Have you ever taken the ferry to Vashon Island and wondered what it would be like to swim there instead? If so, and if you actually have the stamina and skills to navigate the bracing waters of Dalco Passage, you’re in luck: swimmers will be doing just that at the fourth annual Swim Defiance on Saturday, June 3.
“We usually get 50 to 60 swimmers,” says Race Director Zena Courtney, who expects a similar turnout at this year’s edition. “This race is not for a beginner swimmer. These athletes usually train three to five days a week for an hour in a pool or by regularly swimming in the Sound.”
The event includes two races: an outand-back 5-kilometer course that starts and finishes at Point Defiance and a point-to-point 3K course from Vashon to Point Defiance. Both races finish at Owen Beach. The longer race starts first at 7:10 a.m. near the peak of low tide, while the shorter of the two begins at 8 a.m. and requires a ferry ride to Vashon for the start.
Courtney hosts six escorted practice swims in Puget Sound the month before the race to help acclimatize would-be competitors. She lays out the challenges of completing a cold-water open race clearly at the race’s website (swimdefiance.com).
“Almost everyone can acclimate to cold water to some degree,” she explains. “It takes the discipline of actually getting into cold water over a series of swims. The unpleasant part of acclimation is that you actually have to continue to get into water that is below your ‘comfortable temperature.’ Cold water baths and showers help some people. A lot of cold water acclimation is mental. Training your mind not to respond to the cold is part of the process. You can talk yourself through it. Convince yourself it’s not all that bad.”
The benefits of such training, Courtney says, remain with you long after the race. And each time you return to cold-water racing, acclimatization takes less time.
Landlubbers surprised that anyone would attempt such a feat might be surprised to learn that the local tradition dates back nearly a century. The first such race occurred in 1926, when 13 swimmers braved the open waters on a late September day. According to a vivid account on TacomaHistory’s website, a crowd of 10,000 people gathered to watch the two-mile race unfold. Alexina Slater, a 15-year-old Stadium High student and the only female participant, grabbed fourth place and danced for the newsreel cameras afterward.
Courtney was inspired to bring an aquathlon (an open-water swim followed by a run) to the Tacoma waterfront in 2010 and later, with the help of her swim team, organized Swim Defiance, with the first race occurring in 2014. Swim Defiance is hosted by Blue Wave Aquatics, a non-profit group, to raise water awareness.
“From 2005 to 2014, there were an average of 3,536 fatal unintentional drownings (non-boating related) in the United States— about 10 deaths per day,” Courtney explains. “We take on swimming for adults from every angle. Swimming lessons, swim team, openwater swimming, triathlon training, and triathlon team consultations. We also offer free swim lessons as part of Adult Learn to Swim Month every April. We believe that every adult should be comfortable in the water, whether you are just starting out or have swum since you were a child. Our coaches are passionate about teaching adults how to swim or improve their skills.”
Added Courtney, “Swim Defiance also creates awareness and stewardship of our precious resource, water. Blue Wave Aquatics encourages a small carbon footprint, disciplined recycling and beach cleanup at the event.”
Not too many newbies venture into the cold water, but the race is ready to ensure safe passage, thanks to help from the Pierce County Fire #13 Marine Rescue Unit, a Tacoma Police race unit, volunteer vessels from the Tacoma Maritime Institute and more than a dozen volunteer kayakers. Three female and two male swimmers this year will compete without a wetsuit. Included among them is King County resident Mike Humphreys, who participated in a two-man relay across the English Channel in 2016. Pamela Kalas won the 3K last year in a time of 42:48.7, nearly six minutes ahead of the next finisher. Matthew Dixon took the 5K in 1:05:28.7.
Matt Kite is an avid hiker and masters runner in Tacoma. Check out “3 Minute Hikes,” his hiking channel on YouTube.