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Swimmer in Water

Island Life

In responding to the question “How’s it going?”, one could easily be any number of miles from an aquatic environment and still be able to answer “swimmingly” if one were so inclined, and could very well do so whether or not that was indeed the case. In the word association game that one’s brain tends to constantly be playing, the mention of the word “swimmer” almost cannot exist without a picture of something blue, relatively clear and viscous appearing at least somewhere in the corner of the mind’s eye. It is this connection that can cause one to almost instinctually roll one’s eyes at the apparent redundancy in the phrase “swimmer in water”, while reflexively, even if silently, responding with a quick retort- where else do you think they would be?

Things along these lines actually took on an entirely different perspective this past Saturday when I repeatedly was compelled to speak those three words, prefaced by  another two: “Seattle Traffic”. These two words, when spoken through radio channel fourteen while out on the water , serve to get the attention of our local Vessel Traffic Services (VTS). As it was, we already had the attention of VTS, since we had another acronym on board, an AIS. This automatic identification system serves to alert sailors of the whereabouts of commercial traffic, as each transmits a unique signal that goes out into the ether and shows up on properly equipped screens near and far. Our particular signal was known to the Seattle vessel traffic services as a location indicator for “Swimmer in Water”, not because it is the name of our boat, but rather because we actually did have a swimmer in the water. His name is Andrew Malinak, and he was swimming on that particular day, June 6th, from Old Tacoma Dock just west of the Foss Waterway to Colman Pool at Lincoln Park via Colvos Passage.

Before we get any further into the depths of the Salish Sea in our time, it should be noted that the inspiration for this marathon swim attempt came from a time of less electronic sophistication and surprisingly way more general public interest in aquatic feats beyond the commonplace. It was last year, with the first of the Swim Defiance swims (the next one happening on this June 21st between Tahlequah and Owen Beach) that I learned of Alexina Slater, the fifteen year old Stadium High School student who surprised everyone by finishing fourth overall in a field comprised- other than herself- entirely of men. On that day, September 26, 1926, there were ten thousand people on hand to cheer at the finish. In 1956, Bert Thomas made three attempts to swim from West Seattle to Tacoma. His first try in February lasted two hours in forty degree water. His second attempt in April lasted nine hours, but ended six miles short of the Old Tacoma Dock. Finally on May 14th, Thomas swam the entire eighteen plus miles in around fifteen hours and twenty three minutes, arriving at The Old Tacoma Dock at three in the morning to the cheers of some five thousand people. Along the way, Thomas was fed through a tube every hour by his wife who was along on the support boat. It is said that she also lit Thomas’s cigarette’s which he smoked while swimming on his back. It was this swim, but not the smoking, the weather or the tides that Thomas endured, that Andrew wanted to honor and emulate with his reversed and slightly elongated route.

And so it was that we motored our way down to the Foss waterway marina, and spent the night listening to water sounds and trains and aquatic fowl. The morning broke clear and calm, which on a sailboat is almost never a good thing- in this case it was perfect. Aside from a quickly departing sea lion and some encouragement from some passersby, Andrew set out with a quick forward dive and very little fanfare. Someone was out in a mini hydro doing laps around Commencement Bay, but after we were out on the route  we never saw him again. After about an hour we found ourselves amongst a regatta of becalmed sailors out of the Tacoma Yacht Club. They were apparently about to start a clockwise race around Vashon, but for most of the morning and a good part of the afternoon, Andrew’s swimming progress outdistanced the sailed racers.

It was during this time that our first support swimmer went in for a bit of pacing. Wendy and I first met Melissa Braisted Nordquist at a race in these same waters a few years back. She has had open water experience in San Francisco, as well as participating in open water relays on Maui and in Lake Tahoe. She was followed by Erika Norris, an NCAA All American and English Channel relay swimmer. She’s also one of Andrew’s training partners. After that, Wendy hopped in to do some pacing and to get more experience for what she hopes to be a successful attempt to swim around Maury later this summer. And finally, Elaine Howley got in to do some pacing later in the day. She has a giant list of open water accomplishments including being the 32nd person to complete open water swimming’s triple crown- the English Channel, the Catalina Channel and the swim around Manhattan. Andrew had crewed on her successful attempt to be the first ever person to swim the entire thirty four miles of Lake Pond Oreille. The two guys on board, however did not get wet on this day, although our official swim observer, Dan Robinson, has also completed the sacred triple crown, among other swims. As for me, I did do the inaugural one mile Emerald City open water swim back in 1984. The water temperature that day at Seward Park was fifty six degrees, which I swam through without a wetsuit. I don’t like cold water.  
As far as the cold goes, we were checking temperatures throughout the day, and they ranged from 53 to a balmy 59 in a few places. We were also on a rigid feeding schedule, where Andrew was tossed a bottle or bottles of various concoctions containing protein, electrolytes and warmish water. It could have been warmer water, but both our on board stove top (it caught fire) and the spare two burner camp stove (it somehow got plugged up) stopped working before the end of the swim. As this was English Channel rules, which means no wetsuit and no touching any support boat, the drinks were tossed in on the end of a retractable dog leash and reeled in when Andrew had had his fill. Dan was documenting the GPS points of the feedings, what the water temperature was and how much fluid, and sandwiches, Andrew took in at each feeding.

The ferry system and the traffic controllers were great and very helpful throughout the trip. Currents, tides and the wind were more than cooperative, although I made a few correctable bits of uninformed judgment calls where I was surprised by currents I did not know were there. A pod of Dahl porpoises showed up as we were making the turn toward Lincoln Park off the southeast side of Blake Island, but if they were curious about who this intruder was in their waters, they did not make that known to any of us.

There were no massive crowds on hand when Andrew went ashore just outside Colman Pool, although there was applause and some cheering from friends and fellow open water enthusiasts who had gathered on the beach. I would suspect that many of the people inside the fence at Colman did not know who this guy in the hot pink Speedo and the entourage was and what he was on about, or why he went directly to the waterslide and quickly slid into those chlorinated and much warmer waters of Puget Sound (Colman is salt water and filled from the Sound). There was no grandiose Bert Thomas welcome, which it seems is how Andrew wanted it. I was circling off shore while all of this was going on. Once Wendy was done talking with her staff- she manages Colman in the summer- she returned to the boat and we headed back to Quartermaster. As we were almost to the entrance of the outer harbor I noticed some commotion off the bow, and stood up in time to see more porpoises playing dead ahead. And then I heard blow hole noises coming at random points from all around the boat, and then they were gone. It seemed as though they were saying that they approved of what had gone on that day. While we didn’t really need it, it was a most welcome affirmation.

 I did shoot video throughout the day, and a five minute summary of the day can be seen on the youtubes here: