Please tap on the glass

Strait of Juan de Fuca

In July of 2013, I made my first attempt at crossing the 11 mile stretch of water between Vancouver Island, British Columbia and the Olympic Peninsula of Washington state, a body of water called the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The cold temperatures and unpredictable weather have kept all but eight people from completing the swim.

AIS track of 2013 attempt

AIS track of 2013 attempt

This was my first time planning a swim of such magnitude.  The amount of planning and preparation undertaken, had I known the quantity in advance, would have frightened me into submission. There are a lot of details that need to be considered when swimming across borders and shipping lanes. A lot.

Lucky for you, I kept good notes, and have shared all the details of my planning. Originally, the details were posted on my USMS Forums blog Please tap on the glass. They have since been transferred here and can now be viewed in their entirety.

Posts from 2013 in order of appearance:

  1. An announcement
  2. A brief history of swimming
  3. Training part 1 of 2
  4. Tides and currents
  5. VTS, AIS, and not getting squashed
  6. There is no ‘I’ in ‘swimming’
  7. Training part 2 of 2
  8. Customs
  9. The 24 page pre-plan
  10. A brief thank you
  11. One week and counting
  12. The swim

 


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.

Lied

“Can you imaging wasting a minute of your life on something that wasn’t personal? Something that didn’t mean anything to you?” says a fictional character to another fictional character in a short work of fiction1.

So it isn’t just me. A published author, in an attempt to emulate real life, has felt such a value legitimate enough to bestow upon a supporting character in his short story! It is proof: humans do things that have personal meaning.

But this isn’t news to anyone, nor to me. Whenever the discussion about my Next Big Swim comes up, the Channel Question inevitably gets asked. My answer has been the same for the past few years. “No,” I say, “I like my swims to have personal meaning, and right now the Channel just doesn’t.” This way of selecting swims has been true for me since I began open water swimming, and I whole-heartedly believe it.

This isn’t to say some swims have not been stepping stones, but as a whole, my swim resume consists of water bodies that hold personal significance in my life. Manhattan is an obvious one, growing up just up river from the course. The Great Chesapeake Bay Swim ends on the island my mother lived on when I was young. Training swims in the Lake District where I’d vacationed. 8 Bridges (see previous post). The Strait of Juan de Fuca, near where I now reside.

Well, that last one. See, the Strait is sort of still the same body of water as where I train, the Puget Sound, sort of. And it is less than a four hour trip from Seattle, so it is basically like home. And I’ve been there, well, once, and…oh my god, I’d never been to Vancouver Island before this swim.

I’m a fraud! Here I am espousing the greatness and beauty of personal, meaningful, local swims, and I had never even set foot on Vancouver Island – apart from that one brief moment – until this month. I’d spent a grand total of barely two hours of my life gazing northward from Port Angeles towards Canada. Never actually swim in the Strait. And this personal connection was supposed to be my raison d’être? The reason I was swimming that swim?

What I think I wanted was a cool swim. What I was training for, and was mentally prepared for, was a swim in the Puget Sound near Seattle. That is my home water, where I train, play, and onto which I gaze longingly on a daily basis. That is where my big swim should have been. That was the personal connection.

And that is why I’m having trouble going back to the Strait. I want to, for sure. No self-respecting distance swimmer would call it a day and back down with a result like what I had, essentially amounting to a successful swim with an error in navigation. But it has become apparent that the Strait of Juan de Fuca is missing something critical. Something’s holding me back. A connection.


 

The narrow road ended abruptly and I made a quick left into a parking lot on the edge of a sun-filled meadow. My work clothes were exchanged for shorts on the hour drive south. I hastily emptied my pockets into the void beneath the driver’s seat and headed to the park’s info sign. After aligning the posted map with my iPhone map and using the sun as and mountains as a compass, I ran off down a gravel path, tripping over my sandals as I headed in what was hopefully a southerly direction. The shore was easy to find, and breathtaking, but not what I was looking for. I ran along the undulating coast, running because I didn’t know how far I had to go or how long the sun would be with me in the waning day. The short climbs up and down hills made my legs burn and reminded me how much I’ve lost my coordination for land activity, but I kept pushing south. Past two fishermen heading the opposite direction, the coastline grew more and more jagged and familiar. I ran, now trotted onward as the coastline pushed me west. And suddenly ahead, a cliff rose from the water, a cliff burned clearly in my memory. I’d run past them, the rocks I sought. Just behind me now, they were unmistakable, there in the cove, low to the water, protected from the wind. Where I started my swim 10 months ago to the day.

