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  1. Strait of Juan de Fuca: The swim

    by , August 3rd, 2013 at 04:13 PM (Please tap on the glass)

    We set out of Sequim harbor on the morning of Sunday, 28 July 2013 with a light fog and headed into last night’s lingering waves. The wind had only been 18kts – less than I’d originally feared – so the seas were choppy but manageable. We went in and out of fog banks on the way out as I sat in the back and watched Caitlin spell “F-U-C-A” to the Canadian Border Service on the phone and then call up Vessel Traffic (VTS). I ate a sausage egg and cheese as our little boat pounded her way through the thickening fog.

    All of a sudden, the sun peaked out and then there it was, the coast of Vancouver Island. Along shore, the weather was bright and clear with little or no wind and flat water. The rocky cliffs were lower than I’d imagined they would be, and the combination of teal water, grey rocks, tall Northwestern pines, and blue sky set me at ease. It was perfect. Behind us, however, lay a thick bank of fog, just as I’d feared.

    Caitlin had been on and off the phone with VTS about the fog for a while now, and they were requesting a mile of visibility to begin the swim. After a while, Caitlin convinced them to allow the swim to start and we’d deal with the fog if and when we reached it. It was a great move, because it allowed me to do the thing I’d been most hoping to do for months now.

    We launched the kayak as I gulped down a tin of sardines and quickly read the rules of the swim aloud to the crew and reminded everyone how serious I was about them (they knew, already). Cap on, Caitlin asked if I didn’t want something thicker than the thin Latex one I was wearing. Yes, she was right. My mind was still in training mode (make it harder for yourself) and switched to a thicker silicone cap.

    The boat faced east. I faced west. We were only about 25m from shore when I jumped, the swim through the kelp went quick and I hauled myself out on the rocks next to a Canadian fisherman. We shook hands and I told him I was swimming to America. Before he let it set in, I turned around and set my goggles. Kayaker Steve bumped the shore with his boat (he wanted to make the full crossing as well), and I dove back into the smooth green water.

    The sun was on my back and a huge smile was on my face. Victory! Eight months of planning and here we were. Sandwiched between blue sky and the sea, surrounded by a qualified and passionate support crew, the coast of Canada behind me, the American shore some twelve miles distant. As promised, I did some good reflecting on everything and everyone who helped me get here as I slid through the flat water.

    Somewhere around the first half hour I began to notice the cold. About the same time, so did my crew. The ships thermometer was reading between 46 and 47F (8 to 9C). On the boat, some jaws reportedly dropped. This was 5 degrees colder than I’d been expecting, and almost 8 degrees colder than what I’d seen on the buoys in the weeks leading up. Cleverly, my crew did NOT tell me this and let me go on thinking it was about 51 and I was just being a wimp.

    At around half an hour, we said farewell to the sun and entered the fog. To my left was the water, blending into the sky. To my right was Steve, blending into the fog, blending into the sky. For the second time now, Steve was the perfect kayaker. He knew what needed to be done and did it. And his aim with a water bottle was flawless. Steve provided a huge amount of mental warmth, something about seeing that red and yellow kayak 10m away made me feel safe. When he’d disappear to get a new water bottle, I felt cold. And alone. It was eerie out there.

    During one feed, I was finishing up yet another bottle of calories when I heard a BWWWWAAAAAaaaaaaa from behind Steve’s left shoulder. “Don’t worry. It’s about two miles away. They’re keeping an eye on them.” Stoic. Well, who am I to argue? Face in the water, move on.

    Little did I know, but they were really watching out for me. VTS and Caitlin were hard at work moving mountains of steel. The Traffic Separation Scheme has an inbound and outbound lane in the Strait with a median-like separation zone in between. While I swam in the shipping lanes, vessels were being sent out into the separation zone to avoid me. Pause for a moment to reflect upon the awesomeness of this…

    Shortly after two hours, the shivering began. I was now gulping down half a water bottle of calories every fifteen minutes and emptying a full bladder in the same interval. My metabolism was maxed out and I wasn’t getting any warmer. But I’ve shivered a long time before and was set to deal with it again. I was over thirty minutes ahead of schedule and knew I could hold out to the end.

    Around four and a half hours, I broke my rule and asked how much farther. I needed the motivation. My thigh flexors were screaming from the shivering, and all I could think of was how I wanted to curl up in a wingback chair bundled under a heavy blanket and doze off while pretending to read. “One point eight miles,” Steve said curtly, “you’re doing great, keep going.” Emotion wasn’t what I needed, just a voice gently telling me to keep going. So I did. I could do another hour.

    I asked Steve to stay by my side. I needed the company and the distraction he provided as we made our way quietly through the fog over gently rolling swells. The water had reached 50 at one point early on, but was now back in the high 40s.

    With thirty more minutes behind me, I needed to hear I was under a mile. The shoreline was too foggy to see. “One point five,” Steve said, “keep going, you’re almost there.” The numbers didn’t add up, but I could do another 45 minutes. A little more of this game was played and at six hours, I asked again. A confused murmur went through the crew, “You need to swim fast,” or “you’re doing great,” or “just over a mile.”

    That hurt. By now I could tell that something wasn’t right, we were moving too slowly to make this work. My ears had been filled with a high ringing for over a half hour and my vision was getting unreliable. I had a mile left in me, but the swim had more than a mile left in it. At six hours and ten minutes, I took my goggles off and looked at my crew, then at Steve, then I grabbed on to the front of the kayak. Clinging to the deck, he paddled me back to the boat.


