Swim stars on their way

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Legends of the growing open water world are on their way to the Isle of Bute. Don Currie went there to find out more.

One of the most dramatic outdoor trends of the past couple of years has been the upsurge in popularity of open water swimming – and that can only be boosted by an international event coming to the Isle of Bute.

I go there to meet Robert Hamilton, who has organised the Global Open Water Swimming Conference, to be held at Mount Stuart from 19-21 September, and to sample the joys of sea swimming with some members of the Wild West Swimmers group.

Over coffee in Rothesay, Robert sets the scene: “It’s going to be amazing. The speakers we have lined up are some of the best in the world at what they do, and it will be great to have them all together in one place.”

Robert runs Vigour Events, which stages open water races for all abilities on lochs all over Scotland, and putting the conference together has been a great chance for him to raise the sport’s profile further.

Open water swimming in Bute

So who are those speakers? Well, they include racers, endurance swimmers, ice swimmers, coaches and film makers. Here are just a few:

  • Colleen Blair, of Aberfeldy, who has swum the English Channel and the length of Loch Ness, circumnavigated both Manhattan and Jersey and become the first swimmer to cross the Pentland Firth
  • Stephen Redmond, of Ireland, who is the first person to swim the Oceans Seven, a set of channel swims that includes the Strait of Gibraltar and the Cook Strait, between the North and South islands of New Zealand
  • Anna-Corin Nordin, of Sweden, the first woman to do the Oceans Seven
  • Ram Barkai, of South Africa, who completed the southernmost ice swim ever performed in Antarctica
  • Kimberley Chambers, of New Zealand, a ballerina who turned to open water swimming after a horrific leg injury that doctors feared would mean amputation
  • Shelley Taylor-Smith, of Australia, a seven-times world marathon swimming champion
  • Kevin Murphy, who has swum the English Channel more times than any man

Colleen Blair, the first speaker on the above list, coaches swimming at Breadalbane Community Campus in Aberfeldy, where I get hold of her later for a swift chat on the phone. She tells me one of her favourite achievements was swimming the North Channel, between Donaghadee in Northern Ireland and Portpatrick. “It’s tough, and it’s one I had always wanted to do.”

She now hopes to become the first person to swim the Minch, between the mainland and the Western Isles. Colleen, who belongs to the traditionalist, swimsuit-wearing branch of the sport, will be speaking on the long, rich history of open water swimming in Scotland. “I’ve been looking into it, and it’s fascinating,” she says.

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Feeling that my own record – a few kilometres in various lochs in the Trossachs and a placing towards the back of the pack in last year’s Great Scottish Swim – does not really pass muster, I try to get in the right mindset for the afternoon’s swim.

The sky is grey and the wind brisk as we head for Kerrycroy Bay, on the east coast of the island, for our dip. Our plan to swim at the more exposed Stravanan Bay, on the west coast, has been abandoned as the waves are looking way too lively there for a saltwater novice such as myself.

bute-inThere are four of us braving the water, two wearing wetsuits – myself and Pauline McKeown, who is a teacher on the island and commutes there daily from her home in Bishopton, Renfrewshire. Karen Weir, of Paisley, and Kim Lane, of Glasgow, are clearly made of sterner stuff and stride into the water in their swimsuits. To make us easier to spot, all of us wear bright orange caps provided by Robert, and have orange tow-floats attached to our waists on the end of a strap.

Even allowing for the wetsuit, it’s not that cold. The water is beautifully clear and there are thousands of tiny fish darting about beneath us – don’t ask me what species – as we round the sandstone breakwater.

buteunderCompared to what we have seen at Stravanan, the swell is minimal and the mood relaxed as we swim up and down the bay. The Wild West Swimmers, who meet up frequently, using Facebook to co-ordinate their activities, are not a terribly serious group. They put the emphasis on fun, and we take turns to pose for Karen’s waterproof camera, doing handstands, sinking beneath the waves and leaping off the jetty until we start to feel chilly.

We dry off, get changed using handy Dryrobes provided by Robert, and take a stroll round the magnificent grounds of neighbouring Mount Stuart, where the conference is to be held. Anyone who has not seen this Victorian Gothic masterpiece, inspired by the Middle Ages and filled with soaring arches, stained glass and opulent furniture will love it.

We board the ferry back to Wemyss Bay, settle down with tea and biscuits and the Wild West Swimmers tell me what their sport means to them. Here are some soundbites:

Kim: “If you lie on your back and just look up at the clouds it gives you an amazing perspective on the world. It’s just lovely – it’s like a form of therapy. You get an adrenalin rush after getting out of the water.”

Karen: “You just forget your worries and swim. There’s nothing better than being in the middle of a loch with the beautiful scenery all around you. It’s a great escape and a great stress buster.”

Pauline: “I just love being among nature. I used to have insomnia and migraines, but since I’ve been doing this I sleep well and feel alert.”

Find out more about the conference and other open water swimming events at www.vigourevents.com



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2 comments on “Swim stars on their way
  1. Andy Walters says:

    Great article. Mount Stuart is the venue not Mount Stewart.

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