One Came Second in Third Forth Crossing

Posted on September 5, 2017. Filed under: Firth of Forth Crossing Swim, forth bridge, forth crossing race, open water swimming, swimming |

The title kinda gives the game away, but who am I to deny myself a puntastic headline?

It is fair to say that the Vigour Events’ Forth Crossing Race is my favourite race of the year. Like the Great Scottish Swim I have done it since it began (in it’s current form, previously it wasn’t open to your average wetsuit fetishist) and will keep coming back as long as I can.

This year was also special because of the other events going on across the Forth and the adventures that I set myself. You can read about those in Over, Over, Over, Over, Over, Under.

I am conscious that the Great Scottish Swim 10k race report was a bit light on detail, mainly because I disengaged my brain to cope with the distance, so I resolved to soak up the detail of the Forth Crossing.  As a consequence I am at risk of being accused of writing two thousand one hundred and thirty three words of swimgeekery.

Slack water was at 12.30pm this year and 25,000 people were expected in Fife for a daunder across the Queensferry Crossing so the morning preparation for the swim was very not standard. My aim was porridge at normal breakfast time and then two evenly spaced bananas to keep me topped up to start for the 2k crossing,

Andy picked me up at 09.15am and we headed down to the Albert Hotel for registration. At this stage my day was still all going smoothly.  It was not to last.

We took the, now customary, race selfies and then assumed our, now customary, spot on the pavement. Or our changing room as we like to call it. If it ever rains on Forth Crossing Day I have no idea what we will do.


Just before the buses were due we pulled our wetsuits on to the waist, stuck on warm tops for the wait at the other side and shoved essential kit into the provided black bin bags that would be brought back as we swam.

Over at Queensferry, Andy and I found a quiet spot to sit in the sun on the slipway while everyone else loitered in the car park.


That was when I started my usual methodological preparation of my kit. Almost exactly 2km away from my swimming bag and where being methodological would have been helpful. I am trying to build suspense here but I know that you have all concluded that I made a dick of preparation already. But bear with me to appreciate the size and scale.

I took off my down jacket and t-shirt and stuffed them into the black bag.  Then I laid out my goggles, ear plugs, and the dubious sex device that saves my neck from the wetsuit garrotte. Out came the baby oil gel and I lubed the rubber collar and set it aside with my ear plugs.

And then I pulled my swim buoy out.

Now, you see, I don’t often use a buoy.  I only use it when they are mandatory in races or if I swim in the sea. And I only swim in the sea if I am escorted by a flotilla of kayakers and at least two high speed ribs because, frankly, I have a not unreasonable fear of being swept into Stavanger harbour unable to speak a word of Norwegian. So, in effect, it hadn’t been used since the Forth Crossing last year. When the strap became detached and I lost it and couldn’t attach it to myself.

I wasn’t alarmed when the buoy came away from the strap, because now I knew that was a thing but I had both pieces in my hands. I just footered with the carabiner and reattached it. And then it fell off again. 30 minutes to go and my mandatory buoy was in two irreconcilable pieces. A bit of frantic running about and I found some mariners with cable ties. Problem solved.

I then started on my second banana and, with a thunking realisation, noted that my swim cap was just over 2000 metres away.

I saw Kirstin, from Vigour, walking by and approached her:

“Errrr Kirstin. You know we didn’t have to remember much?”


“Well, I’ve forgotten the only thing that I really had to remember”

Kirstin had a sharpie in her hand. She gestured with it. It was an innocent gesture but for  more than a few seconds I was pretty certain my face was going to be sharpied with my race number.

“We don’t have any spares over here, we  really never thought anyone would forget a cap…..”

I’d love to say that this was never mentioned again but, really, there was bugger all chance of this stupidity being overlooked. Och well. Bare napper it was going to be.

We were called up for the race briefing. Robert, the race director, took his spot and gave his briefing. And then drew everyone’s attention to the spanner who had forgotten his cap.

I’m not easily embarrassed so I focussed on the key thing to remember.  The key thing to remember from the briefing was to sight for the north of the road bridge and that a yellow kayak would lead the first place swimmer. That would be really useful as picking the right line is crucial to a stress free crossing.

We are cleared for a dip on the slipway.

I guddle the collar on, plug the ears, get Andy to zip me up, and start to wade in.  In all the dickery I have completely smeared my goggles in baby oil gel. Holy shit, can anything else go wrong?

I need to get wet. Firstly the Forth is 15c and secondly I’m going to be swimming bare headed. I spend as long as I can in the water, keeping my chest and head under as long as I am allowed. And then we are called out for the start.

With a couple of minutes to go I am standing with the water lapping my toes, frantically de-smearing my goggles with a wetsuit sleeve. I’m not going to rush in but I’m going to take my spot on the front row. Just before Robert starts the countdown from 10 he  wittily checks that everyone has remembered their caps. Little does he realise that my goggles are now my main concern.

And then we are off.

My basic race start principle remains the same – dead slow. If I get my heart rate up too soon I’ll end up treading water, with the cold water crushing my chest, gasping for air 200m into the race.

Everyone runs past me as I stroll in. There are probably 40 or 50 people swimming in front of me as I wade. Then I find a spot and dive in.

I cut around a couple of people and take a slightly aggressive line along the harbour wall. Bad choice. I am pinned between a rough harbour wall and a skins swimmer. It’s Sophie’s choice – a lycra banana hammock in my face or grind the skin off my cheek against the wall. Several more strokes and the wall subsides below the water.

