The only female in the competition, Alexina Slater was more than a long shot. She was seen as a risk to the whole event. Too young, too reckless, too weak and too female for such a challenge, the organizers sent a special boat along with the swimmers to trail the main group and pick up the girl once she fell behind and before she drowned.
It wasn’t until after I had paddled back and forth along a route parallel to the Tahlequah- Pt. Defiance ferry last week with a group of 7 intrepid, neoprene clad swimmers in my sights, that I learned that this aquatic endeavor had a pedigree a bit longer than suspected. I knew that a friend had done it back in May, and that presumably the ferry captain of WSF lore who had swum the various routes in the system had included this one in his list of accomplishments. What I didn’t know was that back in September of 1926, thirteen swimmers had traversed this expanse of water without the benefit of wetsuits or goggles, although they did have what appeared to be a small armada of support boats and a crowd of ten thousand onlookers at Point Defiance to welcome the finishers ashore. Billed as a race, the field only sported one female contestant who is mentioned in the above description from one of the Tacoma papers. As a 15 year-old girl, she was not expected to fare well against the dozen males. She finished fourth, only 18 minutes behind the winner who came in at just two minutes over an hour. She not only bested two thirds of the field, but apparently danced the Charleston on the dock after she climbed out of the waters of Puget Sound.
Drama is actually something one is happy to avoid in events such as this. My memorable moments from our crossing include a curious, whole pineapple washed onshore beneath the Tahlequah dock, and what seemed to be at least a dozen seals along the route, although it’s hard to tell with seals who is a new observer and who is an enthusiastic supporter, diving and then resurfacing further along the way to either cheer on these curious strokers, or to make sure that whoever they are, they move on from these waters they are trespassing in. There were dark clouds over the Cascades, and I believe that at least once from my paddler’s vantage point that I caught sight of a lightning flash out of the corner of my constantly course-sweeping eye. But for the most part, the waters were calm and relatively balmy, ranging from the low to mid sixties near the Vashon shore to the mid fifties just off Owens Beach on the other side. Perhaps my favorite moment though was when all seven swimmers walked off the Chetzemoka on this side in their wetsuits and carrying two fully inflated, bright orange pyramid-shaped buoys and the other support kayak. One never knows what might seek passage on a Vashon ferry.
There was a reason for this crossing beyond simply because it is there. This was basically a test run for a new race on September 14th called the Swim Defiance Swim, which involves either a one way trip starting where we did just west of the Tahlequah dock, or an over and back starting on Owens Beach in Point Defiance park, which works out to about a one and a half or a three mile swim, depending on how well one sights his or her course. The currents there, while formidable at times, should not be a big problem as the swim is being scheduled around the slack tide on Sunday morning. More details about the race can be found at www.aquarunforachild.org. This is a multi-sport event, where you can choose between either swim or a swim-run, and it can be done either as an individual or as a team. The proceeds from the race go to the Gift for a Child organization, a non-profit that supports children in foster care.
And, lest one run the risk of becoming distraught at all the extra energy one might find oneself with after only completing a cross sound swim, it should be noted that the day before on Saturday the 13th of September one is invited to throw a leg over the top tube of your bicycle and join the fun in supporting the Vashon Island Rowing Club and covering up to eighty miles with 10,000 feet of elevation gain. I would say that these two events are linked in spirit only, but that wouldn’t quite be true. Having completed the whole 80 miles in last year’s Passport 2 Pain and having done a three mile open water swim in an Oregon mountain lake, I would have to say that P2P is definitely in a class by itself, but wouldn’t it be a double to talk about? We’ll see. And, if you’re into visuals, you can see a paddler’s eye view of the Pt. Defiance to Tahlequah crossing in under two and a half minutes here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i-CwYMj6Nf0, or an abbreviated version of parts of the Passport 2 Pain ride here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=US5Z47uZBjY. And what is it they say, the unchallenged life is a bit too restful? I don’t know, did somebody really say that?.