Allistair Swinsco on the 2017 Great Glen Paddle: No Entry Beyond this Point!

The Great Glen Paddle challenge takes place in Scotland between the waterways, lakes and canals that stretch across the stunning and rugged scenery stretching from Fort William to Inverness in Scotland, United Kingdom. Despite a great turnout and the strong enthusiasm of the paddlers there to compete in the face of adverse conditions, the race was ultimately abandoned, as the weather proved harsh and potentially dangerous. Allistair Swinsco gives us the lowdown on how things unfolded, or rather, unravelled.

The Great Glen Challenge's 2017 route

After a long week of checking the wind forecast every half hour, the time had come to load the van and head north for the last race in the UK SUP Ultra Endurance series: The 95km Great Glen RacePicking up Dean Dunbar (“Blind and Dangerous”) en route gave us a chance to have a good catch up after his recent trips to St Kilda and the SUP 11 City Tour in The Netherlands, as well as discuss plans for this race from nutrition to portages to lighting and so forth.

Stopping off at the car park halfway along Loch Lochy, we compared the actual wind with the current forecast of 26km/h… The van door nearly getting ripped out of my hand, as well as the sheer size of the waves, led us to believe that the hills were funnelling the wind and this gave us a hint of what was to come.

On we went to Fort Augustus for a quick look at Loch Ness, which reminded us of just how vast it is. We could see a headland in the far distance which marked the hallway point down the Loch. Having this seemingly never ending 36km stretch of water at the end of the race was going to be as much a mental challenge as a physical one.

Allistair Swinsco and teammate survey the scene before setting out on the Great Glen Paddle Challenge 2017

We all gathered at the starting point in the early hours, ready for the 02:30 start. Mandatory kit was checked (usual PFD, leash but also lights, mobile phone, survival blanket and hydration/fuel). Dean and I overdressed and we ended up being far too hot for the first 9km canal section. But knew that once we were off the canal and onto the open water we would be warm & dry.

As all paddlers had lights on the front of their boards I was struggling to tell how close Dean was to me as each time I turned my head I was dazzled by all of their lights. I paddled at a steady pace of  7.7km/hr pace, knowing that Dean would be right behind me following my tail light.

View through the valley at Fort William, Scotland

We gained a few places as we passed other paddlers putting on additional layers at the first 350m portage. Loch Lochy started out nice and flat for the first few kilometres, but then, with the wind behind us, the waves started to build. They came from our left shoulder rather than from behind, which made for uncomfortable going in the pitch black.

The wind began to pick up, with some very strong gusts coming through, and the waves were getting bigger by the minute. There was also some strong lateral chop, which made things all the more challenging. Dean and I were having problems keeping close. We would catch separate waves, and in a matter of second, we could end up 20-30 metres apart.

This was too far for Dean’s limited sight, especially if one of us was in a trough and verbal communication became impossible over the sound of the wind  and the crashing waves.

A moody sky hovers above Loch Ness, Scotland

As we reached 20km into the race, I glanced at my Garmin to check on progress just as a message flashed up instructing us to rendezvous with our support crew at the car park. No problem, we thought. There was a checkpoint with a car park at the end of the Loch, so a quick check of the distance and speed gave us about 40 minutes more paddling before we got there to replenish supplies, swap hydration bladders and lose a few layers in preparation for the next canal section.

The watch flashed again: “car park on shore”.

And again: “race abandoned” and “weather too bad”.

Brooding rain clouds assemble over Loch Lochy in Scotland

It was about then that the penny began to drop. The car park was the one situated next to the water (which we had stopped at a day earlier). There, we could see the car headlamps beckoning us all in. Without exceptions. Not just the paddlers looking to meet up with their shore crews, as we had thought up until that point. With gusts reportedly reaching around 80km/h, and having consulted the coastguard and RNLI, the race director made the tough decision to abandon the race just before 05:30.

It was a disappointment for many and relief for others. There was a great deal of discussion and many tales told as we all came together in the shore car park. News then started to trickle down amongst the paddlers, with stories of boards abandoned on islands, paddles lost along the way and several competitors wrapped up in their survival blankets on the shore awaiting rescue/recovery.

Abandoning the race was ultimately the right call to make and the safety procedures had very much served their purpose.

The storm rolls in at the famous Loch Ness, Scotland

Once all parties were accounted for and declared safe and sound, it was time to get a little rest and be tourists for the rest of the day, before waiting for the meal and the event/series prize-giving ceremony that evening. This featured traditional Scottish toasts, addressing the haggis and dancing.

Perhaps not the end to the series that we had all hoped for, but nonetheless an event that will not be forgotten. The majority of us were quite simply just left fired up for next year’s edition. There’s unfinished business to settle after all!

Next stop for us is Yarrawonga, Australia for the 404km Massive Murray Paddle. We hoe to see some of you there!

Storm cloud begin to gather over Glencoe, Scotland

Photo credits: Allistair Swinsco / Great Glen Paddle / Shutterstock

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