GLASGOW: birthplace of Billy Connolly, land of the fabled head butt kiss and annual staging ground for a brutal little Red Bull event they call Neptune Steps.
As you’d expect from Red Bull, this event is totally unique, brilliantly organised and completely mad. Once a year wild swimmers dive headfirst into the canal, channelling their inner urban salmon as they thrash and scramble up walled-in troughs, cargo nets, ropes and ladders... The victors usually receive Neptune’s trident as a trophy, while everyone else settles for a long, glorious de-icing in the onsite hot tubs.
This year, on the morning of March 10th, Middle Brother Calum and myself (Little Brother Jack) were invited up to Scotland to take part in Red Bull’s annual competition. We drove into the city in the wee hours, looking forward to the assault course and feeling, admittedly, confident. In hindsight, we weren’t prepared at all for how tough it would be! In fact, there was no hope of either of us wielding a trident at the end of it. The best thing we could’ve hoped for was making it to those steam-wrapped wallowing grounds above the finish line.
When we arrived we rushed to the changing tents and joined a jittery, chuckling group of swimmers inside. The blustery Glaswegian cold had seeped in under the canvas and the mood was tense. The salient concern on everyone’s minds was the water temperature:
“Was it 2 degrees?”
“I heard 3.”
“Must be 3.5…”
The coldest water I’d swum in that year was 5.3 at Brockwell Lido, without a suit, but this was different. The cut-off point was 15 minutes. That meant we’d be in the water for a good amount of time, swimming against the currents. And when you get down into those low temperatures a single degree makes a huge difference.
Chattering nervously, Calum and I clambered into our wetsuits and shoes. We quickly realised that we hadn’t done so well in the glove department: I had two right-handed gloves – I’m not even sure how this happened – while Calum had totally forgotten his. Instead he was going to be offering his pink mitts to the icy chill.
Once we were ready we set off through the rain-beaten crowds and headed down along the Forth & Clyde canal, to the starting line. When we arrived, after a few rushed exchanges with the organisers, we strapped our Go Pros on and climbed down onto a crowded, floating platform.
In every direction, I could see swim-cap-tightened faces wearing a variety of solemn expressions. Some swimmers were frozen with looks of grim resolve, while others stood po-faced, staring directly ahead. Of course, there was also the odd toothy grin crammed in amongst it all, usually belonging to some hard bastard who just lives for that kind of thing.
After a few minutes of jumping about, keeping warm, we all dropped off the platform at intervals and lined-up to wait for the starter horn.
This was the coldest water I’d ever been in. The only other time I’d felt anything else like it was in the Highlands, off the coast of Ullapool.
Breathe… I told myself, puffing out my cheeks… Keep calm.
Eventually, the cold wrapped around my whole body and numbed my extremities – even under the gloves and boots! I cleared my mind and waited until my breathing had evened and slowed. I started to feel almost comfortable, but unfortunately that was when the horn sounded and everyone lunged forward in a mad scramble to escape the churned, roiling water as it wrapped around us.
Feet kicked reaching fingers. Bunched bodies bounced and rolled together...
All the while I stayed close to the wall and used it as a guide to direct myself down the canal. The next thing I knew we were spreading out and paddling against the current, approaching the lock. The first swimmers to arrive used submerged ropes to drag themselves quickly up to the cargo net. I came in close behind Calum and flung myself onto the net on the opposite side. I remember letting out audible groans as I heaved my numb weight upwards. It was hard going. This wasn’t like swimming in the arctic when you had to relax and travel inwards to survive. This wasn’t like the mad dashes across the maelstroms in Norway and Scotland either.
This was pure muscle-powered army-style adrenaline.
In a moment of visceral solidarity, I began to feel like we were soldiers in a Spielberg movie. Heavy bundles of water crashed into neoprene-clad bodies and sprayed drops flew in all directions like bullets. Every time I looked up I was facepalmed by a jet of murky canal water. I clenched my mouth shut and stole breathes intermittently when I was looking down.
Man, I wish I’d done more training, I thought, as I heaved myself upwards and clung to the net.
At the top, I hugged the wooden barrier and suddenly realised how knackered I was – too knackered, in fact. This was the first indication that I was going to really struggle. Breathing hard, I watched Calum leaping down into the water for the next sprint. I hesitated. Body and mind began to bicker momentarily. Then I dropped like a stone into the canal and pulled and kicked my way back onto the course.
At the next obstacle – a 4m wooden ladder – I came into more serious difficulty. I swam up to the bottom rung several times, only to be beaten back by the oncoming water. Each time my breathing became more rapid and the tall, onlooker-topped walls on either side seemed to close-in. Then I saw somebody catch the rope of a lifeguard’s throwing bag and be pulled towards the bank. Perhaps I can blame a slump in motivation owing to some big job/relationship/monetary problems I’d been going through at the time. Whatever it was, I knew that this was a challenge I was underprepared for and wouldn’t beat. I made one last dash towards the ladder before finally allowing my body to roll over and float back down the walled channel. I decided that, rather than hyperventilating, taking on water and losing the use of my muscles, I’d take this one on the chin and bow out.
Meanwhile, true to Ironman/Brutal triathlon form, Calum was still charging up through the course like the well-insulated fish-man he is. By now his hands had turned to frozen claws. Nevertheless, he shot up the 4m wooden ladder, managed the next 25m swim, heaved himself up a rope climb, leapt into a sluggish crawl through the next 40m swim, pulled himself up another rope ladder, dragged his numb body through a 40m swim, fought bitterly with a 3m climbing wall, half-drowned during the next 25m swim, climbed the last rope and finally pawed his way through a 35m swim to the finish.
After cheering him on, I met Calum in the hot tubs and we talked with the other exhausted competitors, many of whom had dropped out like myself – one guy had even fallen backwards off the climbing wall!
We all agreed that we were very glad not to be going through to the next heat. Don’t get me wrong, it was a lot of fun – in the same way that paintballing topless can be fun...
At the end of it all, riding a warm train back down to London, I experienced what I imagine many victims of Neptune’s Steps have experienced before – an overwhelming urge to go back next year and try that whole damn shiver-inducing canal scramble again.
Little brother Jack (26) - the youngest of the Hudson brothers - is an author represented by the literary agency Curtis Brown. He writes mostly for Adventure Uncovered, focusing on personal stories that link exploration and conservation. He was also the guest adventure editor at Red Bull UK. 'Swim Wild' is his debut book.