THE SWIMS //
From peaceful Scottish lochs to swirling Norwegian maelstroms…
From peaceful Scottish lochs to swirling Norwegian maelstroms…
The boys set off from the stormy marina of Craobh Haven (with their sea captain Duncan) just after midday and returned under clearing skies a few hours later, having swum the Corryvreckan.
At times they were separated, shifted off course by the clashing currents and forced to paw their way through salty slabs of saline. They only had a short window of around 30-minutes to make it between the isles of Jura and Scarba. If they took too long they’d be caught in the maelstrom when the tide changed and the encircling whirlpools and eddies roared into full swing.
The support of their Mum had been invaluable - she’d calmly stomached the idea of losing all three of her boys at once, whilst also belting out cries of encouragement at every opportunity.
In the end they made it across with a decent time of 22 minutes. Aside from a few cut feet and bruised ankles they crawled out intact, caught their breath and reflected on what had been a rough, froth-speckled initiation into endurance swimming - great practice for their next adventure: Swim the Eden.
Almost a year in the making: the 90-mile Swim the Eden adventure was a chance for the brothers to return to their roots and revisit the swimming spots they loved as kids. It was an opportunity for them to swap the humdrum clockwork of their respective cities (Newcastle, London, Berlin) for the easy rhythms of the natural world. The fact they could also raise money for the Swimming Trust was the final decider - they had to go through with it.
The Eden swim turned out to be great fun. It took the boys 9 days in total. They started in the peaty bogs and gorges of Black Fell Moss. Then they wound down the steep dale of Mallerstang and floated through the green Vale of Eden. For 9 days they swam all the way across the Eden Valley and passed through Carlisle and ended on the tidal flats of England’s eastern coast, where the Eden joins the River Esk and enters the Solway Firth.
The whole swim was filmed by the human Swiss Army knife: James Silson. He kayaked alongside the brothers, supported at intervals by Jack's good mates: David Renton and Sandy Kerridge. Then there were the ever-trusty, food-chariots driven by Mum and Dad, as well as Jack’s then-girlfriend Beth who baked brownies and cakes to keep the boys blubbered-up…
More examples of those kind folk who get you through tough times.
Follow this link to find out more…
After the River Eden adventure the brothers split up and went back to their respective cities. Robbie left for Berlin to work on his new exhibition. Calum returned to the lidos and juddering trains of London. And Jack went back to Newcastle and began to write about the Eden swim.
A few months passed before the brothers felt the lure of the world map again...
This time they scanned the globe and pored over charts and maps and picked out unexplored waters. They wanted to do something on a bigger scale. It had to be something that scared them. Something that pushed them and tested their bond. Keeping all this in mind Calum dreamed-up the Into the Maelstrom expedition, in partnership with WWF-Norge. And soon it was suddenly agreed - they would be heading up into the Arctic Circle to attempt a swim no one had ever done before.
Into the Maelstrom was a world-first attempt to swim across the biggest and most powerful maelstroms: the Moskstraumen and Saltstraumen. Swirling violently off the Norwegian coast, above the spear tip of the Lofoten Islands, these cauldrons of turbulent water possess the strongest and fastest tidal currents in the ocean. The Moskstraumen was made famous by Edgar Allan Poe's A Descent into the Maelstrom and Jules Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (when Captain Nemo's submarine, the Nebuchadnezzar, disappears under the waves).
No one had attempted these swims before. It meant the brothers were bound for unknown waters and untested currents. They would also have to contend with the icy (5-9C) waters of the Arctic Circle, as well as over 600 orcas rumoured to be roaming the region - not to mention the infamous lion’s mane jellyfish, capable of growing bigger than a human.
The first swim was across the Saltstraumen - a frantic sprint across a 0.25km tidal split with the world's fastest currents. The submerged seamounts funnel up to 400,000,000 cubic metres of swirling seawater through a 3km long and 250-metre wide strait every six hours. Within this frantic wash of currents the water can reach speeds of up to 25mph.
The brothers completed this swim in a chaotic 10-minute window. They dodged red jellyfish and fought vagaries of bubbling pressure jolting them onto disorientated courses. But they made it to the other side under the supervision of their loyal team (Luke, Beth, James, Dave and ship captain Knut Westvig).
As it turned out the margin between success and failure had been less than one minute. The central current suddenly turned as they clambered into the boat. It was an experience none of them would ever forget.
Watch the video: Into The Maelstrom, Part One
The second and final swim of the Into The Maelstrom expedition took the brothers across the mighty Moskstraumen. This was an 8km point-to-point crossing between the islands of Vaeroy and Mosken. On a bad day, the central whorl of this whirlpool can span a diameter of around 40–50 meters (130–160 ft) and fierce tides bring the northerly Norwegian Sea currents into a storm-induced flow to create currents of up to 12 mph.
