Thursday July 3rd 2015.
The team met up at Glasgow airport for the drive north to Loch Awe. Helen (Gibbs) and I had flown up that morning from London, Helen (Liddle) had driven up the previous day, and joined Sam Plum, Debbie Taylor, our observer Tanja, and Roger (Sam’s husband) to pick up the minibus that would be our itinerant home for the next few days. The team was rounded off by Levi, Sam and Roger’s quite gorgeous black Labrador.
Just as a recap, the ‘3 Lakes Challenge’ popped into my head as an idea almost 2 years ago, as the swimming equivalent of the ‘National Three Peaks Challenge’, a very well known UK institution: The National Three Peaks Challenge (Source – Wikipedia) is an event in which participants attempt to climb the highest mountains of Scotland, England and Wales within 24 hours. It is frequently used to raise money for charitable organisations. Walkers climb each peak in turn, and are driven from the foot of one mountain to the next. The three peaks are:
- Ben Nevis / Beinn Nibheis (1,344 m or 4,409 ft), the highest mountain in Scotland
- Scafell Pike (978 m or 3,209 ft), the highest mountain in England
- Snowdon / Yr Wyddfa (1,085 m or 3,560 ft), the highest mountain in Wales
Our swimmy equivalent was (logically) to swim, as a relay, the length of the the longest lake in each country. The 24 hour goal was a little on the ambitious side, so we decided to stage the inaugural attempt over two days. All I did pretty much was have the idea, before handing over the organisation to Helen Liddle, who assembled the dream team, and coordinated the transport and support for the event. Thank you Helen!
A few hours later we arrived at one end of Loch Awe, where we were to start the swim the following morning. Inauspiciously, a steady drizzle, and clouds of Scotland’s trademark summer midges greeted us at the Torran Bay Hostel, at the extreme western end of the Loch.
Cliff our friendly boat-rental man also met us, dropping off our transport. Despite the limited visibility, it was clear that the Loch was very beautiful place, and we were in for a treat the next day. After dinner and an early night, we rose early, getting ourselves and our gear organised. The great thing about the Torran Bay was that it was right by our start point, so loading the boat was straightforward. Helen Gibbs, as the fastest of the team and lead-off swimmer, started the swim a matter of yards away from where she had slept the night before!
The surface of the Loch for much of the first half was mirror flat. As Helen and then I swam the first couple of hours, the weather was moody and atmospheric, with fog hanging over the hills and mountains, but a promise of sun glimmering further up the Loch.
Third in was Debbie. We were approaching a small island on the left shore of the Loch, and decided to shoot between the island and the bank. It soon became apparent that while Debbie was going to make it through, the boat was not! We waved Debbie on, telling her we would meet her on the other side, after doubling back round the island. Off she swam into the misty gloom.
While attempting to turn the boat around, the outboard engine on the boat died. This felt like a massive crisis, as our swimmer was by that time out of shouting range heading off up the Loch, and we had no power. It felt like the swim was massively at risk only 3 hours in; if Debbie got to the end of her hour and the next swimmer wasn’t ready by her side, that was game over, our self-declared rules broken – end of challenge. All hinged, therefore, on the spare outboard, which Cliff had told us we wouldn’t need, sparking up, and getting caught up with Debbie in time.
Thankfully it did work, and after 10 minutes or so we finally caught up with Debbie, who was still swimming like a trooper, and had assumed we had got stuck turning round. We called Cliff on the ‘phone, and a few hours later he came out and repaired the main engine. You can see on the Spot Tracker image that it looks like we crossed the island on the boat. We actually doubled back and went round it!
After Debbie came Helen L. After Helen L came Sam. And we made steady progress up the Loch, with the whole team swimming strongly. The sun came out, and the day developed into a very lovely mixture of sunshine and scattered clouds, warm air and light winds. The scenery was beautiful:
What wind there was was behind us, which was a piece of luck. We had all done enough swimming to know that even after an hour, swimming into head-on chop is no fun! After 8 hours or so, Cliff and his wife joined us again on the lake, bringing bacon sandwiches with him for the mid afternoon munchies. Top bloke!
And so it came to the business end. We had mentally planned for about 14 hours for this leg of the challenge, but favourable conditions and some strong, confident swimming all round was making it look like we might actually go under 12. Helen got in for her 3rd hour at hour 11, taking us up through the islands at the north-eastern end of the lake, and putting me, as second swimmer, within shooting distance of the finish.
The incredibly atmospheric ruined Kilchurn Castle loomed into view at the far end of the Loch as I jumped in. Despite being less than 3 km from the finish, we could not yet see the finish point, which we already knew to be the railway bridge over the River Orchy which the Loch turns into at its finish. As I jumped in, it was striking how much warmer the water was. It had been getting steadily warmer all day, from a starting point around 13C, up to 18C at the end, with some sun-warmed shallow patches feeling even warmer.
The water got very shallow at the top end of the lake, forcing me and the support boat over to the northern bank. Kilchurn Castle was over to my right now, and still I couldn’t see the finish, until suddenly there was lot of excited pointing from the boat. We had come round the corner, and there was the bridge, about 500 m distant.
I was immediately spurred into some faster swimming. Up went the stroke rate and the effort. There is nothing like seeing the end to inject a bit of energy into a swim. It soon became clear as I got closer to the end, that progress wasn’t quite as fast as I felt the effort deserved! It dawned on me that we were on a shallow river, and I was swimming against a small current. I was really keen to nail the swim there and then, especially as I had lost sight of the boat by that point, and thought there might be a possibility that again, the team might be marooned, on the hour, away from the swimmer in the water, just like we thought we were at risk of earlier in the day when we lost the engine.
As it turned out, we were OK, and I made it under the bridge with 12 minutes to spare. Furthermore, the boat finished under the next arch over from me at about the same time, having moved over from my left to my right, the side to which, in my haste to finish, I was no longer breathing to. At last, after 11 hours and 48 minutes, with a handful of butterfly strokes under the bridge, the first leg was over.
Loch Awe had far surpassed expectations. Everyone had swum hard, and enjoyed some remarkably ‘unScottish’ weather. Landing a 25 mile swim sub-12 hours was a great achievement for the team, and a great start to the 3 Lakes Challenge. Less than an hour later, we were all sitting down to some dinner and a well-earned pint in the garden of a local hotel, in balmy summer sunshine. In a couple of hours we would all be back aboard the minibus, for Roger to drive us overnight down to the English Lake District, ready for Leg 2 of the challenge, Windermere…….