Last year we successfully swam from Alcatraz across the San Francisco Bay in a race called Sharkfest, and it was amazing! If you are new to ocean swimming and want something to work towards, this race should definitely go on your ‘to do’ list! This year however, we wanted a new challenge that was closer to home, and decided on a race called The Bay Challenge. The Bay Challenge is a difficult 10km point-to-point ocean swim race from Sandy Cove in West Vancouver to Kitsilano Beach in Vancouver. Not only does this race boast big distance in challenging waters, but you also must be through the shipping lanes (a little over half- way) in 2 hours and because of hypothermia risks, and the entire distance must be completed within 4 hours. Additionally each swimmer/team must have their own boat support and crew for the entire race. Neither Tracy Anne or myself was eager to do the entire 10km solo, so we convinced (volun-told) one of our masters swim team friends, Mauro Addari, to join us. Many batted eyelashes went out to Ian Darling and James Duffy for boat and crew support, and pledges of first-born (ok, maybe the deal was this article) were made for the use of one of the club’s Zodiacs, and voila! The Shipping Lane Swimmers relay team was born!
Race Day: July 27, 2013 It is just before 6am and there is a wind warning in effect from Environment Canada. Like any race morning, we are giddy with anticipation. We load the boat and set out for the start line at Sandy Cove. Leaving the club, the water is fairly calm and the sun is just starting to come up over the North Shore Mountains. It is spectacular. So far, it’s the perfect day for an ocean race.... but this image of perfection is all about to change. The closer we get to Sandy Cove, the rougher the water becomes. Wind, waves, swell, and chop: four of Mother Nature’s cruelest combinations to plague an ocean swimmer. Throw in tide shifts and changing currents, and you have yourself a race to remember!
Nearing the shore of the start line, an announcement is made over the radio from organizers that all boats will need to come to shore for a brief safety meeting, and for swimmers to be body marked. There are already a few boats making their way in, and one is in trouble – already taking on water from the waves crashing onto the shore, the scene steadily gets worse. Our incredibly capable and experienced captain (Ian Darling) calmly assesses the scene and comments that it is too dangerous to head to shore. Moments later the voice of the race director comes back over the airwaves with this same revelation. Swimmers would now have to swim to shore to be marked while verbal radio checks for boats would commence.
Once on shore to be marked, we watch in disbelief as the boat that had taken on water (now being towed by Jericho Rescue in efforts to drain it), gets hit again and again by rogue waves, faster than its captain and crew can bail. It’s a lost cause, and we are all horrified as finally, it capsizes, spewing its contents and passengers into the rough water. At the same time, a sea-doo intended as someone’s support for the day, slams into the rocky shore, damaging its prop rendering it useless. Somewhere behind me, I hear tears begin to flow. It’s not even 7am (the scheduled start time) and at least 2 people (maybe one team?) are done for the day. It’s heartbreaking. All around us, veteran swimmers comment how they have never seen conditions quite like what we were experiencing. Even race directors look nervous. I can see the question starting to form in everyone’s mind. Will the race be cancelled? There is a limited amount of time we all have to cross the shipping lanes due to traffic, and now, the time is just after 7am. The decision has to be made and SOON! Almost as if organizers could hear what we were all thinking, the call is made. “Swimmers! Consider this your 5-minute warning! Choose your line, and get to Kits as fast as you can! Lets GET OUTTA HERE!” DONE! Don’t have to ask us twice. Let’s move!
Before dashing back into the water, we give a quick hug to Tracy Anne, who pulled the ‘stick’ for the 1st leg of the swim. We leave her on the beach, swimming fast to get back to boat #4 (our boat) before the official start. We JUST make it back on board as the horn blows. Race ON! The water is choppy, with big swells, and there is a definite and palpable tension in the air. I had tied pink flagging tape to Tracy Anne’s left arm when we were being marked, in hopes it would be easier to find her in the chaos, and I’m so glad that I did! She is easy to spot, and before long, we are beside her on our way to Kits. As we cheer her on, I try to mentally prepare for the fact that in 70 minutes I will be jumping in to take her place for my portion of the swim: the Shipping Lanes!
For those of you who have never done any open water swimming, let me just say, swimming in the ocean is super fun, but it is also super hard work. Not only were we working hard swimming, but also Ian and James had to work just as hard to keep us in line. These two were masters at navigation and support for us. With only the boat as a guide, we were continually nudged back on course by these two. James had rigged a cowbell onto the boat to get our attention when we were veering off course, and Ian would expertly steer the boat around us when the current would start to pull us out to UBC or Stanley Park to get us back on track. At some point early on in the race, someone on the radio put the challenges of the boat crews best. “We’re herding cats”, he said. I think James and Ian would agree.
My portion of the swim was much of a blur to me. 70-ish minutes go by pretty quickly when you’re “in it”. My section of the swim was through the 2hr cutoff, and the Shipping Lanes. I had been watching the time tick past, and when I jumped in the water, and the clock watching didn’t stop. Every time I was kicked over by a swell, I checked our time. Blame it on my old triathlon patterns of ‘times-meaning-everything’; I was consumed with the 2hr cut off mark. Not knowing my position in the water (other than swimming between tankers that seemed to take forever to pass) didn’t help matters either. Tracy Anne described her portion of the swim as being the most psychologically challenging she had ever experienced, and I could totally relate. It wasn’t until I heard the cheers from the boat, that I knew we had passed the cut-off point, and that we were in good standing to finish the race. I swam hard, and by the time Mauro jumped in for his leg (to the FINISH!) I was getting tired. Once on the boat, I learned we had passed the cut-off with over 30 minutes to spare, and that the swimmer behind us hadn’t made it.
Mauro in the water for the last leg of the race was surreal. The knowledge that we were going to make it, and in better time than expected had us in high spirits! The closer we got to Kits, we could see a few of the other teams/swimmers that had allowed the current to take them closer to Stanley Park, but were now struggling against waves and current to come back to Kits. We on the other hand, were on target! We could see the swim buoys and finish line on the beach straight ahead of us! Once just inside the swim markers, Tracy Anne and I jumped into the water with Mauro so we could all finish the last 500m together. My arms were killing me, but so close to the finish, we went all out.
Dizzy and barely able to run across the finish line we were greeted to cheering and high-fives from each other and others already on the beach! 3:20:22 was our final time! WE DID IT! AMAZING! Looking back across the water, it was almost unbelievable to know we had swum the distance, especially in the conditions we had at the start and throughout the race. Of course, once we were done, the skies cleared, the wind died down, and it turned into a perfect summer day. But I don’t think any of us looking back would change any of it. It was a perfect execution and an incredible team effort in very challenging conditions. Thanks to everyone who was a part of it! What shall we do next year? Stay tuned.
The Shipping Lane Swimmers Team: HSC members Tracy Anne Northey (swimmer), Kim Graham (myself, swimmer), Mauro Addari (non-member, swimmer), Ian Darling (Captain, cat-herder), and James Duffy (spotter, medical support, cow-bell & photographer).