Please tap on the glass

Confidence

Swimmer fails to cross Strait of Juan de Fuca” is what the AP reported the next day. Swimmer, me. Fails, what I did.

I remember thinking two days later, “today is the first day of my training for next year.” My determination and ambition lasted through the autumn, but something else crept in during that time. Doubt.

This had been my first attempt at planning a swim, and I had, as the press said, failed to complete it. I knew I was in good company in this body of water, with over a hundred other failed attempts on the books, a few people eventually returning for a successful crossing, but that wasn’t much consolation. What would I do differently next year? If I got it wrong the first time, what more did I know now to get it right the second time? As November approached, the thought of repeating a failure terrified me. I needed another plan.

First, I needed to prove that I could handle a big swim. I needed to be certain that I could train for and complete something big, and leave the planning to someone else for a moment. So I signed up for the biggest organized challenge I could find: 8 Bridges. And I completed it.

Second, I needed to prove that I could plan a successful swim. I needed to be sure that my assumptions worked and my preparations were adequate. So the Summer of Bert was hatched, a series of two original swims followed by the Strait, all inspired by the first person to cross the Strait. These first two would be training swims, big, big training swims. Dress rehearsals, if you will.

Third, I needed to prove that I could handle cold water. I needed to be certain that the cold wouldn’t get to me again. So I moved all of my training outside, effective immediately, and trained only in cold water from last summer through the winter to today. For the first training swim, I swam from Tacoma to Seattle in June, I swam in cold water three hours longer than the Strait should take, and I survived.

Finally, I needed to make the Strait look small and insignificant. And how do you make a five to six hour swim look small? Swim twice as long and twice as far. So for the second training swim, I swam around Bainbridge Island, I more than doubled the time I was in the Strait in 2013, and I survived.

And now, I’ve done all that. Now I feel I’m as ready to complete this little swim as I can possibly be. Wholeheartedly, I feel ready. I am ready. This will not be nearly as hard as the last two years.

Around Bainbridge – excitement

Last Thursday, I sat on the bench at Alki and stared across the Puget Sound at the sun setting over Bainbridge Island. As I prepared for my last little swim before circling that big island, I couldn’t help but notice that I wasn’t excited. Nervous may be a bit strong to describe my feeling. Terrified certainly is. But as I sat there, the thought of swimming for what I guessed would be twelve hours made me uneasy, given that I hardly wanted to put my suit on and swim that evening.

It was about two months after my last big swim and seven months into my season. The novelty had worn off months ago, but October still looked far away. My biggest fear for the coming weekend was: what if I don’t want to do this? A marathon swim, especially one that pushes your limits, isn’t something you complete half-hearted, and I was indifferent at best.

Erika, seated beside me on the bench, reminded me that I didn’t have to feel excited. And she was right. For it was with that same attitude that I stepped off the beach two mornings later. I stared at the flat water right as a large boat wake rolled in. My instinct told me to wait until the wake passed, but then I remembered that the sooner I start, the sooner I finish. As always, getting in was the hardest part.

The points ahead grew quickly, the shore passed by, the sea lions kept a respectful distance. Friends and swimmers and kayakers from the island came and went, excited to be a part of my adventure. The wind was behind me for most of the day, and the water was warm enough to relax in. “You know those days when it feels like you could stay in the water all day,” I asked Erika during a feed about half-way around? “Well what a good day to have that feeling.”

I never felt excited during the swim, nor before nor after. But I was ready to get started, ready to be finished, and just as ready for all the pieces that were found in between. A very wonderful, calm sort of ready.

And now there is just one more swim left in my summer. Then October.

Around Bainbridge – route

No surprises on this one. Just once around the island, taking the shortest route we can manage. Point to point to point to point.

location-map

This is a 25.5 mile circumnavigation. Thanks again to Google for helping out here.

google-route

Looking for more information? Then you may enjoy this .kmz file of the route, waypoints, and some current scouting I did last autumn.

Here it is:
bainbridge.kmz

Unassisted

This weekend, I’m going to complete an unassisted marathon swim. By unassisted, I mean I will use nothing to improve my speed, buoyancy, heat-retention, or navigation.

Well, unassisted except I’ll be swimming with the currents, so hopefully I’ll be assisted by them. But that’s it. And, of course there will be some assistance from the decades of observation and research that went into predicting those currents, not to mention the invention of the internet which made acquiring this knowledge possible, or at least made possible to acquire the books containing this knowledge, books which now sit tucked away in second-hand nautical book stores formerly unknown to me.

And I guess my speed will be assisted by the two decades of training I’ve done, and all the generational knowledge passed down to me by coaches and other swimmers on how to train a modern athlete. I’ll be swimming freestyle almost the entire time, which has only been around in the present form since 1902, giving me a speed advantage over those who lived before the twentieth century, so a bit of assistance there. And I can only do so much freestyle with the assistance of weekly physical therapy visits to keep my shoulders intact.

But otherwise, unassisted. Although I’ll be a bit more buoyant from the salt water, but surely that geologic processes don’t count as assistance, right? Oh, and there will be a little more buoyancy from the hundreds of donuts I’ve eaten this year which have increased my BMI a bit. So I guess I’ll be assisted by salt and donuts, too.

Actually, come to think of it, donuts will be assisting me in fighting off the cold. That extra bit of fat will certainly help me retain heat better than I would have otherwise. Also, I will be consuming food during my swim, which will allow me to generate body heat, so I’ll be assisted by the farmers and chemists behind maltodextrin, as well as the understanding of nutrition science as we have it in the present day, and the online retailer who sold and shipped all that powder.

And I should add, I’ll be assisted by my crew who will be throwing me food every half hour or so. They’ll also be guiding me, so I’ll be assisted by their eyes and voices, as well as their radar, GPS, and petroleum-powered engines. My crew will be on some combination of fiberglass, inflatable rubber, or plastic watercraft, so I’ll also be assisted by the advances in materials science we as a planet have made in the past few centuries. Thank you for your assistance, Industrial Revolution, thank you for making all these resulting synthetic materials possible. I’ll also be assisted by goggles to help my visual navigation. They, too, will be made of synthetic materials.

