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Excelsior

“That looks fun,” I said to her as she returned to the wall.

The lady in the lane next to me was pushing a set of floaty dumbbells along the surface of the pool, and she had just spent the past four minutes or longer in shoulder deep water, feet on the bottom, face down, arms outstretched, spinning. And for the past four minutes or longer, I’d been watching her.

It was a ten past eight o’clock on a Tuesday night, and the last 100 yards of my 7,000 yard workout were eluding me. Somewhere over the past two hours, and past two weeks, I ended up on that downslope of the emotional rollercoaster. As I stood at the wall after a long, slow, tedious 6,900 yards with no desire to go any farther, something about this spinning lady entranced me.

What is was about her slow rotation, bright green cap, and uncustomary movements that caught and held my eye I cannot say. Spinning must have been for her either a workout, or something she really enjoyed doing, or both, because why else would she do it? Why was I doing what I was doing? Was it for any of those reasons?

“Well, you know,” she replied. Conversations with strangers are rarely begun by me, but watching her had really intrigued me. She added, “You must be more of a competitive swimmer.”

“Yeah,” I said in a tone that must have expressed what I was feeling right then about my own swimming, which was nothing positive.

“That’s alright.”

“It get’s old after a while,” I offered. Not the direction I meant to take the conversation. I just wanted to know about her spinning.

“Well, as long as you’re competing against yourself, always setting the bar higher, that’s what matter.” Normally, this would be that little nugget of wisdom you hang onto and cherish forever. But no, goddammit, I was clearly set on being a miserable human.

“Unless you set the bar too high.” She asked what was too high, and I told her how far I’d swum tonight.

It was the second time I’d thought about this during my workout. New York State’s motto is Excelsior, or Ever Upward. The sad truth about this is, it is impossible to go Ever Upward. Everything has limits. Read a Stephen Jay Gould book, he’ll tell you. And what are my limits? Sure I can go farther Upward, but do I want to? Is it a good idea? Is it safe?

“That’s a lot,” she replied. “Well, my workout is nineteen laps, but it usually stretches out to twenty-one.” Then, something unexpected. “Because at that point my suit usually starts to fall apart. It’s an old suit. Some things take priority, you know.”

We laughed. Thank you spinning lady in the bright green cap. You just cheered me up a little.

One hundred yards to go, and then there is a Cadbury Creme Egg waiting for me in the car.

Welcome Tuesday

Taking the helm

One can only take so much heartbreak and disappointment before something needs to change.

Look at a map of Seattle and the first thing you will notice is that there is a lot of water. Even to the non-swimmer, the prevalence of water is obvious. Seattle is a maze of salt water, fresh water, peninsulas, islands, rivers, capes, bays, and inlets. Water surrounds and creates everyday life here (ask a Seattler to go to the Eastside and see what they say). Shipbuilders, chandlers, and fisheries coexist alongside the art, music, restaurants, and bars one associates with this town. It is a great place to be a swimmer.

It is because of the seemingly endless reaches of water that a swimmer cannot help but dream up new swims. The number of feasible swims between landmarks in the three to ten kilometer range is shockingly large. Just looking off Alki Beach, the possibilities are huge: 3.4k to downtown, 5k to Magnolia, 5 miles to Blake Island, 4k to Vashon Island, 6 miles to Bainbridge Island, and so on. All I’d need to get there, to any of these places, is a boat and pilot to get me across the channels.

So far, no luck. In the winter, it seems everyone winterizes their boat. Why they do is a mystery to me, when the weather stays so warm all year long. But they do. Puget Soundkeeper isn’t into the idea of swim escort, and I don’t have enough free time to persuade them it is in their best interest (what with the training, work, sleeping, and eating I’ve got scheduled). I also don’t have the time to meet every boat owner in Seattle to see if they’d be game for escorting me around in the cold for several hours. How do you even begin that conversation?

Two months ago, with a trip to Baltimore just a week away, I gave notice that I’d like to try an ice mile in Baltimore Harbor. Wary though they may have been, local swimmers quickly said they were willing to help on short notice, and even lend a kayak or two. But being a novice to ice swimming, and knowing that Baltimore’s urban waterfront is not easily accessible, I wanted a powerboat by my side. Good luck finding one of those when the air is 15 degrees and the water 37. That’s where this attempt ended, with no boat and no swim.

I am sure I’m not the only one in the northwest thinking this, that there needs to be a boat so I can do long, unorganized swims. An Agent Orange, but maybe not so fancy.

