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.
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.
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.
Happy birthday Melissa, from Andrew and Tuesday.
One can only take so much heartbreak and disappointment before something needs to change.
Look at a map of Seattle and the first thing you will notice is that there is a lot of water. Even to the non-swimmer, the prevalence of water is obvious. Seattle is a maze of salt water, fresh water, peninsulas, islands, rivers, capes, bays, and inlets. Water surrounds and creates everyday life here (ask a Seattler to go to the Eastside and see what they say). Shipbuilders, chandlers, and fisheries coexist alongside the art, music, restaurants, and bars one associates with this town. It is a great place to be a swimmer.
It is because of the seemingly endless reaches of water that a swimmer cannot help but dream up new swims. The number of feasible swims between landmarks in the three to ten kilometer range is shockingly large. Just looking off Alki Beach, the possibilities are huge: 3.4k to downtown, 5k to Magnolia, 5 miles to Blake Island, 4k to Vashon Island, 6 miles to Bainbridge Island, and so on. All I’d need to get there, to any of these places, is a boat and pilot to get me across the channels.
So far, no luck. In the winter, it seems everyone winterizes their boat. Why they do is a mystery to me, when the weather stays so warm all year long. But they do. Puget Soundkeeper isn’t into the idea of swim escort, and I don’t have enough free time to persuade them it is in their best interest (what with the training, work, sleeping, and eating I’ve got scheduled). I also don’t have the time to meet every boat owner in Seattle to see if they’d be game for escorting me around in the cold for several hours. How do you even begin that conversation?
Two months ago, with a trip to Baltimore just a week away, I gave notice that I’d like to try an ice mile in Baltimore Harbor. Wary though they may have been, local swimmers quickly said they were willing to help on short notice, and even lend a kayak or two. But being a novice to ice swimming, and knowing that Baltimore’s urban waterfront is not easily accessible, I wanted a powerboat by my side. Good luck finding one of those when the air is 15 degrees and the water 37. That’s where this attempt ended, with no boat and no swim.
I am sure I’m not the only one in the northwest thinking this, that there needs to be a boat so I can do long, unorganized swims. An Agent Orange, but maybe not so fancy.
On a rainy Saturday in early March. I left my usual post-swim seat in front of the Tully’s fireplace, where Jeffery was telling us about his boss’s extravagant birthday trip to Patagonia, and Maria again kindly entertained my ignorant questions about summiting Mount Rainier, and headed north. Through the intensifying rain, I sped along in my New York manner over the Alaskan Way Viaduct, with its view of Elliot Bay and the downtown waterfront, and into Ballard, where offshore commercial fishing boats in for repairs and outfitting make up the skyline. I stopped at the Market Arms pub and had a drink in the back, trying to block out the noise of the Sounders game being aired, and made a few calls to be sure this was a good idea. No one answered, but I already knew it was. After just one drink I headed a few doors over to Ballard Inflatable Boats and gave Ed a check for my new boat.
Before I left the shop, Ed told me, “Your summer plans just got very different.” Yeah they did.