Alison Lievesley - Pentland Firth

South Ronaldsay to Caithness

10.2 km (6.3 miles)

3 hours, 28 minutes on 15 July 2020

Observed and documented by Nicki Gwynn-Jones



  • Name: Alison Lievesley
  • Gender: female
  • Age on swim date: 43
  • Nationality: United Kingdom
  • Resides: Evie, Orkney

Support Personnel

  • Hamish Mowat - pilot
  • Dr. Ingrid Norquay - swim support / medical (GP)
  • Laurence Mowat - pilot
  • Nicki Gwynn-Jones - observer

Escort Vessel

Name Type Port
Niord former RNLI lifeboat Orkney

Swim Parameters

  • Category: Solo, nonstop, unassisted.
  • Rules: MSF Rules of Marathon Swimming, without exception or modification.
  • Equipment used: textile swimsuit (Funkita ‘toucan do it’ bikini), goggles (Aquasphere), earplugs, GPS watch (Garmin Forerunner 735XT).

Route Definition

  • Body of Water: Pentland Firth
  • Route Type: one-way channel swim
  • Start Location: Unnamed point 1.5 miles NW of Burwick Bay, South Ronaldsay, Orkney Islands (58.761179,-2.9852317)
  • Finish Location: Duncansby Head, Caithness (58.646016, -3.034818)
  • Minimum Route Distance: 10.2 km (6.3 miles) (map)
  • Actual start to actual finish distance: 13.35 km (8.3 miles)


LongSwimsDB: Pentland Firth.

  • Andrea Gellan 24/8/2011 2h 40 (Burwick to Duncansby Head)
  • Colleen Blair 11/7/2011 (different start and end points: Hoy to Scarfskerry) 4h 41m 21s
  • Frank Chalmers attempted the swim some years earlier but didn’t land it (documentary Crossing Hell’s Mouth on YouTube)
  • Mark Cameron did the same swim 20/8/18 but wearing a wetsuit

Swim Data

  • Start: 15 July 2020, 05:31 (British Standard Time (Europe/London), UTC1).
  • Finish: 15 July 2020, 08:59
  • Elapsed: 3 hours, 28 minutes, 53 seconds.

Summary of Conditions

Feature Min Max
Water Temp (C) 11 11
Air Temp (C) 11.5 13
Wind (mph) 2 2

GPS Track

Trackpoint frequency: 15 minutes. Download raw data (CSV).

Click to expand map.

Speed Plot


CNP carbohydrate feed made up to 3x strength and flavoured with sugar free orange squash. Diluted to 1.5x strength at each feed with hot water – total volume about 300mL per feed. Each feed given in a transparent cycling style water bottle on a string, so the team could see that I drank all of it before returning the bottle. First feed was at 45 minutes, then half hourly thereafter – final feed at 2h45. No extra snacks – no room for anything fiddly on a swim with tight tides and cold water!

Observer Log

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by Alison Lievesley

I moved up to Orkney in August 2017. From the time I knew I was coming I joked about swimming across the Firth – but I had no intention of doing it. I was swimming for fun, with no intention of getting back into training for an ‘event’ again. Then I gradually started swimming more, doing longer distances again; my friend was training to swim Ullswater so I supported her training for that, and somehow in the middle of it all found myself thinking that maybe I had it in me to cross the Firth.

Initially I got in touch with Colleen Blair for more info – but we were intending to meet up on her next trip up to Orkney, and that meeting didn’t happen. Admittedly I was bad – I didn’t like to pester her, and assumed if I hadn’t heard from her that she wasn’t due a trip up yet (perhaps she wasn’t!) – I hope I didn’t miss her from appearing not interested.

Still, a friend put me in touch with Hamish, my pilot, who had previously piloted Andrea Gellan across. I had been thinking to follow Colleen’s route – I’m not a champion swimmer, and she apparently chose the slower route for being more reliable. Hamish wasn’t keen on the longer journey to the start point though, and in all honesty it was quite easy to convince me to go for the quicker route simply because the thought of being in water that cold for perhaps 5 or more hours was pretty intimidating! He knows the water well, so I trusted his planning.

I kept training. Lots of pool work, regular sea swims (pretty short over the winter, but I’d hit 3 hours a few times in the summer of 2019) – I was feeling fit. And then – like everyone – lockdown! I’d just reached a point of being able to swim 20 minutes outside and suddenly that was all the swimming I could do. So every day, whatever the wind, saw me in the sea for 20 minutes before work (I’m a doctor) and gradually increasing the mileage as the water micro-inched up in temperature. I remember getting up one morning in May to icy rain on the ground. Again. That was the last ice shower of the year though, and eventually I was managing to get in 2-3 hour swims at the weekend (Hamish wanted me to have done a couple of 4 hour swims before the day).