On a rainy Saturday in early March. I left my usual post-swim seat in front of the Tully’s fireplace, where Jeffery was telling us about his boss’s extravagant birthday trip to Patagonia, and Maria again kindly entertained my ignorant questions about summiting Mount Rainier, and headed north. Through the intensifying rain, I sped along in my New York manner over the Alaskan Way Viaduct, with its view of Elliot Bay and the downtown waterfront, and into Ballard, where offshore commercial fishing boats in for repairs and outfitting make up the skyline. I stopped at the Market Arms pub and had a drink in the back, trying to block out the noise of the Sounders game being aired, and made a few calls to be sure this was a good idea. No one answered, but I already knew it was. After just one drink I headed a few doors over to Ballard Inflatable Boats and gave Ed a check for my new boat.

Before I left the shop, Ed told me, “Your summer plans just got very different.” Yeah they did.

Swim meet

Last weekend was beautiful. The sun chased away all of Seattle’s clouds and we had two days of warm spring air. And where was I? Well, in case you missed the title, I was at a swim meet.

Yes, a swim meet. At an indoor, 25 yard pool swimming back and forth. The rest of the Pacific Northwest was as shocked as you are.

Ever since joining a swim team or two, I’ve had people asking me when I’d sign up for a meet. The idea was immediately laughed at because I’m not really into racing. I find no thrill in competing against others and I don’t swim in meets enough to be able to race against myself, so what is the point? Maybe all this training has just worn me down, or maybe the idea of a justifiable taper week got to me, but a few days before the meet registration closed, I signed up for our LMSC championship at my old Tuesday-Thursday morning pool.

What really surprised everybody is that I did not just sign up for all the long distance events. No no, remember I don’t like racing? Instead, I picked a few events that I thought I could do well in and just signed up for those. Many of my workouts lately have been built around increasingly faster sets of one, two, and three hundreds of freestyle, so the 100 and 200 free were obvious choices. Then I also signed up for the 100 fly because I was once pretty good at that. And that is it. Just three events.

The meet was a blast. During my training for this summer’s big swims, I’ve found myself wondering how fast I could go if I tried, and I was excited from the start to have a chance to find out. As a kid, I lacked much of the focus racing requires and usually got too caught up in the social atmosphere of swim meets. Thanks to open water and the mental durability developed in the numerous lonely workouts I’ve gone through over the past five years, I was able to get in a solid warm up (my shoulders remind me of warm up’s importance at every workout nowadays) and to extricate myself from friends before my events for a few quiet minutes behind the block. Not to say I didn’t take full advantage of having so many swim friends in the same place at the same time. Work and play.

Naturally, having not swum a short course meet in 9 years, all my seed times were made up. I really had no idea how I would do. In all my events, my starts were pathetic. I may as well have just gotten off the block after the start, adjusted my goggles, and eased myself into the pool; they were bad. But after that, it felt perfect. They felt like that perfect day of training when you just want to go faster, your stroke feels smooth, you nail every turn, and you don’t want to stop for anything. I got totally high on that feeling. And my times weren’t bad either; way better than expected, and one life-time best.

As the meet ended, I was shocked at how sad I was that short course season is over – this was the final meet. Now that I know my times, I want to go faster. I want to go back to this meet and cheer for my teammates, count laps for the coach of another team, talk with the race director about how his workouts have been, say hello to former lane mates, plan summer swims with my open water friends, and get invited by the Coleman Pool director to use the pool for free this summer (only if I swim there from Alki). I want to join every team, and go to every event. I don’t always get along well with everyone, but with swimmers, I love them all!

Just a few weeks ago, swimming and me, we were heading into a rough patch in our relationship. But this meet turned that around. Swimming and I are in love again.

Haiku 3

New suit

It’s me or the suit,
one is a liar. We’re not
both a thirty-two.

Priorities

When my doctor says I should watch my diet, do some extra tests, and monitor my blood pressure on a regular basis, I don’t disagree with her, but I also don’t do what she says. Health problems seem so far in the future. Plus, I workout regularly, so I must be pretty healthy.

When my dentist points to an x-ray and tells me I need to see a specialist because my jaw in in the process of falling off, I believe him because I can see and feel exactly what he means. But bones and teeth are a pretty abstract concept to me, and I have trouble seeing the urgency in getting things looked at that seem so durable.

But when my shoulder twinges midway through my workout on Thursday night, I am on the phone that night with multiple PTs looking for the next appointment. Not just the guy I usually see, but any recommendations I’ve gotten from friends recently. Because if one thing scares me more than getting hit by a boat, it is chronic shoulder problems. I’m sure I can swim without teeth, but I cannot swim without shoulders.

Photos: Alki Light

Fighting burnout, stoking the fire

Traditionally, as the end of the summer comes, the leaves, the temperatures, and my training all begin to fall. But not this year.

By time late September 2013 rolled around, I still had weekly open water swims of over 7k. The Puget Sound is beautiful, and all I wanted to do was swim in it. Sounds harmless. Then I went and joined a swim team. Then I joined a second swim team. By late October, there were weekdays opened with a 5:30am swim practice and closed with an open water swim in the darkness newly brought about by Daylight Savings Time. As the months got colder, I added post-swim trail runs with some training buddies, and would continue to push the 6k mark as the Sound dropped into the 40s late in November. This level of training had continued since May, and my real training was to start in January.

