History, On Crew, People, Training

Swimming the Straight of Juan de Fuca: Andrew’s Account of Preparing for an Unprecedented International Channel Crossing

andrew3Tomorrow morning, Andrew Malinak will set off swimming from Vancouver Island (Canada) to a beach on Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula (USA). The water will be cold and the conditions challenging, to put it lightly. For some perspective, understand this: crossing the Straight of Juan de Fuca is intimidating to boats, and only 8 swimmers have ever done it successfully. (For comparison, something close to two thousand swimmers have swum the English Channel.) The most recent crossing was nearly 20 years ago. So what does all this mean? It means that in addition to the challenges Andrew will face when his swim begins in the morning, Andrew has already faced 8 months of challenges planning every detail of this swim from scratch, a task most marathon swimmers wouldn’t even know how to begin. He wrote about his process of planning and training, and posted regularly to the United States Masters Swimming blogs. With his permission, I am re-publishing his USMS blog entries below. Taken as a whole, it is an impressive piece of work. And this is before the swim has even begun.

I will be on his boat tomorrow acting as his “Swim Manager,” which means that I will be following his meticulous plans of communication with US and Canadian customs, US and Canadian Coast Guards, and Vessel Traffic Service (VTS) to ensure that his crossing is safe and to give him the best possibility of success (i.e. avoiding large ships and curious Orca whales). I am excited to join him as he attempts this swim, as I have had my own eyes on this water for some time. Though I doubt I will ever try for the Straight of Juan de Fuca myself, I grew up only a few hours away and feel a connection to this place. Before Andrew and I ever started discussing Juan de Fuca last year, I had run my finger over maps of the straight and done cursory research into its swimability. But I do not have the skill set (yet?) to have planned a swim like this (understatement!), and following Andrew’s process has been nothing short of illuminating and inspiring. Anyone interested in planning a swim of their own –especially a cold, international swim– will surely learn a lot from reading Andrew’s account of his own planning below.

YOU CAN FOLLOW ALONG LIVE TOMORROW STARTING 6am PDT:

  • Twitter: @AndrewSwims and @ThrowMeIn
  • Check  http://www.vesselfinder.com/vessels?name=367575160 … and click “Track on Map.” (If it’s not working with just the link, you can re-enter the MMSI #367575160 in the search bar. Remember that what you see between 6:30 and 8am is the boat ferrying Andrew to the start. Swim starts at 8am from Canada to the USA.)

(I’m having trouble embedding the video tonight, but follow this link to a fun segment of Andrew on Komo News in Seattle today.)

Strait of Juan de Fuca

By Andrew Malinak

Seattle Love

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 [correction: eighth] swim crossing of this waterway.* 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 Rosen. 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 letter.** 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.

A brief history of Swimming Juan de Fuca

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. Fin Donnelly, MP – 17 July 1994 (10 hours 15 minutes)

8.

[note: F Donnelly’s crossing was found after this post was written. If successful, I will be the eighth person]

 

Training, part 1 of 2

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 traveling 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. 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

Tides & Currents

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.

Adverse currents were cited in numerous historic articles and 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.

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.

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.

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.

VTS, AIS, and not getting squashed

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 swim[i]. 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.

________________________________________

[i] If you want to know why a cheaper Class B wouldn’t work, I can explain after class.

There’s no I in Swimming

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  HYPERLINK “http://thewaterlimousine.com/” 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. Meet Meghan 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 what clinicians call Delayed-Onset Quarter Life Crisis. She is currently driving, camping, and hiking her way across the country. She’d better make it to Seattle on time. You can follow her travels on her blog.

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 Rosen 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.

Training, part 2 of 2

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 week. 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 must train. 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 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.

Customs

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.

The Pre-plan

This is it, the 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. And 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 for getting 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: definitions; vessel details; entry into Canada; entry into US; communications; emergency numbers; VTS; CANPASS worksheet; safety goal; safety authority; crew responsibilities; go/no-go decision; safety plan; escort craft description; swim rules (taken from Santa Barbara Channel Swimming Association rules); current overview; daily route plans with current info; general crew info; specific crew info.

Enjoy.

Thank You

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 service.

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.

————

*Please feel free to verify this. A summary of my research is available on openwaterpedia.com and will be covered in future posts.

**Who sends rejection letters on a Saturday morning???

***If you’re reading this on ThrowMeInTheOcean.com, you might be reading it before the swim has started.

About Caitlin Rosen

http://ThrowMeInTheOcean.com

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About Me

Caitlin Rosen I learned to swim as a wee one from my dad, who didn't really swim himself, but was tall enough and encouraging enough to send me back and forth to the side of a pool. There were also the terrifyingly wonderful trips on his shoulders out into crashing ocean surf, which instilled in me a fear and respect for the rising and falling, tempestuous beast, on whom he repeatedly admonished us kids to never, ever turn our backs. Read more...

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