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Tag: Puget Sound

Puget Sound Temperatures

Once or twice a month, the folks at King County Department of Natural Resources and Parks send a boat out onto Puget Sound, drop some instruments to the bottom, pull them back up, and then do this again somewhere else. A full description of CTD sampling methods is available at King County’s Marine Monitoring website. The data they collect from this sampling is publicly available and I’m sure is put to good use, but I’ve never come across any of it in a presentable format.

So with Excel and some free time, here is a snapshot of the around 370,000 data points at three locations taken over the past 15 years.

It looks like King County offers fifteen CTD locations, but since I don’t have all the time in the world, I only looked at the three I found most interesting (i.e. closest to Alki Beach). Stations LSEP01, LSNT01, and KSSK02 are shown below.

CTD-locations

The CTD data is recorded every half meter, both on the trip down to depth and the trip back to the surface. In addition to temperature and depth, King County records conductivity, dissolved oxygen, light transmission, and chlorophyll. But again, limited time, limited resources, so I’m only looking at temperature. A temperature profile over the past five months is shown below.

CTD-LSEP01-jul15todec15

At the surface, water cools and warms quickly while the temperature the bottom trails slowly behind. Temperatures at depth peaked this year in late August or early September. We’re now in the annual cooling-off period, with surface temperatures this week getting below 10C. Early March is when coldest temperatures are found at depth.

Because of the fickle nature of surface temperatures, let’g almost totally ignore them. Instead, lets give some emphasis to the stable, plodding temperatures down towards the bottom of the Puget Sound. What are they up to?

CTD-LSEP01-2000to2015

CTD-KSSK02-2000to2015

CTD-LSNT01-2000to2015At all three locations, 2015 has had the warmest maximum and minimum temperatures of the past fifteen years by around one degree C. No wonder swimming felt so nice.

For the record, the data goes back to 21 October 1998. Why did I stop at the beginning of 2000? Well, I just forgot to, and ran out of time. The data is there if you want to look at it. At LSEP01, it looked kind of like 2008.

So what does this mean? What will this year be like? I don’t know and I don’t know. If you compare December temperatures to the rest of the year, there isn’t much of a pattern. A warm or cold December seems to have little correlation to winter lows, and even less to the next summer’s high.

CTD-LSNT01-AvgDec

So what does the future hold? My guess is that the temperatures in March will be a smidge colder than last year’s, but I’m not a magician. We’ll just have to wait and see.


data from: King County Puget Sound Marine Monitoring http://green2.kingcounty.gov/marine/Monitoring

Around Bainbridge – excitement

Last Thursday, I sat on the bench at Alki and stared across the Puget Sound at the sun setting over Bainbridge Island. As I prepared for my last little swim before circling that big island, I couldn’t help but notice that I wasn’t excited. Nervous may be a bit strong to describe my feeling. Terrified certainly is. But as I sat there, the thought of swimming for what I guessed would be twelve hours made me uneasy, given that I hardly wanted to put my suit on and swim that evening.

It was about two months after my last big swim and seven months into my season. The novelty had worn off months ago, but October still looked far away. My biggest fear for the coming weekend was: what if I don’t want to do this? A marathon swim, especially one that pushes your limits, isn’t something you complete half-hearted, and I was indifferent at best.

Erika, seated beside me on the bench, reminded me that I didn’t have to feel excited. And she was right. For it was with that same attitude that I stepped off the beach two mornings later. I stared at the flat water right as a large boat wake rolled in. My instinct told me to wait until the wake passed, but then I remembered that the sooner I start, the sooner I finish. As always, getting in was the hardest part.

The points ahead grew quickly, the shore passed by, the sea lions kept a respectful distance. Friends and swimmers and kayakers from the island came and went, excited to be a part of my adventure. The wind was behind me for most of the day, and the water was warm enough to relax in. “You know those days when it feels like you could stay in the water all day,” I asked Erika during a feed about half-way around? “Well what a good day to have that feeling.”

I never felt excited during the swim, nor before nor after. But I was ready to get started, ready to be finished, and just as ready for all the pieces that were found in between. A very wonderful, calm sort of ready.

And now there is just one more swim left in my summer. Then October.