The brothers crossed the Moskstraumen in 2.31 hours. They became the first people to make that 8km crossing and landed safely in the dry fingers of the Lofoten Islands. Granted the Norse weather gods had been kind to them and despite the odd strong current they were blessed with Arctic waters that were glassy smooth. And yet the chance of an orca sighting was a constant concern - several had been seen in the maelstrom six days earlier. The brothers also had to dodge warbling blooms of lion’s mane jellyfish and survive the numbing 9°C water.
The awe-inspiring beauty of the Lofoten Islands made it all bearable, as well as the encouragement of a motley support team: Luke, Dave, Sils and Beth, as well as Knut Westvig of Stella Polaris and Therese and Lars of Aqua Lofoten Coast Adventure AS.
The brothers would also like to thank: WWF-Norge, Visit Norway, Visit Bodø, Visit Lofoten, Visit Northern Norway, Bodø Nu, Torghatten Nord, Thon Hotel Nordlys, Alpkit, Chillswim, H2Open Magazine - Open Water Swimming, Dagsavisen, Dagbladet
Watch the video: Into The Maelstrom, Part Two
Calum, Beth, Serena, Luke and myself (Jack) all escaped the late night bustle of London on the Caledonian Sleeper train. We hurtled north and spent the early night in the lounge around a table crowded with small bottles and cards.
The following morning we woke to our first glimpse of Scotland. Scree-striped hills and leaden lochs swept by the little windows. We sat bleary-eyed, sipping coffee and watching the first familiar swathes of heather and the rugged tors rising over stands of Scots pines. Sometimes the train would slow and we’d peer into little bungalow gardens, before plunging into deep forest, where bracken seas poured between the scattered trees.
By the time we reached Ullapool - after taking a taxi from the station at Inverness - we were ready to get out, stretch their legs and inhale the fresh air. Then we headed down onto the pebbled beaches, found crabs under the rocks and skimmed stones over the kelp forests. We also wandered to the harbour and Luke tested his new rod while two seals prowled in the nearby oily water around the fishing boats.
In the evening we met up with a local wild swimmer, Norman, and went for an acclimatisation swim in the loch. We found a stretch of water away from the boats and ditched the wetsuits to find out just how cold it really was. I was immediately surprised by the size of the splayed lion's mane jellyfish - much bigger than any of the ones we’d seen in Norway. There were several blooms that pulsated a few feet beneath the surface, warbling menacingly with thick wads of tentacles. However, apart from those gelatinous stingers, the water was lovely, with far-reaching visibility - not to mention the abundance of fish, crabs, kelp and coral. The only thing we were missing was a seal…
Norman told us how the seals come to inspect him when he was swimming. Apparently they were protecting their pups at that time of year, which made them a little more hostile (they weren't known to give anything worse than an inquisitive nudge).
Later, as the sun packed up its rays behind the hills, we ate fish and chips and chatted about the swim and how nice it was to be away from the city. Then we wound-up the night drinking cider and listening to live music in a harbour pub, hushed by a smooth, acoustic blend of Cat Stevens and Tracy Chapman.
The next day (Friday, August 25th), we prepared for our swim down the full 12.8km length of Loch Broom, from Ullapool to Clachan church. The church is where our Grandma Wild is buried, alongside our Great Grandma. I also had a lovely chat with Fiona Stalker on BBC Radio Scotland (35-mins in) and told her stories of Grandma's life on the lochside and how she became known as the Wild Lady of Loch Broom.
That afternoon the rest of the happy clan arrived, including big brother Robbie, his girlfriend Valeriya, old school mate Sandy, his girlfriend Millie, their stone-fetching black Labrador Bonnie, Mum (the Wild Swimming Mother), James Silson (the trusty Human Swiss Army Knife), Aunty Fiona, Uncle Mike, cousin Katie and another hardy local wild swimmer, Colin, who'd be joining for the loch swim.
Once everyone was there we all celebrated and ate together and watched the sunset from the harbour before hitting the hay for an early night.
When it came to Saturday morning we were all a little groggy and midge-bitten but ready for the swim. We woke at 5 and took the kayaks down to a jetty close to Ullapool harbour. Millie then donned the wild cat costume we'd been given by our sponsor Wildcat Action and we took a few photos with Colin and Norman, before heading out (on what would be an almost 5 hour swim in 13C water) through a crowd of anchored boats.
Along the way we saw shoals of fish darting through the clear, greenish water. We dodged and swerved down a narrow channel, later nicknamed Jellyfish Alley, and slowly crawled a seemingly endless, but mercifully sunlit, final mile, alongside the familiar bracken-patched hills that overlook Grandma Wild's old white bungalow. The brackish 13C water was punishing and, as the hours slid by, we became very thankful for the neoprene covering most of our bodies, including my webbed gloves, which Beth's Mum had posted to the hotel at the last minute.
