The power of swimming in open water

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Ever since the coronavirus entered our lives last March, This is Whidbey has posted stories about our locals and what they are doing to stay connected and empowered.

Swimming is my power source, and I look forward to becoming a better mermaid in the years to come.

Due to an injury in April 2018, I began swimming to avoid the condition of frozen shoulder. In the pool during the fall, winter, and spring at Island Athletic Club, I had worked up to swimming 1.3 miles. When the coronavirus pandemic spread and the gym closed in mid-March, I missed swimming and the euphoria it brought me.

Inspired by Gretchen Lawlor and Sharon Emerson, who swim outside to stay strong and flexible —Gretchen all year long, and Sharon at Goss Lake in 49-degree water beginning in March— I began swimming mornings at Goss Lake with the two women, hoping their courage would rub off. It has. I now look forward to our morning swims in a cold, deep, and dark lake. Our newfound bonhomie lifts me up. Evergreens framing the lake, diving eagles, occasional mists and drizzle, cloud reflections on the surface, and channeling of our inner Esther Williams, make me grateful for the simple gifts of friendship and nature.

Matt Simms taught classes for the SWPAF swim clinic over the weekend

In the mean time, Sharon and I signed up for a weekend swim clinic July 11 and July 12 with South Whidbey Parks and Aquatics Foundation, a non-profit run by friendly and knowledgable people. I learned new skills and took a maiden plunge in saltwater, while swimming in a wetsuit for the first time. I admit I was nervous, wondering about possible hypothermia and lion’s mane jellyfish stings. Out in the choppy water at Langley’s Seawall Park, I was humbled by the power of our Sound and how difficult it was to swim against the outgoing tidal current while being smacked about by waves or ‘chop’. I could not do the breast stroke at all. With the positive help of clinic teacher Matt Simms and volunteer Joe Hempel, I did a baby crawl and breathed out while facing the shoreline. It took all my strength to swim a couple dozen yards against the outgoing tidal current. The second try was easier. I have a lot to learn and can’t wait till I’m back in the saltwater again. The experience was exhilarating.

“Only a few of you had ever ventured into the salt water before but that didn’t slow anyone down – you all just calmly walked into a cold ocean with windy and choppy conditions and a pod of Orcas across the channel from you and got ready to swim,” Matt wrote in a follow up email to the clinic’s 15 or so swimmers.  “I think of me sinking up to my knees in ghost shrimp sand and tumbling over backwards in six inches of water was the only real issue anyone faced, but I’m hoping not too many of you saw me actually do that since I probably looked a bit foolish. Rookie move by me.”

Ghost shrimp sand is caused by visiting winter gray whales, who detour to western Whidbey waters before swimming on to their Alaska feeding grounds. Here, the whales turn on their sides, scooping up ghost shrimp with their huge flippers. The resulting ‘whale pot holes’ fill with sand and one can sink up to their knees along the shore between Langley and Bell’s Beach. I, too, sunk in the whale ‘quicksand’ —all part of learning to navigate swimming in saltwater.

“All those smiles at the end told the story,” Matt added. “You took on a massive challenge. In very intimidating conditions in an already intimidating ocean environment. It wasn’t easy, but you found a way to work through the challenges and came out of it far stronger and more confident than you came into it. On behalf of all of the volunteers who made the clinic go, I say thank you. For taking those challenges head on, with smiles that started before we got in and persisted far beyond the end of the swim itself. We are grateful to you for today.”

Over the past two weeks I gained a sense of the positive energy and friendly helpfulness of the foundation’s board members and volunteers who kindly agreed to be interviewed for this story.

Marni Zimmerman is president of the S.Whidbey Parks + Aquatics Foundation. Photo courtesy of SWPAF website

“I’m the president of South Whidbey Parks and Aquatics foundation, a private nonprofit incorporated in 2009 after the last bond for a public pool failed,” said Marni Zimmerman in a phone call last week. “Once that failed, then a group of swimmers had the idea to start a nonprofit. We are working with the South Whidbey Parks and Recreation District to raise money to get a pool with public money and private donations, maybe grants. We have a mission—we try to help everyone have access to recreation. We work with Island County to give scholarships to youth for sports. We promote recreation and put on open water swim clinics.

