Juan de Fuca x 2: The Swim

Ray, Kelly and I arrived at Ogden Point, downtown Victoria at 11:30ish. We had hoped to head straight to the start site but instead found ourselves walking a bit of a way because of Tour de Vic; the city’s annual bike race.

Gordon, Charla, Soleil, Valentina, Corey and Melissa where on the sail boat a kilometer or 2 off shore and Matt, Claire, and Rob where in the small power boat. As I approached the launch site I could see MJ, Pam and Olivier on shore preparing the kayaks. Everything was perfectly in place.

It was warm out and the sun was out trying to shine through the layer of smoke sitting over the strait. A few people had congregated at the start site. Kelly, Ray and I made our way down the beach and I began preparing for the swim. I try not move around a lot before I swim, and I typically turn inward as sometimes people can unknowingly say things that may impact me in a negative way.

I was grateful to the media for spending time with me prior to the swim. They have been sharing my MS swim stories for several years which is a great way to support the community. My good friend Travis Patterson, who was one of the first reporters I met in Victoria, was participating in Tour du Vic that day. I was thrilled that he popped off the race course for a few minutes and came by to send me off.

At 1:01pm on August 18th I walked into the water of Juan de Fuca Strait at Ogden Point. Once in deep enough I began to swim. The air temperature was 26C, water 10C, the wind 4 knots and the water flat. I could feel the crispness of the water and knew that it was cooler than last year’s swim, but I was determined and pushed all thoughts of cold out of my mind.

At 2:00 pm I paused for a quick drink and snack. I could feel a drop in the water temperature. I find this part of cold-water swimming fascinating. Every degree up or down seems amplified and extremely noticeable under 14C.  My log files confirmed that it had dropped by 1 degree and was now sitting at 9C. At 2:30 pm, 2.5 hours into the swim, during a break I reported a strange kind of brain freeze to my Pam who was paddling beside me. I felt my entire head go numb while I was swimming. It was odd as I don’t recall that ever happening before.

I pressed on determined to make it to Dungeness Spit within 12 hours and then turn around and head home. I pushed the idea of being could out of my mind by focusing on other things. Prior to leaving the shores of Victoria that day a very good friend of mine made her way to the beach to see me leave. She has been quite ill over the past few years and was undergoing testing for Lupus, in many ways a sister disease to MS. As she walked the path to the water way the struggle with both her health and the diagnosis was apparent. We hugged when we met and cried. It was a very powerful moment that I took with me into the water. Any time during my swim if I felt a moment of weakness, I focused on my friend and the strength it took for her to be with me on the beach that day. I drew on that strength and swam for her.

At 3:30 pm while on a break my friend Soleil told me her first joke. Soleil was one of two youth crew I had invited to join me. Her job was to tell me jokes throughout the swim to keep my spirits up. It was around this time that I also discovered my crew has magical powers. They had been communicating with vessel traffic control throughout the swim and somehow managed to get the Coho, a large vehicle/passenger ferry, to slow down so I would not be pushed around by their wake.

By 4:30 the water developed little waves. The wind was picking up and I could see a lot of takers and cruise ships on the water. I had been stopping every half an hour through-out the swim for either liquid, or liquid and solid. I always seemed to know when to stop, even without my crew signalling me. I think that the more you do this, with the swims and training, the more your body knows exactly when 30 minutes has passed.

The 4:30 break was a bit unusual. Before I stopped I could hear quite a bit of chatter on the radios. I found this a bit odd as my crew typically doesn’t chat a lot. The only radio I usually hear is Pam’s, as she is right beside me, but this time I could hear several radios at once. I found it odd and stopped a few minutes early. As I lifted my head from the water I could see a fairly large boat about 500 meters away with 50 or so people standing on the top deck looking towards me onto the water and that my crew had surrounded me.

I very quickly realized that their where whales nearby. I looked up trying to peek over my crew boats and could see massive black fins in the near distances. They were between 500 meters and 1 killometer; 7 to 8 minutes of swimming for me, and less than 1 minute for the whales.

