Island swimmers tackle daunting Seattle crossing

Island swimmers tackle daunting Seattle crossing

When a New York Times reporter once asked famed mountaineer George Mallory why he wanted to summit Everest, Mallory’s reply was as simple as it was illuminating.

“Because it’s there,” Mallory said.

Much in the same fashion of Mallory, seven Bainbridge swimmers recently grew tired of looking out across the Puget Sound and wondering if they could actually swim to Seattle.

So in the early morning hours of Friday, July 28, Orlando Boleda, Ken Goodman, Heather Burger, Cindy Lovell, Darren Gray, Martha Devereaux and Mike Rosen put on their wetsuits and psyched themselves up for a trip to the city — without the ferry.

The group of seasoned swimmers are members of Arms Around Bainbridge, a group that are no strangers to long-distance swims. Arms Around Bainbridge regularly circumnavigates Bainbridge to raise funds for cancer patients. And to date, the group has raised $500,000 for islanders in dire straights due to serious illnesses.

The list of accomplishments doesn’t end there, though. Three of the group’s members — Orlando Boleda, Ken Goodman and Paul Webber — have all swum the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

As the group geared up along the shore of Blakely Harbor, a large group of kayakers had begun rigging their boats and gear up for the journey as well. The kayaks would be traveling abreast of each swimmer as a safety precaution.

Cris Ugles was one of the kayakers tasked with keeping the swimmers on course. But Ugles said his duty was not just guaranteeing the swimmers didn’t end up on Whidbey Island.

“Steering, herding, making sure they don’t hit any jellyfish, staying out of obstacles, looking for boats that aren’t paying attention,” Ugles said, ticking down the list.

“We try to keep them herded into a pod as best as we can,” he added.

Among the group on the shore was Heather Burger, one of the swimmers.

Burger said this wasn’t the first time the group had made a crossing from the island to Seattle. It was a first for her, however.

“I had just started swimming 10 years ago when they did this for the first time, and I wasn’t experienced enough or brave enough then,” Burger said. “I have been waiting all this time to do this.”

Burger said that the most important part of preparation, aside from ensuring that one is fit enough for a long swim, was acclimatizing oneself with cold saltwater. Burger wasn’t talking about a short stretch of cold, as the swimmers would be immersed in the frigid waters for more than three hours during the crossing.

“It’s really easy to become hypothermic. But the more you get out and get into the water, the more you just get comfortable with it,” she said.

In preparation, Burger had been swimming in the waters around Bainbridge without a wetsuit since May.

“We’re a different breed of people; we like cold, sludgy, dark, scary, deep water. It’s thrilling,” she said. “Once you start doing it, it’s really addicting.”

With all the swimmers snugly zipped into their wetsuits, a brief safety talk was held outlining the duties of the safety boats and kayakers. At the conclusion of the safety talk around 7 a.m., the time had come for the neoprene-clad swimmers to slip into the water and begin their journey.

The goodbye was unceremonious with most of the swimmers already focusing intently on the swim ahead as they began to glide through the water, pacing themselves steadily for the long crossing.

More than three hours later, the group of swimmers set foot on Alki Beach.

“Seven got in, seven got out; that’s what you hope for every time,” Burger said.

In relaying the events of the swim, Burger said there was one thing in particular that stood out in her mind.

Burger said that wildlife encounters are pretty rare while swimming the Puget Sound, but during their crossing the pod of swimmers were being followed by a pod of another sort.

“There was this enormous pod of seals that was all around us and accompanying us,” Burger said. “The seals would pop up next to us, in a semi-circle around us and just watch us.”

“They didn’t quite know what to make of it,” she said.

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