I think the hardest part of swimming the Juan de Fuca Strait was getting there. It took months of training in very cold water, and countless hours of planning with phone calls back and forth between MJ VanBergen (my swim director and lead observer), the American and Canadian Coast Guards, Vessel Traffic Control and Border Service Agencies on both sides of the border, and the Harbour Authority in Victoria. It also took several meetings with the core crew making sure we had everything in place as we wanted to leave nothing to chance.
By March 2017 we knew the route, the tide windows & currents, who we had to communicate with to avoid swimming into tankers and we had an emergency evacuation plan should something happen. What we didn’t know was what the water temperature and weather would be.
I researched as much as I could about the water temperature. I had heard from people involved with past swims that I can expect the water to never be greater than 10C. And I heard from oceanography type friends that I should expect it to be between 10 and 12C. At one point it was suggested that I swim the Crescent Beach to Sooke route as it would be a degree or 2 warmer, and it was much shorter, and the currents are less dramatic.
With the differing opinions I thought it best I hyper prepare for really cold water and some funky wave action. On the cold front, I jumped in the water off the dock at Ocean River paddle club for 30 minute sessions throughout the winter and spring. The water was between 7 and 9c. As summer kicked in I swam at Willows Beach for 1 hour + at least 3 times a week. The water there was between 10 and 12C. I also researched the temperature off 3 buoys in the Strait:
- Station 46087, Neah Bay, 6NM North of Cape Flattery, WA
- Station PTAW1, 9444090, Port Angeles, WA
- Station 46088, New Dungeness, 17 NM NE of Port Angeles
The data from the buoys confirmed 2 things:
- The water between Dungeness Spit and Victoria, the route I would be swimming, is about 1 to 2 degrees colder than the water between Crescent Beach and Sooke.
- The water is between 7 and 13c with the average temperature at the end of July/early August is between 11 and 12C.
With the water temperature data in hand the last unknown was the weather. This was something that can not be predicted. There was no guarantee that I would even be able to do the swim. If the winds were too high, I would not make the attempt for safety reasons. What I could do was prepare myself for some rough water, just in case. Luckily it was was blowing about 27 knots when I was up in Great Bear this year. I was able to get a good session in against the current and wind.
I have heard of the legendary swells in Juan de Fuca but I had never been across until the day before the swim was to start. Gordon, MJ, Pam and myself left the Royal Victoria Watch Club at about 3pm Saturday. It wasn’t too bad when we started, but at about the half way mark the waves started to pick up as the wind reached 30+ knots. I’ve been in rough water before, but nothing quite like this. There was some pretty large swells coming in from the Pacific with waves reaching up to 12 feet. It was a bit unnerving.
As we neared Port Angeles the water began to settle, but not without a few last side-slaps. Once inside the protected waters of Ediz Hook, the start location for Marilyn Bell’s swim, we made our way to the Marina to check in with customs, settle in, and prepare for the swim.
There isn’t a lot to the marina in Port Angeles. Luckily the centre of town is a 10 to 15 minute walk away. Once we were done with customs we headed into town to pick up groceries and have our last supper before the swim. Most of the restaurants were closed by the time we got there so we settled on a local pub near the ferry dock so we could meet up with Melissa who was coming in on the 9pm ferry. It pub looked harmless enough with a variety of choice on the menu, including a pub salad and a veggie burger.
One thing that I try hard to do before a swim is not change my diet. The veggie burger with salad was as close as I could get to my regular diet. To my chagrin however, the burger was deep fried – another first for me. Not the best of meals to have before a long swim, at least for me. Fortunately the the marine forecast for the Sunday was not looking and I would not be jumping in the water. I would have a day to recover from the turbulent ride over and my not so nourishing meal.
We spent a very quite night on Gordon’s boat and awoke the next morning to a fresh pot of coffee beautiful meal for the crew. MJ had been working her magic while we were sleeping.
Once the crew was fed we headed into town to buy groceries for the next 24 hours – we opted to not eat at a restaurant again – and then we were off to Dungeness Spit; the start line for the swim. Pam, one of my kayakers, would come with us but would need to return to Port Angeles that evening to catch the ferry home. Claire, another kayaker, would be arriving that night by ferry at the same time Pam was leaving.
Dungeness Spit was a lot further from Port Angeles than we anticipated; it took about 2 hours to get there. We decided it best we stay there for the night. Our only problem was that it was so windy we couldn’t find a safe place to anchor. We headed further down the coast to a small fishing community. Pam’s friend Chris was able to pick her up at a make-shift boat launch and Claire was offered a lift by 2 very kind locals who were on the ferry with her. I was sad Pam was leaving but knew I would see her the next day. She had arranged to meet me on the water in her kayak just outside Victoria’s inner harbour. MJ made everyone a fantastic meal including a beautiful salad with avocado for me. YUM!
We spent our last few hours of light getting my swim food ready. We organized it by who would have what when and made sure we had a back-up in place in case either the kayak or sailboat could not get to me quick enough.
It was truly a beautiful and peaceful night.