Island relay swim team to tackle English Channel for environmental cause

Heidi Skrzypek (left), Curtis Vredenburg (center) and Kate Curtis prepare for a swim last week in Vashon’s Paradise Cove. They are part of a four-person relay team that will cross the English Channel to benefit the People For Puget Sound program. (Paul Rowley/Staff Photo)

Heidi Skrzypek (left), Curtis Vredenburg (center) and Kate Curtis prepare for a swim last week in Vashon’s Paradise Cove. They are part of a four-person relay team that will cross the English Channel to benefit the People For Puget Sound program. (Paul Rowley/Staff Photo)

Warming up with pastries, hot soup and coffee after a frigid, overcast afternoon plunge in Vashon’s Paradise Cove, an island relay swim team of two men and two women preparing to cross the English Channel recounted their earlier drill in the water.

There were the jellies — the lion’s mane jellyfish have the worst sting, according to islander Heidi Skrzypek, and wading back into the sound later that day, she would warn her teammates still on the beach about the one lazily floating by just offshore. But the moon jellies that the team often encounters, said Skrzypek, are mostly harmless. Still, she and team leader Kate Curtis held up their arms and compared the marks they had sustained from past brushes with them.

And then there were the seals.

“It’s like they’re saying, ‘Why are you swimming so terribly?’” said team member Curtis Vredenburg, remarking how close the animals frequently come to the team during their exercises. Two curious juvenile seals kept up alongside Skrzypek on a recent swim.

“At Dilworth, they’ll pop up like, ‘Who’s here to play?’” she said.

Meanwhile, a young seal patrolled the shallow water just below the hillside home where the relay team was gathered; the pup’s head raised out of the gentle surf for a moment before it dived back under and vanished. The swimmers watched until it was gone.

Curtis said lifeguards at nearby Camp Sealth were concerned for the team’s safety as they were practicing due to a swift, powerful current that had formed in the cove, which she likened to being on a hamster wheel.

“Not only did we get a cold water drill, but we got a resistance drill,” she said.

For her team, the purpose of the exercise was to train their bodies to resist the cold and better adapt to those conditions. They had spent enough time immersed, so in the interest of safety, they came out.

“We’re following a drill that’s from the official channel training manual, an acclimatization. This is how to get your body up to snuff,” said Curtis. The workout requires a minimum of 30 minutes in the water followed by an hour-long break, three times a day. “It’s not a whole lot of swim time overall, but it’s a matter of dropping your core temperature and warming up, and dropping your core temperature and warming up. So two weeks before our swim time is good to do this,” she said.

The Puget Sound Swimmers will depart for England on July 8, aiming for a swim window in the 21-mile long channel between July 11 to the 19, where they will be accompanied by the boat Gallivant. The Channel Swimming and Piloting Federation (CS&PF) — a major governing body for swimming the channel — tracks each pilot vessel escorting relay teams and solo swimmers in real time on their website.

Curtis feels their small relay of four, as opposed to a traditional six-person team, is beneficial. “We wanted to have more time in the water,” she said.

“She did,” cracked Skrzypek.

Curtis said they are encouraged to bring sleeping bags along for quickly warming up in the ship’s bunk after they have shed their wet gear. Covering up with hats and thick socks is important once out of the water, as is a cup of hot tea. The athletes are only allowed a swimsuit in one or two pieces that cannot extend past the shoulder or below the knee, according to official CS&PF regulation, which specifically bars wetsuits and other apparatus that would aid heat retention, speed or endurance.

“That’s what a lot of people don’t understand about the channel swims — there’s always someone who’s surprised that you can’t wear a wetsuit,” said Curtis.

Skrzypek checked her phone. The water temperature of Paradise Cove, she read, was 54 degrees. It was 60 degrees in the English Channel. The difference, said Skrzypek, was vitally important.

“It’s possible [the channel] could be 61 degrees by race time in two weeks, but I doubt it,” said Curtis, still optimistic. She and Vredenburg swam the channel together among an Australian team in 2016, but were unable to officially finish the race due to inclement weather. Held back by a poor forecast, they waited restlessly but never got the all-clear.

“The days were ticking by and all our teammates were crying, and it was a big mess,” said Curtis. Ultimately, with storms and strong wind gusts in the mid-channel, but sunshine on the coast, they swam north and south along the White Cliffs of Dover.

CS&PF representatives intervened and gave them a choice: either receive a credit to swim the channel again in another year with no formal acknowledgement of their attempt, or earn a certificate declaring that they were channel swimmers with the caveat of having generally swum north to south, though not to France, the conventionally recognized end of the route. Enthusiastically, the team agreed on the latter.

“It was fun, but it wasn’t the proper way to go. You’re not officially in the log books. We need to do it the proper way,” said Curtis.

Only 3,500 successful attempts to swim across the channel have ever been recorded — in comparison, more than 4,000 expeditioners have summited Mount Everest since 1953 — but the team is not only swimming the channel to fulfill a personal crusade. With their crossing, they hope to support People For Puget Sound, a program of the Washington Environmental Council (WEC) assisting with efforts to keep water clean, to promote oil transportation safety as well as to protect orcas, salmon and the many species of Puget Sound threatened by habitat erosion and pollution.

“Making this swim will be a huge personal accomplishment,” said Curtis, “but we want to give back to the waters that we swim in through highlighting the amazing work being done by People For Puget Sound.”

To make a donation in honor of the Puget Sound Swimmers and support the program, visit the WEC online.

Skrzypek, who will be attempting the English Channel crossing for the first time, maintained that she is aware of what she’s up against.

“It’s gonna be salty. It’s gonna be choppy. It’s gonna be cold,” she said, confident that the team was ready. “We’ve been training a lot, year-round, outside and in Puget Sound, and in Lake Washington.”

Like her teammates, Skrzypek has an intense training regimen — swimming in the sound or in a pool four times each week, spending weekends at Vashon Athletic Club and one additional day a week at the CrossFit Vashon gym in town. “It’s been a good combination of things to make me conditioned and good. And none of us grew up swimming. We all started swimming later on,” said Skrzypek.

“We’re late bloomers,” added Curtis, who fell in love with open water swimming thanks to her hobby of scuba diving. “For me, it was all about seeing stuff. And when [Vredenburg] introduced me to swimming, it was like, ‘You mean I can see stuff and not have a tank on my back?’”

For her, the difference between the team’s chance for success and failure is also what brought her to swimming in the first place.

“For me, it was the beauty of it. And the friendship,” said Curtis, believing that every great undertaking starts with the right support. “If you have more people around you, you’re more likely to get out of bed.”

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