Please tap on the glass

Month: June, 2013

Strait of Juan de Fuca, VTS, AIS, and not getting squashed

[Originally published in Please Tap on the Glass at USMS Blogs on 27 June 2013.]

From the beginning I knew that if I was swimming across a shipping channel, at least one person, or one government agency, would care about it. Without the right permission, this and future attempts at this swim would be jeopardized, and that is the opposite of my goal. So I Googled “Coast Guard Seattle.”

After several phone calls up and down the chain of command, many including the phrase, “yes, swimming,” I ended up with the number to Vessel Traffic Service (VTS) Sector Puget Sound. VTS is a part of the US Coast Guard that controls America’s ports, waterways, and shipping channels; they are the air traffic controllers of our inland waters. The Strait of Juan de Fuca west of Victoria is controlled by VTS here in Seattle and not VTS in Victoria. Lucky! This is where I first spoke with LCDR MK, who did not ask me “swimming?

A week later, MK and I met at her office in the Seattle Port along with VTS Director MA. The two of them explained their procedures, how VTS works, and what they would expect from me as far as safety goes. Since this is a one-swimmer deal, there would be no permit. As we talked about the route I had in mind, and they really made me believe this was possible. We were talking logistics and a way forward rather than Danger! or Cold! or Boats! or Common Sense!

VTS would require an AIS Class A device on board during the swimi. An AIS, simply put, sends and receives GPS signals by VHF so boats can see each other, and so VTS can see the boats. A Class A is required by 33CFR164.46 on all boats of a certain size, bigger than…yawn…oh, sorry. Oil tankers and ferries have ‘em, your uncle’s boat doesn’t. So finding a small, swim-escort size boat with a Class A was a challenge.

Spoiler alert: I still haven’t found one. I got two prices for such boats. The first was a commercial tender, 65 feet long, and expensive. I’d basically be hiring these guys to not deliver supplies to ocean going ships for a day. Option Two was a recommendation of the VTS director (did I tell you they were awesome?), an ex-VTS staffer who had put a Class A on his private sailboat. After letting him name his own price, he was at 80% of the commercial boat’s Really Expensive price. Having someone so knowledgeable on my crew felt right, so I bit the bullet and went for it. Then, the day after I told him he was my guy, he got sent to Mississippi to run their VTS for the summer. Bummer.

Fortunately, this left me with only one option. Buy a Class A device and hire anyone that looks like they won’t sink halfway through the swim. Since Class A’s are federally mandated devices meant for really big boats, they don’t run cheap. The best I could do was $2,500, from a nearby Miltech Marine. I asked if there was a Groupon, they said, “huh?” But even for that price plus hiring a boat for a day, I’d still come out a few hundred dollars ahead than if I’d gone with the first two options, plus I’d own a Class A at the end. Sold!

After I got to the yeah-we-remember-who-you-are level with the AIS dealer figuring out if making this thing portable was possible, it finally arrived. Long, long story short, after I figured out how to connect it to a 12v plug fused at 4 amps, soldered a connection onto a 3′ VHF whip antenna, sorted out a VSWR error, put the whole thing in a waterproof case, and got to the yeah-we-remember-who-you-are level at West Marine: it works!

So now VTS can watch me swim. And so can you! One side benefit of the AIS is I’ll show up on all those vessel tracking websites. You can search for my MMSI (367575160) or look for “Swimmer In The Water” in the area of my swim once we get going. Check out,, or

I’m meeting with MK and MA at VTS in two weeks to talk more about how to not get run over by an oil tanker, and they’re guiding me through my Coast Guard safety stuff as well. They’ve been way more supportive than I ever would have expected. After this is over, they’ll be getting a very good Yelp review.

iIf you want to know why a cheaper Class B wouldn’t work, I can explain after class.

The Ka Lae method for doing difficult things

[Originally published in Please Tap on the Glass at USMS Blogs on 24 June 2013.]

Years ago, I stood on the cliffs of Ka Lae looking south, out over the Pacific Ocean. Or rather, looking down at the Pacific Ocean. The rocky ledges at South Point, Hawai’i, are a great spot for cliff jumping if you can handle the rough, current-laden water below, and if you can work up the courage to send yourself flying off the edge of a cliff. Standing there at that point, I possessed at least one of the two.

As a swimmer (not even an open water swimmer, at the time), an expansive ocean, some big rollers, and unfathomably deep water didn’t scare me. Looking down, my thoughts were the same as they always are when I look at a body of water: “I want to swim in that.” I take this for granted, my absence of fear in swimming-related matters, my sense of invulnerability about the water. If there was any thought of perishing once I was in that water below, I wouldn’t be standing there with my toes curled over the edge, oh no.

So there I stood, toes curled over the edge, staring down at that clear blue water telling my legs to jump. 1, 2, 3, and…4.

1. 2. 3. Hmm.

