Summer Holidays Swim

A chance encounter around a birthday barbeque at Hynish, a chat about achieving seemingly impossible things and 3 days later I was swimming from Tiree to Coll with someone I’d only just met.

Such is Tiree and the friends and people you meet. The next few days were spent planning. I thought I would be able to swim the distance but the sea can be very unforgiving around these islands. People have waited days if not weeks to swim across only for conditions not to be favourable. The water is cold and Tiree is often very windy and the currents can be strong.

We needed to know the tides, the swell and the direction of current and through various Apps and social media realised we might have a chance of making the 2 miles or so. The swell was set to drop later in the week which would help. We needed a support team and a helpful kayaker and the owner of a RIB volunteered; after all we had to return somehow and swimming back would not be an option!

I was staying in the Wee Cottage at Caolas at the eastern end of Tiree and so could check out potential starting points for the swim. The green lateral buoy in the Gunna Sound might be a useful navigation point. The tide and current suggested Tiree to Coll might be easier and we would be closer to a shore towards the end of the swim, but the predicted prevailing wind might cause some difficulty. Wednesday before high tide looked promising but the current direction meant we might still be in the water around the time of the weekly Barra to Tiree ferry, a definite no-go!

As it turned out fog was also a problem on Wednesday which might be a worry for our next opportunity before low tide the following day. However on the day, the Tiree weather did not disappoint: no fog, light winds and glorious sunshine. A trip to the Co-op for some Vaseline, a borrowed swim float, my wet suit, goggles, a swim cap and my new experienced swim buddy and we were ready, sun tan lotion already applied.

Our kayaker had been joined by a double kayak team but our RIB support was nowhere to be seen. It turns out the tides had left the RIB high and dry in Scarinish harbour and some effort was required to refloat the boat. With the team finally assembled and a last check on the various Apps and a visual of the sea conditions, we set off from the north end of the beach at Caolas in the lee of some skerries immediately offshore. Perhaps subconsciously drawn or perhaps pushed by the current we headed closer to the green lateral buoy and the western end of Gunna than expected which was fine from the prevailing northerly wind. However it meant that we were swimming against the current as we turned to swim along the southern shore of Gunna towards Coll. There was a moment when, despite being in the lee of Gunna, the wind picked up and current pushed against us and the seaweed was clearly trailing in the opposite direction from where we wanted to go. With help from the support kayaker we were able to find an easier route and be reassured that the conditions were better further ahead. We were also joined by some curious seals whose dark shapes would occasionally loom into view underwater making it obvious who had really mastered open water swimming.

Fortunately, despite seeing several jellyfish, we did not come across any Lion’s mane jellyfish but it was too early this year to see any basking sharks and thankfully the pod of Orcas I subsequently heard about on the ferry home from Tiree were not in the area at the time of our swim.

The owner of Gunna was out in a dinghy and our kayak support team spent some time chatting with him which made negotiating the various skerries towards the south eastern tip of Gunna more of a challenge for us and the RIB. Suddenly we could distinguish between the sandy beaches of Gunna and those on Coll. After almost one and a half hours in the water we could see the finish and realised we had an excellent chance of making the passage.

As we approached the straight between Gunna and Coll we could feel the current pulling us northward and we had to re-calculate our landing point on Coll. At one point the water was so shallow we thought we might be able to walk across but the sand bank rapidly fell away much to the relief of the RIB skipper. We came ashore at the underwater cable markers on Coll 4.141kilometres and 1 hour 54 minutes from our starting point. What an amazing feeling, I had completed my first island to island swim adventure. The return to Tiree and friends and family was certainly quicker and easier.

Thank you to Alastair the Kayaker, Neil the RIB skipper and Meg my experienced swim buddy. Checklist: Wetsuit, goggles and cap. Swim float. Suncream. Currents, tides, wind and weather check. Experienced swim buddy Support team.

~Alex Jones