Please tap on the glass

Tag: history


Two years ago, a map inspired me to take a swim. That swim has led me on a journey. It isn’t just for the creative, artsy types: inspiration is easy to find if you look for it.

The first person to swim the Strait of Juan de Fuca was Bert Thomas. Two years ago, during the planning of my own Strait attempt, my research kept coming back to Bert. The local papers documented his several failed swims, alongside the attempts of many other legendary swimmers of the 1950s, before finally reporting his success. This Tacoma ex-Marine was being written up alongside the likes of Florence Chadwick and Marilyn Bell, and the world was excited to see who would be the first to complete the crossing.

The rabbit hole of the internet easily turned the story of the Strait into the story of Bert Thomas. What else did he swim? When? How? The papers, probably because of his newfound notoriety, continued to publish his exploits. Months after completing the Strait, Bert attempted an 18.5 mile swim in the Puget Sound in January of 1956. A few months later, he tried again. Then in May, he tried a third time, and successfully swam from Seattle to Tacoma.

It isn’t just his resume that a marathon swimmer finds fascinating about Bert Thomas. The articles about him say more than just “brave” and “courageous” and the like. There’s the mundane, tidbits like his hot feeds and cigarette breaks during a fifteen hour swim. Then there’s the heroic.

In April of 1958, Bert disqualified himself 41 miles into his 45 mile Columbia River swim when he had to push off an errant press boat in order to avoid being run over. A marathon swimmer can appreciate that type of principled view on the sport.

If you want to admire his swimming a bit more, there is this quotation: “The cold doesn’t bother me….I go into the water feet first, a little at a time. That way, it’s not such a shock to the system. The blood cools gradually. Once I get warmed up, I can keep going for hours.” In my opinion, this is the hardest way to get into any water, warm or cold. If nothing else, I can appreciate that he likes doing things the hard way.

And because that’s not enough, in April of 1956, Bert was forced to postpone a swim by twenty hours after a boat in the marina he was departing from caught fire. The swim was postponed because Bert had injured his hand pulling “neighboring boats away from the fiercely burning cabin cruiser.” That’s a pretty badass reason to postpone a swim.

Bert Thomas is my inspiration. This June, I’m going to swim from Tacoma to Seattle. This plan is completely inspired by Bert Thomas’s 1956 swim, the route is the reverse. I want this to be the Return of Bert Thomas, the return of an exciting era of open water swimming to the Pacific Northwest.

And this is just the first of my summer swims. This is my Summer of Bert Thomas.

8 Bridges – my eight bridges

The number one criterion in selecting my next big swim is intrinsic value. To train for something for months and months and months, to bring oneself to the brink of self-destruction all for something that has no personal meaning is ridiculous! However, doing the exact same thing, not to mention spending a bunch of money to do so, for something that does have personal meaning, is…well, is everything. But we can come back to that after a few more drinks.

Twenty-three years before the first 8 Bridges, as an non-sentient infant, I moved to the Hudson Valley. As a tween and teen, I drove or was driven over, up, and down the course of the soon-to-be swim twice a day for six years to attend one or more swim practices. The Hudson is how I oriented myself geographically, how I aligned myself with my environment. It divided us from them, Dutchess from Orange/Rockland, and Section I from Section IX. I could go on, but to summarize, the Hudson River was hardly out of sight and never out of mind.

Stage I – The Islands

18.3 miles: We’re starting off a bit weak here. On Sunday, 26 September 2004, I drove over the Kingston-Rhinecliff Bridge heading east on my way home from the Garlic Festival. And as someone who purchases several thousand tons of Portland Type I/II bulk cement each year, swimming past a cement plant will be cool, I guess.

Stage II – The Lighthouses

19.8 miles: One of my first (the first?) times in the Hudson was at the Esopus Creek outdoor education center on an elementary school field trip. We looked in microscopes at what lives in the Hudson, and found old glass insulators on the beach from the river’s more industrial days. I’ve been in the Hudson fewer times than one would imagine, so this stands out pretty vividly in my memory.

The Mid-Hudson and the old train bridge in Poughkeepsie straddle my first swim team’s pool, the old Dutchess Devilfish at the Poughkeepsie YMCA.