Or so I told myself.

What I’d forgotten, or overlooked, or ignored in those playful autumn months is how important is my annual break-up with swimming. And now here I am at the end of March fighting total burnout. While my workouts are meant to be getting longer, simply getting in the water is regularly a struggle, and I’ve even begun asking myself why I’m doing it at all– the most dangerous of questions. In fewer than three months, I’m to be swimming 120 miles down the Hudson. By then, I suspect swimming and I will, in the best scenario, not be on speaking terms. The chances of us still being friends by June seem remote. And this is a terrifying prospect considering we’re only at the beginning of the season!

Now it is too late to take three months off, and there is no way to go back. So it becomes a mental game.

Last Saturday I stepped onto the Golden Gardens beach, warm hands in the pockets of the parka protecting me from the pelting rain. As I approached the newly-made campfire, a few confused faces noticed the lack of swim bag and towels. Midway through my workout the night before, as I thought about what would come with the following morning, the cold, damp, shivering sandy wetness that accompanies most Seattle swims, I decided I’d remain warm and dry on the beach. Only if the sun came out and a compelling reason presented itself would I swim. I needed a day off, a mental health day.

So I waved my friends off as they left on their swim in the cold, rough water. Then followed them with cameras. Then discovered that when they reached their turn-around point they’d see a wall-full of anemone. A few minutes later, Lisa shouted up from the water below, the wall was covered in starfish. Melissa, Guila, and Maria all said the same.

Then the sun came out. I’m glad I keep my swim bag in the car. The starfish were gorgeous, as always.

Haiku 2

To the victor

“Fame, money, and girls
are what it’s all about,” said
no swimmer ever.

Haiku 1

Closed water

Flip. Flip. Flip. Flip. Flip.
Flip. Flip. Flip. Flip. Flip. Flip. Flip.
Flip. Flip. Flip. Ugh, pools.

Different strokes

Friday evening, in that brief period just after quitting time and just before the weekend begins, I attend my one organized swim practice of the week. Coach, team, the whole shebang. This week, it so happened we were given a set I’ve come to dread. It was a set that wasn’t all freestyle. Gulp.

In a past life, I was all about the IM and fancied myself a decent butterfly-er. Now, frequently pool-less, I am not and do not. But the four strokes still do have their time and place, which is something I need to remind myself every time I am encouraged to do different strokes at practice.

Here they are, in reverse IM order:

Freestyle: Specifically, front crawl. This is what one does when one wants to go someplace. Unless you are in absolutely no rush to get anywhere, or your name is Vicki or Sylvain, freestyle.

Breaststroke: aka breastroke. Want to see where your headed? Swimming through something nasty and don’t want your face in it? Just need to shake out those legs a bit? Then breaststroke is for you. If you’re at all like me, you certainly do not chose this stroke because you are trying to get somewhere quickly. It is best left for when trying to spot the next orange dot or silhouetted tree through foggy goggles.

Backstroke: The only acceptable time to swim on your back is when you are swimming under a bridge. At practice on Friday, after seventy-five yards of facing wrong-side-up, all I could think was; this set is stupid, no bridge is one hundred yards wide. As a bonus, admiring the skyward girders and trusses means you’ll miss those gloomy subaqueous shadows that reside beneath bridges.

Butterfly: Want to show off a little? Butterfly is a great way to do it. Yeah, I just swam 10k…and I can still do this!

Again today, I was subjected to an IM set. It was not hard and we never had to do more than twenty-five yards of any one stroke at a time. It gave me time to reflect. Maybe mixing it up every so often has its benefits, like getting my two arms back in sync while and working a few neglected muscles. But at what cost? Most of the time I’d rather just get through my workout and on to waffles.

Photos: Alki Beach

Birthday swim

I have an embarrassing and…given the image I try to maintain…shameful secret. It needs to get out in the open so I can start the recovery process.

Here it is: as of a month ago, I had NEVER been skinny dipping.

Stop your judgment right there, mister. I’ve already said I’m not proud of this. Looking back at my life it is easy to see how it happened; trips to the beach were mostly family related, and every pool I’ve had access to frowns on that sort of behavior during lap swim. But this is no excuse. Add in sad fact that back in my early teens I lost the ability to do “just for fun” swimming, the idea of swimming in birthday attire never registered as sensible. But again, I’m through making excuses.

To further inhibit more recently contemplated attempts, the water at my local beach is super clear. Oh, and super cold. Super cold and super clear are not the conditions I want when I unexpectedly bumped into a fellow swimmer.

