UPDATE: Susan Simmons ended her swim attempt Saturday evening without reaching the U.S. The full story will be available Sunday.
VICTORIA — Smoke from hundreds of British Columbia fires was adding another challenge to a historic journey Saturday afternoon.
A 53-year-old vegan with Multiple Sclerosis set off at 1 p.m. Saturday on a watery odyssey for an estimated 24-hour, 40-mile swim across the Strait of Juan de Fuca from Victoria to Dungeness Spit and back.
Ultra-marathon swimmer Susan Simmons jumped in the Strait from Ogden Point in Victoria, about five minutes from where she lives, sans wet suit and gliding through 6-inch roll waves in 48-degree Fahrenheit waters.
Her every stroke was monitored by 12 people aboard two support kayaks, a motorboat and a sailboat.
Charla Huber, a support crew member, said in a 3:20 p.m. Saturday text message that blue sky was visible but smoke from the rash of B.C. fires still was in the air.
Huber could not smell the smoke but it was affecting Simmons.
“Susan has been coughing and said she can feel it in her lungs,” Huber said.
The Canadian air quality health index was a low-risk 2 at 2 p.m., and was forecast at 6 a.m. Saturday to reach a moderate score of 4 Saturday, a low-risk 3 Saturday night and a low-risk 3 today, according to www.theweathernetwork.com.
Before the swim, at about 9 a.m. Saturday, Simmons was “just lying in bed, resting my body, just relaxing my body, just trying to keep it in a relaxed state, not really thinking about much,” she said.
During the swim each half hour, a kayaker was throwing Simmons plastic shaker bottles of lemon-lime electrolyte drinks tethered by a string or rope, along with protein bars, peanut butter and chocolate, and cantaloupe.
“It doesn’t matter if it gets wet,” she said. “It’s going in my belly, anyway.”
Simmons is not allowed to hang on to any of the craft there to watch and monitor her every stroke, according to rules by the Northwest Open Water Swimming Association, which sanctions marathon swims.
Simmons was bound for Dungeness Spit about 20 miles away — just the first leg in the first-ever attempted double-swim crossing of the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
In July 2017, she became the eighth person to make the one-way swim between Victoria and Port Angeles without a wet suit.
This time around, that will essentially be half her journey.
“I’ll swim overnight, head to Dungeness Spit, stand up in the water, and head back to Ogden Point,” Simmons said.
A director for the chief information officer for the province of British Columbia, Simmons has been swimming two-six hours a day depending on her work schedule
The round-trip is about 66 kilometers, testing the endurance of the most rugged swimmers.
At 5-feet-8, “I’m not a tiny person,” Simmons said.
“I’ve got layers on me that will help insulate me.”
Having Multiple Sclerosis, a chronic and unpredictable disease of the central nervous system, can cause blurred vision, tremors, extreme fatigue, paralysis and blindness, according to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.
Simmons goes numb if she sprints too fast during training.
Major fatigue can be an issue, and she can’t risk overheating.
“When I get tired, certain things happen with my body that may not happen with someone who does not have MS,” she said.
“I have to monitor my body to make sure I don’t have an MS attack.
“If I’m overstressed, it could trigger an attack.
“If I do have an attack, I will be removed from the water.
“I swim for health.
“I never want to do a swim that harms my body.”
Simmons said she also swims for the estimated 2.3 million people worldwide who, according to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, have MS.
Simmons coaches Special Olympics athletes who will inspire her, she said Friday, on her first-of-its-kind quest, as they always do.
“I think about my athletes and how they try in the pool and how well they do, and that’s my strength and courage,” Simmons said.
“I think about people with MS and what their life is like and when they are not mobile and how brave they are to make their way around in the world every day, and I swim for them.”
Simmons had traveled 3 miles by 4 p.m. Saturday, according to her Facebook page at https://tinyurl.com/PDN-FacebookSimmons.
Track Simmons’ progress at https://tinyurl.com/PDN-SimmonsSwim.
“It’s going well,” Huber said in a 5:15 p.m. text message.
“The waters are a bit choppy and Susan is having a hard time but still going strong.”