Following months of anticipation I finally set off on the SwimTrek Outer Hebrides trip this August, having made an impulsive decision to book some 8 months earlier. I was full of both excitement and trepidation: excitement at the prospect of spending a week doing my favourite activity in my favourite place in the world (probably); trepidation because it was to be spent on board a ship. As someone who has never spent more than a few hours at most on a ship, spending 6 nights was to be a make or break type of experience!
After an exhilarating flight across from Glasgow to Barra, taking in the sights of the Inner Hebrides from the air and a beach landing, we took a bus down to Castlebay where ‘The Lady of Avenel’ greeted us. We met our guides Pete and Tim, and were fortunate too to have Simon Murie with us on the maiden trip in the outer Hebrides. We couldn't have asked for better guides, with great knowledge of the sea and all things tidal, and plenty of experience of ‘wind over tide’ (to be avoided apparently). They found the best swims possible in Hebridean weather conditions and gave great variety as well as challenge to the swims. I couldn't have felt in better hands, with not a moment of anxiety at any point on the trip, even when facing (for me) huge swells and strong tides – it was fun because quite clearly our guides knew what they were doing, or at least gave a confident impression!
The Hebrides brought all that I expected and more. Swimming was a fabulous mix of challenging crossings, explorations of huge sea-lochs and magnificent coastal swims with plenty of fish, marine flora and seals to spot. Wonderful long white sand beaches and turquoise waters greeted us in the moorings which our skipper Ernst managed to find, allowing for some paddle boarding or land based explorations, while our captain Stephan took the opportunity to take to the skies on his Paramotor. From the ship deck we could spot plenty of seals, cormorants and gannets, as well as eagles, and a basking whale was even spotted. A gin and tonic watching a west coast sunset just finished off a perfect day of Hebridean swimming.
As for staying on board a ship for 6 nights… It was wonderful! We were impeccably taken care of by Ernst, chef Jules and first mate Sarah, while captain Stephan added to the breath of our experience through his sailing knowledge, and talking us through the history of the ‘Lady of Avenel’ and all of the work he has put into the ship. While there wasn't a lot of time to sail without engine, we did experience the glory of getting the sails up and cruising through the waters on the east coast of South Uist – a taster of an experience for another time. Food was simply amazing, and plentiful – calorific intake well exceeded expenditure, but it was irresistible. Sarah kept us in check, showing us the ropes (literally), and keeping us all happy with warm towels after a swim! In addition, being on board as a group for a week made for much more of an experience than previous SwimTreks'. There was great camaraderie within the group and being cut off, to a large degree, from outside connections made for a very rich and unique experience. We were fortunate to have a number of people with vast swimming experience in the group and benefited from this. 1 of our group even swam without wetsuit all week – in water temperatures of 12 degrees this earned much respect from the rest of the group.
Quite simply, this was a fantastic experience, and I for one will be responding to the bidding ‘haste ye back’!