How had I never been here, to this spot or any like it on the Island? There: that is where I climbed out to start on shore. Why has it taken me so long to make this stretch of water my own? There: I stood on this rock while Steve bumped his kayak on to shore to start his own crossing. How can one look at those mountains, so clear on this spring day, and not be tempted? There: I jumped back in there, the tide was a little higher that morning. And why did I leave my suit in the car?

The sun wasn’t to set behind the cliff for another hour, and the sun felt warm that day. If the Strait and I are to ever be friends or lovers, we were going to begin right then. It was just the two of us in the bright evening light. No one was around to see me leave my clothes and modesty on the rocks as I swam out through the kelp. There was a tug, a voice saying, “come swim out a little farther.”

“Not yet,” I replied. “Not just yet.”

Beechey Head from land


1 Lipsyte, Sam. “The Naturals” The New Yorker 5 May 2014; 60-66. Print.

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!

Strait of Juan de Fuca, customs

[Originally published in Please Tap on the Glass at USMS Blogs on 18 July 2013.]

As the more astute among have realized by now, there are international borders to be crossed in this swim. In fact, the question I get more often than “Where is that?” (get a map!) or “With a wet suit, right?” (glare…no) is “Do you have to carry your passport?” Yes. Yes I do.

This is a long post, and you can blame Congress for that. Things got way tricky in 2002 as the Department of Homeland Security came onto the scene. Also, having the Canadian Navy sail into my path, megaphone in hand, shouting, “soorry to bother you, but if you could please stop swimming, we’d like to arrest you, if that’s alright,” would get in the way of Goal Number Two. Rule following is key.

At the beginning of April, I took a scouting trip to Port Angeles to look for boats, look for access to the finish locations, and chat up the folks at the Customs and Border Patrol (CBP). Fortunately, Port Angeles is a port of entry into the US, so they’ve got a customs house that handles the occasional ferry passengers and cargo ships entering via the local port. Even more fortunately, the port is relatively small, so getting in touch with the Port Director is pretty easy (far easier than it was when I tried calling the Miami port, for example). So, we chatted.

After I got Port Director Dan to believe that I was actually planning something legitimate, we began talking details. Apparently, every commercial vessel (defined as anyone for hire, including my escort boat) is subject to some amazingly complex requirements for entry into the US. This includes things such as the 24-hour Electronic Manifest Rule using the Automated Commercial Environment, and International Carrier Bonds (ICB) for Non-Vessel Operating Common Carriers. After much research (look up 67 FR 66318 and 19 CFR 4.7 (b)(3)(i) if you want extra credit), I finally understood the ICB was a major reason I was having difficulty finding a cheap boat option. The ICB is a $50,000 bond to be used in the event any you get any fines from the CBP, which by this stage I was certain we inadvertently would.

Obtaining the bond was priced by one captain as about $1,000, and that was if I went through the commercial launch previously described (total now at $5,000 for that boat), and it was way, way over budget to ask a one man show, such as Captain Charles, to get. I reached out to the swimming community for help on this issue and got nothing. I even called the Port of Miami (the port that covers where those Cuba swimmers would land) to see what they were requiring, and got nothing. At a dead end, I talked some more with Port Director Dan and he agreed to use his power to waive the requirement “just this once.” I suspect he’d waive it again though, if you ask nicely. And if I don’t mess things up for you.

