The first time I stuck my face in frigid Puget Sound waters, I thought I was going to immediately give up my plans to swim in open water.
The few minutes it took to numb up and relax enough to breathe smoothly felt like an eternity. That was more than ten years ago. At the time, I’d spent weeks taking swim lessons at Vashon Athletic Club with the very patient Dayna Jessen, and really wanted to graduate to open water.
Thanks to weekly swims with a hardy group of kind, longtime Vashon swimmers, I got hooked, and many more on this island have followed suit. Open water swimming is the ultimate pandemic exercise hack: swimmers can spread out easily to social distance, the workout is exhilarating and it’s always self-paced.
Unless one is blessed with natural cold tolerance or a generous layer of “Bioperine,” it can also be gear-intensive (necessitating a wet suit, mitts/booties, cap, goggles, buoy, earplugs), but excellent secondhand gear abounds. For me, having this option for fitness at a time when pool slots have become scarce has been a blessing. Also, it’s a time when I can interact with actual humans while having an exceptional experience.
At the start of the lockdown, our pool-banned swim buddies started texting their open water contemporaries to give this “wild swimming” a try. It wasn’t long before our text thread was out of control and we created a group on meetup.com: Vashon Open Water Swimmers.
The group now has more than 60 swimmers, each of whom can propose new swims and invite the rest of the group. One week it’s a sunset dip at Paradise Cove. Another time it’ll be an epic journey from our friend’s Dilworth home to the Wild Mermaid. Abilities are mixed and we swim as much or little as we like. Everyone swims at his or her own risk as these are unescorted adventures. We do keep an eye on each other, of course.
Lately, this informal group has been challenging its members to pick new routes or swim a few miles into the winter months (three of us recently knocked out a six-miler in December). No swim is ever the same. We respect the tidal swings, check the forecast and plan routes that block us from winds. We communicate our individual plans before we go face down, and always try to buddy up. Although we all have different backgrounds and day-to-day lives, swimming becomes the great equalizer.
We set our goals and finish with the satisfaction of showing up and trying. Half the battle is showing up! The rewards can be priceless. This past summer off Maury Marine Park, a baby seal and mama approached me and swimmer, Susan Parsons. They twirled about — slowly closing in on us, and the baby seal touched his flipper to my hand! You’re never going to get that in a pool.
Dilworth has a lush intertidal zone, while Colvos Passage is rich with acres and acres of sand dollars. Paradise Cove has more bobs of seals than I’ve ever seen. Have you ever seen a sea pen? You can!
We are surrounded by water; it’s the DNA of island life and recreation. Generations have taken brisk and brief “skin” (no wet suit) dips for that cold water euphoria. On New Year’s Day, you’ll always find the polar bear plungers.
There was also a time when summer brought droves of swimmers practicing at Burton Beach for the former Heart of the Sound Triathlon. Islander Scott Bonney hosted an informal Dockton-to-Burton swim for many years. Islander Wendy VanDeSompele made history as the only swimmer to circumnavigate Maury Island, complying with marathon swim rules by wearing just a swimsuit, cap and goggles; she’s also a past long-distance open water national champion. This island has served as a starting point for two past sanctioned swims: One that crossed from Pt. Robinson to Des Moines (Brent Rice Memorial Swim) and another that crossed from Tahlequah to Owen Beach (Swim Defiance). Legacies abound!
I’m so grateful for the serenity of Puget Sound and the camaraderie that Vashon open water swimming brings, this year especially. Try it out!
Heidi Skrzypek is a copywriter, open water enthusiast, and lives on Vashon’s North End.