Around Bainbridge – route

No surprises on this one. Just once around the island, taking the shortest route we can manage. Point to point to point to point.

location-map

This is a 25.5 mile circumnavigation. Thanks again to Google for helping out here.

google-route

Looking for more information? Then you may enjoy this .kmz file of the route, waypoints, and some current scouting I did last autumn.

Here it is:
bainbridge.kmz

Around Bainbridge – swim plan

On either the 8th or 9th of August, I’m going to try my longest swim yet. Swimming around Bainbridge, something that has yet to be completed – or even attempted as far as I know – will take between eleven and twelve hours. That’s longer than I’ve ever swum by over two hours.

I’m nervous at the moment. It has been two months since the last big swim, and training has been an experiment ever since then. Do I go hard? Do I back off? Do I even need to swim after work tonight? Do I want to swim after work tonight?

Part of me is ready for October, the month there is no longer anything for which to train. But part of me is very excited for this swim. With all the fatigue, the thing that keeps me swimming is simply that I enjoy it. Many nights while I stall, sitting on my bench at Alki before diving in, I’m reminded of the small, large, and very large joys swimming brings me. It’s a far cry from the view before a pool workout, the dismal, repetitive scenery that affected me so much last year.

Yes, I’m excited for it. For another mental and physical challenge to face, another complicated dance to perform, another day to test both my luck and skill. 25.5 miles around Bainbridge Island doesn’t seem that far to me right now. Not nearly as far as October, anyway.

Please find attached, the Around Bainbridge Island Swim Plan, approved by USCG Vessel Traffic Service Sector Puget Sound and Washington State Ferries.

Return of Bert, actual route

Step one: jump in. Step two: turn left and go off course.

The actual route for this swim does not match the shortest route. The shortest route, at 18.8 miles, heads north from the start through the East Passage. My route is over 2.6 miles longer, and goes left around Vashon Island.

Right now, I’m either regretting this decision, or laughing to myself that it is just crazy enough to work. Either way, here’s the logic behind it:

During Bert Thomas’s 1956 swim in the opposite direction, he swam about nine hours before getting stopped by the tide and finally finishing seven hours later. That’ll happen in the East Passage, where the ebb and flood of the Sound creates noticeable currents, and complicated eddies. While it sounds like a complicated, exciting challenge to hop between shores, tuck in behind spits of land to fight the tide and then burst out at the right moment, when one adds in the shipping lanes running through the East Passage, more likely it would become another Tappan Zee incident (see Stage 6) where I’d be constrained to unfavorable water and left to fight it out.

Instead, I’m going to avoid shipping traffic and, if I’m right, the tides altogether.

Now not far west from the start along the shore of Point Defiance, regular swims with Melissa have taught me that the current there always pushes west. And Melissa’s birthday swim taught me that a strong clockwise eddy lies just north in Dalco Pass, midway between Vashon and Tacoma shores. So I’ll ride that current west from the start, heading out to the mouth of the Narrows to meet a ripping ebb tide pushing north into Colvos. This part is a bit of a gamble; if I swim for the Gig Harbor Light fast enough, I should be pushed north into Colvos on the backside of Vashon.

And that is where it gets beautiful. Colvos they say, by some magic of oceanography, always has a north current. So I’m adding a few miles to the swim in hopes of avoiding a seven-hour delay like Bert had.

At the top of Vashon, we’ll ride the current as far north as possible, getting above the ferry lanes and preparing to swim due east against a flood tide pushing south.

shortest-route-planned

Return of Bert, introductions

The crew’s job on this swim began a long time ago. The swim hasn’t started yet, and already they’ve done so much to get me here, a week from the start. Even if they don’t realize it, they’re a giant reason I’ve made it this far, and they’ll be the reason I make it much farther. Let me introduce them:

The boat people, pilot and swim manager
One doesn’t swim in Seattle for long without eventually bumping into Wendy Van De Sompele. She’s not only a marathon swimmer herself (need I say, avid open water enthusiast?) and frequent, high-placing participant in Seattle’s abundant open water events, but she also manages the Seattle Parks Department’s Medgar Evers pool in winter and Colman Pool during summer, two highly sought-after training grounds for pool swimmers. We met at a little swim in Tacoma a few years back: she was swimming and her partner Peter Ray was kayaking. Pete has since bought a sailboat, and Wendy has graciously offered their support on this swim. No doubt this is what Pete had in mind when he bought the boat. As Swim Manager, Wendy will be Pete’s right hand with tasks such as Coast Guard communication and navigation, leaving Pete free to pilot his boat.