To wrap things up, Dan told me that while technically I was supposed to call into the Port before setting foot on land, he’d send someone out to the beach to meet me. I offered at first to drive over to the Port to check in, but seeing as I could easily do my secret dealings between the beach and Port (they’re called Budgie Smugglers for a reason), he insisted to meet me at the beach. Which is AMAZING! Goal Number One: start the swim. Goal Number Two: picture of me handing my passport to a CBP agent on the beach. Can’t wait!

But we haven’t even gotten o the start of the swim yet. Getting into Canada is easier, luckily. First, the US and Canada have a pretty decent relationship citation needed. Second, Canada has actually managed to use technology to simplify the border clearance prOcess rather than using technology to make a simple thing cumbersome and convoluted. A while back, Canada started a pre-clearance program, CANPASS, which eventually would merge with NEXUS (the joint Canada/US program). Most travelers use the NEXUS program, but some, especially private boat and aircraft passengers, can still use CANPASS, which only involves the Canadian Border Service Agency (CBSA). With CANPASS, you call ahead en route to check in and the CBSA can decide to meet you for inspection at the port of entry or not, and you’re set to go. Real simple.

Again, I’m looking to avoid calling into Victoria. That’s an exercise that would add about 3 hours to an already very early morning. Luck would have it, a friendly CANPASS agent told me on the phone it should be fine to just head straight to the beach as long as we all had CANPASS since no one would really be touching shore (except me, for all of 8 seconds). So I got my crew all signed up and we’re ready to go.

(Quick shout out to Donna at the CANPASS application office in Surrey, BC. Donna actually called me several times to make sure I was sending in some paperwork I forgot, and to personally give me status updates on the applications. Customer service from a government agency? Only in Canada.)

This was not what I expected to be doing when I envisioned this swim. I was thinking tides, currents, and boat traffic. Not reading the CFR. It appears far less complicated now, sitting here in mid-July, than it appeared in April. I admit I made it harder than it had to be since I’ve been striving for transparency and legality, but I really don’t want to spoil it for everyone else.

If you’re serious about making a trip across, let me know and I’ll get you to the right people. Names and phone numbers and everything.

Strait of Juan de Fuca, training 2 of 2

[Originally published in Please Tap on the Glass at USMS Blogs on 15 July 2013.]

WooHoo! It’s taper time! [Cue Team America music, cleverly sing “Taper Time!” instead of “Americuh!”]

Actually, pretty much every other week has been a taper since the last training entry, and the reason is counter-intuitive. I stopped moving around. Yes folks, I’ve not travelled for work in over five weeks. Once again, I have a permanent address (and my new mattress is being delivered in a few hours). But with the open schedule comes a choice of how to spend my time; I can all of a sudden choose when to train, and not let departure times dictate when I musttrain. It took a few days to relearn that skill.​

Making it harder to set a regular training schedule, the water in the Sound has been changing. Seattle has had an amazingly sunny spring (amazing if you’re into that sort of thing). Sun is something both Seattleites and algae love, and therefore Alki beach has been crowded with both. And where the algae bloom, so do the jellyfish.

Before we get to the jellies, let’s talk about the temperature. The endless sun here has been causing me a bit of trouble. In the evenings, with the downtown buoy reading 53F, the water at Alki (3 miles away) feels downright warm. Naturally, if you want to swim in cold water, you resort to waking at 4am to swim at 4:30 before the 5:11 sunrise. And with great pain (consider, bed to 53F in under 30min at 4am) comes great beauty. The beach at that hour is gorgeous. And all mine, no crowds.

Getting out of bed at 4am is a complicated set of mental gymnastics. “My waterbottles aren’t filled,” was my first excuse that kept me in bed. Lesson learned. “Jellyfish,” was the next, and legitimately so. I’d been doing a Matrix-style front crawl for days dodging the three to twelve inch blobs of terror, and had no emergency vinegar on hand. Turns out, those blobs don’t hurt. The egg-yolk jellies sting so weakly they can’t be felt anywhere but on the thinnest of skin, which is excellent because by mid-June they were unavoidable. There were days where I’d be wrist-deep in one while shaking off another that had draped itself across my goggles. I even managed to get a tentacle up the nose at one point (only mild irritation).

