As I continue to tinker with tankers and play in the currents the ocean teaches me. She is powerful and mighty, and on some days, no place for creatures like me.
On July 28, my humble crew of 4 prepared for our big day in the Salish Sea. Gordon would be piloting our journey in his sail boat, MJ and Ray would paddle beside me and Margie, new to my crew, would document the swim. I am grateful to have them as part of the team.
It was a beautiful day, sunny (once the sun came up), warm and little wind; ideal conditions for swimming across Juan de Fuca Strait. The catch on this swim though, was the currents. The Salsih Sea 3 is a very interesting train of straits. Georgia Strait, which is 3rd on my list of swims this summer, has little to no current and ranges from 18 to 20 Celsius during the summer. Haro Strait has constant currents, sometimes 5+ knots depending where you are and is between 9 and 14 Celcius in the summer. Juan de Fuca has strong currents generally 2 knots, but they can grow to +5 knots near the entrance to Haro Strait and move as fast as 12 knots near Race Rocks. Most days of the summer months the water temperature is between 9 and 14C. The trick in Juan de Fuca is to not get swept in one direction or the other – if you do, you will find yourself in some pretty turbulent waters.
I have found two days on each of the two neap tides each month where you can attempt to swim the traditional route from Port Angeles to Victoria from a current perspective.
All three straits have some crazy winds, often later in the afternoon but sometimes throughout the day. I have seen them blow +30 knots on some summer days.
On this particular day in the Strait of Juan de Fuca I had the challenge of +2 knot currents on either side of me for the first part of my swim. The potential to swept into Haro or worse, Race Rocks was likely. There was a narrow passage that I might be able to slip through if our timing was right and we stayed on that exact path.
I entered the water from Ogden Point in Victoria at 7:00 AM with Ray kayaking by my side. We were behind by about 1 hour. The currents had already started to shift. Our late departure was mistake number 1.
MJ stayed behind to record the start. Gordon was on his way from the Royal Victoria Yacht Club and would meet us within the hour. The water was a cool 11C, the air about 13C and the sun had not yet come up. I could feel the cold settling into my body. I was fine, but cold, and knew that if I continued without sun I may not last. I was fearful of becoming hypothermic. When MJ reached us I let her know I was cold asked that she have the boat prepared to receive me in the event I worsened.
It was around then that Ray spotted Gordon and let me know he was close. We began to swim in his general direction – that was mistake number 2. I was swimming in the direction of a strong current that would become more and more challenging the deeper I swam into it.
The sun started to rise, and I could feel it slowly warming my body. I was no longer concerned about hypothermia.
Gordon corrected our course having me swim towards Race Rocks. We used a very large tanker anchored near the Canadian/US border as our marker. The plan was to swim around the front of the tanker and then turn left toward Dungeness Spit and ride the tide in.
We were making good headway. A few hours into the swim the tide turned. It was a fairly strong tide producing some interesting conditions. Ray remarked on the amount of sea foam; something we had not seen before. At one point his boat was abruptly pulled to the right from the force of the tide change. As I swam beside his kayak I saw a small whirlpool, just over a foot wide, that had formed on the water. Initially I thought it might be from his paddle, but it extended as far down into the sea as the eye could see. I was alarmed by its presence so paused in the water to alert my crew. MJ let me know it was from the tide change. I asked that she keep an eye out for bigger ones as these are the things that can suck you down to the bottom of the sea. I also asked that she watch for jelly fish carnage, something we experienced on the tide change in Haro. Just as I said that I heard MJ say oops, and then saw her paddle sweep in front of me. It was a Lion’s Mane – and it was big – over 2 feet across.
We pressed on continuing to head for the red tanker ahead to the right. MJ had me pause every 30 minutes to nourish. I have been eating more fresh fruit on my swims this year which I have quite enjoyed. I do however find bananas a bit of challenge. I may have had one too many. A few hours into the swim I feed the local fish, puking 3 times. It felt so good to clear my stomach – and I was happy because it did not hinder my swim in any way. Ray though, was not impressed.
Each time I paused for food I looked around to see where I was. I never looked back, only to the left, right or forward. I could see we were getting closer to the tanker. I could also see we were beginning to pass a second large black tanker to the left of me. I don’t know how many of you have swum beside a tanker, but those things are long, it can take a bit of time to make your way from one end to the other.
Gordon radioed Vessel Traffic Control to make them aware of our intent and confirm if we could proceed. We were asked to stand down or change our course as the tanker we were swimming toward would be moving. Keen to press on and mindful that we needed to steer clear of the tanker ahead of us, we shifted our course slightly to the left – mistake number 3. As we did that the current shifted, and I shifted along with it. I was quickly swept to the left toward the second tanker. I tried to swim ahead but each time I took a breath I could see I was getting closer and closer to one very large boat – at an accelerated rate. And then within seconds, I was also being pulled back toward Victoria. I stopped to talk to MJ. While treading water I was close enough to the tanker that I could very clearly see 3 men with hard hats on the tanker deck which was several stories high. I waved; they waved back.
We quickly changed our course opting to swim behind the tanker so I wouldn’t collide with it. As we did this the current strengthened and I was pulled further and further off course losing much of what I had gained during the swim that morning. We paused, all the while the water moving me, to check in with Gordon and quickly discuss our options. The current was going to continue at that strength or greater for the next few hours and there were strong winds predicted that evening. We would not be able to make it to Dungeness for 5:00 PM which was our official cut-off time. We chose to stop and call it a great training day.
There is a part of me that is sad when I don’t get to where I intended but at the same time I am grateful for the time spent in the water and the lessons from the sea. She warns me gently when needed. My biggest fears outside of hypothermia in Juan de Fuca are being swept away by currents. I have experienced firsthand as a swimmer how quickly the water can move off Clover Point, seen what happens at the back of Trial Island, Chatham and the Discovery Island while in an outrigger. The entrance to Haro at Ten Mile Pointe through Baynes challenges power boats on a regular basis. I am grateful to my crew for making the decision they did.
I will swim the strait another day.