In The Deep

I stood on the rugged shoreline of Sechelt, a village on the Sunshine Coast of  BC. I looked out over the vast ocean as far as I could see. Nanaimo, which was too far away to see, was 35 kilometers across the Georgia Strait and I was going to swim there. Even though I had trained for this swim, I found the prospect of such an undertaking to be extremely daunting.  As I stood there, I felt my heart beating in my ears and my breathing becoming shallower. Was I brave enough to do this?  Did I really want to do this? I felt so small and insignificant against this expansive ocean backdrop. It was like looking at the world from a whole new perspective.

Early the next morning, our relay team gathered at the beach to stow our gear aboard the Sunshine Girl. She was a sleek and beautiful bright yellow 34-foot offshore cutter that would act as our support craft.   Excitement was in the air as everyone scurried about and started their mental preparation to get our swim underway. Open water swimming, particularly in the ocean, requires immense physical endurance and mental fortitude.  The ocean conditions were calm with a rhythmic rise and fall of waves, the air was warm and the orange and fuchsia sun was just cresting over the horizon casting cylinders of bright light.   Three indigenous elders from the Shishalh nation wearing their traditional dress came out to bless our swim. Standing in reverence, we were moved by this extraordinary ceremony to wish us well on our journey.

We were an all-female relay team and we called our team the Georgia Girls. There were three other teams and two solo swimmers attempting this crossing. Susan our first swimmer was a very experienced and powerful long-distance swimmer. As we settled ourselves in the boat, we watched her glide through the water fluidly and effortlessly. Keeping our swimmers in sight was a top safety priority as we needed to watch for signs of marine life, hypothermia or swimmer fatigue.

Susan, our first swimmer finished her swim leg and was pulled into the boat after an hour of swimming.  By then, the ocean had developed some undulating waves and the sky looked dark and foreboding. The wind had picked up and we had to quickly make sure all of our gear was stowed and secured. Susan sat down and immediately became seasick. The rest of us were feeling very queasy and the only way we could prevent ourselves from being seasick was to look straight out at the horizon to maintain our equilibrium.

Just two hours into the swim, we suddenly found ourselves in savage squall conditions.  We needed to hang on to the railings of the boat to avoid being tossed overboard.  It was my turn to swim and I was vibrating with anticipation and excitement to get in the water.  Hanging on to the railing and mast cables, I made my way to the left side of the boat and dove in. I started swimming madly in the direction that I thought was Nanaimo.

We were in four-foot swells by now and I felt like we were in the middle of a tsunami.  One minute I would be at the top of the wave and the next minute I would be in a deep trough. I was being thrown about like a rag doll or maybe a flying fish. I looked to my right to see our boat but it wasn’t there. My heart stopped as I tried to get my bearings, I felt completely disoriented and panicked. Each time I could take a breath and look up, all I could see was a mountain of black waves coming down on me. It took me several minutes before I could see our boat off in the distance and I became frantic about how I could reconnect with the boat and our support crew. It seemed like forever until we intersected and I made my way to the side of the boat. 

The crew hoisted me onto the deck and asked me if I was alright.  I nodded my head but I couldn’t speak. My husband, who was one of the spotters, took me gently by the arms and said “Don’t ever do that again, you dove off the boat before the other swimmer was safely aboard and we lost sight of you.”

“I’m so sorry I worried all of you; I was just so excited to get in the water.”

“Yes, I know but in five more minutes, we would have lost you”.

“I promise I won’t do that again.” 

“I'll get you a blanket to warm up.”

“Thank you for looking after me.”   

Our third swimmer Rhonda was underway, she was swimming strongly until we heard a loud shrieking scream. She clawed her way to the back of the boat and her eyes looked as big as saucers. She breathlessly exclaimed, “something bumped my leg and whatever it was felt very large.”  We knew there were seals, whales and other marine life in the Strait but as we scanned the surface, we didn’t see anything in the near vicinity. If something had brushed up against her it was already back in the dark and deep waters. Karen was so shaken she aborted her swim and scrambled up the ladder to get back in the boat.  We were all suddenly on high alert with adrenaline coursing through our veins.  Karen took over and got into the water and all eyes were on her to make sure she was OK.

A few minutes later, we noticed another watercraft coming towards us at what seemed to be a very fast speed. When it pulled up alongside of us, we saw that it was the Coast Guard. They used a megaphone to ask how we were doing and we said we were fine. (Knowing full well that we weren’t exactly fine.) One of the coast guards said “We can’t order you off the ocean but we strongly advise you discontinue your swim. You are in severe ocean conditions and it looks like this will last a few more hours.” We thanked them for checking on us and huddled together to discuss our options.   

We were 20 kilometers into the swim with 15 more kilometers to go. My husband and I moved a few feet away from the rest of the group to talk.

“Are you sure you want to do this”

“Yes, I can’t imagine having to abort our swim.”  “

You do know that this could end on a very tragic note, don’t you?”

“I am really trying to stay positive and keep my wits about me.”  “

Yes, well you lost your wits when you jumped off the side of the boat an hour ago”

“I know, but I am better now, I won’t do that again.” 

“I don’t think it is safe to continue but this is your swim”

“I know that we can do this and I feel more secure that you are with me.”

 “Alright but please stay close to the boat”.

We returned to the group and with added reassurance from our captain, we were unanimous in our quest to forge on. 

Several hours later, we could finally see the outline of the mountains and the shoreline of Nanaimo. We were thrashed and exhausted but at long last, our goal was within sight. I was back in the water again and at one point I was pushed directly behind the boat. Despite the giant cascade of swirling waves around me, I could see the mast flopping from side to side in its throes to stay upright.  Instead of being afraid, I felt totally exhilarated by what I was experiencing. Just below the surface, I felt like I could see for miles, my eyes felt like fish eyes. The taste of the water was gritty and salty to the point where I started to wretch. I thought that I could hear whales off in the distance and there was a strong smell of marine life, that I worked very hard to push aside.

We could see the rugged shoreline that had giant-sized rocks jutting out in all directions. I started to feel worried about slamming into the rocks and being shredded to pieces. One of the group leaders had told us the previous evening that there was a 6000-pound sea lion off the shores of Nanaimo who they had named Floyd. We had planned to have dinner in Nanaimo and all I could think of was I hoped we would not be Floyd’s dinner. 

We were within one kilometer of the shore when we got stuck in a forceful turning tide and despite swimming as hard as we could, we were starting to drift backwards.  The captain turned the boat so the tide was at our back.  All at once, we were hurtling through the water. The push was incredible, we felt like we were body surfing. We could see the sandy bottom now as we looked for smaller rocks to grip on as we made our way to shore. 

There was no welcoming committee, no banners, no fanfare, it was just the four of us looking like gangly sea creatures trying to get our land legs to work again.  We finally stood up and looked back over the ocean with a feeling of incredible pride and accomplishment. Only one other team made it to Nanaimo and we waved to them in the distance.  It was difficult for me to put into words how I  felt at the end of our swim. I knew it would take several days for me to process this incredibly intense, meditative, and transformative experience. I felt like I had experienced an existential shift and that it had changed the way I was in the world.  





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