There’s no other way to start this blog post than to say this swim was for you. This swim was to celebrate community. My swim community. My open water buddies and my pool lane mates, family and friends near and far. All of you who have helped me achieve my goals, who have inspired others to begin their journey, and who have swam beside each one of us supporting, encouraging, and lifting each other up. Everyone knows how special it is to feel a sense of belonging, to feel like when you are with people you are home. I’ve crewed and observed this swim several times. This was my turn to swim to celebrate everyone I swim with, show them how much they mean to me, and make them proud. This swim celebrates you.
The second important celebration for this swim is celebrating discovery. I remember the first time this swim became an idea. I was crewing my friend, Rose, for her Catalina Channel swim in September of 2019. During the swim, her other crewmate, Stephanie, and I were talking and she mentioned that Andrew (one of the most experienced and methodical boat pilots I know for the Amy Hiland route) was curious about what the route was like going the other way and was looking for a guinea pig to test it out. At this time Rose was closing in on the finish of her Catalina swim, we were all super inspired by her, and before the seed was even planted I blurted out “oh cool, I’ll do it” and was sending my text of interest to Andrew. Note to athletes, the best and worst ideas come when you are being inspired by others!
I was intrigued by discovery, what was the route going to be like going the other way? Would it be different? Would it be the same? Were there going to be unexpected water conditions? How would the timing with the tide change work? Was it even possible knowing that if the timing didn’t work, there’s no way anyone could swim through the swift moving water flowing out of Rich Pass? There were so many unknowns, so much to figure out, swimming to discover and swimming to an unknown answer was one of the most intriguing elements as the swim approached.
Lastly, this swim celebrates all that is the Puget Sound. I love my community and my community loves the water. I love the water, specifically that of the Puget Sound. There is so much marine life we see every day and there’s always something new, to be able to celebrate and share with others the amazing world that very few experience was something worth swimming for. The Puget Sound is undoubtedly the most amazing body of water I’ve ever swam in, particularly for how quickly it changes and the vast amount of marine life that passes through the region. From starfish, to anemones, to eels, and fish. From porpoises and bottle nosed dolphins, to sea otters, to sharks. From sea lions, to seals, to resident and transient orcas, the seaweed and kelp, the jellyfish and seabirds. All make such a big impact on the enjoyment and wonder of swimming, it’s something worth celebrating and something worth protecting. If more people understood the beauty of the Puget Sound and impact on the marine life and environment, maybe one step at a time we can help protect and preserve for future generations to come.
All of these things, community, discovery, and the Puget Sound, are why I chose this swim. And it did not disappoint!
The swim itself was challenging, much more challenging than I imagined, which is I guess what I say after all swims. I’d like to say it was challenging due to karma kicking me in the butt for taking 3 years off from long marathon swims or that COVID got in the way of a good training year, but the more I think about it, I think it was a challenging swim because that’s just the type of swim it is. It’s a challenge.
I never got nervous. I don’t know why, perhaps because I’ve been looking forward to this swim since 2019. I wanted to swim it, I wanted to discover what was out there, to report back and tell people about what we as a team learned. The navigation on this route by the boat pilot was critical to the swim as the waterway through Rich Pass is filled with non-out-swimmable currents, eddies, and current convergence zones that are near impassable from the point-of-view of a swimmer. There are ferries and freighters, cruise ships and fishing boats, leisure craft, and well, a single boat with a swimmer. This swim was also a celebration of navigation, a feat experienced swimmers will never take for granted. The pilot and swimmer must be one, must have blind trust, and relinquish all control to the skill of navigation. To pilots everywhere, thank you for being steadfast in your skill and with your hands on the wheel.
The crew is important too as they are the ones that feed the swimmer, provide support, and make decisions for the swimmer when they are not able. They watch out for the swimmer, ensure they are as safe as possible, and help the swimmer stay mentally focused. Then there is the observer, critical for recording the swim and the swimmer’s actions. In this swim on this particular route, the Northwest Open Water Swim Association (NOWSA) observer, Amanda, was in charge of documenting the element of discovery. They were the historian as you will for a pioneering route by the pilot and swimmer, a truly special job.
The morning of July 24th the sun was golden, the surface temperature around 58F, we loaded the boat next to the USS Turner Joy Naval Destroyer ship and museum, who graciously partnered with me to allow those who wanted to watch the finish of the swim do so from the ship rails, and motored over to the start. I still wasn’t nervous, got greased up, plopped into the water, swam to the start, cleared the water line, raised my hands, entered and was on my way through some of the glassiest water I’ve ever swam. I felt like I could see dawn reflecting off the surface of every breath with little seals popping their heads up in the distance. I could feel the cool of the water on my skin, the temperature dropping as I swam further from shore, the outflow of the tide pulling me through the pass, and before you know it my crew signaled for the first feed. Thirty-minutes and three seals later, it was shaping up to be the swim of my dreams.
