Juan de Fuca Strait was not something I every thought I would do. But after the MS Society of Canada closed the the country’s only gym and physiotherapy centre in Victoria, BC leaving 100s without service, it was a swim I felt I had to do. I wanted to show the value of fitness, in my case swimming, for those of us living with the disease. I wanted to swim Juan de Fuca Strait #withMS4MS.
There are many ways one can go about swimming across the strait. I chose to swim as close as possible to the 29.5 kilometre historic route from the 1950’s – the one swum by Americans Bert Thomas and Amy Hiland, and Canadians Cliff Lumsdon, Ben Laughren and Marilyn Bell. The route later swum by Vicki Keith in the 1980s. I chose to swim the strait unassisted, with nothing more than a swimsuit, cap and goggles.
No swim is possible is possible without the support of a crew. I was fortunate to have a crew of volunteers who had donated both time and expertise. My pilot, Gordon Higgins, who also donated his sailboat, has sailed this particular water way for over 40 years. MJ VanBergen, who as crewed for me on a number of swims and trained a several observers on Vancouver Island, was the swim director and lead observer. Claire Skillen and Pam Loadman, both expert paddlers, signed up for kayak support. Ray Este and Matt Piechnik provided small craft support in the event emergency evacuation was needed and Shaun Stalker and Melissa Anderson would provide medical support and expertise. Melissa also provided updates on the swim through multi-media.
My swim started in the traditional territory of the Klallam Nation (Coast Salish People) from Dungeness Spit in Washington State. It was 7:15 AM. The sun was out, the air was warm, and there was a gentle breeze. It was a bit of a walk before the water was deep enough to swim and the sea floor littered with rocks and pebbles. I stumbled and fell down to the water. I remember feeling a sense of relief as it was not as cold as I expected. I learned much later that day when i exited the water that it was just over 11C.
I swam through a bit of a kelp forest until I reached Claire, who would be paddling a kayak beside me for the swim and then later, Gordon’s sailboat. It wasn’t long before I lost sight of the bottom of the sea. I settled in between the sailboat and kayak and swam through gentle swells.
Every 30 minutes MJ would flag me down to stop and eat and drink. I have been working at the ideal feeding program for a few years now, and think I finally found it. I would not eat for the first hour to hour and a half as my stomach is often a bit queasy on a swim and I typically start my day with a healthy smoothie so am not hungry. After the first hour, for food, I would switch back and forth between gel packs that have been watered down and a piece of a protein bar. I would also have an a work-out drink or electrolytes. Digestive biscuits, cantaloupe, bananas, chocolate bars, tea and water would always be available should I want them.
I was worried about the amount of time it can take my kayak support to provide my drink and food as well as the back and forth spent between the lead boat and support boat picking up food so switched up how feedings would work as well. On this swim all liquids with the exception of emergency tea were provided by the sailboat. Two bottles were tossed in the water each stop, one with a workout drink and the other with gel and water. My kayaker carried a large peaked deck bag on their hull filled with bars and biscuits, and a small thermos with tea. I was able to request what I needed as I needed it.
A few hours into the swim I could feel my tummy acting up. It was likely caused by a combination of nerves and the gentle swells. I used the digestive biscuits to help settle it. So happy that it worked as I have a bit of a reputation for feeding the fish.
I never wanted to know what time it was and I definitely didn’t want to know the water temperature. I had asked my crew that they not ask me if I was warm enough, or cold. I needed to put the temperature completely out of my head as it was my greatest fear and biggest risk on this swim. I did however want to know when I reached the American/Canadian border which was about half way through the swim. At some time around11:30 I stopped to feed and was happy to hear I had crossed the border. Melissa had me give a shout out on Facebook to friends and followers at home!
I carried on swimming at a steady pace. I filled my mind with thoughts of people who I know who have Multiple Sclerosis. I thought about what their life is like not having a centre. I thought about how strong they are, how they get up every day, some of them barely able to move, all of the obstacles they face, and yet they are still getting out in the world. Just prior to my swim a few friends with MS, Margaret, Dave (who has Parkinson’s) and Diane came to see my last ocean swim at Willows Beach. I thought a lot about them. I thought about what my swim means to them. Margaret and Dave both have challenges walking yet they both found a way to meet me at the beach that day, and I knew they would both be waiting on the shore for me. I used my thoughts of the community to fuel me and move me forward. My swim was for them.
Not soon after we crossed the border did Matt, Ray and Shawn join us. I had planned the swim so I would have certain things to look forward to along the way. Ray, my partner of over 25 years was my cookies at the half way mark. I am not quite sure what happened but I heard through the grape vine that Shawn went for a swim in the middle of the strait while transferring from the small motor craft to the sailboat. This is something I will have fun teasing her about for some time to come.
One of the nice things about swimming the strait is the mountain ranges on either side. You can can see Port Angeles and Dungeness Spit from Victoria, and you can see Victoria from Port Angeles and Dungeness spit. It was really neat to watch things come into focus as we got closer to Victoria. I was able to make out some of the larger city buildings for quite some time.
We had planned 3 potential exits for the swim. The first was Clover Point, not too far from where Marilyn Bell landed in the 50’s, the second Ogden Point and the 3rd the inner harbour. My hope was the inner harbour as I was wanted to get as much exposure as I could for the MS community and a new MS Centre we are working on creating. It would add about 3-4 km to the swim but I wanted land there if I could.
About 5-6 km from shore I could make out the breakwater at Ogden Point and could see Brotchie – a marker on the water just outside of the harbour often outrigger paddle around. I knew we were drawing near. Gordon altered the course slightly to set me up to ride the tied into the harbour. Unfortunately I got caught in a current and was spinning like a hamster on a water-wheel for about an hour. Although I could not see the current I was fully aware of what was happening as I am very familiar with the landmarks. It was discouraging as I was fighting hard to get in.
I asked my crew if they could adjust the course and get me in. We opted to head for Ogden Point. As we made our way across the water I saw a kayaker in the distance. As she neared I could hear her. It was my friend Pam, my next cookie. Pam was meant to be with us for the day but had to work. She had promised that she would paddle in with me for the final bit of the swim. I was so thrilled she was there. Pam is a physiotherapist who often helps people with MS. She had spent the day treating as many people as she could and told them of the swim.
I will never forget her words as she approached Claire and I – “Susan Simmons, what are you doing here? I had to leave work early for you! Do you know what time it is?” I had no idea what she meant as I still hadn’t asked the crew what time it was, nor did they tell me.
It’s always the last part of a swim, or paddle for that matter, that seems the longest. You see things getting closer, but are they? I was a bit pooped from my hamster wheel swim so stopped every 500 meters or so to drink or snack for the last few kilometers. As Pam and Claire guided me closer to shore I could hear people cheering. I started to cry. We did it – me and my crew had made it across! I pulled myself together and continued to swim to shore. I remember the point when I saw bottom. It was a beautiful site. When it was shallow enough I stood-up and walked up onto shore of the Songhees Nation traditional territory at Ogden point. It was 5:21 PM – 10 hours and 6 minutes after I first entered the water.