COMMENTARY: How rounding Vashon with the V-Pod cured my COVID funk

Islander Theo Eicher recounts his journey swimming around the shores of Vashon island.

Editor’s note: In early October, islander Theo Eicher swam from Manzanita to Sandy Shores, completing the last leg of a stitched-together course of open water circumnavigating Vashon Island — a goal that took Eicher many months to complete. Prior to the pandemic, Eicher was a pool swimmer, but in joining Vashon Open Water Swimmers, he found a new way to float above the worries and woes of the COVID era. We asked him to share his story with Beachcomber readers.

When George McCormick first walked the perimeter of Vashon Island in 1938, he inspired future runners, kayakers, and sailors to follow his tracks.

My inspiration to swim around the Island had to wait for COVID. When Governor Inslee’s orders closed Vashon pools in 2020, it never crossed my mind to swim in Puget Sound. But the indomitable Lise Ellner, a seasoned “V-Pod” member (Vashon Open Water Swimmers), convinced me that exercise in 50 degrees Fahrenheit water is actually “a thing.”

After a quick car ride (and a long ferry wait) to a Seattle triathlon outfitter, I acquired an insulated wetsuit for the Ironman’s “Clydesdale” class (who knew that existed?). Soon Lise led me down a beach access to swim to the “tree stump” as V-Pod distances are not measured in miles but in washed-up “stumps,” “points,” “buoys,” or “candy canes (survey markers).”

Off I went on my swims around the island. Of course not in 24 hours, nor in one fell swoop — the tides and distances don’t allow that. Instead, my COVID silver lining became a long sequence of personally rewarding swims through breathtakingly beautiful underwater worlds, always different, depending on the part of the island.

There are “million-dollar beaches” (littered with sand dollars), sea-pen and sea-cucumber congregation areas, starfish and jellyfish, moon snails with surreal egg casings, colorful nudibranch slugs, kelps of all colors (even iridescent!), and lots and lots of crab. I met a world I never knew existed – and now I could because of COVID!

V-Pod usually swims in a few favorite locations, and Portage serves as a refuge during high winds. Other legs of the circumnavigation had to wait until time, weather, current and group conditions were just right. Open water swimming is a team sport: I could not have swum any one segment alone. I feel small in the ocean and crucially, I am unable to zip up my own wetsuit from behind. For months I was zipped by a patient buddy system of swimmers who enjoy chatting at the halfway points about currents or unusual wildlife encounters.

The V-Pod’s core is long-distancers: Heidi Skrzypek, Mary Singer and Joe Yarkin, who never seem to reach their limits. Our resident marine naturalist, Jenna Buffington, even managed to identify an otter at close range (and by the bite marks on her boots). Farming and outdoor enthusiasts Celina Yarkin, Amy Bogaard, and Rebecca Lanphear provide glue and grit, and our V-Pod’s artist is Mary Robinson, whose work seems inspired by creatures and colors we see in the sea — and her work is for sale! All other V-Pod members swam longer, farther, more often than I, but strangely it was my bizarre interest to complete the island.

Some beach locations provide logistic challenges, others are hard to enter on foot. We had to duck in and out of a few undisclosed waterways to get to the sea – not all beach communities welcome outsiders. But overwhelmingly, we heard friendly cheers as we rounded waterfront homes, or polite suggestions to perhaps seek counseling.

True, COVID did get me into a funk, but the supportive V-Pod and Vashon’s underwater magic got me out of it.