The good news is, this all ended a month ago. Thanks to the Suzie Dods 24-hour SERC-a-thon in San Francisco at the beginning of February, I found my first real opportunity. In brief, the SD24hSERCat1 was a 24-hour team relay held in Aquatic Park, San Francisco Bay, a sheltered cove sandwiched between Crissy Field and Fisherman’s Wharf occuring between 9am on 8 February and 9 February 2014. Unlike the Puget Sound, the Bay is turbid, with visibility just past the finger tips. It rained the whole time.

My first shift after sundown came around 8:30pm, at a time when the idea of again jumping in the 51 degree water still seemed like a fun idea. I’d just returned from having a drink with a few friends coincidentally visiting town that weekend, and rushed in to the South End Rowing Club to get ready for my turn in the water. Still debating whether or not this was a good idea, I put in my ear plugs, donned two swim caps, wrapped a towel around me to deck change, and part way through the process grabbed my goggles and walked out the door into the rain. When my teammate came ashore, I walked to the far side of the beach, about one hundred feet from where our rugged support team kept a vigilant watch despite the weather, tied my towel to the Dolphin Club dock, and dove in.

In my mind, it was subtle and stealthy. If it wasn’t, nobody has mentioned it to me yet.

Two loops of Aquatic Park, a mile and a half later, I came ashore, grabbed my towel, and headed to the sauna.

Here’s what I learned:

  • The cold takes over as it always does. As usual, there was nothing sexy about my first few minutes in the water – just the same old self-control and instinct-repression I’ve become so familiar with in Seattle.
  • After that, it is just swimming. I still dealt with the same mental issues as in every other swim that weekend, the same swimming-related issues, and the same personal issues that the sensory deprivation of swimming is so good at letting me dwell on. There wasn’t anything different.
  • When a kayaker shines a flashlight at you, consider using modesty.
  • People are usually too busy to notice what you’re doing. If you don’t make a big fuss, you’ll get away with a lot. (Turns out public nudity was banned in San Francisco a year prior to this event.)
  • If you are with the right group of people, no one really cares what you are wearing.

And now that I’m an experienced veteran at skinny dipping, did someone say Solstice Swim?

 


1 I don’t think we ever came up with an official title.

Getting to Manhattan

There was a time when I had ceased to be a swimmer. I ran a bit, played some water polo, got into triathlons, and then graduated college and started travelling a lot. More on this later, but at some point I got back into swimming, and when I did I immediately started looking for a goal. I recalled a friend from my age group team had swam around Manhattan way back when. As easily as that, I decided I, too, was going to swim around Manhattan. Why not, right? I mean, it sounds really cool.

The thing about the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim is, it’s hard to get accepted. They check your swimming resume, ask all about your training plan, and generally want details about you as a swimmer. Crazy stuff like that. It was so obvious to me that I could complete the swim, why did they need me to prove it? I mean, I’d done a 5k or two and survived adolescence on a swim team, so. Plus, I’d already traveled to the Lake District that September to do my four-hour qualifying swim. (Side note: Lake Coniston is gorgeous in September, but the 54 degree water takes some getting used to.) Despite my best efforts at sounding confident, 2010 would not be my year for MIMS. Surprise, surprise.

So I buckled in, looked around, and quickly found a way shorter body of water to cross. In May, I completed my first marathon swim by crossing the Strait of Gibraltar (more on that to come as well). Now, with that and a 6.5k under my belt…the belt of my swim suit, I guess…surely they’d let me in next year. After all, I knew how to swim over ten miles. November came; the “thanks for applying” letter came shortly thereafter.

By now, late 2010, I’d put traveling on pause and was back in New York, living in North Brooklyn. To continue my resume-building, I swam the Kingdom Swim in Vermont and the Chesapeake Bay swim plus two NYC Swim events in the summer of 2011, volunteered for a few other NYC Swim events including as a kayaker for MIMS. To be extra certain, I agreed to fundraise the NYC Swim’s charity. In late October while on vacation at the beach in South Carolina, I found out my efforts had paid off. An hour or so later, I was in the ocean doing a victory lap.

The only thing left to do was to figure out how to do this thing. How hard could it be?

And this just in, all of my application essays still exist on the NYC Swim site. Cringe. Perhaps someday I’ll share them, if I can ever bring myself to read what young Andrew wrote back then.

The benefit of being regular

On Saturdays, my typical morning routine is to swim off Alki Beach at 9:30am, followed by a warm-up period in Tully’s, followed by an additional drink or two at Celtic Swell one block over. It is planned, it is prescribed, it is predictable, it is other synonymous ‘P’ adjectives.

The benefits of being a regular at a commercial establishment are readily apparent. For example when I get my post-swim beverages, both hot and cold. Like anyone who frequents a café, pub, or otherwise, I can count on a friendly smile awaiting me when I walk in shivering, a welcome respite from the cold impersonality that trails the new guy in a big city. Being this type of regular also comes with a free drink every now and then, an added bonus.