Nevertheless we all made it!
Looking back, it was one of the greatest experiences we’ve had in the water. We were even joined at intervals by a few shy seals and porpoises (unfortunately they kept their distance). And all the while, with every stroke, we’d drawn closer to the free matriarch who'd first inspired these mad adventures together as the Wild Swimming Brothers.
Finally, we were met on the boggy marshland below Clachan by a host of lochsiders, all of whom had known and loved Grandma. They kindly revived all incoming swimmers with coffee and sausage and bacon sandwiches. Then everyone went up in a group to Clachan church and laid Katie's wreath, made of seaweed, heather and wildflowers, on Grandma's grave, warmed by the knowledge that we'd done her proud.
We finished this swim in memory of our Grandma Wild and we also wanted to raise awareness about the plight of the Scottish Wildcat and that was why we partnered with Scottish Wildcat Action.
The history of this striped beauty describes a true survivor. Roughly 9000 years ago, at the end of the last Ice Age, furry European wildcats crossed the ice and arrived on the rugged, drifting landmass that later became Britain. In the many years that followed, interbreeding with domestic cats, habitat destruction and persecution have all but wiped these wildcats out. Now their last refuge is in the forested Scottish hills, where they are known locally as the Tiger of the Highlands.
Organisations like Scottish Wildcat Action are responding to the desperate need to promote and secure their protection. If you'd like to find out more about how you could support their current conservation plan, and save this wonderful creature, you can visit the Wildcat Action website below.
Find out more about the Scottish wildcat: Visit Scottish Wildcat Action
The Strait of the Dardanelles runs like a sinew between the Black Sea in the northeast and the Mediterranean to the southwest. It also connects the southwestern Aegean Sea to the inland Sea of Marmara and serves as a boundary line between the continents of Europe and Asia. As a link to all these expanses of open water it has become one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world. And so it was no surprise - when we veered onto the coastline, crammed into a taxi with a Turkish Tourism graduate gesturing to ruins as they swept by outside - that we peered through the thin screen of trees and looked across the water at huge tankers and freighters filled with cargo. What did come as a surprise though, was that giddy James Bond moment when we suddenly sighted the bridge of a Russian submarine, slicing through the central current.
It was clear then that we were a long way from the sleepy rivers and babbling brooks of Cumbria. This was the open heart of Turkish industry – that often fought-over stretch of water, the shores of which were scattered with the dusty ruins of Ottoman castles and ancient cities. And right then it became clear that this was going to be a swim unlike any we’d attempted before.
They call it the Oldest Swim in the World – a transcontinental crossing of the historic Dardanelles, from Europe to Asia. We were here with the company Swim Trek (run by Simon Murie, himself an English Channel swimmer and coach who broke the Australian record for crossing the Gibraltar Straits), on one of the many swim adventures they organise around the world, from the Galapagos Islands to Croatia.
On the day of the swim we were thrust into a group of Aussies, Kiwis, South Africans, Irish, Welsh and English - all grouped together in our 75 green caps, amidst the sea of yellow caps belonging to the Turks. We left the ferry in a slow herd and flowed along the roadside, passing bystanders who gawped at us and early risers in their apartments. The risers patrolled their balconies with little steaming cups and watched our solemn sea-bound march like sailor’s wives on their widow’s walks.
Two salient forts – sand-faded vestiges of the Ottoman empire – were perched atop either side of the strait. We walked to the bay where we’d be starting our swim, close to one of these forts. A barrier separated us from the sand. Officials walked up and down it, patrolling our confines. They checked their watches at intervals and signalled each other. We were all itching to get started. Wearing nothing but our suits and caps. Goggles hung pinched between fingers. Colourful jammers and trunks jumbled together.
This was the start of our Hellespont Swim Race.
We’d taken a boat ride across the Dardanelles the day before and been told about the two currents that flow through the strait in opposite directions. A strong saline undercurrent sweeps along the farthest shore. This would make it hard for us to exit. Simon had explained that we’d have to aim left and fight the current and make for a tall flagpole that jutted up from the hills. Then after the flag you could sight several other landmarks – a stadium, the minarets of a mosque… – we’d have to pick them out until we could cut a direct sprint for the exit ramp at the harbour. Apparently only the strongest Turkish swimmers swam a straight line to the finish. For the rest of us it was likely our paths would turn out like the scribblings of a drunk with an Etch A Sketch.
I shuffled up to the barrier and gripped the metal. Calum was talking excitedly to a huddle of Swim Trekkers. Behind us the recumbent town of Eceabat was just waking up. Stray dogs lounged at the roadside. I stared across the water and measured the crossing in my mind. I reminded myself that the Thames Marathon had been 14km in total. This was closer to 5km.
