When Peter Minshall, Houses for Heroes Chief Executive, organized a sponsored swim for his charity, he chose to cross the world’s third biggest whirlpool
THE swell was rising and falling ominously at the Scarba shore. “These are not the conditions for the swim,” warned the skipper of our boat. It looked as if our attempt to swim the Corryvrecken was doomed, The weather was so bad and the swell so great that our vessel, The Farsain, crossed the channel to shelter in the lee of Jura and wait for slack water. The Gulf of Corryvrecken, I remembered, was described in the Admiralty’s West Coast of Scotland Guide to Inshore Waters as ‘very violent and dangerous’.
Corryvreckan is the world’s third largest whirlpool. The floodtide races up the Sound of Jura through a half-mile bottleneck between the islands of Jura and Scarba. As the flood is squeezed into the strait, the water plunges down a six hundred foot hole, the rises to meet a subsea mountain which climbs to within one hundred feet of the surface. It then roars around either side, creating dangerous maelstroms before spilling out into the Atlantic. When the floodtide is spent, there’s slack water for about thirty minutes before the tide rushes back. If you’re planning to swim across, that half hour is the only possible time. My fellow swimmers numbered eight and included neighbours and family. My son, William, 17, was perhaps to become the youngest swimmer ever to cross the Gulf.
As staff members of Houses for Heroes, who are building another 38 homes for those severely wounded in Afghanistan, we wanted to raise funds for the cause. It It was a three-part challenges; land, sea and air. I’d do the sea part, Ann Hamilton would walk from Inverness to Edinburgh Castle, and Caroline Wilkinson would complete a parachute jump.
When at last we entered the water, it wasn’t the cold but the inconsistent sea that threw us. I initially inhaled so much brine that I took time to develop a rhythm but eventually it was possible to marvel at the silent deep green water below and watch the silver bubbles rushing past. Sometimes I could see the odd red hat of my fellow swimmers ahead but mostly I was on my own. Suddenly I was trashed by a huge wave, knocking all breath from my body and leaving me gasping. Scarba, I noticed, was obstinately no closer. “Is this going to work?” I asked myself. Keep to the drill, I repeated, keep steady, keep the rhythm. Gradually, with each plunging stroke, I moved closer to Scarba, even though I was drifting to the right. Jellyfish way below contrasted with the towering black cliffs ahead. I rose and fell as eddies twisted and pulled, trying to break my rhythm.
Unexpectedly, on the up-roll, I experienced the exhilaration of surfing and felt a surge of energy. Nothing was going to stop me now and just as the cliffs seemed right overhead, the cry came from the boat: “You’ve got to touch the rock.” This proved interesting as every time I tried the swell sucked me back again but eventually by grabbing the lasagne-like seaweed, I pulled myself forward, slapped the rock and did a back flip away, thinking that’s worth a dram if noting else. As I re-boarded The Farsain a welcome bottle was thrust into my hand and the accompanying HMS Smiter cheerily sounded her siren.
There is something enchanting about swimming between two Scottish isles and to have done it in such good company was special. To do it for Houses for Heroes was an honour but to do it for the soldiers themselves was profound. We did it! And my son, William, is today the youngest known swimmer to have swum the Corryvrecken. Now where’s my whisky glass?
Peter Minshall is CEO of Houses for Heroes Scotland (Scottish Veterans’ Garden City Association).