But that type of regularity, the Regular Patron, is not the only type of regularity. A big part of my Saturday routine has been a practiced effort to make my routine a routine. To arrive at a given time and, more importantly, to finish swimming at a certain time. To establish one time each week when everyone knows there will be at least one other person swimming at the beach. Whereas the Regular Patron comes wanting, the Regular Swimmer comes to share.

One of the best things about CIBBOWS, the open-water swim group that calls home Grimaldo’s Chair at the end of Brighton 4th Street in Brooklyn, is their well-rehearsed predictability and dependability. Throughout the year, and especially in the summer and especially on Saturdays, a group of swimmers will be at the beach from around 9am on through the early evening. Without fail. There is no need to call ahead; you just know there is always someone there.

When I swam with CIBBOWS, I always intended to meet them at 10am for a swim. I wanted to be a Regular. The train ride from the Upper East Side was over 90 minutes and more often than not a late night or a hangover or both precluded me from arriving as planned. I was not the predictable one of the group for sure, often arriving around 1pm just as most people were packing up. But that was fine, I could depend on the rest of the group to hold down the tradition on which I depended; I’d just arrive when I could, do a short swim, and then eat everyone’s left-over snacks.

Upon arriving in Seattle, no such group existed. It wasn’t long before I found a small network of swimmers willing to join me in the always chilly waters and often inclement weather of the Pacific Northwest winter, but every meeting required a plan: time, place, directions, guest list, warm-up spot, transportation. Fun for us, but certainly not great for the part of me that wanted to sleep in an irresponsibly show up mid-afternoon, and not great for getting those unsure and unfamiliar to drop in.

It is now over a year later and we’ve grown. We’ve picked a time and place. Every Saturday, we say, someone will be at Alki Bathhouse at 9:30. An average swimmer will be in the water for a half-hour, and will then head to Tully’s to warm up, we say. And we advertise this. When someone asks, “Will you be cancelling this weekend because of [holiday/weather/Seahawks]?” we’re quick to remind everyone that Of Course we will be there at 9:30am, independent of time, temperature, and teams. We’re always there at 9:30am. Always. And this is working.

As of this weekend, we’ve expanded our formerly invite-only swim group to an ad-hoc, make-it-if-you-can group of eleven plus, shivering on the beach on Saturdays! Local residents have taken note of the unusually large numbers of regular swimmers in the water. Our fireside chats at Tully’s are taking over a larger and larger portion of the café. And this is only February!

The benefit of being the Regular Swimmer is that other people become regulars.

Now, my new goal is to meet someone at the beach who arrived for a swim at 1pm because she knew a group would still be there hanging out after their regular 9:30am swim. And maybe someday, I can be that person again.

Photos: Sea creatures of Alki

What lies beyond the buoys

What they don’t understand,

those people who wander by while I’m undressing on a frosty morning,
or those people who watch me struggling to dress, shivering and covered in seaweed,
or those people who are my mother,

those people who ask:
Don’t you swim with a group?
Is the water too deep to touch bottom?
Do you get bored?
What if you get cold?

What they don’t understand, is

if you follow a path, you’ll end up where the path takes you;
if you hang with the pack, you’ll end up in the pack;
and if you find it unthinkable to swim at night by yourself right after eating in chilly water during a storm, you may just as well stay inside the buoys.

But there is a whole lot to see outside the guarded swim area, so maybe I should just let you look away while I quietly slip beneath the rope, where lies every place worth swimming to. Join me, or don’t.

SERC 24 hour relay swim

AP-24hr-2014

Figure 3: Temperature over time at various beaches

Fig03-temp-flux

Alki Beach swim map

SwimAlki

Strait of Juan de Fuca, the swim

[Originally published in Please Tap on the Glass at USMS Blogs on 3 August 2013.]

We set out of Sequim harbor on the morning of Sunday, 28 July 2013 with a light fog and headed into last night’s lingering waves. The wind had only been 18kts – less than I’d originally feared – so the seas were choppy but manageable. We went in and out of fog banks on the way out as I sat in the back and watched Caitlin spell “F-U-C-A” to the Canadian Border Service on the phone and then call up Vessel Traffic (VTS). I ate a sausage egg and cheese as our little boat pounded her way through the thickening fog.

All of a sudden, the sun peaked out and then there it was, the coast of Vancouver Island. Along shore, the weather was bright and clear with little or no wind and flat water. The rocky cliffs were lower than I’d imagined they would be, and the combination of teal water, grey rocks, tall Northwestern pines, and blue sky set me at ease. It was perfect. Behind us, however, lay a thick bank of fog, just as I’d feared.