If I’m lucky, I’ll be assisted by the wind, warmed by the sun, sped by the tides, and buoyed by my friends who will be by my side the whole way.

But other than that, I’m going to do this swim “without artificial assistance to performance, other than the standard equipment of the sport” and without any “nonstandard performance-enhancing equipment, supportive contact with the swimmer, or other violation of the spirit of unassisted marathon swimming.” In other words, I’ll be unassisted.

Around Bainbridge – swim plan

On either the 8th or 9th of August, I’m going to try my longest swim yet. Swimming around Bainbridge, something that has yet to be completed – or even attempted as far as I know – will take between eleven and twelve hours. That’s longer than I’ve ever swum by over two hours.

I’m nervous at the moment. It has been two months since the last big swim, and training has been an experiment ever since then. Do I go hard? Do I back off? Do I even need to swim after work tonight? Do I want to swim after work tonight?

Part of me is ready for October, the month there is no longer anything for which to train. But part of me is very excited for this swim. With all the fatigue, the thing that keeps me swimming is simply that I enjoy it. Many nights while I stall, sitting on my bench at Alki before diving in, I’m reminded of the small, large, and very large joys swimming brings me. It’s a far cry from the view before a pool workout, the dismal, repetitive scenery that affected me so much last year.

Yes, I’m excited for it. For another mental and physical challenge to face, another complicated dance to perform, another day to test both my luck and skill. 25.5 miles around Bainbridge Island doesn’t seem that far to me right now. Not nearly as far as October, anyway.

Please find attached, the Around Bainbridge Island Swim Plan, approved by USCG Vessel Traffic Service Sector Puget Sound and Washington State Ferries.

Return of Bert, highlights

Here are the highlights of my swim from Tacoma to West Seattle.

Tarin of Bay Patrol told us we’d been left behind by the crew, Xiphius was off the dock heading to the start without Erika, Elaine, and me. They hadn’t forgotten us of course. A moment later I untied Tuesday with Elaine at the helm and we pushed us out into Foss Waterway. “Make sure the throttle is turned down, then pull the lever forward to put it into gear.” She’d never driven a boat before, but she was about to learn. A few minutes later, now an expert, she idled up next to the Xiphius, still underway, and I made up a towing harness to help the crew easily tie-up Tuesday when she wasn’t in use. We clipped in and climbed aboard en route to the start.

Melissa was in the water with me as we made our way west along the Tacoma shore. While we all settled into a rhythm, I kept sighting up ahead. Lots of sails, I noticed. Better put my faith in someone fast, because I’m not getting through this without help. As we neared the sails, it became apparent that the local yacht club was hosting a regatta through which we’d be passing at a crowded turn buoy. The horn blasts from Bay Patrol calmed me down. I took that sound to mean, very clearly, move over – we’re coming through. This is why we brought Tarin.

Owens Beach had gone by; Erika was swimming next to me. “Ready for a little adventure?” I asked. “Sure, that’s why I’m here,” she replied, not knowing exactly what I meant by that. A few strokes later, the water became clear and cold. We drifted apart. Xiphius was now to our right. We drifted back together. Xiphius had gone out of view. Ahead, the Bay Patrol boat slid into our path, or we slid into her wake. Her engine roared to get away from us, the only safe thing she could do. We were all being jostled by the eddies and boils where the Narrows empties into Dalco Passage at about five knots. Disoriented, all we could do was look to the nearest boat and follow where it led us. I was having a wonderful time as my arms and legs steadily propelled me through the swirls.

Suddenly the water flattened out again. The sun told me we’d turned north and I could see Colvos Pass straight ahead, the hills rising on either side. More importantly, the southern tip of Vashon Island was on my right. The smile spreading on my face came from knowing the currents and my crew put me where I needed to be. My predictions, based on mostly conversations in a nautical book store and an atlas that’s been out-of-print since the nineteen-seventies, had worked! The swim now felt possible.

Ahead was Blake Island, the end of Colvos Passage. No wait, I’m told that’s still the top of Vashon. A little later, past the top of Vashon, That’s Blake!? It’s so far. Resigned, a take a few more strokes and then see up ahead but to the left, Blake Island. I had been looking at the hills on the mainland five miles away. Blake Island was actually very close. I could certainly swim that far.

A ferry crosses up ahead moving Sunday travelers west to Southworth. We’re about to cross two of four ferry routes. Before he left, Tarin told Pete: be sure to radio Vessel Traffic when we leave Colvos, which we had now done, but for some reason I was certain this communication hadn’t happened. Then to my right, I could see a ferry heading north. It’s an east-west route, which means this ferry had just gone around us off-course and was returning to the regular route. Well, then I guess they’ve been talking.

Lincoln Park is easy to see from the water. It is a large, green, undeveloped mass among the residential hills of West Seattle. That speck in the middle is Colman Pool, my destination. Three miles away, I look up and see this. When I look up again, it looks the same, no bigger. I’ve never been into counting strokes, but to keep my face in the water I decide not to look up for another hundred strokes. The building is no larger. Now another two hundred strokes. Barely any larger, so three hundred. Now it’s looking bigger. Maybe in another two hundred, I’ll be able to make out some more details..

Wendy had told her staff at Colman Pool that we’d be by today. We walk in, unhassled, and I walk to the far side of the pool, ready to finish this swim properly, the way I planned it. I wait in line behind a small girl as she climbed the ladder, then I do the same. Near the top, I can see Xiphius waiting just off the beach, and I turn give a giant wave to Wendy, still aboard. They made this possible. At the top, I turn away from the beach, grab the handle, and go down the waterslide, splashing out into the warm pool below. My shivering was done, and so was the swim.

Return of Bert, swim plan

In the immortal words of Dave Barra, anything worth doing is worth over doing. This is the 24-page swim plan for today’s swim.

