PEOPLE SEEMED INTRIGUED by athletes. Testosterone levels rise when our team wins. We have empathy for the struggles to compete. We feel like we’re in the game.
In the 1940s and 1950s, long-distance swimming was popular to follow. Long-distance swimming goes back to the late 1800s, but immediately after World War II, people needed a diversion.
Long-distance swimmers all had the personal drive to be the best, the fastest and the first. It also helped that prize money was offered, and commercial endorsements would follow successful swims.
Florence Chadwick was one of the most famous long-distance swimmers after WWII. No one had swum across the Strait of Juan de Fuca before, so, the Victoria Daily Times laid down the challenge. The Times offered Chadwick $7,500 to attempt the feat and further increased the prize to $10,000 if she succeeded. The race was on for Chadwick and others to be the first to conquer the Strait.
In 1954 and 1955, Port Angeles and Victoria seemed to be swimming in long-distance swimmers. Since a Victoria newspaper offered the prize, most of the attempts started in Victoria.
Chadwick made her only attempt on Aug. 9, 1954. After 5 hours and 11 minutes, she had swam only 5 miles before she had to be pulled from the water suffering from hypothermia.
The first person to successfully swim the Strait of Juan de Fuca was Bert Thomas.
Born July 17, 1925, Thomas started swimming competitively at an early age. During World War II, Thomas joined the U.S. Marines and fought in the Pacific Theater. He learned to swim long distances while he was being trained for amphibious assaults. After he was discharged, he went to Tacoma and worked as a logger and a longshoreman.
At 6-foot-1 and 275 pounds, Thomas looked more like a football lineman than a swimmer. But after watching Chadwick on television, he challenged himself to beat all of Chadwick’s records.
The prize money was also a major inducement for Thomas to change careers. In 1955, the median wage in the United States was $4,400 per year. If you are going to work hard, the work may as well be something you enjoy doing.
Bert made his first attempt from Victoria on April 14, 1955, and he only made it 6 miles. His second attempt came on June 3, 1955. He swam 12 miles, but the tides took him too far off course. Twenty days later on June 23, 1955, Thomas tried for a third time. But again, the tides defeated him, and he only made it 11 miles. His fourth try, only three days later on the 26th, proved to be too soon, and he only reached the 6-mile mark.
Between Aug. 9, 1954, and July 7, 1955, there were 12 unsuccessful attempts to swim across the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Would No. 13 prove to be the lucky one?
As Thomas prepared himself for another attempt, he and his team saw that the tides and currents tended to push him back toward Vancouver Island, so he decided to change direction; he came to Port Angeles and waited for more favorable weather.
On July 7, 1955, weather and tide conditions appeared favorable. At 5:55 p.m., the tide was going out, and Thomas entered the 46-degree water for his fifth attempt.
His escort vessel, the cabin cruiser King Bacardi, waited offshore. Its owner and skipper, Bub Olsen, was the local Richfield distributor and Thomas’ swim sponsor. B&I Circus Store in Tacoma also sponsored Thomas.
Thomas made good time, swimming at a pace of 2 mph. After 3½ hours, he was in Canadian waters. His trainer monitored his condition, providing Thomas with liquid nourishment through a plastic tube.
Many other small boats followed the King Bacardi while KONP radio in Port Angeles and KIRO radio in Seattle provided live updates throughout the swim.
Pat Russell, a fellow long-distance swimmer, followed Thomas’ progress closely. She, too, had attempted to conquer the Strait on June 3, 1955. Her words reminded me how far our view of healthy habits have come.
“I strained to hear Bert’s voice every time the Black Dog Schooner started a broadcast, and drank another cup of coffee every time he stopped in the water for a cigarette,” she wrote.
Supporters in Victoria built a huge bonfire near the entrance to Victoria’s harbor to help keep Thomas pointed in the right direction. For added encouragement, a Victoria radio station set up a loudspeaker on the beach and thundered military marches out over the water.
At 5:05 a.m., Thomas Bert waded ashore at Saxe Point Park near Victoria, greeted by the mayor and 2,000 fans. He had swum 18.3 miles in 11 hours and 10 minutes. He received $3,500 in prize money for his feat.
Port Angeles Evening News City Editor Don Paxson was aboard the King Bacardi:
“The Strait of Juan de Fuca bowed its neck in defeat for the first time early today under the flailing arms of Bert Thomas,” Paxson wrote in the July 8 edition of the newspaper.
Thomas returned to Port Angeles aboard the King Bacardi like a conquering hero, thousands of local fans meeting him at the pier.
It was quite the spectacle as Thomas had many fans on both sides of the Strait. Since they did not have up-to-the-minute television coverage, to witness the event, you had to be there.
How can someone withstand such long periods in frigid water without becoming hyperthermic? A research team from the University of Washington studied Thomas. They concluded he used a physiological trick by making 70 percent of his body serve as insulation for the remaining 30 percent. Go figure.
On the swim’s 10th anniversary, Thomas said he was never far away from the water. In fact, he said he was taking water internally, now that he quit drinking beer.
Thomas never lost his love of long-distance swimming. Until his death, he was planning more swims. Regrettably, he died from a heart attack on June 8, 1972. He was 46.
You can still see the brass plaque commemorating the event on Ediz Hook.
John McNutt is a descendant of Clallam County pioneers and treasurer of the North Olympic History Center Board of Directors. He can be reached at [email protected].