The height of my training was a test swim with SJDF kayaker Steve at the end of June. We left Alki and headed around the lighthouse and south to Lincoln Park on the flood tide, and returned four hours and 13.5km later on the ebb. Although I was tired after, it felt great. All of the experience from the past three years is paying off. And the best part: no Advil and no sore joints! My shoulder was pretty bad after MIMS last year, but I’ve been working on, no,conscious of technique since then and it’s paying off.

Following the four-hour swim, I promptly got on a plane and took a week-long roadtrip, then returned to Seattle for a few more days of solid training. One last big push. The 90min to 120min swims have been mentally draining after a long day at work, so I traded once-or-twice-weekly for daily short swims (60min to 90min). In addition, I tried making them more fun. I’ve been doing runs up the seawall stairs every kilometer, or swimming to the Anchor Park pier (2.5km), jumping off it, and swimming back. It’s very different than just doing 2, 3, or 4 trips to the lighthouse, and exactly what I needed to keep my focus as we approach…Taper Week! Woot!

Looking back, the past few months has held the minimum amount of training required to make this swim a success. Normally, I’d be disappointed with this. As I learned in the Chesapeake Bay swim a few years back, I’m a better swimmer than “made it out of the water alive,” and hence should act accordingly. But this swim has been about so much more than yardage. You’ve seen the posts about planning, right? Victory in this swim will be defined as jumping in and touching Canada. After the start, it’s easy. After the start, it’s just a 6 hour swim.

Strait of Juan de Fuca, there is no ‘I’ in ‘swimming’

[Originally published in Please Tap on the Glass at USMS Blogs on 11 July 2013.]

Where are my manners! There are barely two weeks to go and I still haven’t introduced you to the most important people in the world! I’m so sorry.

No marathon swim is done alone. We all know that by now. Throughout the planning, I have been helped by many, many people, and we’ll mention them later on. Right now, I want you to meet the four people who will be on the water with me during the swim.

The Boater
By now you know the difficulty I went through with finding a boat. I believe that saga ended with a now-I-can-find-any-boat-out-there statement. So why Captain Charles M? Well, not just because he said yes, and not just because his price was reasonable, but because he convincingly reassured me his boat could handle the Strait and he knew the waters. But perhaps most importantly, I detected a hint of enthusiasm on our first phone conversation.

Captain Charles runs a boat service called The Water Limousine out of Sequim, WA. We have yet to meet in person so there isn’t much else to say, other than I’m thrilled to hear his enthusiastic response every time I call to make sure he is still interested in the swim.


The Kayaker
The Strait is not an easy thing to cross, either by swimming, in a kayak, or in a fishing boat. When I began looking for a kayaker, I knew that I’d have to have someone who is beyond seaworthy. If my kayaker gets in trouble or needs babysitting, then my safety and the success of the swim are in peril. (Next time we go out for a drink, ask me about the time I swam across the Hudson while my dad kayaked, and then ask me why I’m being picky.) Not knowing any local kayakers too well, I reached out to the Washington Kayak Club and ended up with an introduction to Steve G. His qualifications checked out, and I figured I’d be able to mold him to my liking during some practice swims.

Steve didn’t need molding. First of all, he showed up to our practice swim more prepared than I was (multiple dry bags, a GPS, his own VHF radio, etc.). Then, he just continued to impress me. After fifteen minutes and one minor comment, he stayed in the perfect spot, at the perfect speed for the rest of the four hours. I’m blown away. I feel extremely lucky to have found him. And the best part: after four hours, he offered to do another practice swim. Enthusiasm!

Steve recently completed a two-week sailing race around Vancouver Island.


The Swim Wrangler
The most important qualification of any crew member is: she brings her own “Crew” jacket. MeetMeghan P.

If the water is cold enough and severe hypothermia sets in, I need someone who can tell the difference between me saying nonsensical things, and me saying nonsensical things because I’m about to die. Meghan is the “crew” part of my Crew. She’ll be filling up my water bottles and looking after me from the boat. Not only does Meghan have her own “Crew” jacket, but she is a swimmer, she has crewed for me before (BLS2012), and she has known me since I was ten. If someone has to make the hard decision to pull my semi-conscious body out of the sea, Meghan will be able to draw that line at the right place.