The plan!

It covers the basics of communication protocol, course description, vessel traffic avoidance, emergency and evacuation procedures, and rules. Thanks again goes to VTS Sector Puget Sound (Seattle) for taking the time to entertain this, and additional thanks to WSDOT Ferrys for doing to same.

Return of Bert, actual route

Step one: jump in. Step two: turn left and go off course.

The actual route for this swim does not match the shortest route. The shortest route, at 18.8 miles, heads north from the start through the East Passage. My route is over 2.6 miles longer, and goes left around Vashon Island.

Right now, I’m either regretting this decision, or laughing to myself that it is just crazy enough to work. Either way, here’s the logic behind it:

During Bert Thomas’s 1956 swim in the opposite direction, he swam about nine hours before getting stopped by the tide and finally finishing seven hours later. That’ll happen in the East Passage, where the ebb and flood of the Sound creates noticeable currents, and complicated eddies. While it sounds like a complicated, exciting challenge to hop between shores, tuck in behind spits of land to fight the tide and then burst out at the right moment, when one adds in the shipping lanes running through the East Passage, more likely it would become another Tappan Zee incident (see Stage 6) where I’d be constrained to unfavorable water and left to fight it out.

Instead, I’m going to avoid shipping traffic and, if I’m right, the tides altogether.

Now not far west from the start along the shore of Point Defiance, regular swims with Melissa have taught me that the current there always pushes west. And Melissa’s birthday swim taught me that a strong clockwise eddy lies just north in Dalco Pass, midway between Vashon and Tacoma shores. So I’ll ride that current west from the start, heading out to the mouth of the Narrows to meet a ripping ebb tide pushing north into Colvos. This part is a bit of a gamble; if I swim for the Gig Harbor Light fast enough, I should be pushed north into Colvos on the backside of Vashon.

And that is where it gets beautiful. Colvos they say, by some magic of oceanography, always has a north current. So I’m adding a few miles to the swim in hopes of avoiding a seven-hour delay like Bert had.

At the top of Vashon, we’ll ride the current as far north as possible, getting above the ferry lanes and preparing to swim due east against a flood tide pushing south.

shortest-route-planned

Return of Bert, technical details

ROUTE: The Return of Bert Thomas Swim is an 18.8 mile swim as measured by the shortest straight-line route between the starting and ending points. The start location is Old Town Dock on Ruston Way in Tacomca, WA. The anticipated finish location is between Lincoln Park, West Seattle near Colman Pool and the Fauntleroy Ferry Terminal.

RULES: The swim will follow MSF Rules with no exceptions taken for non-standard equipment.

OBSERVER: The swim will be observed and documented by Dan Robinson, a Triple Crown marathon swimmer (EC 21 Jul 2014, CC 8 Sep 2008, MIMS 24 Jun 2006).

shortest-route

Return of Bert, introductions

The crew’s job on this swim began a long time ago. The swim hasn’t started yet, and already they’ve done so much to get me here, a week from the start. Even if they don’t realize it, they’re a giant reason I’ve made it this far, and they’ll be the reason I make it much farther. Let me introduce them:

The boat people, pilot and swim manager
One doesn’t swim in Seattle for long without eventually bumping into Wendy Van De Sompele. She’s not only a marathon swimmer herself (need I say, avid open water enthusiast?) and frequent, high-placing participant in Seattle’s abundant open water events, but she also manages the Seattle Parks Department’s Medgar Evers pool in winter and Colman Pool during summer, two highly sought-after training grounds for pool swimmers. We met at a little swim in Tacoma a few years back: she was swimming and her partner Peter Ray was kayaking. Pete has since bought a sailboat, and Wendy has graciously offered their support on this swim. No doubt this is what Pete had in mind when he bought the boat. As Swim Manager, Wendy will be Pete’s right hand with tasks such as Coast Guard communication and navigation, leaving Pete free to pilot his boat.


The observer
I don’t need to state the importance of having a qualified observer. Dan Robinson and I met at Alki a while back. At the time, he was training for The Channel (successful), his final swim of the Triple Crown. When our training paths crossed he was good company, as he was one of very few people who had the speed, endurance, and acclimatization to train with me in cold springtime open water as I was ramping up for 8 Bridges last year.


The swim handler
A month after my unsuccessful 2013 Strait attempt, Melissa Nordquist convinced me to swim an event in Tacoma (same as above). Until then, I’d mostly been swimming alone, and it would be a good opportunity to meet some other swimmers. Although we’d never met before, I knew by the end of that swim that we’d be swimming together a lot more often. She and her husband Paul were South End members before moving away from San Francisco, she a swimmer and he a rower. Melissa has since been a willing partner in some great swimming adventures around the Sound, including storm swimming, night swimming, birthday swimming, Halloween costume swimming, pre numb-feet-trail-run swimming, and under-pier skeleton discovery swimming. She’ll be looking after my general wellbeing, preparing some feeds, and splitting tasks with the rest of the group.


Spare parts and deck hands
Observing for Elaine on Pend Oreille last summer, in addition to being a wildly good time, taught me some important lessons about planning a swim. One big lesson learned: bring spares. So I’ve got a spare boat (Tuesday) to drag along with us. And I’ve got two spare people, Elaine Howley and Erika Norris.

Elaine is flying out from Boston to visit, finally. After she traded me Jerome (formerly of L Street and the Nahant Knuckleheads) for Observer Services Rendered last summer, she will at last be visiting us both in Seattle. I’ll be handing her a megaphone and Twitter the morning before the swim, what could go wrong with that?

Erika and I have been swimming together since February. I still can’t quite tell how she’s progressed from so quickly in her cold acclimatization (she’s been joining me for 6k swims in 50 degree water). Whether it comes from some natural sea lion ability or from shear stubbornness, her ability to swim long distances in cold water is amazing. As a regular training buddy, she is probably the single biggest reason I am still sane and smiling at this point in the season.