Logically, there was nothing bad about this idea. No drowning to worry about. No rocks in the water to watch out for. No rocks on the cliff to avoid. And I’ve refined my cliff jumping skills since that first experience/injury at America’s Most Dangerous Water Park, so no worries there. Despite rationalizing the risk and assessing the cost (nearly zero) against the benefit (greater than zero), it wasn’t happening. Jumping off a giant cliff into a huge ocean was irrationally terrifying!

So I turned around and took a few steps away from the edge of the cliff. The equivalent of four big steps. Looking back at the cliff from my new vantage, the “down there” no longer visible, the fear of the fall subsided. It was just me, the wind, and the ocean on the horizon, and the thought of what I wanted to do. 1, 2, 3. That’s not me counting, that’s the sound of my bare feet pounding the sandstone ground, heading for the edge, too much momentum to stop. 4.

Over the next few years, I found myself doing the same thing in other places. Here’s a picture of me jumping into the cold, cold Hudson on Christmas Eve. Ah, here’s me jumping into the pool at 6:30am for the fourth day that week. It’s mostly pictures of me physically jumping. Oh, here’s one of my moving to London with just a duffel bag.

Somewhere along the way, I discovered metaphorical jumping. The rules are the same:

  1. Be sure jumping won’t kill you.
  2. Know how to swim.
  3. Full speed ahead.

Over the past few months, the planning of my Juan de Fuca swim would stall; knowing that certain parts would be hard, I’d push them aside and then days later pick up the phone and run at the challenge full speed ahead. That’s how I got my WA driver’s license: woke up one morning after stalling for months and went straight to the DMV before even having breakfast.

In chemistry, there’s the activation energy of a reaction. In physics, you’ve got your static coefficient of friction. Life just a bit of that, plus some selective blindness.

And if that doesn’t work, may I be there to give you a good shove?

Strait of Juan de Fuca, tides & currents

[Originally published in Please Tap on the Glass at USMS Blogs on 17 June 2013.]

Heads up: there’s some math in this one.

If you think knowing the tides and currents is all there is to planning a swim, you’re wrong. But if you think you can plan a swim without knowing the tides and currents, well, good luck. Even on training swims, currents play a big part (see Fig. 1). The methods presented herein are my own, developed over the past year and largely untried in the real world. This swim will either be a joyful validation of my methods, or a long, cold, learning experience.

Figure 1: The effect of various currents on an out-and-back swim loop

Figure 1: The effect of various currents on an out-and-back swim loop

Adverse currents were cited as the reason for stopping in numerous historic articles about past swims. The reason why is clear when you look at a map. The Strait of Juan de Fuca, connecting the Puget Sound and Salish Sea to the Pacific Ocean, has currents ranging from 3kt flood to 3.5kt ebb swirling along the rocky shorelines, playing Plinko with the San Juan Islands. To get a good feel for the overall movement patterns, the Current Atlas (Atlas des Courants) published by Fisheries and Oceans Canada is extremely helpful (see Fig. 2). Unfortunately, its resolution, both spatial and temporal, is not sufficient for planning on the scale of a swim.

Figure 2: Excerpt from the Current Atlas showing some tricky currents.

Figure 2: Excerpt from the Current Atlas showing some tricky currents.

There is one resource that probably every American swimmer who has the slightest interest in currents has referenced: the NOAA tidal current prediction tables. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration publishes current predictions on hundreds of stations across the US, providing times and velocities for maximum flood and, and slack times in between. They’re published well in advance so do not take wind or weather into account, but provide a reliable starting point for any maritime excursion. The downside is, they only provide a bunch of data points, not a curve.

To connect the dots, I’ve written a formula that fits each predicted high and low with a piecewise sine curve (Fig 3) and put it into an Excel spreadsheet, allowing me to calculate a current velocity at any given time. Since this equation does not take into account the predicted slack-current times, there is there is almost certainly some error. This error appears worse for some stations, but relatively good for the two stations I’ve based my model on. This unquantified “goodness” is assessed by matching up the predicted slack times with the plotted equation and seeing how closely they match (Fig. 4). Some have been as close as 6 minutes.

Figure 3: an equation to fit a sine curve calculating y at time t given a time range and y range (y = current velocity, tidal height, etc.)

Figure 3: an equation to fit a sine curve calculating y at time t given a time range and y range (y = current velocity, tidal height, etc.)

Figure 4: A calculated velocity profile showing NOAA-predicted slack current times as red triangles.

Figure 4: A calculated velocity profile showing NOAA-predicted slack current times as red triangles.

With a way to calculate currents and a feel for how the water sloshes, the course can be set. To make planning uncomplicated and conservative, I like to pick one heading for the duration of the swim and let the currents take me where they will. There is a bit of guess and check involved. In half-hour increments, I draw a line from the start along the fixed heading scaled to correspond with my anticipated speed, and then another matching the direction and velocity of the current just calculated. Repeat, repeat, repeat until the other shore is reached, or it becomes clear the other shore will not be reached (Fig. 5). By varying start times and headings, I’ve now got at least two routes planned for each day of my window.