Meghan recently left her home in Rhode Island after contracting what clinicians call Delayed-Onset Quarter Life Crisis. She is currently driving, camping, and hiking her way across the country. You can follow her travels on her blog. She’d better make it to Seattle on time.


The Swim Manager
With two international borders to cross, currents to contend with, and a large-scale game of Frogger being played, there needs to be someone looking after the big picture. Caitlin R. is a marathon swimmer who’s originally from Seattle, so the idea for swimming the Strait has been bouncing around her head for a while. If there is one person that would listen to all the details of the planning, it would be her. Because her interest in this swim is so much more than just a passing curiosity, she is the perfect person for this role.

Caitlin is a teacher at a Brooklyn, NY school for students with learning disabilities. She is also a marathon swimmer and keeps a blog about her swimming experiences: thowmeintheocean.com.


So there they are. If things stop going right during the swim, at least I can be sure I’ve got four good people watching after me.

(And don’t you worry. I’ll get around to thanking the huge number of people that have helped me in other capacities.)

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 shipfinder.co,vesselfinder.com, or marinetraffic.com.

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.

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

Strait of Juan de Fuca, a brief history of swimming

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

Some of the greatest advice I’ve ever been given came with an Ikea bookshelf. You don’t have to follow the instructions, just make sure you’ve read them. After decades of diving straight into things, I’m proud to report: I’m learning. The first thought in planning this swim was, “I’ll just do what everyone else did,” working under the assumption that Of Course other people had completed this swim, after all it’s only a 12 mile crossing at minimum. As Christmas 2012 approached, my research had turned up only six successful crossings and over eighty-five failed attempts. What was more shocking is that only three of those attempts took place after the Strait-swimming heyday of the 1950’s. It was clear that I would not simply be hiring the same captain as the last guy.

A quick disclaimer: There is no guarantee that what I list here is comprehensive, but everything that follows, unless stated otherwise, is as found in primary source newspapers from back in the day. Citations are proudly available upon request. If there is something you know that shakes up this timeline, I want to correct it. Let me know.

The first recorded attempts on the Strait took place by three unnamed men in October 1933. And then no one followed. Not until August 1954, did Florence Chadwick show up to give it a go, and start the race to be first across. It would be almost a full year and sixteen other attempts before the first person was successful, Bert Thomas of Tacoma, WA on 8 July 1955 in eleven hours twenty-two minutes on his second attempt in two weeks.

Throughout the 1950s, the route was declared as either Victoria, BC to Port Angeles, WA, or reverse, a distance of 18.3 miles. The route was not set by the swimmers themselves. The route was also not set by amateur oceanographers using the straight-line ruler on Google Earth, with tide forecasts, Excel spreadsheets, and CAD drawings spread out across a Starbucks table. No, these routes were set by the local papers who were giving out cash prizes to the first swimmer to reach the other side, or to the closest, or to the four closest, or to anyone at all who could draw readers and sell papers. Douglas Rivette told the Montreal Gazette before his 1955 attempt, “I thought I might as well turn the hobby to a cash basis if I’m lucky.” For her swim, Marilyn Bell was given $20k by the Port Angeles Chamber of Commerce just for showing up, plus a $10k (1950s dollars!) bonus if she made it. Right? I, too, want to live in that world.

Another interesting thing about Douglas Rivette: he was a “deaf-mute linotype operator” who started swimming as therapy for the polio he had at age two. Yeah. Every one of the swimmers I’ve read about in connection with this swim has a wild story. There are the recognizables of course: Florence Chadwick, Marilyn Bell, and Cliff Lumsdon. There were a few regulars: Ben Laughren (1 for 12), Amy Hiland (1 for 4), and “Bill Muir, the Saanich surveyor” (0 for 8, and that’s what the papers always call him). “Big Ben” Laughren weighed 274lb and ran a burger joint in Victoria where kids heard their first Dave Brubeck. Rev. John Donelon was a Roman Catholic priest from Toronto. Marilyn Bell is constantly referred to as a “Toronto schoolgirl” despite her impressive resume. Then there was a guy who jumped in and gave up after 40 minutes because of the cold. The spectrum of backstories is broad. Just a bunch of regular people doing crazy impressive things. Come to think of it, this is still the rule in marathon swimming.