Pace swimmers
Coincidentally (or maybe not, I can’t remember at this point), all of the crew (Pete excepted) are active, cold water swimmers, and nearly all my pace. I’m expecting and counting on them to jump in to keep me company and keep me swimming.


Of all the swimmers out there, I’m lucky to have found a set of friends willing to join me in cold water and who are willing to share this adventure, and so many other adventures. I know they’ll make this swim fun, no matter what happens.

Training

My first swim for the year is less than one month away. So what did I do today? I sat on the beach all afternoon and drank beer with swim friends in between rounds of seaweed fights. After swimming five miles, of course.

At the beginning of the season, I knew my training plan needed to be different from last year for two reasons. First, my goals were different; I’m training for several cold saltwater swims rather than a multi-stage river swim. Second, my training last year left me feeling pretty blue most of the time.

My training started at the beginning of last July with the seemingly easiest of tasks: do nothing. What put me in such a bad mood through most of last spring was the absence of an off season, and I was determined to not make that mistake again. My rule was, from July through the beginning of this year, do only 7km per week. No more, no less. This kept me in shape, and made me yearn at times to go farther. Wanting to swim is a talent that needs cultivating.

With the start of the new year, I maintained the maintainable. I took a schedule of 7km per week and made it only marginally harder. The next week was an 8km week, because if I could figure out how to work 7km into my life, surely I could add a bit more without consequence. Then a bit more the week after. And now its a 26km week. To make things more challenging, I’ve been doing all my training in the Puget Sound. Through the rain and short days of winter, lengthening my swims as the days lengthened and the water warmed. Cramming as much distance as I can handle into the weekends with hopes that it will be easy to make time during eleven-hour workdays to get the rest swum before bed on Friday night.

There’s a few other things contributing to my generally good mood and consistent swimming this year. The regular adventure of swimming in open water versus the drudgery of distance pool workouts has kept me excited. There are some days when my first smile happens during my evening workout, and more often on Monday mornings forcing a smile is too much to ask, when I’m contrasting office banalities with my most recent sea lion encounter. More importantly, I’ve found people to join me. Our little group has grown to twenty-plus, and I’ve even had frequent same-pace company during part or all of my swims, weekend and weekday alike.

And that’s how I found myself standing knee deep at low tide today, draped in kelp and sargassum. Just another sunny Saturday morning 8km swim, followed by some lounging and swimming and sunning and drinking and smiling.

Distance swimming

It was after dark on a Sunday evening in February when, still wet from another city’s downpour, I slowly walked up to the light rail station at SeaTac airport. This was not an unfamiliar experience, returning to town alone with just enough time to get some food, get some sleep, and get back to the office the next morning. Barely over one year earlier, I’d returned to this airport from some unglorious destination or another every few days. Here was a ritual I’d repeated countless times since moving to Seattle, and countless times in a life before that.

Thirty-two days later, I was driving back to the airport to pick up a guest when it occurred to me: this sixteen mile drive brought me farther from home than I’d been in the past thirty-two days. Farther by five miles! For the past month, I’d done the opposite of what I’d done for the past four and a half years, not travel.

For thirty-two days, I was never more than nine miles from home. Nine miles is the driving distance from home to my beach at Alki. In that period, I made the trip to Alki sixteen times, and swam a total of sixty-four kilometers (I still swim in kilometers). My morning commute is currently 2.9km. This means on any given weekend day, I swim farther than my total daily commute.

As I was pushing myself to go farther in the water, I was going nowhere on land. Instead of exploring the world with a plane ticket and a passport, I was exploring the world with a pair of goggles and a few happy hours. I was getting to know the bottom of the sea and my swim family better than ever before. I’d fallen into a routine that is one of the most stable I’ve ever had, and it leaves me feeling unbelievably comfortable.

I finally found a routine that allows me to swim the distances my mind and body and soul all crave, without travelling the distances all of those wholly rejected not so long ago.

Inspiration

Two years ago, a map inspired me to take a swim. That swim has led me on a journey. It isn’t just for the creative, artsy types: inspiration is easy to find if you look for it.

The first person to swim the Strait of Juan de Fuca was Bert Thomas. Two years ago, during the planning of my own Strait attempt, my research kept coming back to Bert. The local papers documented his several failed swims, alongside the attempts of many other legendary swimmers of the 1950s, before finally reporting his success. This Tacoma ex-Marine was being written up alongside the likes of Florence Chadwick and Marilyn Bell, and the world was excited to see who would be the first to complete the crossing.

The rabbit hole of the internet easily turned the story of the Strait into the story of Bert Thomas. What else did he swim? When? How? The papers, probably because of his newfound notoriety, continued to publish his exploits. Months after completing the Strait, Bert attempted an 18.5 mile swim in the Puget Sound in January of 1956. A few months later, he tried again. Then in May, he tried a third time, and successfully swam from Seattle to Tacoma.

It isn’t just his resume that a marathon swimmer finds fascinating about Bert Thomas. The articles about him say more than just “brave” and “courageous” and the like. There’s the mundane, tidbits like his hot feeds and cigarette breaks during a fifteen hour swim. Then there’s the heroic.

In April of 1958, Bert disqualified himself 41 miles into his 45 mile Columbia River swim when he had to push off an errant press boat in order to avoid being run over. A marathon swimmer can appreciate that type of principled view on the sport.

If you want to admire his swimming a bit more, there is this quotation: “The cold doesn’t bother me….I go into the water feet first, a little at a time. That way, it’s not such a shock to the system. The blood cools gradually. Once I get warmed up, I can keep going for hours.” In my opinion, this is the hardest way to get into any water, warm or cold. If nothing else, I can appreciate that he likes doing things the hard way.

And because that’s not enough, in April of 1956, Bert was forced to postpone a swim by twenty hours after a boat in the marina he was departing from caught fire. The swim was postponed because Bert had injured his hand pulling “neighboring boats away from the fiercely burning cabin cruiser.” That’s a pretty badass reason to postpone a swim.