My training camp in Aberdeen was cancelled, so I created my own plan at the same beaches I’d been training from all year, and completed my 4 hour swims (and some 3s). The second planned one was completely scuppered by an absolute swarm of jellyfish at my local bay (the Lion’s Manes were bad this year, and I’d been stung a couple of times within 20 minutes, in murky water: I gracefully admitted defeat) but I completed it the next day at another beach, and decamped my training for the final couple of weeks. I think at that point even though I’d done the swims we still weren’t completely sure whether lockdown would lift to let me do the swim, or whether Hamish would have been able to pick up his new boat which was still moored at Inverness!

But somehow lockdown easing, Hamish collecting his boat, and even the weather came together on 15th July, and we arranged to meet at 4am at Burwick for the swim. I’d originally thought I might get sponsored, but in the end I’d decided the weather was too unpredictable to chance advertising my plans (and then there was Covid to contend with as well!) so on the day it was just my crew down at the harbour. Hamish told the guy who fuelled his boat what was happening (turned out to be a friend!); and his brother Laurence bumped into the police on the way to the boat, but as Ingrid’s other half is in the police they actually knew about the swim as well! But there were no waving crowds to see me off (!) and I’d decided not to tell my parents I’d started until the swim was over.

We motored up to the start point, then hung around for a while waiting for the precise moment of tide. It was flat calm and beautiful; I was nervous. I always hate that moment of jumping off the boat into the water – I never get in that quickly! Still, it has to be done: a quick sweep to check I’m not going to leap in on top of a lion’s mane, and then I was in. The water was surprisingly temperate – presumably the effects of porridge, CNP & bananas before starting – most of my training is nothing like so well nourished! Up onto the rocks, readjust costume, goggles etc – and we’re off!

The water here is so clear! You can stay pretty much in your depth at the beaches, and we have done this year (not wanting to chance things with the restrictions, or to risk a lifeboat call out) – but clear water in the Firth is a different colour altogether! It’s so deep, and it’s green and blue and beautiful. The inland waters were pretty thick with lion’s manes, but most of them reasonably deep – I sucked in my tummy to sneak over the top of one that was closer than I’d have liked; and another was fanned out in front of me absolutely beautifully – I wished I could have taken a photo – but focus! You need to get to the other side. Just be glad none of them have stung you (and yes, I was wondering whether I was going to have to run the same gauntlet on the other side!)

I expected currents of different temperatures – after all there’s all sorts of water flowing through the Firth, all sorts of dodgy currents, whirlpools and so on. But it stayed the same temperature all the way across – it was amazing! And suddenly because all I had to focus on was my swimming – not keeping an eye on when I had to feed, or when I needed to turn around in the bay – the feeds came almost too quickly. I’d thought so much about how often to feed – the water is so much colder than the channel so I knew I’d need the feeds more frequently. In fact, come the last feed I had I was feeling pretty full and thinking I might need slightly longer before the next one, so I was pretty glad Nicki didn’t feed me again for the final 15 minutes.

There was a slightly sticky moment when what I was told was the ‘final feed’ turned out not to be, but that was fine – I don’t think I really let myself believe it anyway. What I couldn’t understand after I got out was that I thought I was swimming parallel to the beach at the Bay of Sannick for ages, but Nicki absolutely assures me that I wasn’t (it wouldn’t make sense in any case!) Must have been some weird sort of refraction (either that or time passing slowly at the end!)

And then suddenly Hamish was stopping and I was getting waved on to the finish line! And this was the best bit for me: I thought I was going to have to touch a cliff and then turn back – but there was a ledge at the bottom of the cliff, and so I was actually able to get out, completely clear of the water. I know a touch is fine when there are only cliffs, but getting out and looking back at the boat was like the icing on the cake! And I hadn’t had to swim through loads of jellies on that side either! In fact I did the whole swim without a single sting, for which I was monumentally grateful!

So I got back in and dawdled back to the boat. The moment of truth now: I was going to have to haul myself into a dinghy and then climb from that onto the boat – I’d known from the outset that would be the case, but had had no idea how easy it would be after the swim with cold hands. I’d just closed my eyes to the problem until I had to face it! Actually, my hands weren’t too cold (thanks to all that warm CNP, and the steady sea temperature!) and I managed to sprawl myself inelegantly into the dinghy without too much trouble, and then got helped aboard the boat. Once I had my many layers on I warmed up quicker than I’d expected on the crossing back. And there was a welcoming committee of one, as Nicki’s husband had driven out to welcome us home!


Click to enlarge.



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