On Board with the Great Islay Swim


We joined the support boat for the Sound of Islay leg of the ‘Great Islay Swim’ on Friday. The nine nautical miles from McArthur’s Head lighthouse to Rhuvaal lighthouse was the last but one segment for Chad Anderson and Justin Fornal of the Explorers Club, New York, as they complete their historic round-island swim of more than 100 miles. They were joined by Johnnie Mundell, who has local connections to Islay’s haulage dynasty and works as a whisky ambassador based in Los Angeles.

The channel separating Islay and Jura has a significant tidal race. While we were aboard the current’s speed ranged from 3 knots to 7.2 knots, pushing the water from around these Hebridean landmasses out towards the Atlantic. There were also ferries from Port Askaig to work around. Both the Jura Ferry service and the Caledonian MacBrayne between Islay and the Mainland were presences on the water. Chad explained that weather conditions and the timing of tides had meant this section had been postponed twice before Friday’s attempt.

Chad’s day job is raising venture capital for space exploration. He also boxes, and says of the swim, “I’m not the most athletic of people, it’s in the mind. You go through so many barriers. You put your head up to breathe and there’s a wave there, so you have to be prepared to not breathe then, or the next time, or the next time.” He adds, “Nothing is more demoralising than swimming against the tide. It will break your spirit.”

chad swimming up the sound of islay

The waters around Islay are notoriously dangerous; it’s true to say that everyone on Islay knows someone who has been affected by a life tragically lost at sea. The whole support crew – which included Justin’s sister Amanda, father John in a kayak, and Uncle Victor, ordinarily a medic with the fire service in his home in Long Island – agreed that they couldn’t have attempted or achieved anything without the local knowledge and judgement of Gus Newman, the skipper of the Islay Sea Adventures launch which carried them. Remarkably, only once did Gus have to recall the swimmers to the boat; an impassable 50 yards of water at “the Kettle” off Portnahaven.

The Islay lifeboat is stationed at Port Askaig and the project’s fundraising element is set to benefit the Royal National Lifeboats Institution, the RNLI. On Friday, a small craft with members of the lifeboat’s crew aboard also came out to watch over the swimmers’ safe passage. They were Coxswain David McLellan, Engineer David MacArthur and Volunteer Tony Morrison of Bruichladdich’s bottling hall, pictured below.

swimmers in conversation from the open-sided RIB

All three swimmers were experienced and had trained hard. Justin was a competitive sprint swimmer until he was 18 and, something of a serial adventurer, has previously completed a swim in the Hudson River through New York to highlight environmental issues. Chad trained in Connecticut, in the Hudson, and around City Island in the Bronx. Johnnie began swimming in the sea in California for general fitness, losing 60 pounds in training.

Jellyfish were a minor hazard in the water – Johnnie took several stings including one across the face – though medic Victor reassured us that an immune-response was unlikely from isolated stings, as long as they weren’t inside the mouth. A bigger risk was hyperthermia, which was why hot coffee for the swimmers formed part of the thoroughly-researched on-board provisions, and also why once an hour Victor engaged each of the swimmers in conversation from the open-sided RIB, so as to check for slurred speech.

Two and a half hours later, the lighthouse at the north-eastern tip of Islay was reached, though the strong eddy prevented an actual approach to the shore. Safely back in the boat powering back towards Port Askaig, after a brief stop on the pier at Bunnahabhain to collect some donated single malt, Chad reflected on what the swimming experience has given him. “You look out as far as you can see, to the horizon – that’s maybe 15 miles – and I know, I could swim that if I had to.”

– – – –

Bottles of the “pillaged” quarter cask of whisky, collected from some of the island’s distilleries en route, including Bruichladdich, will be auctioned for charity. Visit the Great Islay Swim website for more details.

Keep up with these outstanding young men via twitter @johnniethescot @BaronAmbrosia @spacecapital.

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