|Photo: Ellen Taylor|
on Scotland's west coast knows this infamous stretch of water.
The tide pours through the narrow gap between the islands of Jura and Scarba, and the seabed topography produces what's said to be the world's third largest whirlpool.
The photos of it are fearsome, and one glance at the photo below shows why.
Of course, it is not always like that.
At slack water, when the tide is turning, things go quiet.
Or rather, relatively quiet, and only briefly. That's when people typically kayak through. Or in our case, swim. From Jura to Scarba.
|Not my photo!|
Along the way I picked up a lot of information which I'll share here, but if you're in any doubt, turn to SwimTrek. Ours was the first trip of the season and had just 5 of the 8 spaces filled, while most other trips this year are already full. The swim costs £150 which, for the level of safety cover provided, is a bargain. The dolphins are free.
|Photo: Ellen Taylor|
Because this swim is not about swimming, it's about decision making. Just two decisions in fact; whether to go and when to go. Making those decisions requires a considerable depth of knowledge.
Whether to go?
This used to happen in the marina, but now happens in a sheltered bay off Jura. Our boat zig-zagged it's way south west from Croabh Haven, past the islands of Shuna, Lunga and Scarba, carefully managing its course to minimise passenger soaking. Well, we wouldn't want to get wet, would we?
|First sighting of the Gulf - Jura (R) and Scarba|
On the crossing, the sea was rough. Whitecaps churned from the surface. The wind was forecast to blow 16mph from the SE gusting 22mph. "We're quite sheltered in the Gulf itself", Neil reassured me, "so we can swim when it's mainly Southerly. Still, I have no problem calling off the swim if conditions aren't right".
By then we'd been joined by Tony in his RIB which was our second support boat.
Two of the blokes seemed faster. Liz could keep up with them but promised to swim with me and the skins lady. Back on the boat for hot tea. And to wait...
When to go?
There is no substitute for experience, nor fast-track to attain it. If you're going to attempt to swim this water, then the man you need on your team is the skipper of Farsain Cruises, Duncan Phillips. Let me explain the extent of his understanding.
|Skipper - Duncan Phillips|
"Mother nature doesn't read our tide tables", Duncan told our group, "so we have to wait to see what she wants to do". I had wondered why spring tides had been chosen as the dates for this swim. It seemed counter-intuitive to select a time when the greatest body of water would be moving through the gap. Duncan explained that the sea is more predictable at springs, while at neaps the slack water is much less clear.
He'd taken some swimmers through a few weeks earlier (not SwimTrek) on neaps and while the morning group swam 1.5km, the afternoon group clocked 2.7km as they battled the tide, not unlike the GPS track at the end of this post.
Outside of his SwimTrek arrangement, Duncan himself supports groups of up to six swimmers. If there are more, the cost goes up because he hires Tony and his RIB to provide additional support. This would be a budget way to swim the Corryvreckan if there are a group of swimmers.
Around 10:30 he dropped the boat into gear and started to motor. Which is when the magic began to happen. "Fin", someone cried. We scanned the sea, searching for a distant porpoise or dolphin.
With whoosh, the sea right beside our boat parted and a large - and I mean huge - dolphin leaped from the ocean, rotated 45degrees in min-air, and crashed back onto the surface, disappearing beneath the waves. "Ha! that shook you", it seemed to say, and certainly knew how to make an entrance!
After that close encounter, too quick to capture on camera, up to five bottle-nose including a calf, played around Tony's RIB, tantalisingly too far for my GoPro to get a decent shot. As we turned into the Gulf, they seemed to part company with us, but not for long.
|About to swim. Close to Jura, Scarba distant|
Our repeated instructions were not to pick a spot on Scarba to aim for, just to keep swimming towards the island. The tide would determine where we finished. Instead, we should swim towards the person in front and in that way stay as a group. Spreading out linearly is much easier to handle than spreading out sideways.
As requested we kept stopping to regroup. At no time were we rushed or told to "hurry up". Quite the opposite. I had been prepared to ditch my camera, but Neil said he actively encouraged people to stop and take some photos, "provided you don't hang around too long". Part way across we divided into two groups with one boat covering each.
|Photo: Cathy Smith|
I was so focused on the swim and the spectacular location I completely missed the magic happening around me. The dolphins returned. Their fins were moving around our group.
A sightseeing boat appeared and its passengers probably thought we were swimming with the dolphins, when the opposite was the case - they were swimming with us.
Liz later reported that one had slowed to keep pace with her, just below the surface, and they'd eyed each other through the deep green water. Yet somehow I didn't see them! So much for my all-round awareness.
I started swimming at 10:52 and the 1500m crossing took me 27 minutes. I'm not that fast, so I'm certain I had some assistance from the tide. Bear in mind, the GPS only registers every minute or so, so the track is jerky.
That track shows me travelling fairly straight, then bearing into the tide for a couple of hundred meters (following Liz), before being taken by it and drifting west. When I reached and touched the Scarba shore the underwater kelp was already bent over by the flowing tide. That last little bit of the track shows me swimming lazily back to the boat, and illustrates how fast the tide was starting to build.
Now some resources. First, a screenshot I saw from a GPS track that proves the tide is not always as compliant as it was with us.
Secondly, here's an animation illustrating the tidal flow in there Gulf of Corryvreckan. According to our skipper, the depth of the 'hole', which we swam over, is a key factor in the formation of the whirlpool, almost as important as the 'pinnacle' (which he said wasn't really a pinnacle - I don't know, take it up with him!) You'll find loads of video of the Whirlpool doing its thing.