Last year saw the inaugural Scottish winter swimming championships which were held at the marina on Loch Tay in Perthshire. I wasn’t fully aware of them till after the event when I saw loads of posts on social media which looked fantastic…. So last November when entries opened for this year’s event I got a team together from our swim group, the Dales Dippers, and entered the 4 x 50 metre “Anything Goes” relay where the rules are more relaxed (neoprene gloves and socks are allowed and fancy dress is encouraged). Realizing that accommodation would be highly sought after (several hundred competitors descending on a small highland village in the off season) I got onto Booking.com and found what appeared to be a fab property within walking distance of the marina and put our names down.
The drive up on Friday was uneventful but spectacular in the latter stages when Ria and I arrived among the snow covered hills with the sun still shining.
As we neared Aberfeldy we passed a fabulous small Loch which was partially frozen over… and there was a vehicle pulled up by the roadside and a figure in an ice hole in the water. We stopped to have a quick word (it was Jumpy James and his friend taking photos) before carrying on to find our accomodation, vowing to try for a dip on our homeward journey when time was on out side.
We soon arrived at “our” house and my swim buddy Johnny arrived about 10 minutes later, having detoured via Dunkeld to spy out another potential swim spot (do all wild swimmers do this??). We sorted out room allocations (Ria and I got the double with en suite!!) and then got the woodburner lit. It felt SOOOO cosy….
We had a bit of time to kill before our other swim team members were due to arrive, so we decided to have a mosey along to the marina to scope out the lay of the land for tomorrow and maybe have a quick dip in Loch Tay… We had a potter round, admired the hot tub and other facilites (including a slide from the sauna straight into the Loch), and then looked at the lanes already prepared in the marina for the next day.
We were just walking across the car park when we bumped into our lovely friends from the Dawn Dippers in Nottinghamshire. They were just going down for a dip so Johnny and I opened the car boot and got changed right there and then and trotted down to the Lochside to join them…
It was a delightful dusk dip with our friends, with the moon appearing and the snow capped hills in the background and the water temperature between 4 and 5 degrees. We both stayed in slightly longer than was sensible so got a fabulous shiver on after we got out…. bliss! We said our goodbyes and shivered/giggled our way back to the house to warm up the spicy sausage and bean casserole Johnny had brought along to share. The red wine was opened and the team hats with the Dippers I had made on top were prepared.
Our team members Sonia and Elaine arrived and the evening progressed (helped along by generous dollops of Jura malt whisky). It didn’t get too messy…. until we tried to see who would fit in the new Swimferal bag Johnny had brought along!
Saturday (competition day) dawned wet and gloomy so rather than spending all day standing about in the damp and cold we decided to complete registration then go waterfall chasing. I’d read about some big falls (the Falls of Acharn) about 1 mile beyond the marina with a scenic circular walk around them.
I had also found a Youtube video featuring Calum Maclean (instagram @caldamac) swimming in one of the pools of the upper falls.
It is hard to tell from the photos, but we quickly realised that these particular pools were off limits without a safety line – 15 to 20 feet of near vertical greasy and wet banking onto rocks below meant we would have to look elsewhere for our dip. We continued our circuit of the falls and as we got back down the hill and were approaching the village again we found our salvation…. We saw a smaller set of falls with a lovely pool and by scrambling and wading upstream a couple of hundred yards were able to get at it. Johnny was finally able to put his new Swimferal Turtleback bag through it’s paces and was delighted at how it worked, providing a dry space for clothes storage (it was peeing it down!) and somewhere to stand – or his case sit – without getting covered in mud.
The Burn was a brisk 3 degrees so we didn’t hang about long, but it felt so good for us to get a dip in the sort of environment that the Dales Dippers relish – a waterfall with a pool. Our return downstream turned into a bit of an epic though… there must have been a cloudburst higher up the fellside and the burn levels had come up by 6 to 12 inches in a very short space of time and getting back down was “interesting” involving wild garlic strewn mudbanks and tree roots!
We went back to the house for a warm through, clean clothes and a bite of lunch then returned to the marina in plenty of time to take in some of the atmosphere of the event before it was our turn to “perform”.
The outdoor swimming community is a fantastic one, more like one big happy family and it was lovely to see and meet people that you come across online or follow on Social media – lots of familiar faces who, whilst strangers are all there to share the swim love that cold water brings. It was lovely to have a quick chat with Lindsay Cole who swam with us at Addingham and Stainforth on her epic cycle ride to this event last year.
Pretty soon it was time to get changed and ready for our event. I have to say, warm changing rooms and somewhere to hang your kit is something of a novelty to someone who is used to wet ‘n windy riverbanks… We ventured down to the muster area and met some of our fellow competitors, The “Angels of the North” and “Jellybabies” among others who were all sporting fantastic costumes.
Before long we were called out to line up ready to walk down onto the pontoons and posed for the obligatory team photo with our Dipper hats raring to go.
The race itself was all a bit of a blur, but I did remember to follow our team name – “Smile and Wave” – and progress at a leisurely pace whilst enjoying the experience. I took time to swim a few strokes on my back, waving as I went, to look around and take in a fisheye view of the proceedings. No photos of this bit but watch the Youtube video linked below to see us in action. We troopsed back up the pontoons and met the Dawn Dippers sporting some AMAZING woolly hats to raise funds for charity…. They assured us that they were definitely anatomically correct!! So many people were gobsmacked and busy admiring them… Their team name…? Team Clitorati…. Fantastic!
After a soak and warm up in the hot tub we changed and went back to our house to plan the evening, arranging to meet up with the Dawn Dippers at a local hotel and share a big table (booking that was an entertainment in itself). This all worked out really well and we had a fabulous evening before going back to the house to check the whisky hadn’t gone off.
For the following morning a sunrise dip had been planned by the organizers to celebrate International Women’s day and Johnny, Sonia and Elaine woke up at silly o’clock and made their way along to the Crannog on the lochside to join 40 or so other swimmers in the cold water. Apparently it felt much colder than the previous day so I was glad I had stayed in bed..!
We had to be out of the house by 10 am so started packing and tidying and planning to drive in convoy back up to the frozen Loch to see if we could get a dip on the way home. Johnny was like a caged tiger at the thought of a proper icebreaking dip and spent the morning cleaning, breaking into random song and testing his flexibility.
Sonia meanwhile was more like a chilled out Polar Bear….
Ria had been quietly getting on with a tricky jigsaw in amongst all the other shenanigans and at the last minute before we had to leave, slotted in the last awkward piece of blue sky – Result!!
We all set off for the little Loch and, after a slight detour for Sonia to find a working cashpoint (3rd attempt lucky!), we drove through the peeing rain and parked up in a small forestry car park just beyond the Loch to get changed. The weather gods smiled on us and it faired up as we got out of the cars and walked back along the road like a bunch of giddy kippers.
We chose to dip at the end of the Loch nearest the car park where the ice was thickest but that meant there wasn’t a lot of depth to play with…. Undeterred, we set to breaking a space big enough to lie down in and had an expletive filled hilarious time messing about in the water and ice at the edge of the Loch.
All in all, a truly fantastic weekend in great company which I wouldn’t hesitate to repeat next year if at all possible. A massive thank you to Ria, Johnny, Sonia and Elaine – the houseparty! Big love to Sarah, Heather, Vic and Sally-Anne from team Clitorati and tremendous gratitude to Alice and the Swimwild UK team for organizing the event which ran like clockwork.