Bert Thomas is my inspiration. This June, I’m going to swim from Tacoma to Seattle. This plan is completely inspired by Bert Thomas’s 1956 swim, the route is the reverse. I want this to be the Return of Bert Thomas, the return of an exciting era of open water swimming to the Pacific Northwest.

And this is just the first of my summer swims. This is my Summer of Bert Thomas.

Haiku 11

Swim partner

look down into the
deep green sea, with naught but seals,
shimmering, below

Dream huge, start small: 2015

Sitting in nighttime rush hour traffic on my way to swim practice, a place I’ve not been in a while. It is something I’ve done a hundred times, slowly crawling up over the West Seattle Bridge as the sun sets straight ahead. Last year, at this exact time in fact, I was doing just this.

A year ago, my priorities were distance, and my training reflected my fear that I wouldn’t be able to swim far enough or fast enough. Consequently, on a night probably much like this, I was headed to the pool beneath the Bridge to swim a lonely four or five thousand yards in a dreary small space. Pushing myself in practice meant swimming farther and faster just as often as it meant fighting back morose thoughts and the occasional tear.

As I crested the bridge, the sunset opened up ahead in an unseasonably bright and cheery sky. The exit for the pool was just ahead on the right. My turn signal click-clacked away as I merged onto the ramp of the next exit, the exit for the beach.

I haven’t been to that pool since May, or any pool for that matter. The day I got out of that pool, wrapped myself in a towel and drove around the corner to the beach to finish my workout was a beautiful day. And the providence that bankrupted the gym thereafter and ended my monthly contract was divine. So as I drove over that bridge, heading to a dark cold workout in the Puget Sound, I chuckled quietly at my unenlightened self of last year.

My training plan for this season is simple: dream huge, start small. The dreaming is done, and it is huge. Also a little intimidating, but oh so exciting. And I’ve started, small.

Starting small is great, because means I can do all my week’s training out of a pool in open water. Starting small is necessary, because the water here is only in the high forties. Starting small is safe, because swimming has released its grip on my life and it will take a few moments to work it back into my schedule. Starting big, like last year, would be emotionally disastrous.

This year, my priorities are distance, and luckily my fear is only the cold. My training will keep me out of the pool, and can only progress as fast as my body and the water temperature will allow.

There are eighteen weeks until this season’s first swim.  Until then, the Bridge that’s now behind me will continue to bring me to a place I love, a place I want to be. This will be a long, cold, and challenging year, but only in the very best of ways. 2015.

Haiku 10

Cargo pants

I’ll bring you small fish
from the store, tucked in my suit,
if you’ll be my seal.

On Course Goggles

Emailed 28 August 2014 11:26 PDT

Long Distance Committee
c/o Anna Lea M—–k
Membership Coordinator
US Masters Swimming

Anna Lea,

We all thought that this was the product of the future. We knew it would come, that it was only a matter of time, but we didn’t think that time would be so soon.

Leaving aside the beauty, joy, and majesty of this sport, open water swimming is a test. It pits swimmer against swimmer, swimmer against nature, and swimmer against self. USMS has embraced this challenge.

It is evident in the 2014 U.S. Masters Swimming Rule Book that challenge is inherent in open water swimming. The rules for Competitive and Solo Open Water Events (Art 303) break out wetsuits and rash guards into a separate category because they offer an advantage over those wearing a traditional swim suit. The rules prohibit any “device or substance to help…speed, pace, buoyancy, or endurance during a swim,” (Sect 303.3.7) because it would give an individual with a “competitive advantage” (Sect 303.7.2C.2) over those without. Similarly, the disqualifications section (Sect 303.9) specifically frowns on many other forms of assistance that do not follow in the spirit of competitive open water swimming.

A new product, soon to be available to swimmers, goes against the intent of current USMS rules. On Course Goggles (http://www.oncoursegoggles.com/) is about to release a new product that enables swimmers to have navigational assistance displayed right in their goggles. Sighting, their Facebook page claims, would only need to be done once for each straight leg of the swim. Such assistance is unquestionably a competitive advantage in open water swimming, allowing those with such a device to chose a straighter, shorter course than those without. That sounds like cheating to me.

As written, the Rule Book does not prohibit this type of assistance. It is in the best interest of your members to make necessary rule modifications and stem the flow of technological competitive advantages into open water swimming. I believe I speak for a large number of open water swimmers in making the following proposition:

Sections 303.7.2D and 303.7.3C

AS WRITTEN: Swimmers are not permitted to wear or use any device or substance to help their speed, pace, buoyancy, or endurance during a swim.

PROPOSED ADDITION: Swimmers are not permitted to wear or use any device or substance to help their speed, pace, buoyancy, **navigation**, or endurance during a swim.

This is merely a suggestion. There are, of course, alternative modifications to the rules that could be made to cover this and future advances in swimmer advantages. I leave it to your best judgement to decide the final course of action, but I am glad to help in any way I can.

If you need any more information, or would like to discuss this further, please do not hesitate to get in touch.

Regards,
Andrew Malinak
USMS 07U87, Club PNA-HMST
a————-@g—-.–m
206——–6

Observing Elaine

This is the story of the mid-night gap in my observation log, the missing three hours of Elaine Howley’s 32.3 mile Pend Oreille swim on 30-31 July 2014.


The boat was running. The sky was blushing. Elaine was swimming. I was laughing.

It was dawn, or just about to be. I zipped my light sweater up to the top against the morning’s stiffening breeze. Wearing nothing else except a small wet swim suit, the sweater was both insufficient and more than enough. It could have been worse. The night could have been worse. But it wasn’t. Elaine was still swimming.

I looked down at her from where I sat, piloting a small grey boat alongside my swimmer. It was just the two of us for the moment. The kayaker, crew, and both big boats had all dropped back to regroup after the night’s events. As I watched Elaine swim, I thought I could see her looking back at me with every breath she took. I smiled at her, as if to say, glad that’s over. The smile grew into a laugh, uncontrollable. A laugh that was drowned out by the small two-stroke pushing me along, and the splash of Elaine’s unceasing arms pushing her along.


