July Challenge #2 - Swim the Gulf of Corryvreckan with Dolphins.

Photo: Ellen Taylor
Everyone who messes about in boats or kayaks
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.  [If you find this interesting/useful please click a few ads - thank you]

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!
We booked onto an organised trip run by SwimTrek, who've been taking people on this swim for ten years.  We've done two holidays with them and we're confident of their safety procedures.  (Incidentally, I'm told this is one of their few trips where men regularly outnumber women.)

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
Meeting time at Craobh Haven marina was 08:15 on the morning of our swim.  The time changes depending on the state of tide on the day of your swim.  Neil Bowers is the SwimTrek guide who runs most of the Corryvreckan swims.  Based in Newcastle he's a highly experienced swim coach and the kind of quietly confident figure you want making decisions in a place like this.  Photos from other trips.

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?

There's two parts to this question, one pertaining to the weather and one depending on the individual. Can you swim fast enough to cover 1500m before the tide turns?  On booking you're asked your 1km open water swim time, and most of us had given about 20min.  That's not taken for granted - it's tested.

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
With wetsuits half-way on and our DryRobes keeping us warm, we got our first glimpse of the Gulf of Corryvreckan.

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.

Moored in a bay off Jura's NE coast, just below Kinuachdrachd Farm where we once stayed, we leaped into sparkling clear waters and swam a short 600m to the shore and back.  Curious seals slipped into the water to check us out.  Particularly the young woman who was swimming skins.

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
I know how to calculate tidal streams.  Using the data from the Imray Guide and the Admiralty Pilot, I came up with three different slack water times, depending on whether I calculated from Oban or Dover high water.  These times were; Admiralty 09:56; Imray (Oban) 10:16; Imray (Dover) 10:29.

"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.

The Magic

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
At 10:50 I jumped into the water in a sheltered bay and, with he others, swam to touch the rocky headland of the Isle of Jura.  We would swim from Jura to Scarba, rather than the reverse, to give us a bigger target to hit.  Scarba has a mile of cliffs and, when the tide started to carry us, as it surely would, we'd be unlikely to miss the island.  In the opposite direction it would be all too easy to get swept past a headland.

Leaving Jura
(Which incidentally is what happened on early attempts to swim the Pentland Firth to the mainland.  The first successful attempt by Colleen Blair made landfall near Castle May.  It was further to swim than Duncansby Head but she didn't get swept down the east coast.)

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.

Done it
Back on the boat it was smiles, photos and hot drinks.  We headed back to Craobh Haven to shower and change, then swap email addresses.  Two women had stayed on the boat and shot photos of the swim, so eventually I saw the dolphins I'd missed.

[If you find this interesting/useful please click a few ads - thank you]

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.

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