First Whidbey Adventure Swim already making waves

There’s going to be a big splash in Saratoga Passage soon.

A group of swimmers will race in the inaugural Whidbey Adventure Swim in the waters just off Seawall Park in Langley Aug. 20. South Whidbey Island Masters Swim Team is hosting the first 1.2- and 2.4-mile open water races on South Whidbey.

A list of challenges awaits the open water swimmers. One volunteer race coordinator who knows those difficulties well is Krista Loercher.

The 41-year-old Langley resident was strictly a pool swimmer. Three years ago, she began swimming in open waters such as Goss Lake, Deer Lake and Puget Sound. Now, she’s a co-instructor for an open water swim class with the South Whidbey Parks & Recreation District.

Swimming gets more challenging from a pool to a lake, and even further from a lake to a sound or the ocean.

“You’re even more subject to the elements,” Loercher said. “Wind is going to whip up sound water, even more than lake water. The water’s colder; water temperature, that’s a big thing for people going from pools to open water.”

Her experience in the three types of swimming arenas led her to notice a few differences. The first change she noticed was missing the line or stripe on the bottom of a pool to swim straight.

“Seeing and maintaining direction, those are definite challenges,” Loercher said.

A major difference is the temperature.

The weather may be nice, as summer finally heats Western Washington. The waters of Saratoga Passage, however, will not be as pleasant.

A NOAA report averaged the summer surface temperature of Saratoga Passage at 55 degrees. As a result, organizers are requiring all swimmers to wear wetsuits, which are also used for buoyancy, in addition to either an orange or white swim cap provided by the race organizers that will indicate which race the swimmer is in.

“While a wetsuit is not a replacement for being a comfortable swimmer, it makes them a little more comfortable because of that buoyancy,” Loercher said.

As with many rules, there can be exceptions. Organizers said very experienced open water swimmers may request to race without a wetsuit, but only upon approval from the race committee.

Weather can affect swimmers on the other end of the spectrum. On a clear day, the sun’s reflection off the water can cause problems, like a baseball player trying to catch a pop fly at noon.

“You can miss buoys because of sun glare in the water,” Loercher said.

Different challenges lie ahead of the volunteer race director, Jean Fankhauser.

A member of SWIM for eight years, Fankhauser and other members began organizing the Whidbey Adventure Swim in January. They swam in other races around Washington, including the Fat Salmon Open Water Swim in Lake Washington, and were ready to have one in their home waters.

“We’ve always wanted to do an open water race here on Whidbey,” Fankhauser said.

Before they could host a race, Fankhauser and a committee of SWIM members wanted to have it sanctioned by United States Masters Swimming, a national organization that organizes workouts, competitions and clinics for adult swimmers. To aide that process, John de Wit, Jeff Jacobsen Emily Prendergast — all SWIM members — went to a masters swimming safety conference in San Francisco this spring.

“They came back with a wealth of knowledge about open water safety and open water events,” Fankhauser said.

A cadre of support and safety crews including motor boats, kayakers, lifeguards, a medical team, Fire District 3 and EMS will be at the event.

“A tremendous amount of time has gone into planning safety for the event,” Loercher said.

One element the organizers can’t entirely plan for is nature. Fish, jellyfish, seaweed and kelp are all things that can startle or block swimmers as they race.

“Around here, we’re pretty fortunate there aren’t a ton of critters in the water,” Loercher said.

Those precautions are in place because of the challenges of open water swimming. But, with safety precautions abundant, swimmers can focus on the race.

“Safety is the biggest concern,” Fankhauser said.

The course is sixth-tenths of a mile, so competitors swimming in the 1.2-mile race will have two laps, and the 2.4-mile racers will have four. A triangular course of buoys in Saratoga Passage will be visible from Seawall Park’s elevated views.

That works out well for what is expected to be a busy Island County Fair weekend for Langley. The race begins at 9 a.m.; swimmers have a mandatory pre-race meeting at 8:30 a.m.

Another requirement is that all racers must be registered USMS members. That can be accomplished the day of the race, with a $20 one-day membership, through the South Whidbey Masters team or online through Pacific Northwest Association of Masters Swimmers. An annual membership is available to anyone 18 and older and costs $44 to belong to the national group, USMS, the regional club PNA and the Whidbey Island team.

For swimmers eager to prepare, there will be open saltwater practice swims in Saratoga Passage. The entry fee is $40 until Aug. 15 then increases to $50.

Proceeds benefit the South Whidbey Parks and Aquatics Foundation, a nonprofit to make parks and aquatics activities accessible to South Whidbey residents.

Fankhauser said he expected about 20 people to race in the first Whidbey Adventure Swim. He’s hoping the Whidbey version will grow like the Fat Salmon race, which had 10 swimmers its first year. This year, more than 300 swimmers showed up on the shore of Lake Washington for it.

“At this point, if we get 20 people, I’d be happy,” Fankhauser said.

Anyone who is interested may visit A link to the online registration page is on the South Whidbey Island Masters website.

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