Enjoy it, I told myself.
The eastern shore rippled in the heat. A layer of mist had settled over the water. I looked at the little mosques and forts and white buildings of Çanakkale. The coast itself was arid – the vegetation sparse and the shoreline crowded with chalky rocks the same colour as the buildings.
Just then a trio of eager Turkish men muscled their way to the front and stealthily heaved the barrier back. One of the officials caught sight of them and rushed over, waving his clipboard. Amidst the commotion a horn blasted suddenly and the front lines surged forward and sprinted down the sand into the shallows, like wildebeest galloping into crocodile-infested waters. We wished luck to our group of new friends: Matt, Otto, James, Dee and Sarah. Then we jumped down onto the sand and bumped into another Swim Trekker – the quick-fire Irish whippet, Ed. The night before Ed had been a bag of nerves, inhaling a mound of chicken and rice and jittering at the table. He asked us all about the minor details of our preparations. Now you could see he was determined to get in the water and make it across. He talked in all directions as he weaved his way through the chaos and forgot to step on the starter mat and rushed back and re-joined the group beside us.
“Right lads – you’re only here once,” he called, as he disappeared into the mass of swimmers.
The morning sun lit-up the water as we waded in with the heat on our bare backs. We stopped amidst the rush of bodies and pulled down our goggles. A fever swept across the churned water and I let out a cheer as swimmers dove into the shallows around us. Splashes of water erupted in all directions. Slowly we slumped forward and went under and pulled ourselves through the swirling green quiet – that veil of bubbles. When I came up there were swimmers on all sides of me. I picked out Calum’s Selkie jammers and drew up alongside him. Then we set off together into the long, bobbing channel of fishing boats, dinghies and kayaks.
The next half hour was as pleasant as any time I’ve spent in the water. The currents were slow and gentle and the waves rocked us and rolled with our strokes as we rose and sank over the chop. The bed disappeared quickly, but the sun still stretched its arrows down far below us and caught the umbrellas of clear jellyfish as they rose from the murk and glowed under faint shoals of fish. Calum and I kept a quick-ish pace and timed our strokes together and cut a path through the criss-crossing wakes of other swimmers and saw the steep sun rays dropping through their bubbles. I let my feet trail and felt the warm water threading through my fingers and washing over me. I also kept sight of the line boats and the flagpole ahead of us. We didn't stop until we were cast under the prow shadow of an incoming boat.
We looked up to see Simon grinning down at us.
“Stroke’s looking good,” he said.
He told us we were making a good direct line with the Turkish bunch. If we continued as we were the current could sweep us too far right and cause us to miss our exit. He advised us to cut a hard left towards the boats on our farthest side.
We took his advice and swerved against the current and kept digging in until we floated onto the glassy waters around the exit ramp, shielded by the harbour wall. A moment earlier a figure had swept past us as we crawled through the water. When we peeled our goggles off we saw that it was James - one of the South African Swim Trekkers. He grinned at us and raised his arms as he burst from the water.
"I beat the Wild Swimming Brothers."
In the end we made the 5km crossing in just over an hour.
That night we drank with our group and heard stories of encounters with sharks and Pacific Island swim spots and huge events that draw thousands of aquatic attendees. A handful of our swimmers had won medals and the Efes was flowing and spirits were high. Personally it was one of the best swims I’ve been part of so far. It was totally different to our swims in the Arctic Circle (much warmer) and our swim down the River Eden (much shorter). The challenge had been to stay calm and find an inward rhythm amidst the 700 other swimmers. But that wasn't such a hard task with such beautiful surroundings and far-reaching water clarity and the silent company of all those other people of different nationalities, threading through the water. Aside from the first few minutes the pace had been gentle and unhurried. Some of the older swimmers had even swum breaststroke the whole way. We'd had enough time to enjoy the water and film and dive down at times to that dim curve where the temperature dropped.
Anyone wondering whether or not to book the Hellespont swim next year - we make a lot of recommendations for swim events and sometimes you do worry if the swimmer catches a bad day, or bad weather, there's a chance they won’t get a good experience out of it. The Hellespont is different though. Even if the currents turn on you – a boatload of swimmers didn’t make it and still came out on the opposite coast with huge smiles– the atmosphere of excitement and pride is irresistible. You'll be aware all the while that you are taking part in something special. The great march of industry grinds to a halt. The freighters and submarines draw back. And for two hours the Strait of the Dardanelles belongs to a bubble-kicking, current-pawing, salt-water-spitting pod of swimmers from around the world.
All there for the same reason. All enjoying the water with barely a word passed between them.
This is something you'll remember - this good thing that you did...
Sign up for the next big event: Visit the Swim Trek website