OSS SWIM CHAMPS: Alex swims the Corryvreckan Whirlpool

Choosing to swim across the third biggest maelstrom in the world for your first deep water swim? Why not?

“If your friends jumped into a whirlpool, would you follow them?!” With the words of her colleagues ringing in her ears, OSS Swim Champ Alex Sehgal packed her kit for a big Sunday swim and a big tick off her swimming bucket list.

“Not yet… not yet… GROUP ONE GO!” yelled the skipper. “We’ll go out and back again and then you’re off, group two… Get ready… Five more minutes… Wait for it… EVERYONE OFF! See you on the other side!”

SPLASH. No turning back now…

On the west coast of Scotland, 12 brave souls gathered to take on the legendary Corryvreckan Whirlpool crossing. Situated in the narrow strait between the islands of Jura and Scarba, the Gulf of Corryvreckan houses the world’s third largest maelstrom. Its strong currents and 10 metre high standing wave, which can be seen and heard several kilometres away, attract tourists and thrill seekers from all over the world… And my friends and I were about to throw ourselves into it!

At slack tide, the whirlpool eases and becomes swimmable. This allows swimmers a generous 40-minute window to make the crossing, which results in a total swimming distance of anywhere between 1.2km to 2.5km depending on what the currents do!

It was my first Corryvreckan outing and my first proper deep water swim (where you can’t see the bottom or swim over to the side for a break), whereas most of my companions had completed it on the year before. Having heard so much about it, a sense of nervous excitement and eager anticipation quickly filled the group as the rest of the squad began joining us in the marina.

“The skipper took us all the way through the strait go get out of the strongest of the currents, waiting for it to become safe. Five minutes before getting the go-ahead, the maelstrom was very much still doing its thing.”

Conditions were almost perfect. The sun was shining, the sea was very blue, water temperature 12 degrees centigrade, and all were in high spirits. The captain briefed us on safety and strategy and, after a final headcount, we were off. With the sun on our faces we began hurtling towards the whirlpool, checking, double checking, triple checking our gear: wetsuit, hat, goggles, wetsuit, hat, goggles…

As we pulled into the strait, we could see the water rushing around the boat and a few lions mane jellyfish bobbing just below the surface. The anticipation kicked up a notch as we knew we were getting close. The skipper took us all the way through the strait go get out of the strongest of the currents, waiting for it to become safe. Five minutes before getting the go-ahead, the maelstrom was very much still doing its thing.

The first group were set off accompanied by a rib as we circled back out towards the western mouth of the strait. The waiting was becoming unbearable… Then suddenly the shout went up, “I’ll drop you off in that cove. Stay as a group! Quickly now, EVERYONE OFF! See you on the other side!”

The cold hit me instantly as water seeped into my wetsuit. With no time to think or acclimatise and with adrenaline pumping, I laid one hand on Jura and pushed off into the strait. We were told to swim straight towards Scarba and not to fight the currents. “Swim straight,” I thought, “how hard can that be?!” As I got my head down, I could see sparkling shards of light cutting through the deep blue and disappearing into nothing. It was mesmerising and terrifying all at once. I spotted a few jellyfish and prayed, “please don’t let this be the day I meet a lion’s mane!”

“My arms were turning over yet I felt like I was going nowhere. I was being bullied by the currents in a way I hadn’t expected or felt before. I chose to stop staring into the seemingly bottomless chasm and start focusing on what was directly in front of me.”

Soon the mind games started, staring down into the abyss, seeing nothing but the most intense blue, interspersed with the occasional jellyfish, deeper this time. The depth of the channel, the vastness of the surrounding ocean and the atmosphere of the occasion set in. I popped up for a moment and took a deep breath. As I turned back to look at Jura I realised just how far I still was from the other side. The mind games continued…

My injured shoulder began flaring up. My arms were turning over yet I felt like I was going nowhere. I was getting bullied by the currents in a way I hadn’t expected or felt before. I chose to stop staring into the seemingly bottomless chasm and start focusing on what was directly in front of me. “Focus on the swimmer ahead of you. Think about your breathing. Easy exhales. Count your strokes. Remember to sight. Trust your process,” I repeated to myself. In the words of Dory: “JUST KEEP SWIMMING!” Eventually Scarba looked closer than Jura. Progress! Keep breathing, keep moving…

Before I knew it, and bringing up the back of the pack, I had hands on Scarba, joining the other five who were being tossed about by the current in the kelp bed. SUCCESS! Corryvreckan completed – 1296m in 33 minutes! I turned to look back at Jura over the expanse I had just navigated and breathed a sigh of relief. But there was no time to hang around as Duncan ordered us sharply back onto the boat.

As we picked up the first group some 100m away, it was all smiles, hugs, high fives and dry robes back on board… And, of course, cake! There was a total buzz about the deck as we swapped stories of the same crossing we had all just done. What an incredible experience!

I couldn’t have asked for a better company or conditions to have done my first Corryvreckan with. So, if asked, “if your friends jumped into a whirlpool, would you follow them?!” I suppose I would…