into the icy water, and the cold water, didn’t get in to my feet. We escaped this obstacle, but I knew there were plenty more of them to come. I was so lucky that I could rely on Claire and Luke, when/if I needed help.
I went back swimming into the wind. The water was very strange. It was incredibly black and clear, as I stared down into the abyss. Once you leave the shoreline and shallow water, the bed of the loch drops away incredibly fast. It is quite eerie to say the least.
A couple of hours passed and the miles just didn’t get ticked off. Our speed was about 2km/hr, and I would expect to swim at 4km/hr in still water. At this rate it would be midnight until we get to the end of the Loch. We had to make a critical decision now. Do we keep swimming and only make it half way down the loch, and get stranded in the middle of nowhere with no escape, no phone signal to call Caitriona to collect us and probably no access by car? Or do I jump on the back of a board, unclip the spare paddle we had for the canal section and plough on and try and make up some time? I knew if I jumped on the back of the SUP that the whole point of trying to swim the Caledonian Canal would be lost. This made my heart sink with the thought of this. I wanted to keep swimming, but I came to my senses and realised that it was the wrong decision to make for the entire team.
The decision was taken, we had to make up some time, we were getting killed out there by the wind, and we had no other choice. I wasn’t too tired or cold, but was devastated that the wind direction hampered my swimming plans. The gods are not on our side at the moment.
We paddled for about an hour to make up for some lost time. Once the wind died down after about an hour of paddling, we headed for the shoreline for a food stop, and so that I could get prepared to swim the remainder of the loch. On our way to shore we hit something really hard. I was on the back of Claire’s SUP and it knocked me to my hands and knees. It must have been a boulder or something we thought. Luke was behind us, so went over the check it out and he couldn’t see anything. It was strange because there was about 6-foot of water under the SUP’s and we could see the bottom. There were no obstacles that could have hit us. We had no idea what we hit. We thought it must it must have been a Kelpie. Luckily we probably knocked it unconscious before it dragged us to our death.
We decided that I would swim to the end. A long seven hours, and the most difficult swim of my life! We were all gutted we couldn’t make it all the way to loch Oich, but it was getting late, and there was no chance we could finish the canal in a reasonable time.
When we got to the other side of the lock we deflated the boards, got changed, and like clockwork, Caitriona Hurley turned up with Fish and Chips. What a way to finish the day, Fish and Chips facing out over the Loch Locky we had just completed and away from the man that shouts about his car park. Things couldn’t get much better than this! We went back to the campsite, and pretty much went straight to sleep.
Tomorrow involves tackling the next loch on the adventure, Loch Oich. Lets just hope it’s not as cold, and the wind is with us this time.
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I have to thank the following people/companies for helping us out on this adventure:
Puravida Boardriders, Oshea Surf, Zone3, Back2Front Physiotherapy Ltd,Meridian Foods, The Grazing Shed, SwimSecure, Bunroy Park and Macari’s Fish and Chips.
Daily distance travelled – 18.15km
Total distance travelled – 31.09km
Daily time on water – 7hr 02min
Total time on water – 11hr 03min