In the sunshine the water in the Forth takes on a milky opalescence. Clear but cloudy. Impenetrable but bright. I watch the line of the wall under the water. It’s time to piss or get off the pot, I break left away from the budgie smugglers and expect my nose and teeth to rattle over the wall. Nothing. I was clear but taking a wide line to the left of the beacon at the end of the slipway. Brain freeze grips my baldy heid.

I’m feeling good so I accelerate from stall speed to my usual race pace. As I sight I see a handful of buoys bobbing ahead of me. I pick them off quickly, too quickly even to take a tow from the feet as I pass.

I sight and I think I can see a yellow canoe ahead.

The thing about a sea swim is that scale is deceptive. With your eyes two inches above the water and a playing field about a kilometre wide it is impossible to get a handle on distance or speed without stopping and treading water. I think the canoe is probably a couple of hundred metres ahead. I don’t want to lose sight of the only flash of colour on the horizon.

For the middle kilometre of the race I set a punishing pace trying to chase down whoever is with the canoe. My normal stroke rate is 32 strokes per minute but for the middle kilometre I am over 37 strokes per minute, not giving an inch to the flow of the Firth. But eventually I lose sight of the kayak and the buoy.

I see no-one. And then from nowhere a swimmer pulls alongside me on my left. We swim together for a couple of hundred metres and then he pulls in front of me. I love to swim in clean water so I took his draft for about 10 seconds and then swam to his right. I never saw him again. I assume he is off towards the finish line.

I become conscious of two things. An occasional tap on my toes which I assume is my buoy and a kayaker about 5 metres to my right.

Still keeping up the same pace, hoping that I can salvage a third place position I see a yacht ahead of me.  Too close and not doing enough to avoid me. With a bright orange buoy and a kayaker I am certain that I am visible and I resolve to ignore it and power on.

With hindsight I think I am fighting against the flow of the river at this point.  My 100m pace for each 500m of the race went 1:18, 1:23, 1:46, 1:49. Given that my splits for the Great Scottish Swim were 1:35 for 9.5k and 1:45 for 0.5k I think it is safe to say the flow of the river changed half way across.

It dawns on me that the kayak to my right is yellow. I was sure I saw a kayak in the distance. What if it wasn’t a kayak? Maybe second place has a yellow kayak escort too? Am I in the lead? Surely not.

Screen Shot 2017-09-04 at 12.09.03

Me. In the lead. With someone on my feet that I didn’t know was there.

With the finish line in sight, maybe 200m away, a skins swimmer appears to my right. We slug it out shoulder to shoulder and then he pulls ahead and to my left. I stay directly on towards the finish.

We come inside the harbour wall and the seaweed appears from blow, tangling in my fingers. He is probably two metres ahead of me.  I put my feet down and try to run. Too deep I dive under and swim again. He is knee deep he puts another metre into me before I can find my feet. I go to run but we are out of the water. The swim race is done.

Screen Shot 2017-09-04 at 12.01.40

The winner, then me, THEN ANDY

I look over my shoulder and see someone else. Apparently I have led a group of three across the Forth without even realising it.

I cross the line and congratulate the chap in front of me.  Tara screams that I was second and Andy is third. What? Wait? Second? And Andy? I am not totally alert yet.

Andy has his swim of the year and finishes with a huge PB and a podium place. He was on my toes from about half way across.  God knows we’ve practised it enough and made amends for our day out in the lakes.

Apparently I was second and first wetsuit. In 2015 I was 27th and thought I could do better, last year I was 4th and hoped for more. This time I was second. SECOND.


Tara, Pam, Rory and Charlotte are all hoarse. They sat on the harbour wall and had a bird’s eye view of the last few hundred metres of the race developing.

My ear was bleeding quite heavily. I still have no idea why. I am assuming a shark or a crocodile took a piece of me but I never even felt it. Maybe it hung on a bit and thats what slowed my pace in the latter part of the race.

Like all Vigour Events there is a lovely family feel to the event and we stayed and cheered all the swimmers into the finish and cheered the amazing water support team that kept us safe in a vast stretch of shipping lane!


I always enjoy the prize giving in the shadow of the Forth Bridge, but it was extra special this year winning a prize for first wetsuit swimmer. And, of course, Robert managed to mention the missing cap during the presentation. This year I made my mark in more ways than one!

Afterwards, sometime after beer and before hangover, I plotted the three years of GPS trace. This year was the longest swim by far but last year’s straight swim felt much more brutal, especially in the latter stages. Because we think of the Forth as the sea, it’s easy to forget it is still a river so there is a lot going on even in slack water.

Screen Shot 2017-09-04 at 17.03.01

Orange – 2017, Blue – 2016, Pink – 2015.

And that concludes another fantastic Forth Crossing Race. Top marks again to Robert and Kirstin for organising an amazing event for the ever expanding and inclusive Vigour family. And all the thanks to the water safety team without whom we would be spending Sunday afternoon in the carvery at the Hawes Inn.

For some additional reading Andy’s blog is here

The video of the event:

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2 Responses to “One Came Second in Third Forth Crossing”

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Race saved by zip ties & a sharpie !
Great read and a swim I’d like to add to my bucket list
How easy is it to enter ? Oversubscribed?

Liked by 1 person

It’s getting bigger every year Zoe but could still enter the week before this year. It would be great to see you there next year!

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