Stage III – The Hudson Valley

13.2 miles: Here’s where it gets personal. During this stage, I’ll be swimming less than four miles away from my childhood home. Swimming past Bowdin Park where I played soccer almost in sight of the river (just over the hedges), past New Hamburg where I spent a lot of time swimming, gardening, and drinking coffee after college, past Chelsea Yacht Club where I once hopped on a sailboat to crew for a stranger in a 4th of July sailing regatta, and past the pool where I held my first lifeguarding job. And I’ll be ending at the Hamilton Fish Memorial Bridge aka the Newburgh Beacon Bridge.

Stage IV – The Highlands

15.0 miles: It was across this bridge that I traveled almost every evening from sixth to twelfth to reach a pool at Mount Saint Mary’s college, and/or Newburgh Free Academy, and/or West Point for swim practices. In that short span of time between school and swimming, a time when I should have been making friends, I’d drive along the old waterfront with my dad’s film camera and take pictures of ships passing through the ice. Or I’d drive down to Mount Beacon or Breakneck Ridge or Bull Hill to get lost barefoot in the woods, although one can never really get lost in those hills because the river always points the way back to safety. During West Point swim meets, I’d run off to explore the forbidden trails of the military base that led down to and along the river. My father and I once biked this entire stage, to the Bear Mountain Bridge and back, in one day, only to discover that we were not in that sort of physical condition and should have known better.

Also, this is the site of my first real swim in the Hudson, the River Pool benefit swim of 2007 from Newburgh to Beacon.

Stage V – The Great Bays

19.8 miles: This stage is mostly filler. As it is the connector between Stages IV and VI, so it was with home and away. Nearly every time I ventured into this stage I was coming or going from the City, or the mid-Atlantic states, or a swim meet somewhere. And so it makes sense that I’ll be putting my head down during this stage to race the clock and the currents that can be unforgiving in this stretch of the swim, trying to get from point A to point B.

Stage VI – The Pallisades

15.7 miles: If you have ever taken Metro North’s Hudson Line into or out of the City, you know this stretch of river. It is the wide, flat, exciting, inviting stretch you see on the way south, and the wide, flat, relaxing, soothing stretch you see on the way north. It is the part of the river that makes you remember that the river is Big. And it will seamlessly blend into the upper Manhattan waters.

Stage VII – Liberty

18.6 miles: The photos on the 8 Bridges website can be tantalizing, but it was not until 2012, when I stood atop Riverbank one morning between a workout and work, that I really began yearning for this swim. I stood overlooking the river that morning because on the far side, there were two boats, a few kayakers, and about to be some swimmers. Sadly, I had to get to me car and drive over the GW to get to work at a reasonable hour. Swimming the length of Manhattan does not need to be justified. I’m sure it is something all New Yorkers see as obvious.

8 Bridges – here’s why

My college swim coach told me, as I stood in his Fort Lauderdale hotel room late at night, that I lacked commitment, that my generation lacked commitment. Coach Hayman felt it appropriate to give me this little spiel following my brief statement in which I told him I would not be sticking around for our winter training trip because I was quitting the team. That was 2004.

He was clearly the best, wisest, most inspirational, compassionate swim coach I ever had, and he was obviously completely correct. I lack commitment to swimming. Clearly.

Flash forward! In 2009, I wrote this email to my old age-group swim friends:

On 14 March 2009 01:16, A M <[email address redacted]> wrote:

Happy Pi Day. Remember to think circular thoughts today. Speaking of circular thoughts, would anyone be up for a really really long swim? I was thinking it could be super fun to take a few weeks off this summer and swim the 150 miles from Albany to the mouth of the Hudson. It would be more fun if there were other people doing it, I think. I am trying to figure out if it is possible to do in three weeks. The tides make it tricky. And since we are talking about open water swimming, I have found a nice little place to practice my open water swimming. One of the beaches near me has put in a 700m (approx) long buoy line to keep boats out. If you don’t mind boat fumes, hypersaline water, and a little bit of sewage, it is really pleasant. At least it will be until the jellies show up and the water boils under the desert’s summer sun.

In my original dream, it was a race. The rules were simple, that forward progress could only be made in the water, but you could land ashore and rest whenever needed (at least every six hours when the adverse currents began). The clock started when you stepped in at the Albany Yacht Club, and stopped when you stepped out under the Narrows Bridge.

Flash forward-er! Two years later, Rondi and Dave put together the first 8 Bridges swim (I did not know they existed at the time, they don’t owe me any credit). Four years after that, I’m signed up for a 120 mile swim from not-quite-Albany to the Narrows Bridge.

If only I were more committed to swimming.

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)

[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.]