For 25 years the Firth of Forth has been a constant in my life.
When I moved to Edinburgh in the early nineties, the Forth was the boundary between my childhood in rural Aberdeenshire and the big city, “The AIDS capital of Europe”, Trainspotting at Leith Central Station. As I partied through my years in Edinburgh a trip to the Forth was a day out from town – a booze cruise on the riverboat, a wine fuelled picnic on Inchcolm or a carry out on Porty Beach. I’ve eaten and drunk in the pubs and restaurants on both the Fife side and in the Lothians and I’ve picnicked on pretty much every stretch of sand. As we approached middle age the Forth marked the physical and psychological boundary between hazily hungover Sunday mornings in the city and grown up life with a garden and a BBQ in Fife. When Rory was born he built sandcastles on the beaches of the Forth, then paddled in it’s waters and eventually chased Ted the Mongrel up and down the silver sands. I would guess that I see the Forth, or the towers of one of her bridges, pretty much every day.
But I’ve never swum straight across it.
Obviously that raises the question – why on earth would I want to? If horny sea mammals and giant jellyfish were not a big enough deterrent, the Vanguard Class nuclear submarines, huge chop, heavy swells and biting cold should have been. But I wanted to, for many years.
Finally, on Sunday morning I stood on the slipway at the Hawes Inn with my toes in the water, the Forth Bridge on my right, the road bridges on my left, a hold on shipping and a dayglo inflatable arch 1.4 miles ahead of me as a target.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Approval to enter the Forth Crossing Race was granted several weeks ago. Entry should have triggered a rush of training but as previously blogged that would have made the whole thing too easy. Vigour Events took over the race this year and have transformed it from a niche event into a decent sized race with 63 swimmers. Entry was £55 if you supplied a kayaker or £85 if you wanted a kayaker supplied. As my most expensive race of the year I fully expected my own allocated kayaker who I could take home after the race and keep until next year. However, joking aside, the race turned out to be pretty good value for money – we were given a swim buoy, we had the best water rescue support that I have seen at any race, any where before (thank you so much to the rescue teams who were brilliant!) and we had the Forth to ourselves for 60 glorious minutes.
The forecast had looked good all week. I had mixed feelings about this – a straightforward, calm water swim would be amazing but I genuinely didn’t want to be robbed of the “hard as nails” points to be added to the medal. When I Escaped from Alcatraz I got the full chilly, choppy San Francisco Bay experience, this should be the same. A Forth crossing is a tough swim for tough folks and should be tough, but the big jessie in me was quite happy to conclude “I can only race in the conditions that are out there”
Up at 6:20. It was 4C. In the face of frost on the grass I put on shorts. Of course I did, it’s not November yet. I porridged and coffeed while the dog looked at me like a dick for being up at that time on a Sunday morning. I heard Andy Fergy arrive in the driveway, less than 24 hours after we had drunk so much hipster wine (think farmyard funkiness as a positive description from a sommelier) that he had actually signed up for Ironman UK. With our rubber suits in tow we headed to North Queensferry to race HQ.
North Queensferry is a pretty, tiny hamlet, usually dozy on a Sunday morning but was swarming with dozens of people in beanies and rubber suits trying, largely hilariously, to successfully stick race numbers to said rubber suits. I had a marginal advantage having watched the youtube instructions, in a rare fit of race pre-preparation, but was by no means an expert.
We had to be on the bus at 8am and although there was quite a lot of time to spare I certainly wasn’t conscious of time dragging. About 7:45 I got my wetsuit on to my waist, popped on a hoodie and walked barefoot (forgot my bloody flip flops) to the bus over freezing cobblestones. The air temperature was up to a heady 8C but we had already been tipped off that the Forth was a balmy 15C, much warmer than I had expected.
During the bus journey I was pre-occupied by my bladder. I didn’t want to waste this central heating but it was getting touch and go and we still had 40 minutes to go.
As we arrived at Hawes Pier the sun came properly up and it was warm. I MEAN PROPER MIDDAY WARM. The skins swimmers were already stripped down to their speedos. Robert from Vigour Events started the safety briefing, I paraphrase….