The rest of the way through Rich Pass, I saw seaweed floating, several egg yolk and lions mane jellyfish. I saw my mom and Glenn pass by shouting loudly on one of the Washington State Ferries (appreciate the support for the swim and coordination with NOWSA). My crew put on their party hats by my favorite part of the route, the seal rocks and fish pens, where I was promptly greeted by the most adorable mama seal and her baby. I took a feed early to spend some time with my seals before exiting the pass and heading into Elliott Bay towards Alki Lighthouse, where I knew the wind was supposed to pick up. It was the just deal with it and settle in stretch. I knew my Notorious Alki Swimmer pod would be there at the half way point to lift me up, cheer me on, and get me going on the swim back, the leg of discovery.
This wind, while it didn’t seem bad was straight out of the North and I don’t know, it just knocked the strength right out of my arms. I never really had time to get my strength training program in motion during training, which I knew was a big mistake, but life had other plans and it just didn’t happen. I could feel it, which was why I knew I needed to be mentally strong. Arriving at Alki Lighthouse, the sun didn’t look where I anticipated it to be in the sky. It didn’t look close to noon. I got out, saw Jerome, and the only thing I could mutter was, “to be honest, this kind of sucks right now.” I was tired, my arms hurt, my elbows were in pain, there was nothing else in my head besides “this sucks.” I asked the time and learned it was 10:44am, crap, that was way too early. I started panicking about the tide change, knowing I came in 45 minutes to an hour and 15 minutes ahead of schedule, which normally finishing a swim early is good, but not in this case. It meant swimming against the tide on the way back waiting for it to change. Against the tide and into the wind, ugh, what did I get myself into? Why did I agree to this again?!
Both Jerome and Glenn had duplicate feed bags with some snacks, ibuprophen, water and drink mix, as well as some Vaseline. I had two bags just in case there was an issue with one bag, or someone didn’t get there on time. It’s all about redundancy. With only 10 minutes, I wanted to get going as quickly as possible to prevent further stiffening of the arms and shoulders, sucked down my drink, ate a Twinkie (oh my gosh did this taste good – new snack on every future swim), turned around, and tried not to fall or cut a foot on a barnacle as I waded back into the water. I could feel the love of my friends ashore and even though I didn’t get to see, smile, hug, or spend nearly as much time with them as I wanted (no touching the swimmer), having them there meant the world. It was exactly and all I needed at that moment, well, them and the Twinkie. : )
Everyone said on the return, all I had to do was get to Rich Pass and the water would smooth out. Well, it did for about an hour where I actually thought and felt so good, that I might negative split this swim! No one told me that I was basically swimming in place the whole time. Deep down I knew better about the negative split, but it was a motivating thought at the time. Delusional, but motivational. The boat was also slightly blocking the wind as it shifted direction, so no wonder it felt smooth. I was greeted again by mama and baby seal, watching my crew watch me, and had dreams of exiting feeling amazing….. then wait, why is Blake Island STILL there? Two feeds later, still there. I was informed Kelly was cheering from Bainbridge, but Blake Island is still there. Why won’t it go away (queue silent crying)?! Everything moved so slowly, the wind was picking up again, and I was getting mucho discouraged. When the Silver Seals relay boat showed up, I had no clue who they were at first, but then asked my crew and looked. My friends! I felt so happy to have them with me, it got me to the next feed.
I felt like the current wasn’t changing, AT ALL. I mean I knew it would, the data said it would, but data in the swimming universe is rarely 100% reliable and Mother Nature always seems to have Her own plans anyway. Always a trick up the sleeve. Nothing is certain and conditions can change in a heartbeat regardless of what the data says. The tide did change, but I never felt it. My crew said it did, but all I felt was the wind, the constant wind, getting choppier and choppier. The direction of wind and the land, I was supposed to be somewhat sheltered. But like all things, sometimes it just isn’t so and there’s no explanation. The boat was having a hard time being controlled and moving in a straight line with the wind, so I switched sides so that we could get a better course. That unfortunately meant I was taking the brunt of the wind again. I know I’ll never have a dream flat course, but man do I hate the wind sometimes!
From there on I kept thinking, it’s going to die down, it has to, everyone said it would. For brief moments it would, but then I realized the moment I thought I saw flat water, it was an eddy. I could feel myself hit it, be spun, and tossed around. With the ferry traffic, wind, waves, etc, and learning about the new return route, some of this stuff was unavoidable as it always is on the journey of discovery. I could feel the upwelling of really cold water, which bottomed out at 51F, the algae was building, which meant I knew a double soap soak of my swimsuits was in order when I got back to the hotel…… did I really make the right choice in wearing a white swimsuit bottom?
Where am I? What are all these waves? All of a sudden there’s a police boat pulling up next to ours, I’m in the current convergence zone from hell, there’s seaweed flying everywhere…. Ugh, that was a wave right to the face. Why is my foot flailing out of the water? Oh my gosh, the police are here to pull me. I think I’m going to drown. I’m sure that’s what they’re talking about. Why are my crew and observer taking photos when I’m actively drowning? Wait, if I think I’m drowning, that means I’m not right, because my mind is still engaged. Stop being a baby, Melissa. You’re being stupid. Wait, what? Why is that ferry coming straight for us? Why is the police boat leaving? I thought I was going to get pulled. Please pull me, I won’t mind, I promise. I said if I failed on the back half because it wasn’t doable, I’d understand. I’m not afraid to fail here. Why are there still waves? I can’t breathe. “Keep going you’re doing great” from the crew “you only have a 100 yards left of this to get through.” “You all suck” I’m thinking in my head, let’s hope I can get out of this in under five minutes because this is hell. I’m going to quit when I’m out of it. For sure. I’m going to tell them I’m done.
