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Chilly Water No Deterrent To Growing Numbers Of 'Wild Swimmers'

Tom Banse
Northwest News Network

More swimmers in the Northwest are trading the comfort of the pool for a workout in open water.

The English call these people "wild swimmers." It seems an appropriate description when you consider the chilly temperature of most Northwest lakes, rivers and bays. And yet, the popularity of open water swimming is rising.

'I get bored in a pool'

"I usually swim from about May until end of November in open water,” said Mike Tanner, a 43-year-old tech worker from Kirkland, Washington. “Then I go back to the pool and wait for May again."

The salt water of Puget Sound is 55 degrees right now -- and the air not much warmer. Hence the involuntary sound effects -- gasps, yelps and laughter -- at the beginning of a group swim. So why doesn't Tanner stick to the pool?

"I'm not very bright and it's a bit of a challenge,” he said with a self-deprecating chuckle. “I get bored in a pool."

On Sunday, Tanner was a paying customer on an escorted "swim excursion" off Seattle's Alki Beach. More than a dozen swimmers -- almost all in wetsuits -- trailed behind an orange kayak for a one mile salt water swim.

Trip leader Guila Muir paddled the first of the support boats.

"A swim excursion is not a race,” she explained. “That's the primary differentiation. It's an expedition. It is an adventure.”

New converts -- and new business ideas

Muir took up swimming in her mid-40s. The Seattle entrepreneur soon recognized there were enough other converts around to support a new business. So she turned the concept into a business called Say Yes! To Life Swims. The company offers 10 or 11 outdoor distance swims with a support crew each year. Each runs about $40 to $65.

Credit Tom Banse / Northwest News Network
Northwest News Network
Kelly Reynolds of Seattle after her first distance swim in Puget Sound.

"Why pay to swim when you just can go down and jump in yourself? It's for the camaraderie,” she said. “You can see the incredible enthusiasm, the feeling of support."

Muir spoke by a beach bonfire where clients warmed themselves post-swim with hot chocolate and fish and chips.

The founding of Muir's business three years ago underscores the growing interest in open water swimming in the Northwest. Kelly Reynolds of Seattle is one of the newest converts.

"I'm a couple years out of swimming in college and I don't want to race in pools anymore because I don't want to see how slow I am,” she said. “So I want to start doing more open water stuff."

Her verdict after her first swim in Puget Sound?

"It was cold,” Reynolds admitted. “But it wasn't that bad. I thought it was going to be worse.”

Open water swimming boom

Another place to observe growth is on the entry sheets of open water swim races and events around the Northwest.

Credit Tom Banse / Northwest News Network
Northwest News Network
Safety kayaks and paddleboarders escorted paying customers on the group swim.

One of the biggest is the Long Bridge Swim at Sandpoint, Idaho. Founder Eric Ridgway said the 1.76 mile swim drew 68 participants when he started it in 1995. This year, more than 700 registered.

Ridgway said a little more than half wear wetsuits.

"I would encourage people to consider a wetsuit because it makes them a little bit safer,” he said. “It gives them buoyancy, should make them a little faster and will keep their body temperature up for less chance of hypothermia."

Ridgway gave some credit to triathlons for introducing newcomers to open water swimming alongside society's broader interest in fitness.

Another event to witness big growth off of a small base is the Portland Bridge Swim, now in its fourth year. Nearly 100 people registered to swim either a relay segment or the full 11 miles down the Willamette River with the current.

"I came in at a good time. Marathon swimming is exploding," said event founder and director Marisa Frieder. "It's kind of astonishing to me."

Frieder said she has to educate some wary prospective participants about how much cleanup progress has been achieved on her aquatic race course.

"The Willamette doesn't have a great reputation. That's unfortunate," Frieder observed.

This year's edition of the marathon swim was thrown for a loop by an unexpected lightning storm, which forced everyone to get out about one hour into the swim.

And if you think 11 miles is long…

Under friendlier skies, solo marathon swimmers completed some remarkable feats this summer. Ridgway called out a 34-mile swim up the length of Lake Pend Oreille by Boston-based athlete Elaine Howley. Ridgway, who participated on Howley's support crew, called the 20-hour endurance swim from Buttonhook Bay to Sandpoint, "the most exciting thing that happened in our region that I know of... this past summer."

Separately in mid-August, Rachel Schoeler of Vancouver swam across the Georgia Strait from Schooner Cove near Nanaimo to Sechelt in just under 12 hours. The distance of 35 kilometers (22 miles) is slightly wider than the English Channel crossing.

A trio of three master swimmers from Bainbridge Island told the Peninsula Daily News that they were tested by the cold water despite wearing wet suits during a crossing of the Strait of Juan de Fuca last month. That 12.5 mile swim by Ken Goodman, Orlando Boleda and Paul Webber took place in 50 degree waters. They set out from Freshwater Bay west of Port Angeles, Washington, and came ashore in Canada near Beechy Head on Vancouver Island.

Also making a splash on the distance swimming scene this summer was an Oregon man who became the first to swim the length of the Willamette River. Dean Hall started in Eugene in early June and finished 22 days later at the confluence with the Columbia River in Portland. Hall, a 54-year-old cancer survivor, swam 184 miles in the murky, greenish brown river.


More open water swims in the Northwest:

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.