Caitlin had been on and off the phone with VTS about the fog for a while now, and they were requesting a mile of visibility to begin the swim. After a while, Caitlin convinced them to allow the swim to start and we’d deal with the fog if and when we reached it. It was a great move, because it allowed me to do the thing I’d been most hoping to do for months now.

We launched the kayak as I gulped down a tin of sardines and quickly read the rules of the swim aloud to the crew and reminded everyone how serious I was about them (they knew, already). Cap on, Caitlin asked if I didn’t want something thicker than the thin Latex one I was wearing. Yes, she was right. My mind was still in training mode (make it harder for yourself) and switched to a thicker silicone cap.

The boat faced east. I faced west. We were only about 25m from shore when I jumped, the swim through the kelp went quick and I hauled myself out on the rocks next to a Canadian fisherman. We shook hands and I told him I was swimming to America. Before he let it set in, I turned around and set my goggles. Kayaker Steve bumped the shore with his boat (he wanted to make the full crossing as well), and I dove back into the smooth green water.

The sun was on my back and a huge smile was on my face. Victory! Eight months of planning and here we were. Sandwiched between blue sky and the sea, surrounded by a qualified and passionate support crew, the coast of Canada behind me, the American shore some twelve miles distant. As promised, I did some good reflecting on everything and everyone who helped me get here as I slid through the flat water.

Somewhere around the first half hour I began to notice the cold. About the same time, so did my crew. The ships thermometer was reading between 46 and 47F (8 to 9C). On the boat, some jaws reportedly dropped. This was 5 degrees colder than I’d been expecting, and almost 8 degrees colder than what I’d seen on the buoys in the weeks leading up. Cleverly, my crew did NOT tell me this and let me go on thinking it was about 51 and I was just being a wimp.

At around half an hour, we said farewell to the sun and entered the fog. To my left was the water, blending into the sky. To my right was Steve, blending into the fog, blending into the sky. For the second time now, Steve was the perfect kayaker. He knew what needed to be done and did it. And his aim with a water bottle was flawless. Steve provided a huge amount of mental warmth, something about seeing that red and yellow kayak 10m away made me feel safe. When he’d disappear to get a new water bottle, I felt cold. And alone. It was eerie out there.

During one feed, I was finishing up yet another bottle of calories when I heard a BWWWWAAAAAaaaaaaa from behind Steve’s left shoulder. “Don’t worry. It’s about two miles away. They’re keeping an eye on them.” Stoic. Well, who am I to argue? Face in the water, move on.

Little did I know, but they were really watching out for me. VTS and Caitlin were hard at work moving mountains of steel. The Traffic Separation Scheme has an inbound and outbound lane in the Strait with a median-like separation zone in between. While I swam in the shipping lanes, vessels were being sent out into the separation zone to avoid me. Pause for a moment to reflect upon the awesomeness of this…

Shortly after two hours, the shivering began. I was now gulping down half a water bottle of calories every fifteen minutes and emptying a full bladder in the same interval. My metabolism was maxed out and I wasn’t getting any warmer. But I’ve shivered a long time before and was set to deal with it again. I was over thirty minutes ahead of schedule and knew I could hold out to the end.

Around four and a half hours, I broke my rule and asked how much farther. I needed the motivation. My thigh flexors were screaming from the shivering, and all I could think of was how I wanted to curl up in a wingback chair bundled under a heavy blanket and doze off while pretending to read. “One point eight miles,” Steve said curtly, “you’re doing great, keep going.” Emotion wasn’t what I needed, just a voice gently telling me to keep going. So I did. I could do another hour.

I asked Steve to stay by my side. I needed the company and the distraction he provided as we made our way quietly through the fog over gently rolling swells. The water had reached 50 at one point early on, but was now back in the high 40s.

With thirty more minutes behind me, I needed to hear I was under a mile. The shoreline was too foggy to see. “One point five,” Steve said, “keep going, you’re almost there.” The numbers didn’t add up, but I could do another 45 minutes. A little more of this game was played and at six hours, I asked again. A confused murmur went through the crew, “You need to swim fast,” or “you’re doing great,” or “just over a mile.”

That hurt. By now I could tell that something wasn’t right, we were moving too slowly to make this work. My ears had been filled with a high ringing for over a half hour and my vision was getting unreliable. I had a mile left in me, but the swim had more than a mile left in it. At six hours and ten minutes, I took my goggles off and looked at my crew, then at Steve, then I grabbed on to the front of the kayak. Clinging to the deck, he paddled me back to the boat.


What went wrong? Not a lot. I did exactly what I wanted to do. I set out from Vancouver Island in a speedo, cap, and goggles and swam for twelve miles and longer than six hours. The only thing I didn’t do was to reach the other shore. We got started an hour late and I hadn’t given a clear course to follow for that time. Both an 8am course and 10 am course would have been handy, allowing us to swim between the two rather than just guessing “stay east.” With that we might have avoided what I assume was an eddy pushing us off shore. With that, I’ll be on shore in under five hours next time.