By the end of 1957, three men and two women had made it across. And in 1957, as abruptly as it began three summers ago, the attempts ceased. One more try in 1966, this time by Robert Cossette, was abandoned after two hours thirty four minutes. Then silence. Did the papers just give up in 1958? Did they spend the whole century’s swim budget in three summers? Did the swim really just fall off the radar like that?

Seemingly out of nowhere, legendary marathon butterflier Vicki Keith, takes on the Strait in 1988 in her traditional style, and wins. Her 14 hour swim was epic, and not just because it was butterfly. Hoping to learn everything she knew about Juan de Fuca, we spoke by phone this past March. She told me she chose her route, the traditional Victoria to Port Angeles route, not because of the money (of which there was none by this time), but to follow the route Cliff Lumsdon took over thirty years earlier. A stranger to cold water by no means, the end of her swim is a glimpse into a marathon swimmer’s dedication. As she neared the US coast, she recalled what her crew later detailed: she’d take one stroke of butterfly and then stop, unconscious in the water. Moments later, her movement resumed and she’d take another stroke. Then stop again. She laughed on the phone, remembering how disorienting it was to have to ask, back on dry land afterwards, “did I make it?” She did, or course.

Another eleven years go by, and in 1999 Peter Urrea makes the next and most recent recorded attempt at the Strait. Getting in touch with Peter is a great example of how warm the open water swimming community is, but that’s another story. We also spoke in March because, although he did not complete his swim, he did last 14 hours in those cold waters. From a planning point of view, our conversation was not as helpful as I’d hoped. He hired a logging tug (the boats that pull hundreds of meters of floating logs down the Fraser and across the Salish Sea), but he advised against repeating it. He was a bit unclear on his tides, swim plan, and route. But his story! His story was just as amazing as the rest. His swim did not end because of a physical or mental breakdown. It stopped because of whales. It turns out, when you get surrounded by a pod of killer whales and can’t swim anywhere, you start getting cold fast. And when those whales start bumping you, and your captain loses confidence that the entire pod is salmon-eating whales, but may have some mammal-eaters in it…well, you get pulled out of the water. Nobody wants to be an Orca chew toy.

The directions to successfully cross the Strait of Juan de Fuca are just as clear as that Ikea bookshelf’s. I know it can be done because it has been done before. I’m pretty sure I’ve got the right tools (they were all in that little baggy). But I’ll be damned if any of it sets me in the right direction. But I’ve got a general idea of what the final product should look like and learned a few of the dos-and-don’ts. Plus, I’m an engineer. Just a few exhausting hours and it will be all put together. Here’s to hoping it doesn’t collapse.

Here’s the record book to date:

1. Bert Thomas – 8 July 1955 (11 hours 10 minutes)
2. Cliff Lumsdon – 17 August 1956 (11 hours 35 minutes)
3. Amy Hiland – 18 August 1956 (10 hours 51 minutes)
4. Ben Laughren – 18 August 1956 (10 hours 17 minutes)
5. Marilyn Bell – 23 August 1956 (10 hours 38 minutes)
6. Vicki Keith – 10 August 1989 (14 hours, butterfly)
7.

[Correction: While the above post remains unedited, as of 17 July 2013 I understand Fin Donnelly MP (Coquitlam, BC) crossed the Strait in 10 hours 15 minutes on or about 17 August 1994 wearing a wetsuit.]

Strait of Juan de Fuca, an announcement

[Originally published in Please Tap on the Glass at USMS Blogs on 16 May 2013.]

