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Month: June, 2015

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.

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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).

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