Three hours earlier, I stood on the top deck of our escort houseboat, snacking on Brie and olives and iced tea to ward off sleep. A sliver of new moon had left us shortly after sunset, and the stars above now gave just enough light to hint at the size of the mountains looming over us. Black silhouettes on a blacker background. The only other light came from our houseboat. Cozy and safe and bright. To shake off the sleep and give Elaine some company, at two hours past midnight I stuck a glowstick in my goggle straps and jumped off the bow to swim with her.

Night swimming isn’t bad once you’ve done it a few times. Getting used to the dark is easy. And good thing, because fifteen minutes after I joined Elaine, the lights on the houseboat flickered and died. Go on, yelled Eric, the organizer who put this swim together. Go on, it is just the generator, we’ll be back with you in a minute.

So we went on, Elaine between the kayak and me. We went on for ten or fifteen minutes this way, and I kept looking back at the house boat, watching its few remaining lights get smaller. When we stopped for the first time, we assessed our situation. Elaine had enough food to last for a while, and I’d been paying attention to the navigation and we all agreed on a course: hug the point up ahead, then we begin to cross the lake. So we went on.

When we stopped again, the houseboat was but a speck of light, discernible from the blinding stars overhead only by its position at the surface of the smooth lake. For a while now I’d been thinking of turning back to get the small grey dinghy tied up behind the houseboat, but it was too late. There was over a mile of pitch blackness between them and the three of us. Elaine told us she was very glad we were both with her. The kayaker said the same thing. I quietly pictured us huddled on shore, waiting to be rescued by some hikers in the morning.

I thought this would be a good time to share the punch line to a joke I’d told Elaine three hours prior. Something to lighten our dark situation. How many tickles does it take to make a squid laugh? was the joke. We went on.

We rounded the point on the east side of the lake and made a slight right turn. We picked our course by the mountains and navigation lights ahead, and we stuck to it. They’d know where to find us when they got the boat running again. I thought of the other joke I’d told to Elaine earlier that evening whose punchline was still waiting to be heard, although this joke would not be concluded just yet.What happens when a red ship hits a blue ship?  It would be bad form to talk about crews being marooned, given our present circumstances.

Looking back again, we saw what appeared to be a flashlight moving near the speck that was once a houseboat. Did they finally launch the dinghy? Yes, fifteen minutes later it arrived. We’d been without a boat for about an hour, about two miles.

Eric and the cameraman were in the dinghy, looking down at us. The engine died and I immediately climbed in. I was surprised to see these two, of all the people on our crew. Eric had told me only a few hours ago he didn’t know how to operate a boat, and the cameraman was just along for the ride. Did you bring me a towel? Or dry clothes? How about food for Elaine, a VHF radio, a cellphone, a big flashlight, her crew, or anything useful? Well, at least we had two headlamps and a boat that worked.

I grabbed the starter cord and pulled. Nothing. I’d started this boat a dozen times since the swim began and now, in the middle of the lake in the middle of the night, Elaine was once again swimming away from a broken boat. I tried everything I could think of, which isn’t a lot since I’m not a mechanic. Finally, as Eric’s headlamp swung across the motor, I figured it out. The white line in the water trailing behind the boat perfectly illustrated the importance of securing the painter.

My goggles were still sitting on my forehead. I slid them back on and flopped in the lake. A few minutes later, the bow line was unwrapped from the prop, and I was back in the boat with the motor running, begging Eric to keep the light out of my eyes so I could find Elaine in the dark.

Meanwhile, a call had been made from the houseboat to Bruce, a guy with another boat. He’d woken up, untied his boat, and now we could see him zipping down the lake in our general direction. Having no way to get his attention except two small headlamps, we watched him zip right by. As we followed Elaine, Bruce made his way to the houseboat, and then traced our route back to find us.

He’d brought me a sweater and a muffin, plus some more crew and spare food for Elaine. Still no phone or radio. I asked him to return to the houseboat and get everything – everything we’d need to finish the remaining ten-plus hours of the swim, then come back. In particular, I wanted him to bring my orange dry-bag with my phone and GPS inside. After all, I was here to observe, and my documentation was lacking at the moment. Plus, a phone and GPS would be really handy right now.

We settled into our routine. Elaine was swimming. Eric was talking. The cameraman was filming. I was reflecting.

When Bruce returned, about two-and-a-half hours after I first jumped in to swim that night, he brought news that the houseboat was running and on its way. A few minutes later, with the crew reassembling on the houseboat, I was free to sit quietly in the dinghy and observe Elaine swimming under the dusty-red sky. That’s when the laughter started.

It could have been worse. But it wasn’t. Elaine was still swimming.

Pend Oreille swim – observer log and data

On 31 July 2014, Elaine Howley walked ashore at the City Beach Park in Sandpoint, ID with a look or surprise behind the smile on her face. She’d just completed a 32.3 mile swim across Lake Pend Oreille, the first person to do so. There to greet her on the beach was the entire town of Sandpoint.

Elaine asked me to join her crew as the event’s official observer. Marathon swims are almost always done away from the eyes of spectators, so to ensure that rules are followed, that standards are upheld, and that claims are verifiable, marathon swims should have an independent observer along to provide credibility to incredible feats. I had no doubt that Elaine would make every effort to follow the rules she’d selected for herself. After all, we are co-authors of the Marathon Swimmers Federation rules she’d be following. On the boat before leaving dock, I sat the crew down to make sure they too understood the traditions and spirit of this sport, that Elaine would swim beach to beach without assistance from any of us other than navigation and provision of food.

They all said they understood. Done, I thought. This job was going to be a breeze.

