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Phil Pearl makes solo swim around the island

Accompanied by three friends in kayaks, Phil Pearl travels east to west at slack tide under Deception Pass Bridge on Aug. 31. - David Welton photo
Accompanied by three friends in kayaks, Phil Pearl travels east to west at slack tide under Deception Pass Bridge on Aug. 31.
— image credit: David Welton photo

When Phil Pearl of Langley began his epic journey to swim around Whidbey Island, he thought he’d done his homework.

Not quite.

Seems he forgot to find out if harbor seals bite humans.

“I was on my first leg across Cultus Bay from Double Bluff to Maxwelton when I became surrounded by a pack of seals,” Pearl recalled. “They swam around and under me and there was nothing I could do about it until I finished.”

Later, before his second lap he researched and discovered that while sea lions bite, harbor seals don’t.

Many miles to go

Pearl began his big swim on June 2. At 6:53 a.m. on Aug. 31 — at slack tide with few pleasure boats around — he completed his swim at West Point after paddling through Deception Pass. He was accompanied by several kayakers, plus 40 supporters screaming from the bridge high overhead.

Most of the time, though, Pearl’s quest was conducted alone, done in stages depending on the weather and tide conditions.

But why do it at all?

“When I first moved here eight years ago, the island seemed to have a wild edge but I felt it had changed over time,” he said.

He was inspired by a solo kayak paddle years ago.

“Seeing the island from the water brought back that rough feeling for me.”

Pearl works as a consultant on land acquisition issues for government and nonprofit agencies. Years ago, he had tried one long-distance race from Blaine to Semiahmoo but wanted to really challenge himself and do something different.

Swimming completely around the second largest island in the lower 48 states seemed about right.

He kept meticulous records, including start and finish times, tide and current flows, locations and distances. All told, the journey took 33 laps that averaged 3.2 miles. The total distance spanned 104.45 miles; the longest lap was 4.5 miles from the Clinton ferry to Sandy Point, and the shortest, on the northwest coast from West Beach Road to Rocky Point at 1.5 miles.

Pearl discovered the waters around Whidbey were still a bit too wild to do the laps in an unbroken circle around the island.

“It depended on the tides and how I felt on any given day which part of the island I would swim,” Pearl said. He also saw the adventure as a metaphor for his life:

“Taking on a big objective and chipping away at it has been a lifelong goal for me. The idea of being in vulnerable circumstances has great appeal.”

Typically, he would drive to the spot where he planned to end a lap and lock his bike, then drive to the entry point, do the swim and pedal back to his car. As a guide, he used “Getting to the Water’s Edge,” a book published in 2006 by Island County and Washington State University that details public access points on the shore.

He wore a wet suit, neoprene gloves and a cap, plus goggles.

And shoes.

“In case I had to walk over something nasty,” he said.

Pearl said he hit bottom a number of times during the swim, but not due to exhaustion.

“It’s amazing how shallow the water is along the coast in places. If I got in real trouble I could simply stand up.”

Almost alone

It was a solitary venture 95 percent of the time. His wife, Liza Von Rosenstiel, accompanied him in a Zodiac boat for several long stretches.

Pearl said he also went out of his way to avoid trouble spots. To avoid potential problems with the Navy, for example, he crossed to Camano Island from Shangri La Shores to Madrona Beach, then back to Whidbey from the north tip of Camano.

The hardest leg was crossing Saratoga Passage on a windy day, but the most consistently difficult swims were along Admiralty Inlet due to wind, back-eddies and changeable currents.

“Admiralty is about 5 degrees colder than the east side; it started to get pretty chilly sometimes,” Pearl said.

The real obstacle was heavy beds of offshore kelp.

“It was like swimming on a big bed of pasta with lots of olive oil,” he said. “On foggy days I couldn’t see anything and had to listen for the sound of waves breaking so I wouldn’t get disoriented.”

As he traveled down past Naval Air Station Whidbey Island on the west side, he was buzzed by jets just 40 feet above him. Pearl wondered what the pilots might have thought about a solo swimmer.

“A Navy helicopter flew over once but that’s about it,” he noted.

One high point was the wildlife. Pearl saw herons in Skagit Bay, eagles and terns circling overhead, and swarms of fish in crystal clear waters everywhere. Of course, he was wary of stinging jellyfish but managed to stay clear of any close encounters.

‘See any fish?’

For the most part, people on the water ignored him. Occasionally a boater would drift alongside and ask if he’d spotted any fish. Some neighbors in Mutiny Bay called the Coast Guard before discovering Pearl’s mission.

While in the water, Pearl was careful to stay focused on swimming. But once, while looking north from Bush Point to Partridge Point, he realized he’d only swam 15 percent of the leg and wondered if he’d ever finish.

“For some reason the distance looked a long ways off,” he remembered.

Finally, the day came to end his venture, traveling from east to west at the island’s most

ous spot: Deception Pass.

“I calculated the time when the tide would be totally slack, then have it help carry me through on the ebb out to sea,” he said. “People above said I was really moving.”

Despite a few back eddies that threatened to stall his progress, he made it to shore at West Point.

As he crawled out of the water, he was met by an officious park ranger who told him it was illegal to swim the Pass.

“I smiled and said I wouldn’t do it again,” Pearl said.

And he won’t, at least not for a awhile. In early August, Pearl learned he’s been appointed deputy director of the Grand Canyon Trust in Arizona.

“So it became a very private farewell to Whidbey Island,” Pearl said.

For now he plans to dry out a bit. He has hopes of returning someday, though, perhaps to swim from Whidbey to Lopez Island or across to Port Townsend.

And when he does, he’ll leave a note for his wife like he did many times during his Whidbey odyssey: “Gone for a swim; be back later.”

Jeff VanDerford can be reached at 221-5300 or jvanderford@southwhidbeyrecord.com.

SIDEBAR:

Phil Pearl recommends “Getting to the Water’s Edge on Whidbey and Camano Island” published in 2006 by Washington State University Extension, Island County Marine Resources Committee and Beachwatchers of Island County. Written by Sarah Schmidt, Dan Pedersen and Stacey Neumiller, the book has extensive information related to both island’s shorelines.

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