The observer
I don’t need to state the importance of having a qualified observer. Dan Robinson and I met at Alki a while back. At the time, he was training for The Channel (successful), his final swim of the Triple Crown. When our training paths crossed he was good company, as he was one of very few people who had the speed, endurance, and acclimatization to train with me in cold springtime open water as I was ramping up for 8 Bridges last year.


The swim handler
A month after my unsuccessful 2013 Strait attempt, Melissa Nordquist convinced me to swim an event in Tacoma (same as above). Until then, I’d mostly been swimming alone, and it would be a good opportunity to meet some other swimmers. Although we’d never met before, I knew by the end of that swim that we’d be swimming together a lot more often. She and her husband Paul were South End members before moving away from San Francisco, she a swimmer and he a rower. Melissa has since been a willing partner in some great swimming adventures around the Sound, including storm swimming, night swimming, birthday swimming, Halloween costume swimming, pre numb-feet-trail-run swimming, and under-pier skeleton discovery swimming. She’ll be looking after my general wellbeing, preparing some feeds, and splitting tasks with the rest of the group.


Spare parts and deck hands
Observing for Elaine on Pend Oreille last summer, in addition to being a wildly good time, taught me some important lessons about planning a swim. One big lesson learned: bring spares. So I’ve got a spare boat (Tuesday) to drag along with us. And I’ve got two spare people, Elaine Howley and Erika Norris.

Elaine is flying out from Boston to visit, finally. After she traded me Jerome (formerly of L Street and the Nahant Knuckleheads) for Observer Services Rendered last summer, she will at last be visiting us both in Seattle. I’ll be handing her a megaphone and Twitter the morning before the swim, what could go wrong with that?

Erika and I have been swimming together since February. I still can’t quite tell how she’s progressed from so quickly in her cold acclimatization (she’s been joining me for 6k swims in 50 degree water). Whether it comes from some natural sea lion ability or from shear stubbornness, her ability to swim long distances in cold water is amazing. As a regular training buddy, she is probably the single biggest reason I am still sane and smiling at this point in the season.


Pace swimmers
Coincidentally (or maybe not, I can’t remember at this point), all of the crew (Pete excepted) are active, cold water swimmers, and nearly all my pace. I’m expecting and counting on them to jump in to keep me company and keep me swimming.


Of all the swimmers out there, I’m lucky to have found a set of friends willing to join me in cold water and who are willing to share this adventure, and so many other adventures. I know they’ll make this swim fun, no matter what happens.

Training

My first swim for the year is less than one month away. So what did I do today? I sat on the beach all afternoon and drank beer with swim friends in between rounds of seaweed fights. After swimming five miles, of course.

At the beginning of the season, I knew my training plan needed to be different from last year for two reasons. First, my goals were different; I’m training for several cold saltwater swims rather than a multi-stage river swim. Second, my training last year left me feeling pretty blue most of the time.

My training started at the beginning of last July with the seemingly easiest of tasks: do nothing. What put me in such a bad mood through most of last spring was the absence of an off season, and I was determined to not make that mistake again. My rule was, from July through the beginning of this year, do only 7km per week. No more, no less. This kept me in shape, and made me yearn at times to go farther. Wanting to swim is a talent that needs cultivating.

With the start of the new year, I maintained the maintainable. I took a schedule of 7km per week and made it only marginally harder. The next week was an 8km week, because if I could figure out how to work 7km into my life, surely I could add a bit more without consequence. Then a bit more the week after. And now its a 26km week. To make things more challenging, I’ve been doing all my training in the Puget Sound. Through the rain and short days of winter, lengthening my swims as the days lengthened and the water warmed. Cramming as much distance as I can handle into the weekends with hopes that it will be easy to make time during eleven-hour workdays to get the rest swum before bed on Friday night.