I stop once out of the current convergence zone all ready to say I’m done when of course the ferry comes by honking with the front and rear deck completely loaded with passengers under a bright blue sky. They’re all cheering, the ferry is showing support through multiple honks, and all I want is a ride. They’re offering right? I give a wave to say thank you and right then I realize crap, I’m still mentally okay, that means I have to keep going. My body can do more than I think it can, I’ve trained enough, I’m an idiot if I quit.
My family, my mom and Glenn are waiting for me. Another feed and I still don’t know where I am. The same pass, returning on the opposite side, looks so different. I asked the crew where we were and if I had under three miles left when they said, “this is your last feed.” “Really?” I just couldn’t believe it, I was told to stay close to the boat and when we rounded Point Herron we’d be there. Last feed, okay 30 minutes, one mile, I can do this. The water was flattening out again and I felt some strength return. When we rounded the point, I saw the USS Turner Joy, my destination. I stuck by my boat, but couldn’t understand why we were moving further from the USS Turner Joy. The Silver Seal’s sailboat appeared to be moving like it was going to hit me, but little did any of us know or anticipate, the current in that section going into the Port Washington Narrows was the strongest current I’ve ever felt.
I couldn’t hear my crew, they kept pointing to the beach, and I’m like, yeah, I know. I’m going to the beach, but you told me to stay next to you and you keep moving. I finally stopped and they said GO with conviction and it was that moment I noticed a house on pilings over the water just before the Manette Bridge and Stephanie yelling from shore with arm motions waving me in. I was moving fast. Like fast, fast. Faster than I’ve ever been, being side swept down the narrows. Holy shit, I have to sprint. Ben telling me it was an overspeed set flashed through my head and all I could see was that house. I took about 10 strokes, saw the seaweed on the bottom move so fast, with each stroke I was moving closer and closer to that house with pilings covered in barnacles, maybe rebar underneath, who knows. If I don’t get in and get in now I’m going to be smashed into that house, be cut to shreds or worse. I can’t have my family see that. Oh my gosh, please let me finish. There’s the house. It’s coming so quick. Stroke, sight, house. Stroke, sight, house. Please don’t let this happen, just get to me to shore. Give me some land I can grab a hold of. Land, just get to land.
It was the most terrifying swim moment I’ve ever had. It was the most terrifying finish I’ve ever had because I could see what was coming if I didn’t make it to land and there was no way of avoiding it. It was a major accident, viewable by friends and family live, that would have been very difficult to perform recovery in the swift moving waters. When I saw land only a few inches from my fingertips, I dug my hands and feet in the crushed oyster shell sand and honestly, the cuts on my feet from the shells never felt so good. It meant I was on land. I stood up, breathless, cleared the water line, raised my hands. I was done. My gosh, I was done.
As I took the boat ride back to the dock of the USS Turner Joy, there was a combination of elation the swim was over and complete fatigue never wanting to swim again, but I was mostly curious if my pilot, crew, and observer learned as much as I did and as much as they were hoping to. This swim was never about finishing, of course you want to finish, but I accepted failure was a real possibility and I was okay with that. I wanted to learn and give the opportunity for others to learn. I intentionally chose my crew, Rose because she had not crewed for a long swim before, and Alison because she had not crewed at all and wanted to learn. My pilot wanted to learn the reverse route, wanted to learn about the water and navigation on an incoming tide. I wanted to learn what it was like performing and swimming into a question where no one knew the answer. I wanted to discover, push the limits, and fair well knew that meant the possibility I would fail.
I climbed out of the boat at the dock, immediately greeted by my mom who gave me the type of hug only a mom can give and wrapped me snug as a bug in a rug in my Red Original changing robe (which I absolutely love). I put my shoes on, walked up the steps to the ship, and that’s where they were. My pod, my community, my swim family. I was reminded these were who I swam for, that the swim today was more than just a personal adventure, it was to celebrate everyone who has been there along the way and to celebrate why I love swimming the Puget Sound. The questions started coming and it was quick to see that with each answer a story unfolded. It wasn’t just an answer, it was an experience we all got to share. It’s those experiences that make stories and I firmly believe without story there is no community, there is nothing to pass on.
So there it is, my story of community, discovery, and the Puget Sound. Three things that make me happy as a clam each day and continually fuel my desire and passion to swim. They say you should never swim for anyone but yourself. I also think there’s an exception to every rule and that sometimes it’s okay to swim for something greater than yourself.
If you ever feel like you’re alone in the water, you aren’t. We are here with you each splash of the way, through waves, wind, and rough currents. You’re my community and it is with my deepest heartfelt pleasure to share with you my story, as this swim is truly dedicated to you.
Unofficial record holder of most seal sightings on route, 25 pending seal of approval : )
**More pictures from the Amy Hiland Double swim in my album, here.