Scottish Swimmer

Swimming by the wreck of the MV Juniata at Inganess Bay, Orkney

It was the coldest swim this season, by a whole degree or so. Not as cripplingly cold as Durness in Easter, nor icy Portobello in February, but it was our first sub-10C swim of the season, and the walk-in on shallow sand jolted aching spasms up my calves as we strode deeper into the sea at Inganess Bay on Orkney.

Juniata belonged to the doomed fleet of sacrificial “blockships” scuttled to protect the Royal Navy fleet anchored at Scapa Flow during World War II and block access to marauding German submarines. After the war it was refloated for salvaging but was subsequently beached at Inganess Bay to rust out the last of its days; a lasting reminder of our wartime past, it is now a silent sentinel for this beautiful wee bay.Inganess Bay is a couple of miles out of the Orcadian capital Kirkwall. It’s a sheltered sandy bay flanked by rising land and sea cliffs to the north and the archipelago’s main airport to the south, and overlooked by a half dozen farms and houses built on the raised land around it. By the carpark at the road-end, there’s a patch of protected wetland where you can see the likes of Sand Martins and Sedge Warblers, and bright yellow Marsh Marigolds and other wildflowers. All of this you don’t notice at first, however; it’s the rusting remains of the MV Juniata lying offshore that grabs your focus.

Carrie and I were in Orkney for the October break, and had arrived at Inganess bayside early-ish on the Thursday – too late to catch up with Orkney Polar Bear Nicki, who had swum for AN HOUR just before us, but who was one of the first to recommend Inganess Bay on the Polar Bear’s Facebook page.

Wrapped in hats and warm jumpers, none of us were overly keen to strip off and dive in, but the swimming caps soon replaced the woolly bunnets, goggles in lieu of scarves. Then bared and barefoot we all stood there in our swimming costumes and somewhat reluctantly braced ourselves for impact.

The water was, of course, gnawingly cold*.

Writing this now, there’s a part of me still in the water, my nerve endings tingling, the water pushing past and along my skin, the splashes of my feet, the reach of my stroke, salt water in my mouth, ripples in the sand below me, and the big, big sky all around me.The beauty of cold water swimming is that after those first few moments of discomfort you can then shrug yourself free of the cold’s keen grasp and enjoy the pure pleasure of gliding and splashing through some of the clearest, cleanest, crispest waters in the world.

It’s difficult to not be evangelical about it, and it’s certainly something I drone on and on about, which is probably how my wee sister had come along to be with us. No stranger to rivers and lochs, Lindsay had joined me and Carrie for this open water swim, her first as a local having moved up to Orkney three years ago with her family. Would we all have got in had we been alone? I’m not so sure. Certainly having the three of us to support one another made this challenging swim all the more easier and enjoyable.

Getting in was hot stepping, splashing, dancing, laughter, running in, a screech, taking the plunge, then held by the sea’s buoyant embrace, a few cold shock strokes then a bit more calm, catches, handstands, then sustained swims back and forth along the shoreline, and time taken to soak in the essence of Inganess, the outstretched cliffs of Berstane to our north, the black windows of the nearby homes watching, the long grass blown flat, the skulking wreck, the broken slipway, heaps of ancient stone by concrete carcasses, the noise of a plane descending, its growl incongruous with the landscape around us; how, like much of Orkney, with its skylines of standing stones and windturbines, this particularly seemed to encapsulate that Orcadian blend of the old and the now.

I was of course tempted to swim round the Juniata, but, as is always the way, it now looked much farther away from where I was treading. And besides, Carrie and Lindsay were near the shoreline and I wanted to stay close by so I was happy for the excuse to head back in-shore; and then, shortly after, we were out and changed and back to our warm holiday house.

Inganess Bay is a cracking venue, and a loop of the Juniata amid a longer traverse of the bay is now firmly on our swimming hitlist, so we’ll be back again soon, though maybe we’ll save it for summer when the water’s (hopefully!) a degree or two warmer.

*Nicki said he recorded the water at 10C,  but I thought it was chillier.

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