Figure 5: Sample of route creation method showing 30-min steps

Figure 5: Sample of route creation method showing 30-min steps

One of the responsibilities of my swim manager will be to compare these predictions to our actual progress. By keeping a constant heading throughout the route planning, it should be easy to anticipate where a deviated heading will take us. My goal is to hit one of the two coves in Washington and end on a sandy beach. Fortunately, the coastline here is relatively straight, so messing up the currents should only mean a little extra swimming and/or ending on a rocky cliff.

The most important things in planning tides and currents are a reliable set of predictions and a good feel for how the currents operate. I admit I don’t really know the intricacies of the Strait the way I’d like to, but products like the Current Atlas help, but I think I’ve been conservative enough in my planning to account for a few reverse eddies near shore or a delay due to shipping traffic. I’m excited to find out if this works.

Strait of Juan de Fuca, training 1 of 2

[Originally published in Please Tap on the Glass at USMS Blogs on 8 June 2013.]

I’ve got a theory: anyone who says they cannot find the time or place to train is lying to themselves.

Last year, I told myself I wouldn’t train for anything this year. Life being as unsettled as it is right now, how could I give the necessary effort to make any serious swim worthwhile? Look how well that worked out. This is Part 1 of 2 of my training for the Strait of Juan de Fuca. You won’t find any sets here. If you want that, check out USMS Forums, or ask a coach, or something. What you will find here are the basics of my approach to acclimatization, endurance, and how to do it without a permanent residence. In the next training post, you’ll probably see an explanation of how I’m scurrying to adjust for my plan’s shortcomings.

Last December, when I moved to Seattle, I knew I’d be travelling a lot. As I write this, I’m about to board my 40th plane of 2013. So finding a home team was out of the question. Even buying a monthly pool pass would be a waste of money since I spend less than 45% of my time in Seattle. Also, pools are hot and crowded (and gross). So I took to the Sound. Always free, always open, always empty, and always the perfect temperature to training for a cold-water swim.

The way I plan on accomplishing this swim is three-fold: brown fat, metabolism, be in shape.

The brown fat (which we’ll say represents my level of acclimatization) I’ve been working on since I first jumped in Lake Washington in January. And I’m working on it three or four times a week when I’m not out of town. Hot showers are the worst, and I break a sweat walking to the car on a chilly morning, so it seems to be working.

Metabolism also has three parts. First, stay fed. I quickly adopted a tow-behind water bottle filled with calories (maltodextrin and AminoX, mostly). Then, I started shoving a few Gu packs in my suit to snack on. During a typical training swim, I’ll consume about 500 cal/hr with more before and after. Second, vitamins. This might not be true, but I believe vitamin B boosts metabolism. Or at least, certainly doesn’t hurt it (and it’s miscible, so it’s very hard to overdose). Hence, my feed bottles contain crushed B-complex. I’d like to hear what my coworkers think when they see my crushing pills and mixing piles of white powder in the office lunchroom. My swim bag also contains gummy multivitamins and fish oil capsules. Third, move! When I move on land, I get hot quickly. Therefore, if I move fast in the water…you get the idea. Which brings us to

Be in shape. To warm up, literally, at the start of my cold water workouts, I jump in and swim as fast as possible until the cold numbs my skin. And when I start feeling cold later on? Swim faster! The product of these two is a fast-paced, survival-based swim. And this works! Despite minimal interval training, every time I jump in a pool I find my pace to still be over 4 km/hr. When I do want to work on something, in or out of the pool, it is usually getting my stroke rate up from 59-60 to anything over 60. Moving more means more calories burned means more heat generated means less dying in July. Right now, I feel like I’m in nearly the same shape I was before MIMS last year despite a very, very different training “plan”.

By the way, “Be in shape” is easier said than done when there is no coach, no workout, no pool, and no pattern to one’s life. This is where being opportunistic has come in. When I’m in Seattle, opportunistic simply means heading to the beach after work and on weekends. Everywhere else, it means exploration and adventure. Awesome adventure. There was the day in Abbotsford, BC where the wave pool was turned on for my entire pool workout. There was a 2.5k swim in Delta, BC when I high-fived snails for forty-five minutes because the water was so shallow (it was called Mud Bay, go figure). There was the gorgeous Kinsmen Centre pool in Edmonton, AB, and the time the fire department showed up when I took my to work out to the adjacent river. There were olympians at a pool in San Jose, CA, two-foot breaking waves in Lake George, NY., and instructions on igloo building from a stranger while warming up on a Vancouver beach. Opportunistic isn’t always convenient or ideal, definitely not repeatable, but it seems to be working. I could write a whole post on the merits and challenges of opportunistic training, but suffice it to say: it works for me for now.

After all of this, six months of swimming every chance and place possibly, I can get out of 50F water after two and a half hours and feel great! I am in shape, I have some brown and white fat building up, I have no excess fear for what’s to come.

I also have no idea where I’m sleeping Tuesday night, but today is Saturday and I know where I’m swimming in the morning. And it’s not in the same country I’m in right now.

Fine, you win. Here’s your workout: 200 w/u LCM, 8 x 1,000 @ 15:00 200 c/d