By Bart de Zwart, international endurance SUP Racer
Green mountains, hairy cows, old castles and the Loch Ness monster … what a more perfect backdrop for a spectacular SUP race than Scotland!
Unfortunately the former organizer of the Great Glen Paddle, announced that it was simply cancelled 4 weeks before the event. Luckily, fellow ultra long distance racer Joanne Hamilton-Vale and her husband Peter Vale took over so I kept my flights and took Dagmar (my wife) oaths adventure to Scotland.
And it is now called the UK SUP Great Glen Paddle Challenge. The course consists of three lakes (lochs) and canals in between with locks. Straight across Scotland. We started in Inverness on the North Sea side of Scotland going all the way to the West coast of Scotland (Irish Sea).
With only a few days left to organize a SUP race and a cold and windy weather in the forecast, only 10 paddlers showed up to the 3:00 am start.
We started at 3:30 am, in pitch darkness with only the navigation lights on our SUP boards and a faint glow from the disappearing moon behind the black clouds.
I had studied the maps. Apart from the 40km Loch Ness lake the route was not going to be to hard to found I hoped.
After the start, we quickly disappeared in the night. First a 10 km canal to the beginning of Loch Ness. I was paddling on my Starboard Sprint 14’ x 23” and didn’t know what to expect. The Sprint is a relatively narrow flat water board. If it was going to be windy, it would be a wild and tippy ride. The water temperature on the lakes was cold (5-12 degrees celsius).
I dressed for racing. Pretty light so I wouldn’t overheat. I wasn’t dressed for swimming but I had brought a thick survival blanket and extra jacket which was part of the required gear (Life vest, navigation lights, GPS tracker, leash). I opted not to take my SupSkin drysuit which would have been the wiser choice. The GPS tracker is a good way for long distance races to keep track of racers and a lot more environmental friendly than having a support boat like they use in the M2O fro every racer!
I passed the canal quick and arrived at Loch Ness in almost pitch dark. I turned off my front navigation light so I could see at least a shimmer of the water but it felt almost as If I had my eyes closed, at least I could see a vague contour of the mountains around the Loch so I could find my way to the bottom of the lake where the entrance of the next canal was. The lake was about 40km long, after 30 minutes the waves from behind really picked up and it started to be a downwinder. Being on my narrow board and seeing nothing, it was not an easy task to say the least. And then not to think of the dangers meeting Lochie, the famous Loch Ness’s Monster. Luckily Joanne brought a whisky offering to keep him calm and I didn’t see the monster.
I made decent progress. After almost 4 hrs on the lake, very slowly , the day light appeared. Now I was able to see waves and could ride them, still very tippy but a lot easier now. But it all seemed very fitting at the end of the day: a rough race in a rough lake, surrounded by rough mountains in rough cold and windy weather. I had travelled the last couple of days with Dagmar through the highlands and to the Islands of Scotland and I just love the landscapes and nature here. I thought of the other racers in the beginning, I had seen the lights of Joanne and Phil but I thought mostly of Dean Duncan who is blind and was doing this whole race with Allistair Swinsco who guided him through the route. Now THAT is a challenge!
After 5 hours and 30 minutes, I got to the locks on the another side of the Loch Ness. I was relieved I had passed the hardest part of the race and didn’t even fall in. Dagmar was supporting me and gave me some food and a fresh blatter with energy drink. Another 2 set of locks followed before we got to the next lake, Loch Oich, a small but beautiful lake with some castle ruins halfway. The weather was better than expected, it was suppose to rain all day, it was dark and cloudy with only a few drops here and there. However it was very windy and cold. But it is all relative, in Scotland this is a good Scottish day, for a Dutch-transplant-Hawaiian, a freaking fresh and cold day.
After Loch Oich, a few more locks until we got to Loch Lochy another 20 kilometer lake. I was still feeling fit after 8 hrs of paddling but I started to feel pain in my knees and legs specially on the last half of this lake when it became a full on downwinder again. So I was glad when I got to the last locks at the end of the lake. One more portage over the locks and another nice 10km to go. The last couple of hours I realized I could just do it under 11 hours if I would keep pushing which would break the 2 year old record set by Mark Slater.
After 10 hours 50 minutes and 12 seconds I passed the finish line, a new record by 27 min.
Joanne Hamilton-Vale came in after 11 hours and 37 minutes, breaking her own record too.
Phil Plume came in 3rd after 12 hours and 41min. But the best effort came from Dean Duncan who, paddling blind all the way, came in after 14 hours and 47 minutes. Allistair Swinsco guided all night and day. After paddling for 4 hrs in the pitch black myself, today, I can only scratch the service off what Dean always feels when he is paddling. Great athlete and even greater spirit.
Great Thanks to:
Starboard for the support and making fast and innovative and sustainable boards
Black Project fins, Supskin Drysuit, Patagonia and Maui Jim sunglasses