Well, I managed to witness the whole swim. All 20 hours, 25 minutes, and 55 seconds of it. I’ll get into the details later, but keeping an eye on Elaine proved much harder than planned. For example, I swam with Elaine and the kayaker for an hour when the boat broke down and then piloted a RIB for two more hours while our captain was remounting solenoids to his engine compartment. In short, this was far more adventurous a swim than any I’ve been on, a distinction I give without even considering the fact that Elaine was in the water swimming 32.3 miles. The stories will come, but first let me finish doing my job.

Compiled in the below links are all the data I collected during Elaine’s swim. Observations every half hour (to the best of my ability given certain circumstances) that document the non-emotional side of things. They are presented here for posterity, and for your approval. If anyone feels that they are incorrect, they are encouraged to speak up to the community. But as they say in the business, Elaine is “squeaky clean.” Elaine *is* the spirit of marathon swimming.

PDF of the observer’s report, submitted 2 August 2014 to the marathon swimming community.

ZIP file of all available data, including .gpx, .kmz, .txt, .xlsx, and .jpg files. Just like that! You don’t even have to beg me or comb through my site to find them.

For any of you who look through the GPS files: the track followed my handheld GPS. The waypoints, marked down on the log were taken during my observations from a position very near Elaine’s. You’ll notice a three hour gap in observations and waypoints where the tracked speed drops to zero; this is when I was away from everything except my suit and goggles and Elaine and the night sky.

Pend Oreille swim – route

Tomorrow evening, Elaine Howley will embark on a 32.3 mile swim across the length of Lake Pend Oreille in northern Idaho. She will begin in the southwestern most part of Buttonhook Bay, Farragut Park and swim up to City Beach Park in Sandpoint. The swim will be done following the Marathon Swimming Federation standard rules for a solo swim.

This route poses an interesting challenge in declaring an official distance, since the shortest straight line between start and finish includes several mountains and a few train tracks. This route presented  here is best described as the “shortest swimmable route.” It takes into account the local terrain and turns its way across the lake using the shortest distance between multiple points. Distance from shore along the bends in the route vary between 25 and 150m.

Pend Oreille route

Precise start and end locations are yet to be determined, however deviations of up to 250m make no significant difference to the overall course length.

The Google Earth .kmz file is available for your use.

Just a number

“As a kid I always thought I would have swum the English Channel,” Dan says to Scott, but now he feels he’s “too old.” Luckily, Dan made this comment to the right person. ”Without Scott’s encouragement, advice, and [assistance as] a training partner, I wouldn’t have even considered swimming the Channel,” says the present-day Dan.

It was back in 2003 when Dan said he was too old. Three years later, he swam around Manhattan. Two years after that, he swam the Catalina Channel. Then two days ago—eleven years after saying he was “too old” to swim the English Channel—Dan wrote this on the ceiling of the White Horse Pub in Dover…

Dan Robinson

Dan Robinson
7/21/14 11:59 E-F
Seattle, Wa, USA
Wichita Swim Club
68-78

It is written right above Scott’s name.

Scott Lautman—USA
7-4-2000 10:37.23 E-F

Dan is not too old. Congratulations Dan.

Prizes

Upon my return to Seattle, surprisingly high on the list of questions posed to me was this: did you get anything?

8 Bridges was not an insignificant event in my swimming life. I learned a lot, and ended up with a few new things to add to my nektonic resume. Of all the things people could and did ask me, this is that most puzzling. What did you get?

You mean, like a ribbon? I’d have been insulted. A free tee shirt? Please, don’t.

Now I’ve never been a big fan of swag. My life is littered with event ribbons and medals, the ones that didn’t get left behind or end up in the trash. They show up under car seats, at the bottom of swim bags, under my desk at work. And gift bags? Anti-chlorine shampoo and a discounted wetsuit rental aren’t really up my alley. At the end of 8 Bridges, I’d collected four pint glasses, but nothing else. And it didn’t matter. Swimming: I’m in it for the free junk like I’m in it for the money.

So what did I get?

I got to spend a week on the Hudson with Rondi and John, some of my favorite swim people. I got to watch Dave and Greg coordinate seven marathon swims, learning things that I’m sure will come in handy in my future. I even got to spend two weeks with my dad, two mostly painless weeks. This last one is something that greatly surprised me and, someday, I’ll probably admit that it was quite pleasant.

I got some great experience on pushing myself. I learned more about personal nutrition and muscle recovery than I’ll ever learn anywhere else. I got practice at breaking in a new kayaker, and I’ll be able to do it even better next time. I learned how to slow down, and how to speed up. I learned what it really means to lose track of time.

I got a new personal record for longest swim, nine hours twenty-two minutes. I think I set a few men’s course records. I did not break any of Grace’s records. In the end, I got my name at the bottom of a very short list; a list I inhabit with only two other names, very respectable names: Rondi and Grace.

I got a memento for completing Stage 5, a framed picture. It is the only thing hanging on the walls of my home, and it means more to me than I care to say.

Et cetera et cetera.

Did I get a finisher’s medal, or win a gift card in a post-swim raffle?  No. That would have ruined everything.

Haiku 9

Marathon strategy

Just like a 50:
start fast, finish strong, don’t fall
apart in between.

(Written 19 June 2014)

8 Bridges – all 8 bridges

[Originally published 29 June 2014 at the 8 Bridges website: http://www.8bridges.org/all-8-bridges/]

This is the last thing I’ll say about this for now: here is my story. I set out on an adventure last week. I swam a lot, learned a lot, laughed a lot, and in the end accomplished what I set out to do. There is much to tell. Some of it I’ll write now, some of it I’ll tell you in person, and some of it you’ll never hear.

Stage 1

I said that I wouldn’t race, told myself for months to pace. But that tail wind pushing us downriver felt so nice. There aren’t many distractions up north and I was feeling strong. Having Rondi and John pacing next to me made me feel stronger. They were my training companions two years ago, so it felt like old times trying to keep up with them, pushing myself to match their speed.

