The Pentland Firth

Pentland Firth swim

This is the notorious stretch of water that separates the isles of Orkney from the Scottish mainland. Tides and swell from the Atlantic and the North Sea meet here creating extremely strong currents and wild conditions. Even the predicted tides on the charts in calm conditions indicate speeds of 12 knots and of course weather conditions can increase that substantially. The tides do not go neatly up and down in six hour periods like they do in the Channel but move in all sorts of unpredictable ways in eddies and swirls. When English Channel veteran Frank Chalmers, from Dundee, spoke about maybe making the crossing in 2009, local fisherman Willie Bremner commented that ‘ there’s not a soul who’s sailed through there who has anything good to say about the Firth. You can see the blood drain when they reminisce. I was astonished when I heard that anybody would contemplate swimming it.’

The whole stretch of water is littered with wrecks of everything from super tankers to small fishing boats. The BBC documentary Crossing Hell’s Mouth covered Frank’s build up to the swim and eventual attempt. To all intents and purposes he successfully managed to swim across but could not actually touch the land due to the darkness and weather conditions. Although the locals and crew of his boat gave him a certificate and considered the swim had been done, Frank, ever the purist, was not satisfied and in fact counted it as his only failed swim! He made another gallant attempt in 2010 but was also thwarted by the weather conditions.

The first succesful swim was made in July 2011 by Collen Blair from Birkhill in Angus. No stranger to these kinds of challenges, having conquered the English Channel, the Irish Sea, Loch Ness and the Manhattan Island swim, she made it in four hours and forty one minutes. Her route took her from Torness on the south tip of the isle of Hoy to Scarfskerry in Caithness resulting in a nine mile swim. Less than a month later Andrea Gellan from Dunfermline, another English Channel veteran and accomplished long-distance swimmer, made the crossing in two hours and forty one minutes starting this time from South Ronaldsay and finishing on Duncansby Head (a distance of approximately seven miles). Andrea reported hitting the whirlpools in the middle and commented that ‘it was fun swimming through it – really choppy and bubbly’.

Not to take away from the tremendous achievements of Collen and Andrea but I think Frank pioneered this swim. I thoroughly recommend watching the very moving BBC documentary which really shows what is involved in swimming the Firth and also provides great inspiration to anyone thinking of trying an unusual long-distance swim.



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