Open water swimmer ranks swell on South Whidbey

Jeff Jacobsen takes a breath while swimming with his fellow South Whidbey Island Masters swimmers in Saratoga Passage off Seawall Park in Langley on July 1.  - Ben Watanabe / The Record
Jeff Jacobsen takes a breath while swimming with his fellow South Whidbey Island Masters swimmers in Saratoga Passage off Seawall Park in Langley on July 1.
— image credit: Ben Watanabe / The Record

A couple of times a week for the past few months, a handful of swimmers identifiable only by their bobbing colorful caps, have taken to Goss Lake and Saratoga Passage off Langley.

Then, the thrashing would start. At first, they move as one group, foaming the water’s surface in a grand loop with bright orange floats bobbing off their backs. Then, they space out with the faster swimmers taking off and the slower ones lagging behind.

Even a veteran swimmer like Krista Loercher, who has taken to Saratoga Passage’s chilly waters for a few years, finds the first embrace of its dark blue surface jarring.

Yet she keeps coming back, and now there’s a sizable following of people who set up open water swim times off Seawall Park. And, in an effort to grow in numbers, the group is throwing two open water swim clinics next week.

Loercher is not alone in bracing for the cold rush.

“Even three years ago, I’d hyperventilate when I thought about the swim,” said Danielle Rideout, a member of the South Whidbey Island Masters, a group of U.S. Masters Swimming certified swimmers.

They are offering one-day, three-hour clinics July 12-13. The first is at Seawall Park in Langley, and is designed for more experienced open water swimmers, ideally, said organizers, for people who have competed in an open water race or taken another open water class. The July 13 clinic is at Goss Lake, a warmer body of water, that organizers said is a “great introduction” to open water swimming. Ben Watanabe / The Record | Teresa Wiley-Forsyth chats with Marnie Zimmerman and Megan Scudder before swimming in Puget Sound.

Neither of the clinics are for first-time swimmers. Out in Saratoga Passage, there’s a current to contend with, as well as the cold temperature.

Swimmers also need to be vigilant of boats, sea life, and each other — all things that could overwhelm the inexperienced doggie-paddler.

As for the eerie feeling that there are creatures in the water with you, Rideout said that’s still something she considers when she’s out there.

“This is the first year I’m getting over it,” she said, adding that seeing a jellyfish underwater is a treat, but feeling the slick touch of eelgrass is most unwelcome.

Safety is the name of the game when it comes to the South Whidbey Island Masters. They attach the bright orange floats, go out in groups, wear a wetsuit, and plan around tides and currents when they hit the beach. All of those factors, combined with the group’s track record running the Adventure Swim in fall for the past few years, had South Whidbey Fire/EMS Assistant Chief Paul Busch giving his approval to the group’s sessions and clinic.

“They take extreme care and caution on what they do and how they do it,” said Busch, whose agency has worked at the Adventure Swim each year as a precaution.

Rideout and others said they hit Saratoga and Goss Lake instead of a pool because of the very nature of open water swimming. It’s open. There are no lanes in Puget Sound. And when they’re out there, they find peace and tranquility akin to a runner’s high. It’s just them, their breathing, and the water.

“There’s something really calming and meditative about it,” Rideout said. “Once you get over the fear.”


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