    What went wrong? Not a lot. I did exactly what I wanted to do. I set out from Vancouver Island in a speedo, cap, and goggles and swam for twelve miles and longer than six hours. The only thing I didn’t do was to reach the other shore. We got started an hour late and I hadn’t given a clear course to follow for that time. Both an 8am course and 10 am course would have been handy, allowing us to swim between the two rather than just guessing “stay east.” With that we might have avoided what I assume was an eddy pushing us off shore. With that, I’ll be on shore in under five hours next time.

    What went right? Everything else. Sure, we’ve got little things to work on, but given the scale and complexity of this swim, and the fact that none of us had ever attempted to plan something like this from scratch, we did an awesome job!
    From that December evening I picked out two points on a map and declared to myself I am going to swim that, to dinner with friends in Port Angeles after Customs checked us back into the US, this has been a fantastic journey. Thank you for letting me share it with you.

    And next time, I’ll remember to pack a towel.

    Andrew still resides and swims in Seattle, and continues to be unable to thank his crew enough for what they’ve done. His next attempt will be in the Summer of 2014. #SJDF2014
  2. To be an aquarium animal

    by , May 30th, 2013 at 04:34 PM (Please tap on the glass)
    Let me start by saying, coworkers if you’re reading this, I do not hate my job. It’s just, well, I feel I have a higher calling in life. It isn’t you personally, but the industry as a whole; construction companies really discourage swimming in the workplace. That’s why I mailed out the below letter a few months back.

    This letter, attached to my aquarium animal resume, was snail-mailed to seventeen aquaria in the US, Canada, and farther abroad hoping for a position as an aquarium animal. I didn’t expect much. I didn’t specify “Must Be Main Attraction”, or “Mammal Positions Only”. I was ready to start at the bottom of the food chain, literally, and work my way up.

    So far, it has not worked out. It’s been dismissed as a joke, or a clever joke, or an annoying joke, or some other kind of joke. The few (four) responses I received were all to the tune of “check our website for openings.” Mr. C.W., General Manager at the Vancouver Aquarium, called the effort “entertaining and innovative,” while Mr. CJ.C., the Seattle Aquarium’s Director of Life Sciences, acknowledged it is “certainly one of the most unique letters [he’s] ever received.” What more does an aspiring sea pen (S. bollonsi, perhaps) need to do to get hired by you people other than write an entertaining, innovative, and unique letter!? I’ve personally stared at your actual sea pens for hours, Seattle Aquarium, and never once seen them produce a work of nearly the same quality. They’re lazier than I am at my real job!!!

    Am I getting too intense? Can you not handle my passion for swimming and for being sea life? That must be it, because it clearly isn’t my qualifications that disappoint you. Confession, Seattle: in my free time, I stalk at your aquatic employees; I know their backstories, their scientific names, where they eat lunch. For example Ada, your sea otter. You want “found hypothermic on an airport runway”? I can do that. I’m hypothermic on nearby Alki Beach three or four times a week, just waiting to be rescued by you. Rescued from this dry, meaningless life they call geotechnical engineering.

    So, aquarists worldwide, have some compassion. I just want an opportunity to be a sea star. Or any other echinoderm for that matter. Give me a chance. You will not regret it.

    Here’s the letter:

    You probably do not receive many requests like this, I understand that most or your new additions are the product of a rigorous scouting program. However, since I fall outside of the usual candidate pools, I feel my exemplary qualifications may be overlooked and would like to inquire as to any opportunities you may have at [Specific] Aquarium.

    My interest in becoming an aquarium animal first came to light as a youth. As many young humans do, watching the sea lions at the Bronx Zoo filled me with the usual why-not-mes and dad-can-Is. It was easy to let others’ disapproval of the idea take hold, as I didn’t even begin serious aquatic-mammal training until the age of nine. After nearly two decades of work, I now possess more aquatic experience than many of your typical employees: five times that of an elderly Giant Pacific Octopus, twice as much as a male Southern Sea Otter, and an amount equivalent to a middle-aged Indo-Pacific Bottlenose Dolphin. With my anticipated life-span, I could foreseeably become one of your most enduring exhibits.

    Aside from my proven experience as an aquatic animal, I have many innate qualities that would make me an excellent addition to your organization. I am diurnal and euryhaline, and will swim without complaint in waters between forty-five and eighty degrees Fahrenheit. I travel well without special equipment or handlers, from a crowded public bus to first-class international flights, and do not require special customs clearances. I’m able to draw a crowd to watch my performances, whether circumnavigating Manhattan or demonstrating an Endless Pool at the Seattle Home Show. What’s more, I enjoy sardines and can even make my own Vitafish! Try to get a bat ray to do that.

    Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, I believe in the mission of aquariums and would excel at furthering public interest in aquatic life. In most exhibits I’ve seen in my lifetime, those on display rarely look interested in communicating with those of us on the dry-side of the glass; and never have I seen any ambition from the wet-side to inform or educate. Even the friendly seals and dolphins, stars of the show, often fail to show initiative or produce results without express directions by whistle or hand signal. Perhaps my most valuable contribution to your aquarium as an aquatic animal would be to clearly communicate both the rigors and beauty of life in the water with minimal managerial input and maximum client results. As a bonus, I can vocalize in both English and French.

    Please let me know if you have any openings, especially in the phyla Chordata or Mollusca (I’m still uncertain of my abilities to be convincing as a Poriferan or Cnidarian). I welcome the opportunity to fill any niche—Eltonian or Grinnellian, or Hutchinsonian—as you see fit.

    On a final note, you will not have to worry about “the Ryan Lochte problem” with me. Hygiene is something I take very seriously—I frequently bathe with soap or sterilize in a high-chlorine solution.

    Regards,
    Andrew Malinak BE EnvEng, BS EnvSci
    Full resume available upon request.

    Updated May 30th, 2013 at 06:07 PM by andrewmalinak

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