What went right? Everything else. Sure, we’ve got little things to work on, but given the scale and complexity of this swim, and the fact that none of us had ever attempted to plan something like this from scratch, we did an awesome job!

From that December evening I picked out two points on a map and declared to myself I am going to swim that, to dinner with friends in Port Angeles after Customs checked us back into the US, this has been a fantastic journey. Thank you for letting me share it with you.

And next time, I’ll remember to pack a towel.

Andrew still resides and swims in Seattle, and continues to be unable to thank his crew enough for what they’ve done. His next attempt will be in the Summer of 2014. #SJDF2014

Strait of Juan de Fuca, one week and counting

[Originally published in Please Tap on the Glass at USMS Blogs on 2 August 2013.]

Sunday night was a good night for sleeping. Yeah, I was a bit tired from what I’d done that day, but for the first time in a long time my mind was calm while I slept. It is nice to have this part of my story behind me; I’m excited for a bit of quiet.

To contrast, last week was anything but quiet. At the suggestion of a Seattle Times employee, I sent out a dinky little press release Wednesday morning to a few local news outlets. The time spent on the press release was roughly eight minutes, sixty percent of which was Wikapedia-ing “press release” for instructions. Eight minutes was all I really wanted to spend on media the week before my swim as I wrapped up my training, assembled my crew and packed my bags. My bad.

By Friday afternoon when we got on the ferry to the Olympic Peninsula, I’d spoken with two newspapers, been interviewed before my last workout, accidentally given a live talk-radio interview, and had snuck out of work mid-day to do a second, lengthier television interview. I did not realize so many people cared about the swim, but I like it! It reminds me of how things were in the 1950’s when this swim was big, and how things should be again for such an amazingly challenging sport.

Any good adventure is a combination of man versus himself, man versus nature, and man versus machine. This swim was no exception. The hours rushing up to Sunday, media aside, were an exhausting, frightening time to be me.

My long-stated goal for that week was to leave the Canadian shore in a bathing suit aiming for America, but the weather forecast was making the chances of that happening dim. NOAA was forecasting gale force winds (over 30kts) almost every night that week which wouldn’t diminish until around midnight. Those winds would certainly make some treacherous waves. On top of that, add the unpredictable fog that had been coming and going willy-nilly for weeks, and you can begin to see why I’d be terrified that this planning was all for nothing.

I made the decision (and my adrenaline is rushing just recounting it now) to go on Sunday. The forecast for that day looked the least-bad. Also to the captain, and to the Coast Guard, and to kayaker Steve, who reminded me that NOAA is always conservative on their forecasts, and all that added up to a small bit of reassurance. The decision for when to go was ultimately mine, and I’d only be able to blame myself if I got it wrong. So, I went for it, but pushed back the start from 6am to 8am to allow the winds a bit more time to lay down and the rumpled water to be ironed out.

The change in start time meant a change to my refined 24-page plan, which meant recalculating the currents, recalculating the route, and then plotting it to get some coordinates for my crew, plus running it all by the Coast Guard for their approval. Which then meant a few late nights trying to finish this up AND finish everything I’d already planned to do that week.

There was a huge amount of relief by Friday afternoon knowing that whatever the weather and waves were like, I’d already set a time and date. I’d let Future Andrew yell at Past Andrew later on, if need be, for his lack of clairvoyance, but right now my decision was set in stone and we were moving forward.

Now here, there are some dull details that every swimmer goes through before a big event. Grocery shopping, crew meeting, loading the boat, pre-swim dinner (enchiladas and beer), hunting for a pre-swim sausage egg and cheese, hike to a secluded beach to hunt for rocks, trying my best to not get injured, and a trip to the laundromat. If you’ve ever done a crew-assisted marathon swim, you know what went on here. If you haven’t…what are you waiting for, go do one!

Sunday morning. Alarm rings at 5am. Caitlin doesn’t even let me snooze once and we’re up, getting packed, suit on, and at the marina by 6am. We meet the Captain as he walks up in his snazzy captain’s shirt. “Well, I’ve gotta look the part,” he says. Don’t we all. My bathing suit is a size too small.

Good morning, Strait of Juan de Fuca! Let’s go!


The swim itself deserves its own post. And that is just what it’ll get.

On a final note, the best thing that came from all of this was the first line of the front-page above-the-fold article on Sunday’s Peninsula Daily News. The line reads: “Andrew Malinak is not crazy.” I assume it has been fact-checked.

Strait of Juan de Fuca, a brief thank you

[Originally published in Please Tap on the Glass at USMS Blogs on 28 July 2013.]