The Strait of Juan de Fuca separates Vancouver Island, BC from Washington and connects the Puget Sound and Salish Sea to the Pacific Ocean. At its narrowest point, the Strait is 11.6 miles wide. Like the Strait of Gibraltar, it is oriented east-west and hosts challenging winds, currents, and sea life with mountain ranges rising from both coasts. My swim is set for late July and, if successful, will be the seventh swim crossing of this waterway1. Planning a transnational swim has been an amazing adventure; it’s a feat that’s made me realize merely jumping in to start the swim will be a huge victory.

But this isn’t just a swim report. This is also a love story. However, the fair maiden is not played by ‘swimming’ as you’d expect. That’s old hat; you don’t need to hear that story again. No, this time the object of my affection is…Seattle.

The idea for this swim popped into my head sometime in mid-December, just after I’d arrived in Seattle from New York with all my belongings packed into a half-filled station wagon. At that point, Juan de Fuca was just a twinkle in my eye. What gave the idea some body was a visit with a Seattle native turned New Yorker, marathon swimmer Caitlin R. Growing up in the Pacific North West, Caitlin had already given thought to the seemingly endless possibilities for open water swims the Puget Sound offers, and it was inspirational to find someone to share ideas with, especially someone so encouraging. A sense of adventure: something I love about Seattle.

Seattle in the winter is dark and dreary, the omnipresent cloud blanket blocks out what little daylight there is at this latitude. Wet and cold, it’s downright British, yet somehow an outdoor attitude persists in a way I never found on the East Coast. On 5 January, I headed to a vacant swimming beach in Seward Park, Lake Washington for my first day of training. The beach was empty, but the paths were full of joggers, dog walkers, and parents putting Christmas present tricycles together. Despite the 40F temps, people wanted to be outside. Outdoorsy-ness: something I love about Seattle.

There are two reasons I began outdoor training in January. First, when it comes to training, $3 per swim is the most I’ll happily pay (my entire training costs in NYC for MIMS last year didn’t break $210 dollars), and there is so much free open water here to be had in Seattle. Second, the water temperatures, while cold, are consistent. The Puget Sound was 46F in January and will be 55F in August. What better cold water environment could you ask for than one that has such a stable temperature range? Beautiful beaches, you say? Check. Consistency: something I love about Seattle.

As planning the swim got into full swim in March, a new side of Seattle showed itself. I’d made a few friends at the beach and as swimmers they were naturally supportive of my plan. What I did not expect was how supportive non-swimmers would be. Surprisingly few Pacific North Westerners have ever asked me: “Are you crazy?” A typical post-swim conversation with passersby goes something like: [stop walking] “How long? … Nice job.” [keep walking]. Compared to reactions I get from people elsewhere, regardless of water temperature (“You mean you actually *want* to swim in that ocean/lake/river?”), well, Seattle just seems to get it. Encouragement: something I love about Seattle.

Seattle, with its outdoorsy, encouraging ways has kept me believing this swim is possible. And planning this swim is what has kept me sane. What really kicked the planning into high gear was a grad school rejection letter2. For nine months, I’d been dreaming of Scripp’s physical oceanography program as a means of redirecting my career away from heavy civil engineering. Also as a means of moving to San Diego. On that Saturday morning, while plying the waters of Alki Beach, I realized the oceanography I want to do is swim planning, and a grad school rejection wasn’t a huge loss. Since then, most of my free time has been spent on a phone or computer or airplane tray table working on this swim. Ubiquitous, cozy cafés: something I love about Seattle.

Seattle was meant to be a stepping stone; it isn’t where I planned on ending up. I’m still transient, I still live in hotels, and I still travel out of town for work every few days, but I’ve surrendered my New York license and I’m slowly accepting the feeling of home I get every time I return here. All of this swimmable water (Puget Sound, Lake Washington, Salish Sea) is so surprisingly underutilized by swimmers, but perhaps it’s this off the-map feel that makes swimming here so exciting. Seattle, I think I love you.

The rest of the story is about the swim itself.


1 Please feel free to verify this. A summary of my research is available on openwaterpedia.com and will be covered in future posts.
2 Who sends rejection letters on a Saturday morning???