Every now and again you get to witness, or if you're lucky enough, be part of something truly special. This past weekend, Marloe Watch Company had that honour - and it was beyond any expectation that we had.
We thought we were simply going to act as Official Timekeepers for Monster the Loch, support our local crew of GB rowers, hand out some champagne, see some entertaining sights, and enjoy some nice scenery along the way. Little did we know that we would be accompanying a crew of nine British athletes in breaking a World Record, meeting hundreds of incredible families and individuals who were conquering their own, deeply personal challenges, and coming away utterly inspired by the show of human spirit that we had witnessed. Two out of three of the MWC team are Scottish, but we are all fiercely in love with the magnificent, wild scenery that confronts one at every turn in this part of the world; but the majesty of the mountains and the Loch itself didn't come close to the awe inspired in all three of us by every single competitor that we met on the day.
Monster the Loch 2019 attracted a huge range of competitors, 270 of them in total; from the GB Men's 8 rowing team, who we accompanied on the day, to pedalo competitors, a lone paddle-boarder, coastal rowing boats, kayaks and even a Nessie model who we later spotted cruising gracefully across the Loch at a very respectable pace. Young and old, sporting and not-so-sporting, experienced or novice; everyone was there for a reason - to challenge themselves and conquer their own personal Nessies. For the GB8 team, led by Olympian Alan Sinclair - who hails from Munlochy, nearby to Loch Ness - their goal was to break the World Record set just months ago by adventurer Jock Wishart and his team. They had a challenging time of 2 hours, 26 minutes and 57 seconds to beat, covering a 21-mile stretch of freezing, often choppy water in the ever-unpredictable Scottish weather conditions.
Competitors and supporters gathered together around 6.30am on the banks of Fort Augustus, at one end of the infamous Loch Ness. There was an air of hushed anticipation as darkness lifted into a silvery dawn; teams assembled to discuss their plans, boats were prepared, last minute snacks and drinks were consumed and there were moments of quiet contemplation as all gazed out to the small section of Loch visible from the shore. A wall of fog awaited metres from the shoreline - beyond that, the unknown, stretching for over 21 miles.
First to set off at 7am, into the cold, mist-covered water, were two pedalo teams and a lone paddle-boarder. They were shortly followed by the remainder of the competitors just after 9am, who lined up across the Loch en masse; an awe-inspiring sight, bringing another moment of quiet reflection among the silence of the wild Loch. The only sounds we could hear from the safety of the shore were an occasional knock of oar on wood, a quiet wishing of good luck between boats, the lapping of water against hulls, a short countdown; and they were off. A bagpiper piped from the shore, sending the competitors off in true Scottish style, bringing comfort and fire into the hearts of all until the sound faded as all pulled away out of earshot into the mist. 270 individuals, setting off into the grey wall on a cold, damp late September morning; some of them for the next 7 hours. Some were alone in their chosen craft; no company save for the distant buzz of the support boats, who kept their distance throughout the race, and the unknown in the depths of the Loch below them. Others had a team around them; crew members, friends or family, all focused on doing their bit to reach the other end of the Loch without incident.
The water was calm for the first half of the Loch crossing, for most; the GB8 looked set to not only break the World Record but to break the 2-hour mark. However, as the mist lifted and unveiled the magnificent mountains surrounding the Loch, patches of clouds and gentle but persistent winds began to gather along the length of the Loch and cause swells in the water. Facing the challenge of navigating extremely choppy water, the challenge ramped up. The GB8 were forced to stop and bail out the boat several times, at real risk of sinking, and there was at least one capsized craft, which was thankfully swiftly recovered with the aid of the support boats. Every competitor became quickly soaked through, and for many, faced with hours of seemingly endless water ahead, the reality of the challenge they were undertaking became startlingly clear.
Despite the confronting conditions, the collective spirit out on the water was extraordinary. Crews would sing as they passed one another; cheers and shouts of encouragement rang out from boat to boat, and there was a total absence of any competitive rivalry. Every mind was focused on one goal; completing the marathon, for their own personal reasons. Every breath, every straining muscle, every push and pull was focused.
Among the competitors were the family of Tom Walker, a 13-year old boy who has left a huge mark on the world. Tom was a caring, compassionate teenage boy, full of life and with aspirations of becoming a rowing cox. He was the youngest of 90 people who defied cold and wet conditions in March 2018 to tackle the Brecon Beacons Night Hike, raising vital money for Cancer Research Wales. Less than 3 months later, Tom was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia, and before he was able to begin treatment, just the day after his diagnosis, he passed away. Losing a child is incomprehensible to any parent; losing one so vivacious, and so suddenly, is beyond imagination. Determined to continue the fundraising that Tom had so selflessly started, his friends, family and the wider community of Monmouth pulled together and began fundraising for Cancer Research Wales - raising over £100,000 within a year. Last year, at Monster the Loch 2018, a crew of his school friends took on this epic challenge in his memory - and this year, he was once again honoured at the event as his family, four men with a combined age of 184, took to a pedalo to compete in his honour and raise crucial funds to pay for a 3 year PhD studentship to research into acute myeloid leukaemia.
From the finish line, the clouds slowly cleared, and rays of watery sunlight filtered down onto the Loch, tiny specks became visible on the horizon. First to the shoreline at Dores were the GB8 - soaked through, cramping up, and having completed a distance at a speed which no amount of their training could have prepared them for, with a boat full of water; but also with a new World Record. They had Monstered the Loch in an incredible 2 hours and 4 minutes, on what was technically their 'weekend off' from the gruelling training they endure day on day as part of the GB squad and leading University crews.
Shortly after their arrival, came many more successful competitors - rowers, kayakers, self-built small crafts, individuals and teams - all exhausted, freezing cold, wet, and sore, yet smiling, proud and triumphant. Greeted and helped on to the shore by friends, family and strangers alike, and sharing news of the competitors they had passed on the water with relieved friends and family, the spirit of joy was contagious. As competitors landed ashore and came to collect a celebratory bottle of champagne from us, we had the honour of personally congratulating them and hearing their stories; from a single kayaker who had only started kayaking a little over a month ago, to retired groups of friends keen to do something different with their weekend, to University crew reunions; families, friends and individuals who all shared the same spirit of adventure that shone so brightly down upon the Loch that day.
After over 7 gruelling hours on the water, the two pedalo crews arrived back to shore; one group dressed as suave Venetian gondoliers, greeted by wives, friends and family and one very smiley baby, and then the other, the family of Tom Walker, on a boat bedecked with Welsh dragons, flags and daffodils. The entire spectating crowd came together to applaud and cheer them in; celebrating not just their monumental sporting achievement, but the spirit of joy that they brought with them to the event, all in honour of this much-loved young man.
When the final crews had reached Dores, it was time to dry off, warm up, and celebrate - to share stories from the water, congratulate each other, and revel in the spirit of the event. Valuable funds were raised for the RNLI, official charity of Monster the Loch, alongside individual charities, and lifelong memories were made by all. To witness all this among the intimidatingly wild, stunningly beautiful setting of the Scottish highlands was something that we weren't prepared for; a memory which will stay with us forever. On behalf of Marloe Watch Company, we once again wish to pass on our heartfelt congratulations to all involved in this remarkable event and achievement. Thank you for sharing it with us.
And if you'd like to see some behind-the-scenes footage of the GB8 team, take a look below...
Until next year...