“Slack tide begins at 9:03am, anyone who is not at the water will not start. Rain run-off means there will be a current, we should sight for the north side of the road bridge. The canoes will provide an escort on our left hand side, the ribs will be on our right. There is a hold on shipping at 9:03 for 60 minutes. We have 60 minutes to complete”
At that, a mahoosive container ship ploughed under the rail bridge leaving a 50 metre high wake in it’s trail. (Some of that statement may be slightly exaggerated). That was the last ship to pass before we had the Firth of Forth to ourselves.
Just before 9 the canoes took position.
We were given a three minute warning. I stepped down the slipway and splashed water on my neck and face.
One minute warning. Final goggle adjustments. Wished Andy good luck. Found a good spot.
Thirty seconds. Clapping, cheering.
Wading, further than expected.
As the water rises above my knees my bladder can take no more. Half the field is treated to an unexpectedly warm moment in the Forth.
As the water reaches my waist I dive in. Three strokes and I am clear from the stramash.
My first thought is that the water is colder than I expected on the face. Certainly colder than 15C Loch Lomond was last week. I then think about how you add salt to an ice bucket to make the water colder. I then think about whether 15C feels different in salt water and freshwater. My head then explodes. It doesn’t really but I have one of those swims when my brain doesn’t take a rest.
I typically breathe right unless I have to breathe left, basically to avoid drowning. So every 4 strokes I see the silhouette of the superstructure of the Forth Bridge backlit by the rising sun. The water is like a mill pond. I am surprised to see the first caisson so quickly. HALF WAY. That was bloody quick. I AM A SWIM GOD.
There are three towers on the bridge that I see pretty much every day. Ah well, THIRD OF THE WAY.
Having read an article by Andy Potts during the week that most swimmers don’t breathe often enough I start breathing every second stroke. I find myself getting a bit dizzy. And then the absurdity strikes me – the middle of a major shipping channel is probably not the ideal spot for an impromptu swimming lesson!
I see a couple of jellyfish but none close. I feel something on my feet but I kick like a huge bastard rocket ship to shake it off. The swim buoys are great as we get a really clear line of sight to the finish and to nearby swimmers. I am not even conscious of it being there.
Somewhere after the middle I put my hand on a jellyfish about the size of a dustbin lid, I catch and pull through like it is a massive paddle. It doesn’t sting me and disappears in my wake. Swimmer 1 Wildlife nil.
As I swim past the final caisson I fall under the shadow of the Bridge. A completely unique view of such an iconic structure in a race that deserves to become iconic.
I suspect there was a current in the last section, the last couple of hundred metres felt a long, long way.
There was no repeat of the Great Scottish Swim 5k, I got my feet down without regressing to a foetus with cramp. I stood up and promptly felt the blood in my brain slam down to my feet. I went from ‘sober as a judge’ to ’25 jaegerbombs on an empty stomach’ in 5 seconds. I remember a volunteer telling me not to fall back in. I felt vaguely sick. I was totally disorientated. I remember a volunteer handing me a bottle of water and the first two mouthfuls sluiced my mouth and went straight back in the Forth.
Pam, Tara, Roar and Charlotte were just behind the finish line. No one really wants to hug someone in a wetsuit who has just emerged from the Forth snotrocketing saline all over the shop. Andy emerged soon after.
We wait for the last two swimmers to come in just after the hour. They are clapped in and cheers all round. It’s a small field and pretty much everyone is there for the finish. Probably the nicest atmosphere of any race that I have done.
We get changed pretty quickly and then help lift the finish arch, fully inflated from the finish line to the hotel over double parked cars. My shoulders felt pretty damn spritely for having just swam across the Forth.
I didn’t know much about Vigour Events before this but I am so impressed by their organisation and water safety that I will probably find myself tootling around more of their races next year. I might even train for them.
The awards ceremony was in the sun with loads of friends and family about. Every swimmer had their name called out and were presented with a medal and certificate. Rory came up for my medal on my shoulders and promptly concussed me with it. The medal was a nice, generic Vigour Events one but that race is screaming out for an iconic medal to match the setting.
It was on my bucket list. I’ve ticked it off. I finished in 34 minutes in 27th place and I will be back next year to beat that.