“Working with the foundation we’re working hard to get the pool going. We will start a fund-raising campaign (Marni estimates about $9 to $10 million needs to be raised for the center). I’m looking forward to that. The site we have is near Castle Park and close to the schools. It will have two pools. A deep competition swimming pool. A shallower warmer pool for therapeutics. There should be plenty of access. I think it is reasonable to think we can have this in five years.  Like everyone else, with COVID, we had to stop and think about how it’s changed people’s lives and changed our economy. We’d love to have folks visit our website to volunteer or make a donation.”

Marni started swimming in open water in 2005 and now swims year round.

“I don’t know if the water is getting warmer or if I’m acclimatized,” she said. “Now I swim about a mile. I started at about 400 yards. When COVID hit and pools were closed, I swam almost every day. Problem is it is so cold in winter. I might swim 30-40 minutes and take two hours to get my temperature back with warm drinks and a shower. It’s a great way to be outside.”

Marni and Matt and others interviewed later in this story said they learned to improve their swimming skills through South Whidbey Island Masters, a swim program coached by Kristi Eager.

“I moved to Whidbey around 2002 and was swimming in the pool and got into Masters,” Marni added. “That expanded my skills. A pool swimming friend said, ‘We’re swimming in the lake.’ Then they were swimming in the Sound. Once I started I was hooked. Then it was more exercise, endorphins, being outside at the water’s edge. There is this whole other world. You view the mountains in the distance. An incredible nature experience. A meditation. Goss Lake is fabulous. Once you start swimming in the Sound you see stuff in the water. Always different. Sometimes it’s the color you’re looking at. Such a soothing color. Seaweed on the west side of the island. Flounders flitting away. Crabs. Sometimes you’re lucky and the seals will play with you while you’re swimming. They’ll swim under you and look at you.”

At the weekend swim clinics we learned that the east side of the island generally has warmer water and less strong of currents. Tidal currents are powerful forces to be mindful of and following the weekend clinic, Matt suggested in an email downloading apps for weather: My Radar; tides: Tide Charts; and wind: Windy App. With these tools swimmers can gauge the best places where and when to swim.

For instance, at our Sunday class, the wind was blowing from the north, creating chop. Matt said a north wind would provide for calm conditions at Sandy Point, just down the coast. With a south-blowing wind, conditions would be calmer at Seawall Park.

“Currents are lowest at slack tide,” Matt said, drawing a two-humped and valleyed chart on a whiteboard. “You want to swim near the halfway point of the tide curve. On a day like today, it might take you 25 minutes to swim to Bell’s Beach and 12 to come back. Be willing to adjust your plans.”

Megan Scudder is the foundation’s vice president and safety officer for swim clinics and Adventure Swims. A physical therapist, she talked about being aware of our body’s reactions when starting out swimming in cold water.

“Know the water temperature (it was 63.2 degrees at Seawall Park Sunday afternoon),” she said. “It takes years to get to the point of swimming in January. At first you might only swim a hundred yards. (Volunteer) Joe (Hempel) swims in shorts all year.”

Megan talked about swimming in cold water.

“There’s cold-water shock—that happens when you go in the water and can’t breathe. You can hyperventilate. Taking deep breaths decreases that feeling. With hypothermia you may experience shaking, numbness, disorientation, blue lips, an inability to concentrate, slurred speech. Mild to moderate hypothermia (where one’s temperature drops from two to eight degrees) needs to be treated quickly. Get into warm dry clothes and a warm shower. Drink something warm. After drop can happen if you get into a hot shower or hot tub after being chilled. You might pass out. Better to take a warm shower.”

