by Andrew Malinak
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.