Swimming for Kate
Andre Phillips (BSc Biology 2014, PhD 2018) describes his Swim Around Arran in memory of fellow student Kate Mowatt.
Since I was lucky enough to have my first degree paid for by the Scottish Government, I set my sights on St Andrews: a university that was not only close to home but also provided the best higher education in Scotland.
As a Biologist and outdoor enthusiast, what also drew me here was the quality of the School of Biology’s teaching and its focus on getting students outside whenever it could. Field trips to Kildonan in Perthshire and Orielton in Wales were particular highlights.
However, it was the sports clubs – primarily the Canoe Club – that enabled me to explore Scotland to its fullest extent and to make lifelong friends. When I stayed on at St Andrews to do my PhD, I continued to be involved in the Canoe Club and coached new members, as those who came before had coached me.
It was through the Club that I met Kate Mowatt. She was always keen for an adventure – the more challenging the better. Kate had grown up on the Isle of Arran on the West Coast of Scotland. She loved sea kayaking, so she fitted into the Club immediately. It gave her an incredible support network when she was struggling with her mental health and she in turn helped others when they were struggling.
Unfortunately, Kate took her own life during lockdown.
This was of course devastating for her family, the club and everyone who knew her. Many of us felt helpless and wished we could have done more. After some thought, I decided to organise an event that would not only celebrate Kate’s life but also publicise and raise money for youth suicide prevention – something that Kate herself had fundraised for.
Arran made sense, as it is where Kate was from.
Doing what? Sea kayak around it?
That wouldn’t be tough enough to inspire people to give money.
Now that was an adventure worthy of Kate’s memory.
The idea stuck and the planning and training involved provided me with an effective outlet for my grief. After months of chatting to long distance sea swimming experts, hours of long, cold training sessions and an ungodly amount of logistics, I set off in driving rain in June 2022, facing a headwind that would somehow follow me most of the way around Arran.
I’d chosen June because I thought it would be too cold for jellyfish, but not too cold for me.
Unfortunately, the jellyfish had other ideas and hosted a large welcome party of Moons, Blues and Lion’s manes (in ascending order of danger). And I quickly discovered that, despite wearing a thick wetsuit, I was hypothermic after swimming for four hours each day in 12-degree water.
The challenge was so much tougher than I’d imagined or trained for. By day seven I wasn’t able to speak in a full sentence – I’d have to pause halfway through, think, then finish it in a fatigued haze.
But Kate’s family and friends kept me going. They came from across Scotland to help feed me, house me, drive me and safety kayak me. With their help and that of my own family and friends, I continued to swim six, seven or eight kilometres a day.
There were incredible moments that cut through the tiredness: swimming with seals; being joined by locals who swam and safety kayaked beside me; and being fed free of charge in cafes throughout the island. The coast of Arran is slightly more protected from fishing than many other areas of Scotland and so there were also stunning sea grasses, crabs waving their claws threateningly (though to motivate myself, I’d often pretend they were cheering me on) and on one occasion a grey rock that turned out to be a sleeping baby seal when I tried to stand on it.
Unfortunately, there were also areas where sewage had destroyed the ecosystem, or where dredging or overfishing had removed the wildlife. Arran has better protections than most, but it demonstrates just how essential it is to have more Marine Protected Areas.
After two weeks of very slow progress, I swam the final six kilometres with local legend Georgina MacLean (who was the first to swim around Arran) in a one-metre swell and a gale force 6 wind that cancelled the Arran ferries. Thankfully we pushed through and finished a day ahead of schedule to be welcomed by a small crowd of Kate’s friends and family, and locals.
It’s been months since the swim finished, and I can honestly say that it has helped me to deal with losing a close friend. We’ve raised over £7500 for Papyrus – a charity that Kate fundraised for that is dedicated to preventing young suicide. Papyrus provides a Hopeline for those in need, and trains staff in organisations such as universities who engage with young people. While the support from St Andrews was good while I was there, training and support from organisations such as Papyrus could help to make it even better.
I’m now a junior lecturer in Biomedical Sciences at the University of Edinburgh and have become involved in our student support team as a way of playing my part in preventing other young people like Kate from taking their own lives.