Other safety tips from Megan: swim with a buddy, and watch out for jellyfish. Megan was stung by a lion’s mane jellyfish at Robinson’s Beach a few weeks ago, which took her breath away.

“I’ve been open water swimming for ten years,” she said. “I never had a lion’s mane encounter. The odds of winning the lottery are greater. Typically you can avoid them. I put my face on the body, which has a higher concentration of toxins. Typically they might get a hand or foot. We used vinegar and hot water, hot compresses to reduce the pain. Nice neighbors at Mutiny Bay helped. Friends helped me. I went swimming since then, got back on horse. Took Benadryl and the symptoms subsided. It’s another reason to swim with people. I was in shallow water, which helped.”

In the face of being aware of what can happen, Megan said to also be mindful of underwater obstacles, and while above water to pay attention to boats, kayakers, and fishing lines.

Teresa Forsyth, Whidbey Adventure swim race director, helped out with the weekend’s swim clinic

Teresa Forsyth is an open water swimmer and a member at large of the foundation’s board. She is the race director for the foundation’s Whidbey Adventure Swim, which was cancelled this year in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. Teresa and her daughter Bailey volunteered with the weekend swim clinics.

“I’ve been on Whidbey 20 years and started swimming 18 years ago,” Teresa said. “I started with Masters. They’re really amazing—all different ages and backgrounds. For some reason we all make this connection with the water. I swim year round. It was heart-breaking that we had to cancel the adventure swim this year. Last year we had a hundred people who came from all over.”

Sarah Manchester swims with the Whidbey Open Water Swimmers, also known as WOWS and volunteered for the swim clinic’s weekend event. When we talked by phone Friday night she had returned  that day from a WOWS swim to Camano Island Thursday. The group stayed overnight at Cama Beach State Park on Camano Island. They left from Hidden Beach near Greenbank and swam 2.4 miles to Camano, before swimming back the next day. Kayaks and a powerboat accompanied the group.

Sarah Manchester in 2011 Whidbey Adventure Swim

“I’ve been swimming almost ten years in saltwater,” Sarah said. “I was intrigued by it. I was doing the Master swim classes at the pool. Some in the class were saltwater swimming and I thought, can I come? I tried it and thought this is cool. It’s quite an experience, always different. Making friends with this body of water that surrounds us. The sea floor is amazingly beautiful on different parts of the island. There’s the beauty above the water. The sky. The mountains, if they’re out. I love the Seawall Park because it’s close to home. We swim at Holmes Harbor and do a shuttle swim. We might park at Beverly Beach and swim to Saratoga. We’ll go to to the west side and swim at Robinson Beach. Or up at Shore Meadows. We’re getting around. Last weekend we went up to Bowman Bay near Deception Pass. We have some great planners. The swim to Camano Island was pretty epic. I think we had about 14 swimmers. It takes a little over an hour to go to Camano. We have various speeds. The wetsuit and the saltwater helps because they keep you more buoyant. The biggest thing to get used to is the cold. We’re used to it because we swim all year round. Seawall is quite warm. We often swim with seals, who seem to ask, what are you doing? Sometimes they swim under you. They seem playful. You’ll be looking down at them and they’re looking up you. It’s pretty magical. We see whales, porpoises. Lots of birds.”

Public shoreline access sites around Whidbey can be found on this link.  It is worth getting the book, Getting to the Water’s Edge on Whidbey and Camano Islands, available on Amazon, at Moonraker Books, and through the publishers, the Island County Marine Resources Committee and Washington State University.

If you are interested in swimming with WOWS, visit this site.

Public land acquisition whiz Phil Pearl swam through Deception Pass in 2007.

Finally, here is a nod to swimmer Phil Pearl, who helped orchestrate preservation of land for open space and public access. He circumnavigated Whidbey Island in 2007 and even swam through Deception Pass, which is illegal, due to the extremely strong and dangerous cross currents. He calculated the best time to swim under the bridge and made the swim safely. When met by a park ranger at the swim’s end, he said he wouldn’t do it again.

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