Braving the deep water

Wild swimming enthusiast Matt Barr takes on the tide in a notorious Scottish whirlpool at Corryvreckan

If you want to draw attention to yourself in Oban, tell the locals you're planning to swim across the Corryvreckan whirlpool. It certainly gets the attention of my cab driver, who almost crashes the car when I tell him my plans. "You're going to swim the Corryvreckan?" he repeats incredulously. "My God! Have you seen it?"

The next day, as I prepare to jump into the formidable-looking body of water, his reaction makes a lot of sense. For one thing, Corryvreckan is looking a lot more whirlpool-like than I'd been anticipating when I planned my trip from the comfort of my living room. The water is bucking and rolling in a truly alarming manner.

The worried tones of Peter, the pilot of our tiny boat, aren't helping either. "You've only got half an hour before the tide changes, so you're just going to have to go as quickly as you can. Don't stop. Put your head down and go." I leap over the side like a porpoise on a space hopper and start swimming as if my life depends on it.

A tad overdramatic? Perhaps. But then, this is a stretch of water with a terrifying reputation. The mile-wide strait of locally notorious water that separates Jura from Scarba in the Inner Hebrides is said to be one of the largest whirlpools in the world. It is also said that the Royal Navy classifies it as officially "unnavigable". The whirlpool's most famous victim is undoubtedly George Orwell, who was shipwrecked here while staying on Jura to write 1984.

So why swim in such a treacherous place? Blame the recent craze for "wild" swimming. Once the preserve of a few hardy enthusiasts, today there are books (such as Daniel Start's Wild Swimming), television shows (Alice Roberts' Wild Swimming for BBC4), organised charity events (including the hugely popular Great Swim events) and reams of media coverage dedicated to this flourishing new sport.

Kate Rew, author of Wild Swim, runs the Outdoor Swimming Society and thinks that the desire to experience the freedom of outdoor swimming has always been there. "I think all people really needed was the idea of it: of becoming an opportunistic swimmer, a swim tourist, who takes the plunge not just in places they know, at expected times or seasons, but wherever they go."

The holiday company SwimTrek, which organised my Corryvreckan swim, is another reason why the movement has gained such momentum. Run by Channel swimmer Simon Murie, it runs guided swimming trips all over Europe, from frigid dips in Finnish lakes to balmy missions in the Greek islands. Then there are the popular one-off event swims such as Alcatraz, the Dardanelles strait in Turkey – and the Corryvreckan. Mexico's Baja peninsula and the British Virgin Islands are also on the firm's agenda.

My initiation into the world of wild swimming came in 2007, when I swam across the Dardanelles, the channel that separates Asia from Europe. I'd been inspired by Lord Byron, official patron saint of all wild swimmers and the first man to swim the stretch of water back in 1810.

After battling my way across in a respectable 75 minutes, I was hooked. Soon I began to look for other similar challenges – which is how I eventually found myself in a tiny boat, bobbing around in the boisterous Corryvreckan. Mine is a familiar story among wild swimmers, I learn from my fellow whirlpool tamers. Graham, a local, swims in the sea each day and has been building up to take on Corryvreckan for years. Diana and Jennifer are using it as part of their preparation for a cross-Channel relay swim during the summer. The tension is palpable as we listen to our pre-trip briefing.

The Corryvreckan owes its unpredictable nature to some unique underwater topography and strong currents that race through these features from the Atlantic. As the water rushes forth, the tide swiftly reaches a speed of 8.5 knots and produces the violent waves, whorls and whirls that can toss boats around at will. That's why we're going to cross at slack tide, when the flow of water is at its calmest. It's the only safe time.

It all sounds fine on dry land, but my heart is pounding as Peter talks us through it all. And that's before I've even immersed my head beneath the icy waves, usually the main threat to an open-water swimmer's short-term health. Sure enough, as soon as I hit the water, I experience the reflex action that anybody who has experienced a cold shower knows all too well. My heart starts racing; my throat instantly tightens and my breathing becomes laboured and forced.

It's not the ideal start, especially as we've had it drummed into us that we have to complete the swim in 30 minutes if we're to beat the changing tide. For the first 50 or so yards, I have to battle a rising sense of panic, something also caused by a slightly eerie feeling I usually experience at the beginning of any open-water swim, a primordial fear of nameless deep-sea monsters nagging at the back of the subconscious.

Soon, though, my breathing is under control and I can relax and begin to enjoy the challenge of battling the current and waves. After 25 minutes, I look up and see land looming close. I'm going to make it.

The swim over, I clamber back into the pilot boat and gratefully grab a cup of tea. I'm shaking, a combination of tiredness, adrenalin and endorphins. True, at 31 minutes, I'm just outside the half hour target time I had set myself, but it is an amazing feeling to accomplish a goal that I've been working towards for the past few months. I'm almost ready for the next one.

Travel Essentials

Getting there

First ScotRail (08457 55 00 33; serves Oban from Glasgow Queen Street; connection options from 08457 48 49 50 and

Visiting there

SwimTrek (01273 739713; offers escorted trips to swim Corryvreckan (3-15 August) from £90pp including an acclimatisation swim. Hotel/travel extra.

More information

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'
filmReview: A week late, Secret Cinema arrives as interactive screening goes Back to the Future
Chancellor George Osborne, along with the Prime Minister, have been 'complacently claiming the economy is now fixed', according to shadow Chancellor Ed Balls
i100... which is awkward, because he is their boss, after all
Arts and Entertainment
Sydney and Melbourne are locked in a row over giant milk crates
artCultural relations between Sydney and Melbourne soured by row over milk crate art instillation
Arts and Entertainment
Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux play teeneage lovers in the French erotic drama 'Blue Is The Warmest Colour' - The survey found four times as many women admitting to same-sex experiences than 20 years ago
filmBlue Is The Warmest Colour, Bojack Horseman and Hobbit on the way
Arts and Entertainment
Preparations begin for Edinburgh Festival 2014
Edinburgh festivalAll the best shows to see at Edinburgh this year
Kenny Ireland, pictured in 2010.
peopleBenidorm, actor was just 68
View from the Llanberis Track to the mountain lake Llyn
Du’r Arddu
environmentA large chunk of Mount Snowdon, in north Wales, is up for sale
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Morrissey pictured in 2013
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    SQL DBA/ C# Developer - T-SQL, C#.Net

    £45000 - £55000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Working with an exciting ...

    Sales and Office Administrator – Sports Media

    £23,000: Sauce Recruitment: A global leader in sports and entertainment is now...

    C++ Software Engineer - Hounslow, West London - C++ - to £60K +

    £40000 - £60000 per annum + Pension, Healthcare : Deerfoot IT Resources Limite...

    VB.NET and C# developer (VB.NET,C#,ASP.NET)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: VB.NET a...

    Day In a Page

    Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

    Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

    Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
    Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

    Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

    When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
    5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

    In grandfather's footsteps

    5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
    Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

    Martha Stewart has flying robot

    The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
    Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

    Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

    Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
    A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

    A tale of two presidents

    George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

    The dining car makes a comeback

    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
    Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

    Gallery rage

    How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

    Eye on the prize

    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
    Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

    Women's rugby

    Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices