1st Place in our Top Five Iconic Swims in the South of England: ‘Threading the Needles’, whilst swimming from Alum Bay to Scratchell’s Bay, Isle of Wight (2km approx)
Swimming the last few 100m towards the end of the Isle of Wight
All that remains of the Needles are the three chalk stacks shown in the Iconic Swims logo, the outermost host to the famous red-striped Needles lighthouse. Early charts displaying these rocks - the only significant offshore mariners’ hazard between the western end of the Isle of Wight and the Yorkshire coast - show in addition to the three remaining stacks a group of several tall, slender chalk pillars dwarfing the rocks left there today. It must have been quite a sight for those ancient mariners approaching from the west and presumably the reason for the name which has outlived them by several hundred years. Today’s remains constitute a set of treacherous rocky stumps only just covered by the swirling tidal currents and they continue to present significant hazards for small boats brave enough to attempt an inshore passage around the end of the island.
The Needles, as once were in the 1700s
Over the years we have motored, sailed, rowed and swum extensively in these waters and are now confident enough, given the right conditions, to lead groups of swimmers through the gaps... what the locals refer to as “threading the Needles”, on a swim from Alum Bay round the end of the Island and into Scratchell’s Bay, appropriately named after ‘Old Scratch’, one of those many nicknames for the devil.
Our expedition begins from the mainland at Keyhaven, ideally on a still summer’s day with light winds and a neap tide ebbing westwards out of the Needles Channel. The swimmers climb aboard our mothership, Reel Easy, skippered by local pilot Kevin who has been running fishing charters in these waters for donkey’s years. The Iconic Swims safety RIB follows: it’s an offshore tidal swim, so we leave nothing to chance when it comes to the safety of our swimmers.
A short trip across Hurst Narrows leads us over to the Isle of Wight. Passing first Colwell and then Totland Bays, finally we turn into Alum Bay with its famous colourful sandy cliffs, the last anchorage before the dramatic chalk cliffs, once the daily yomp for Victorian poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Here the anchor is dropped and the swimming begins.
Timed perfectly with the last trickles of the ebb tide, the swim from Alum Bay over the wavecut platform along to the chalk stacks is just under a mile. This has to be one of the most memorable miles swum anywhere along the south coast. Above, the towering cliffs; below, a forest of tummy-tickling kelp concealing all manner of sea life crawling about, hidden under the canopy of gently swaying algae. Due to the push from the tide, this magical experience is over all too quickly and it is already time to thread through the Needles.
Swimming into Scratchell's Bay
Following our paddle boarder who leads the way and watched carefully from a safe distance by the Iconic Swims safety RIB, the swimmers carefully make their way between the second and third stacks and enter Scratchell’s Bay. It is now only another few hundred metres until a rest and an Iconic picnic on the pebbly beach of Scratchell’s with only a few eagle-eyed visitors to the Old Needles Battery looking down incredulous at the tiny swimmers a hundred metres below – the only way to reach this beach is by boat, unless like us, you swam here! Usually there’s time to go in for another swim, perhaps a snorkel around Sun Corner where the cliff drops ten metres straight down into the sea.
Contemplating a dip in Sun Corner
In the right conditions a swim through the Needles into Scratchell’s Bay is most certainly the single most Iconic Swim of the South and we look forward to sharing this with other adventurous swimmers in the years to come.
Join us this summer on one of our Iconic Swims day trip expeditions aboard Reel Easy with the Iconic Swims team. If the conditions are right, we’ll definitely be dropping anchor in Alum Bay to thread the Needles, but there are many other Iconic Swims around West Wight to explore too (and we wouldn’t want to share all our secrets at once, would we?!)
A chart showing the route of this adventure, and many of our other swims around Christchurch Bay and West Wight, can be seen on our swim map here.