The bruises are fading but the sense of elation certainly isn’t. We were swept under Bonar Bridge by the outgoing tide at 2pm last Monday. After several years of fantasising and a few months of planning and training (probably more planning than training, if I’m being honest), we had finished.
It has been such an adventure. At different times it has been a hard slog, it has been painful, it has been a laugh, it has been beautiful and peaceful, it has been wild and yes, it has even been scary. Most of all it has been so much fun and I’m so glad we did it.
The second weekend was very different from the first, as we anticipated. We had done the really hard swimming through the lochs on the first weekend. This time, although there were 20 km still to cover, the route was if not downhill, certainly downstream. There were three of us for this stretch; Saartje and I were joined by Guy Cartwright from North Berwick for Little Loch Shin and the River, as Saartje wasn’t sure her shoulder would stand up to 3 more days swimming. And Chris, my elder son, replaced his brother Tim as a kayaker as Tim was back at university.
The weekend started gently with a swim along Little Loch Shin, aided by a slight current towards the lower dam. John Quinn from the sailing club ferried us to and from the dams and showed us the height gauge, with the water at a mere 274 feet above datum. Oh we chuckled but didn’t quite appreciate the implications! On what was a beautiful afternoon we went round the dam to try the first stretch of the river – a small weir, a couple of pools, a rapids or two. All very manageable.
But then came Sunday. We tackled the River Shin on Sunday. There was rain. There were sunny spells. There was purported to be wind, but we were sheltered from that. There was most definitely water, very cold water and very fast water. The river is a mixture of deep pools, shallow rapids and waterfalls and how we felt every stone and boulder of those rapids. I’d like to say it was exhilarating but I think I was too focussed on survival to be exhilarated. It was one of those experiences that is better in hindsight, I think! We shivered and hustled our way down the river, taking the rapids feet first on our bums and catching our breath as we sculled through the pools. Concentration was all important. Discretion took over in places, and we walked along the anglers’ path around the more challenging rapids and falls. The kayakers managed better than the swimmers although they took the underwater route more than once, prompting an evening discussion of the potential merits of lanyards for the paddles. Even the kayakers walked around the Falls of Shin and by the evening the three swimmers and two kayakers had managed to negotiate most of those 274 feet of descent.
A blustery Monday arrived.We eyed up yet another set of rapids at Inveran, winced and launched ourselves into the water just downstream at 11 am to catch high water at the river mouth. I’m so too old for this. 11am was of course a critical, carefully calculated guesstimate on the back of an envelope but it seemed to work. What worked less well was our estimate of how long it would take to reach the open water of the Kyle. Over the final weir, a quick wave to Robbie the ghillie and his fishermen and we zipped down that river in no time. Now, the River Shin joins the River Oykel in the Kyle of Sutherland, and, after all the rain and lack of sunshine, there was a lot of icy cold water coming down the Oykel. As we reached the confluence, we found we could put a hand from the Shin stream through this wall of water into the Oykel stream. The trouble was, we also had to put our bodies into it. But by now the end was tangible and a little cold water was not going to deter us so on we went.
As we swam through the reed beds that line the Kyle, I took a breath to the left and had an Arthur Ransome moment. There was a boat in the reeds with a white bearded gentleman standing in it. I breathed to the right and carried on. It took me a moment to realise that this was the Water Bailiff, Kenny Campbell, who was providing a safety boat for the final leg in open water, and sure enough he was rowing behind our little group of kayaks and swimmers. Then we were under the railway bridge at Carbisdale and waving to Liz and John Quinn. We had hoped to meet our shore party somewhere along here but we were through before they arrived and on into the open part of the estuary. By now we were shivering and wanting coffee – which sadly was with the shore party – and the waves were building in front of winds from the west. We shouted to some builders at a grand design to put the kettle on but they just gawped and carried on. We made it round the corner and climbed ashore into the reeds to try and warm up for the next leg.
Kenny directed us towards the eastern shore as the best route and off we all went again in what felt like a sea of white. While the swimmers were struggling to breathe in the waves, the kayakers were having an even harder time in the short chop, trying to stay with us but constantly being blown downstream, and with a very real threat of capsize. Good job we had that safety boat! I became more relaxed once I realised that it was shallow enough to stand and no, I wasn’t about to die. So we made it across to the eastern shore and spotted our shore group who came bearing flasks and warm jackets. “Come on, not far to go!” they all said and more or less threw us back in. Good job, because I think I was wavering.
This really was the last bit. After seven days, 12 km of cycling and 56 km of swimming, there were 2 km left. And joy, the estuary narrowed into a channel just here and we flew down that channel, no swimming needed. 10 minutes or so for 2 km – we nearly beat the welcome party to it! The current was so strong that we struggled to swim across it to the finish point beneath Bonar Bridge and were in danger of overshooting. But we landed at the slipway and then they said “Go under the bridge!” so we did. And that was it. Party time. Finished.
There was a bit of a crowd at the end, huddling behind the boat shed in a biting wind with plastic mugs of bubbly and tea. All of our group of course – Iain and Chris Dixon, Pete Younger, Ian Kyle, Caroline Lamond, Saartje Drijver and myself – plus our East Lothian friend Ray Harris, Sam and Gavin Khan-McIntyre from Haddington, Liz and John Quinn from Lairg, Robbie Elliott the ghillie who had really wanted to jump in with us and Kenny Campbell who once carried a piano up Ben Nevis. The way you do. Don’t we all do crazy things? He quite understood why we wanted to swim through a gale to the finish.
Was the weather forecast right? Yes. When we were all leaving, Iain and I nipped back up the road to take a picture of the white water on the Kyle of Sutherland. It was calm. The forecast I posted in the previous blog had predicted the worst winds for 1300hrs on the Monday, precisely when we were in that most exposed part of the estuary.
Photo credits: 1) Liz Quinn; 2 & 3) Caroline Lamond. More will follow when I get copies.