There’s a few other things contributing to my generally good mood and consistent swimming this year. The regular adventure of swimming in open water versus the drudgery of distance pool workouts has kept me excited. There are some days when my first smile happens during my evening workout, and more often on Monday mornings forcing a smile is too much to ask, when I’m contrasting office banalities with my most recent sea lion encounter. More importantly, I’ve found people to join me. Our little group has grown to twenty-plus, and I’ve even had frequent same-pace company during part or all of my swims, weekend and weekday alike.

And that’s how I found myself standing knee deep at low tide today, draped in kelp and sargassum. Just another sunny Saturday morning 8km swim, followed by some lounging and swimming and sunning and drinking and smiling.

Inspiration

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.

Tuesday’s first swim

Melissa had a birthday on the Sunday past, and so on the same day, Melissa had a birthday swim.

Owens Beach in Tacoma looks north across Dalco Passage to Tahlequah, upon the southern tip of Vashon Island. The hills of Point Defiance rise behind you as you stand there and block the winds and currents that race through the Narrows. The water is usually calm owing to the small fetch from all directions but east towards Commencement Bay, and the current nearly always pushes west regardless of tide. Along the water for 1km, there is a running path maring the boundary between the tall northwestern pines and the gravelly northwestern beach. This is the Tacoma open water swim spot.

Between Owens Beach and Vashon is 2.4km, but not without its challenges. Through this 400ft-deep waterway runs any ship, tug, tow, log boom, and recreational boat transiting between the southern and northern Puget Sound. Currents in the Narrows around the corner reach 6kts and come spilling out into Dalco Passage. Also, sometimes it rains.

Sunday morning, Tuesday and I put in at the Tacoma public dock at the edge of Point Defiance and set out to find, map, and understand the currents immediately before the birthday swim. There are no NOAA current predictions for a lot of the Puget Sound (I suspect because of the complexity the landscape induces), but the models I could find suggest that on an ebb flow, the middle of the Passage flows strongly east and eddies back to the west along the Tacoma shore. As we slowly made our way across and back in the bright morning sun and still air, not a current could be found. After two hours of searching for anything, water movement, drifting of the boat, tide lines, debris lines, anything, we gave up and headed into the beach to meet Melissa and Alison.

Tuesday on Owens Beach

Melissa and Alison piled in and the three of us headed north to Vashon. When we reached the other side, where the swim would begin, we waited for the kayaker Heidi to complete her crossing. As we drifted near the beach, a moderate current pushed us to the west. Heidi reported some mid-channel water movement when she reached Vashon. These currents were not there thirty minutes earlier, I swear.

They jumped onto the sunny shore, smiled for a photo, and then jumped in the water and started the swim at 11:00am. The swim took a total of 52 minutes, and as swims go was straightforward. From my vantage, I was able to see many things a swimmer cannot. I could see the seals coming over to investigate, and watch the boats all safely pass us by. And I could finally see the currents. Where I’d previously thought perhaps I was no good at recognizing currents, I could immediately tell that I’d just been searching for them at a slack tide. The currents were ripping now.

About 1k from shore, we entered the strong eastbound current. The water racing out of the Narrows had made a hard right and was rushing past us. This torrent created boiling, swirling water, short choppy waves at the current interface, and a few standing waves with white caps. I was instantly jealous that I was not swimming. Melissa later told me that she could see the algae below her moving in different directions at different depths as the currents switched. And as suddenly as we entered the current, we were out the other side into a small, calm debris patch, as eddies roiled by behind us.

Swimming Dalco Passage

In the end, Melissa and Alison made it back to Point Defiance, and only 400m from where they planned to finish. The currents had done almost exactly what was expected (expectations set by this Tethys model), and so had we.

Back on the beach after, I was even more excited by this beautiful little boat that had just taken us there and back. She is very stable and handled well in some confusing water and I’m gaining confidence in my piloting and boat handling, and bigger things seem very possible. As an unexpected bonus, watching two friends swim for an hour made me want to swim, like really made me want to swim. It is that feeling that has been waning lately during the past few months of training, and it is nice to have it back.

Dalco Passage Swim

Happy birthday Melissa, from Andrew and Tuesday.

 

Haiku 6

Blossom

Sun makes algae bloom.
Algae makes me smell like a
California roll.

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???