It was an incredible sight and I later found out that it was J-pod. This was a special moment indeed. It was sad however to see all of the whale watching boats surround them. Although they kept their legal distance, there were so many of them so obviously following the whales that I can’t see how this wouldn’t cause stress, especially if there are young babies in the pod.

Once J-pod had passed we carried on with the swim. The wind continued to pick up with small white caps now developing on the water. At 5:30 I stopped for solid food. I remember looking up to the sky and seeing the sun struggle to get through the cloud of smoke. When I looked to the water I could see a layer ash on the surface from the wildfires.  I did not know at the time this would be the last time I would eat during the swim.

By 6:00 pm 1 to 2 foot swells had developed. The water temperature was sitting between 9 and 11C and the air temperature had dropped by 10 degrees and was now sitting at 16C. My crew began to bundle up with layers of clothing and toques. Gordon had asked all crew members on the sailboat to move off the deck because of the rapidly developing conditions. Concerned about the conditions, I asked that Ray and Corey switch out in the kayak. I found out later that night that during the transition, as Ray tried to board the sailboat from the kayak, he fell into the water. The sailboat crew moved quickly to bring him onboard and dry him off.

I continued to swim into the waves. The air temperature continued to drop and was 13C by 6:30. There had been a 13-degree air temperature drop from when I started that afternoon. I asked for Perrier and then ginger ale on my next break. I had been swallowing sea water as the waves pushed against my face each time I tried to take a breath. I hoped the ginger ale would settle my stomach and provide me with calories to stay warm. I knew that if I did not each or consume calories it was a matter of time before my body would fail.

By 7:00 pm the waves had increased to 4 to 5 foot swells. Close to have of the crew on the sailboat had developed seasickness. At 7:30 pm still could not eat but was able to drink ginger ale. I pressed on thinking about my friend on the beach and how she pressed on to be with me. Corey pointed me in the direction of Port Angeles and I swam relentlessly into the wind toward the valley where the two mountains meet on the US side. I was not tired. I do not recall feeling any more-cold than when I first jumped into the water that afternoon.  I don’t think I have ever been as determined in my life.

At about 8:30 pm I stopped for my next break. I could feel the change in air temperature and let me crew know I was feeling cold. I asked for a cup of warm tea but struggled to drink it as the waves were moving quickly and often. My motorboat pilot Matt moved his boat closer to me as did my kayakers. They once again surrounded me as they were aware of the conditions and sensed the dangers. My stomach was in so much pain from the salt water but I wanted to continue. Pam radioed MJ on the sailboat to let her know I was cold and was trying some tea to see if it would help. Within minutes I felt an incredible drop in my body and began to shiver. It increased in intensity instantly. At that moment I knew the swim was done and asked my crew to remove me from the water.

It took less than 3 minutes for my kayak crew and motor boat to safely guide me to the sailboat. Corey, who could see I was struggling with the wave had me grab hold of his boat and towed me to the sailboat. I held on as tight as I could, afraid to be pulled away from the sailboat by the waves. Once I was able to grab the ladder at the back of the boat I released Corey’s kayak and climbed aboard the sailboat. My exit time was 8:37 pm, 7.5 hours after starting.

More to come on the aftermath and recovery!

5 thoughts on “Juan de Fuca x 2: The Swim

  1. Wow. Thank you for sharing your swim Susan. You are an inspiration on many levels. So glad to know you!
    Maggie (see you tomorrow morning I hope:)

  2. You are an inspiration to many! I appreciate you sharing your journey. Can’t wait to read the rest…

  3. Thank you for sharing your journey. It is always a learning experience, not only for the swimmer, but for those of us reading about it too. If I may ask – what was your solid food/fuel that you used? Thank you for this inspiration, and awesome effort1

    1. Thank you Karen. I do find swimming in waters this cold very much a learning process. For solid food I use vegan chocolate peanut butter protein bars, peanut butter and banana sandwiches, bananas and cantaloupe. I find though, that chewing takes too much time and am looking to change this. Vicki Keith has suggested I try fruit cups. I am also looking into homemade nutrient rich energy balls.

  4. Beautifully written and what an effort! 7.5 hours in that water is amazing! I look forward to hearing more.

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