The swim has started. I’ve just jumped in. It is 8am here on the coast of Vancouver Island. There are six hours left to go.

Yes, it is 8am and I’ve only just jumped in, but I’d never have made it this far without you. There are many, many people who have helped make this swim a success. And this swim IS already a success. Who would let the outcome of a piddly twelve-mile swim define the success of something that has taken eight months to plan? Not me. The planning was the challenge, the adventure, the thrill.

The planning has been the adventure, and along the way I’ve met people who have offered everything, few who’ve offered nothing, and many who gave what they could, even a mere point in the right direction or a kind consideration. All of you are remembered, and all the help has been deeply appreciated.

So, while I swim, here’s a quick thank you to those of you who helped make this swim possible:

  • Mark and LCDR Meridena at Sector Puget Sound Vessel Traffic Service: thank you for being positive, thorough, and professional, for going beyond what your job requires, and for helping me resolve some of the most difficult parts of the planning.
  • Dan the Port Angeles Port Director, Customs and Border Patrol: thank you for your flexibility allowing me to take the route of my choosing.
  • Donna, at the Pacific Coast Highway CANPASS Application Center: thank you for your personal touch to the CANPASS process, including all the phone calls and faxes to see that these went through on time.
  • ​Captain Bob, Randy, and the staff of West Marine Store 1271 Seattle: thank you for patiently helping me with a lot of questions about your products (which eventually, after several months, ended in a sale).
  • ​Doug, and the staff of Milltech Marine: thank you for repeatedly explaining how an AIS works and listening to me explain what I was trying to do (also, eventually ended in a sale).
  • Vicki Keith and Peter Urrea: thank you for taking the time to tell me about your Strait swims. I love knowing your stories. And thank you to those who helped me track Peter down.
  • Evan M, Dave B, Phil W, Steve M, and the marathon swimming community: thank you for fielding some early questions about this swim.
  • Faculty and Staff of various oceanographic institutions, Scripp’s, UW, NOAA, Seattle and Vancouver Aquariums, WS DFW: thank you for offering what advice and guidance you could with regards to tides, currents, and sea creatures.
  • Doug S (PA Power Squadron), Ernie N (USCG Aux), Todd (PA Boat Haven), Ken V, Tom Y (Tommycod Charters), Jeremy & Jack (Arrow Launch) and others: thank you for being a part of the emotional roller-coaster ride that was finding a suitable boat.
  • Open Water Swimmers everywhere, especially CIBBOWS and those out here in Seattle: thank you for listening, and thank you for asking. Thank you for offering, and thank you for giving. The Open Water community is the greatest group of people I’ve ever met.
  • To my family and my almost-family: thank you for supporting my crazy things, and for teaching me how to do them.
My crew – Charles, Steve, Meg, and Caitlin: thank you.

Strait of Juan de Fuca, the 24-page pre-plan

[Originally published in Please Tap on the Glass at USMS Blogs on 21 July 2013.]

->> skip straight to the document <<-

This is it, my final post before the swim. Meghan and Caitlin are in town, the weather remains sunny and calm, and all indications point to a go on 28 July 2013. But we wouldn’t be able to start without the pre-plan being approved.

Last summer, I began typing up a “so you’re going to crew for me” type document to make early morning pre-swim discussions with an unfamiliar captain and crew a little easier. It is two pages and goes over what I want and expect from them on the average swim, and what they should want and expect from me. This document, along with the one-page supplement, makes up the last three pages of this swim’s pre-plan.

Early on in the planning, it became clear that the swim manager would need to have a lot written down to get across the borders and shipping lanes, so I began to draft a swim-specific pre-plan. As July approached, VTS recommended I submit a pre-plan for them to distribute to various agencies, and I was like, “easy, here it is!” They made one set of comments (thorough comments) and included emergency numbers, proper VTS procedure, and asked me to clarify some why’s and how’s. When they passed it on to the Port Angeles USCG station, USCBP, CBSA, and the Canadian Coast Guard, they got unanimous approval on the first try – something I’m told is a feat in itself.

The document is attached for your use, review, and enjoyment. It’s sections are broken up as follows:

  1. definitions; vessel details
  2. entry into Canada
  3. entry into US
  4. communications
  5. emergency numbers
  6. VTS
  7. CANPASS worksheet
  8. safety goal
  9. safety authority
  10. crew responsibilities
  11. go/no-go decision
  12. safety plan
  13. escort craft description
  14. swim rules (taken from Santa Barbara Channel Swimming Association rules)
  15. current overview
  16. daily route plans with current info
  17. general crew info
  18. specific crew info.

The document can be found at my old MIMS2012 website:
http://andrewswimsmims.com/wp-conten…y-redacted.pdf

Thanks for sharing in the adventure!

Figure 2: 1,300 days of training

Training-1300-daysMore on this graph in a future post. Data!