Stage 2

Somewhere around the five hour mark, my kayaker Darian is told by Launch 5 captain Greg that if I swim the next 2.5 miles in 25 minutes, I’ll have Grace’s record. An audible laugh was my first response, but then I remember the current and some mental math I’d been doing earlier. If I swam fast, that might work! So I swam fast. At the bridge, out of breath, I’m told I got the record. The men’s record, they mean. I was 25 minutes behind Grace’s. That is when I learn that Greg may not be a reliable source for when to sprint. No more record chasing for me. Greg’s comment becomes a great source of entertainment for me for the remainder of the week.

After I finish, we spot Penrose fighting the flood tide along the Poughkeepsie waterfront. The current is against him, but he’s still going for it, sneaking along shore in front of us. I want a closer look, so put my suit back on and tell Harris to get off the paddle board. Watching James finish his swim from right alongside is great. My arms ache as I paddle back to the dock.

Stage 3

The snooze button gets hit again because I’m feeling too nauseous to sit up. Food will fix it, I think, but it doesn’t. Driving to the train station, I’m doing my best to avoid defiling my father’s steering wheel. He’s turned the air off in the car, I snap at him, turn it back on, and the sick feeling recedes. On the train, my sandals break.

My stomach feels no better swimming. My feeds go down and come right back up. My mouth feels dry despite both the amount of water I’m drinking and the fact that I’m swimming in water. It feels like my stomach has shut down, nothing is passing through. And strangely, I’m cold. I shouldn’t be cold.

We stop at the New Hamburgh Yacht Club, slightly off course, to chat briefly with Marylou, Ken, and Diane. It has been years since I’ve seen them. Treading against the current off the end of the dock, I see Rufus at the top of the ramp. He’s whimpering. Rufus always got nervous when I swam there. He used to doggie paddle out behind me when I left shore, and then turn back when I got too far.

Dave paddles over and asks how I’m doing. Something isn’t right, I tell him, but whatever it is, the answer is just there on the other side of that bridge.

Stage 4

The scenery is gorgeous. This is the closest I’ve come to Bannerman’s Island. Seeing Breakneck and Storm King loom up ahead is awesome. Watching them fly by is better. I made the rookie mistake of getting sunscreen in my goggles, so I stop often to take them off and enjoy my surroundings.

Somewhere in those surroundings I find my friend Emily. She is waiting on Little Stony Point. Emily is the one who put me in touch with Darian. She’s come up from the Upper East Side with Nick to watch us go by. We exchange a few words, but don’t stay long.

Stage 5

We pass Indian Point and the water gets predictably warmer. It also feels smoother somehow, and the waves are less irritating. I find a rhythm and pick up my pace. Rondi is up ahead pacing the lead swimmer. I steal her as I pass by, I’m now the lead swimmer. I seem to have found my power in the cooling water of a nuclear power plant.

We pass another power plant, this one far off on the west shore. It marks the halfway point, so I mentally await the symbolic moment when I’m directly in front of it. Watching the smokestacks move in front of the buildings behind takes ages. I’ll never reach halfway.

John jumps in tells me he has bad news. I’ll have to kick, he says, the tide might be turning soon. We pound our way into the waves together. His motions make him look like a porpoise, I think to myself. He tells me a little later that Rondi says once we reach the lighthouse we only have fifteen minutes farther to swim. The lighthouse approaches very slowly.

An hour or so later, I’m still between the lighthouse and the bridge. I’ve been lying to myself for an unknown period of time, only fifteen more, thirty more minutes. I look at the bridge. I’m ready to be done with this. Sure, I want to be under the bridge, but I want to be done. I look up again, and the bridge is a hair closer. If it were farther, if I were moving backwards, I would be done. But it isn’t, so I keep swimming.

The bridge doesn’t grow, but I can tell by the positions of the stanchions when I breathe that I’m still making progresss. Let’s end this, is the nicest thing I’ve said to the bridge for hours. That bridge is one of the few things to ever see me get angry. I sprint the last few hundred yards and it takes ages. I’ve been sprinting since the lighthouse.

7:30, I think when I get on the boat. Any longer and the tide would have changed I’d never have made it. 9:22, Rondi tells me. No way. I check the time of day. No way. I check the position of the sun. Finally it sinks in, the current has been flooding for nearly two hours, but I never admitted it to myself. Where did the time go?

Stage 6

Oh, this again? and I stop after ten strokes. The waves feel exactly like they did a few hours ago when I arrived at this bridge. I put my face back in and swim because I want to leave put the Tappan Zee far behind me. That bridge and I aren’t friends.

The scenery becomes familiar again. I watch the Palisades slide by on one side, and the Yonkers and Bronx rise on the other. Then there is the Henry Hudson Bridge over Spuyten Duyvil. I count down the blocks and watch the GW grow ahead.

Stage 7

The last time I swam this whole stretch of river she was next to me, and she’s here again. Christina paddles to my left, Darian to my right. She’s been kayaking for swimmers exactly as long as I have been swimming for kayakers, Christina was there when I first swam in the Hudson. I’m glad she’s here today, for many reasons.

Counting down the cross streets. Suddenly we’re at North Cove, the end of MIMS. Then we’re past it. I look up and hear a bell. I stop. There’s a green bell buoy ringing its carillon behind me, a packed Liberty Island ferry up ahead, and Statue off to my right. Caitlin has made her way into our company on board a small RIB. It feels fitting that she is here too.

With every breath I see a new tug and barge, or large ferry, or freighter. This harbor is busy. The Narrows Bridge is playing along with our little game. It is getting bigger, just like it is supposed to. We’re heading into waves two to three feet high, but I don’t care. The bridge is getting bigger!

Ed told me earlier in the week that the best moment in the swim is when you can see the bridge up ahead just by turning to the side to breathe. I can do that now. We’re close. Jumping in that morning was the most nervous I’d been on during this adventure; so close, but still with six hours of swimming to go. But now there’s nothing in my way now. Not storms, nor injury, nor boats, nor current. There’s nothing stopping me.

Haiku 8

Drifting

I am not just a
paper cup. To reach the bridge
requires much effort.

(Written 18 June 2014)