13/06/2011 by Carl Reynolds
For many a year I’ve poured over a map of Barra – the southernmost island of the Outer Hebrides archipelago. Initially it was to re-visit the island after a drunken few days back when I was a student; more recently with the idea of joining up the archipelago by swimming between each of the larger islands. Last summer I started planning. I needed a boat and crew that knew the waters, somewhere to stay, a few swimming friends and a time that wouldn’t clash with their various Channel endeavours. After an exhaustive search of Google, I established that this would be a feat that no-one had done before. But I am more than happy to be disproved; and as you’ll discover later I still have some crossings to do.
On Friday 4th June the odyssey began. A quick train ride up to St Neots to stay with Bryn, a fellow aquanaut, before we drove up to Kelso the next day.
Enroute we stopped at Ellerton Water to meet Outdoor Swimming Society types various, for a mile in its fresh waters. The water was warmer than the air and cleaner than the showers, but it was good to cool off after a two hour car journey up the A1. We then went cross country along the A68 to St Boswells and stayed the night with my parents; visiting my brother and the rest of the clan before resting for an early-ish start.
We stopped just north of Callender, in the Trossachs, for a swim on Loch Lubnaig, before getting on the five hour ferry out of Oban at 3. And then embarked on a enchanting crossing of the Minch via the shoreline of Mull; with islands various dotted about and the peaks of the west Highlands and Skye as background.
Our accommodation was the just-the-right-size-and-comfort St Barrs Cottage – I was fortunate to have a double bed to sprawl about in, but unfortunate to be sleeping in the room below the two rumbliest snorers known to man, Bryn and Tom. Meanwhile, giggling on the other side of the cottage rested Sarah and Claire.
At 9 that night we phoned Donald, our boatman, to see if we could venture out the next day. He gave us the all clear and we clambered aboard the Boy James at 8 the next morning to sail down to the Berneray Sound for our first crossing.
Tom, Sarah, Bryn and I got in for the first crossing. Donald brought us up close to Berneray to be greeted by the local seals. Tom checked the temperature at 10 degrees C – warmer than we expected – and we all decided to go skin. Tom wore his flowery pants, which put him off his stroke; and we quickly realised that even swimming on a slack tide (on a neap tide cycle) doesn’t prevent you from having to work against the current. What we thought would be a 16/17 minute crossing, turned out to be 25 minutes. But the exhilaration of that first swim set us up for the rest. Donald, and his crew Aileen and Frances, also dispelled their thoughts that we were incapable of swimming in these temperatures; and quickly got into the swing of making the week a great one.
To the big one. Mingulay to Pabbay is a shade over 3km in a straight line. And although we were swimming on a slack tide the Atlantic pours through these islands continuously. We all decided to suit up for the swim. Just under half way over, two of us got out – the current was strong and progress was not being made. And the bouyancy aids (aka wetsuits) were uncomfortable and a hinderance. Then Bryn got out. I was left to swim about half of it solo. It seemed to go on and on. And on. A few hundred metres out I saw excitement on the boat. Donald’s niece, Aileen, had decided to have a dip. She was convinced that the water would be fine, after seeing us Sassenachs swim in our skins. She dived. She got immediate Tourette’s Syndrome. But she stayed in for a few minutes and gave me some temporary alleviation. By now I was counting to a thousand – figuring it’d be less than that number of strokes to the cliffs. With 400 metres to go I had the urge to have tea and biscuits, but was told to get on with it. I did. I touched on Pabbay and can claim (I think?) to be the only person to have swam from Mingulay to Pabbay. One hour and ten minutes.
We whooped, we cheered, we shed tears of joy. Then back to Castlebay for lunch. Donald warned us that the weather was turning, but to meet him again at 2pm for the afternoon swim. I could have slept for the rest of the day, but the thought of another crossing got me going. It started to rain as we got on the boat and the water was lumpier than the morning. We sailed through the Sandray Sound, spotting a basking shark en-route before getting into the white-capping water of the Pabbay Sound. Tom said, ‘There’s no way I’m getting in that”, and we all agreed it’d be madness. Fortunately the Sandray Sound was calmer, so we stripped off for a quick km swim in skin and completed leg three – Sandray to Vatersay.
Then back to base for a good night’s rest and a slap up dinner, after arranging to meet Donald the following afternoon once he’d dropped some hardy souls on Mingulay for a few days of twitching.
We woke to rain. After a leisurely breakfast we headed for the north of the island to explore future possibilities. Fetching up at the airport on the beach, we crossed the dunes and spend a while on Traigh Eais with its beautiful body surfing rollers. Then back round Barra checking out other beaches down the west coast.
After lunch we dropped down to the harbour to meet Donald, who did not have good news for us. It was even rougher in the Pabbay Sound and white-capping all round the island with a big swell. Undeterred we decided to swim the short hop from Vatersay to Barra unaccompanied (a couple of hundred metres) and do a circumnavigation of Kisimul Castle in Castlebay.
Hopping back into the car in our cossies and towels, we drove round to Castlebay harbour and swam out and around the castle. We’re pretty sure there’s a sewage outlet on the far side of the castle, so don’t recommend this swim – despite it’s allure.
Wednesday. We knew it’d be too mad down at Pabbay, but we’d seen our crossings off the north of Barra and they were a little more sheltered. We agreed to meet Donald at ten – an hour and a half before the tide turns. He suggests we swim north to south. We pile in the boat – meeting him at the Eriskay ferry jetty – and head north across the Sound of Barra for the islets off Eriskay called Na Stacan Dubna. Donald tells us it’s 2450 yards in a straight line to Gighay, but the water’s coming in from the west and we’ll have to aim for the peaks on Barra. We all do it. An hour and ten to an hour and thirty. We’ve been swimming sideways, but going in a straight line. I’ve been watching yellow hats bob up and down, avoiding gobfuls of sea water from the waves and dodging jellies, but feel on top of the world. I guess I nearly am.
Bryn’s cold, I’m elated. Three more short crossings back to Barra.
Donald tells us that even he could swim from Gighay to Hellisay. Sarah and I get in for a very quick crossing, before we cross from Hellisay to Lingay, Lingay to Fhada and back to the jetty on Barra. Five crossings in the day. We’re elated, cold and stacking the carbs in. Will we get another day? Donald’s doubtful, but we agree to meet him at the Vatersay jetty later to discuss the possibility.
No further out-at-sea swims possible, we head for the sheltered beach in Vatersay Bay.
Swim, frolic and ponder the amount of food a swimmer can eat.
Thursday – our last day on the island. Resigned to the fact that we’ve missed one leg of our odyssey (Pabbay to Sandray), we console ourselves with a long play at Eoligarry Beach.
Head home for another monster dinner, before a final sunset swim at the Bagh Siar on Vatersay.
Friday morning and on the ferry by 7am. Bye to Barra, Liz and our lovely boatman, Donald.