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by Steve McKee

November 5, 2014

Monster Swim

One member faces down the stuff of nightmares

With a surname like McKee, a trip to Scotland must be on life’s bucket list. And no trip to Scotland would be complete without a visit to venerable Loch Ness.

But we crazy swimmers are never content to just drive by and enjoy the view, are we? We always feel like we have to dive in. So when my wife and I headed to the land of our ancestors to mark our 50th birthdays and mourn our newly empty nest, I decided to make the crossing.

It sounded like such a good idea in the weeks before we left. Through Facebook I found a company called iPowerboat that has helped hundreds of swimmers manage the feat. A few days and a handful of emails with a nice young man named Ryan later, I had booked a date and packed my wetsuit. This was going to be fun.

My plan was to cross the loch at its widest (and deepest) point, a manageable distance of nearly two miles. Each year a handful of true “monster swimmers” swim the length of the loch—23 miles, sans wetsuit. For me, the last swimmer of the season in 59-degree water, the width and a wetsuit sounded just right.

The closer my date with destiny drew, however, the more nervous I became. After all, Loch Ness is the home of a famous-yet-camera-shy monster that the locals affectionately call Nessie. I don’t believe in loch monsters, of course, but it’s one thing to say it and another to swim it. All alone. At dawn.

My anxiety was only heightened the day of the swim as we awoke in the dark and drove 15 miles (down the wrong side of the road) from Bluebell House, a charming Inverness bed and breakfast. It didn’t help that the night before, the lovely Scottish proprietor of the B&B had given me a sideways glance—the kind you see from those in-the-know in horror movies—when I told her of our plans. She said she’d be happy to provide a hearty breakfast and late checkout “when” (her tone said “if”) we returned.

The drive wasn’t long, but we had to wedge our tiny car into a rare widening of the shoulder and shimmy a few hundred meters down the road on foot to the private dock where Ryan and I had agreed to rendezvous. On with the wetsuit and into the guide boat we went for the quick trip across the lake.

Before I knew it, I was clambering out onto the rocky shore, donning my cap and goggles, and shivering from the cold (plus a wee bit of anxiety). Easing into the deep—it got deep fast—I flooded my suit, took a breath, and shoved off. The combination of no warm-up, brisk water and the fact that I could barely see my hand in front of me sent my heart racing. But I knew that after a few minutes at pace I would settle down and get into my groove, and I did. It was then I started thinking.

Open water swimming is a curious thing, especially a solo outing such as this one. When I swam Alcatraz, for example, I had heard the shark lore but figured that as one of several hundred swimmers my odds of becoming breakfast were pretty small. But alone in Loch Ness, early in the morning, I wondered if my rhythmic strokes would alert something lurking below to a tasty way to start the day. As much as my head rejected the idea, my imagination embraced it and I passed the time scanning the water for a pair of eyes I hoped I wouldn’t see.

As eager as I was to reach the shore, I stopped two or three times to admire the view, marveling at creation as I bobbed in the water. Loch Ness is the U.K.’s largest and deepest fresh water lake, and it’s simply stunning. If something was going to make me a meal, at least the setting was spectacular.

Speaking of which, my wife, who is not a swimmer, had one job. She was to capture my undertaking and its environment for posterity. I told her to keep the camera rolling no matter what happened—after all, if the monster arose, our capable guide would do his best to rescue me and, whatever the outcome, with video like that we (or at least she) would be set for life.

As the shore began to come into focus, the curious thought occurred to me that a distant observer might mistake my sleek black “skin,” steady motion and slim wake for a monster sighting in the early morning light. We later learned at the Loch Ness Visitors Center that there have been more than a thousand reported sightings over the past 80 years. We also learned about the teeming life that scientists have confirmed is living in the water. Let’s just say I’m glad I found that out after I had completed the swim. By the way, the water tasted fine, and I’m still here to write about it.

Before I knew it, my adventure was ending and I had reached the dock. Nearly two miles in just under 44 minutes, which Ryan said was quite good. Not that I was hurrying or anything.

I had a difficult time climbing out of the water due to an intense but blessedly brief case of vertigo. Ryan says it’s common with Loch Ness swimmers, because the water is so deep and dark and distances so hard to judge. Fortunately, the dizziness passed and I felt well enough to take a proud photo at the finish and later claim my hearty breakfast and hearty congratulations at Bluebell House.

Not surprisingly, many of my friends have since asked me if I spotted Nessie in the loch’s murky depths. Everybody has an opinion as to whether or not she’s real, but getting into the water is about as up close and personal as you can get. Suffice it to say that some mysteries simply remain unsolved, and as for me, I can’t say for sure. As Ryan put it, “Loch Ness does play games with your mind.”