PORT ANGELES — The chill of cold water ended a San Francisco man’s attempt Thursday to become the eighth person to swim across the Strait of Juan de Fuca without a wetsuit.
It was the first swim marathon swimmer Steve Walker, 48, was unable to complete, he said after docking in Port Angeles.
He began the swim at 8:38 a.m. from Beechey Head, west of Victoria on Vancouver Island, and headed for an area around Crescent Bay west of Port Angeles.
But, cramping with cold and miles off course, he called off the swim shortly after 1 p.m.
Following in the spirit of marathon swimming, Walker attempted the swim with no more than a bathing suit, single swim cap, goggles and safety support boat.
“I was really bummed when I got out of the water,” he said. “I was thinking, ‘wow, 48, 49 degrees and I didn’t finish?’
Colder than expected
It turned out the water was closer to 46 degrees.
“When I found out the temperature and realized it’s not what I signed up for, it made me feel a lot better,” he said.
Temperature was the first thing he thought about when he jumped into the water. Every degree colder the water is, the harder the swim becomes, he said.
“At first I thought, ‘damn it’s cold,’ ” he said.
“Then you start off on focusing on your stroke. It’s like meditating. You just clear your brain. It’s the very best time.”
Walker swam for nearly four and a half hours and made it about 3 miles from shore before calling it off.
The frigid water caused Walker to cramp about four hours into the swim, but he tried to push through.
Walker realized at that point he wasn’t going to make it to shore, he said.
“That last 20 minutes wasn’t so much doubt, but realization,” he said.
“I wanted to go as far as I could. When you don’t make it, you still want to make it a good training swim.”
Walker — who is the CEO of Cobaltix, a technology consulting company in San Francisco — swam the English Channel in 1996 before taking a 15-year break from marathon swimming.
He swam the Straits of Gibraltar last April, he said, and the Catalina Channel in November.
In August, Walker plans to swim across the Irish Sea.
He said his thought was that if he could cross the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the Irish Sea — which is warmer, but longer — wouldn’t be a problem.
But the 10.4-mile swim across the Strait proved to be a bit too cold.
That doesn’t mean he won’t try again, he said.
Walker hopes to return in the next couple of years to complete a swim.
One benefit of his attempt was the North Olympic Peninsula scenery, he said.
“This is like the most beautiful place on the whole planet,” he said.
“I can’t wait to come up here. I want to bring my wife and kids.
“Not only is it beautiful, it has been like the best trip ever.”
He said the trip would have been impossible without his support crew.
Among those in the support crew was Andrew Malinak of Seattle, who completed the Strait swim in September 2015. He is president of the Northwest Open Water Swimming Association (NOWSA), a 501(c)(3) that observes, documents and records marathon swims in the Pacific Northwest.
Malinak knows from experience how difficult it is to cross the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
He tried twice — the first time in July 2013 — before finishing a swim across the Strait.
“The 46-48 degree waters are cold,” Malinak said. “It’s tough to deal with those temperatures.”
At those temperatures, swimmers can began getting intense cramps, he said. That’s what happened to Walker.
“It’s not the normal sort of cramps,” he said. “The muscles in your body get way too small.”
Currents took Walker off course, carrying him west.
“The current seemed to be a lot stronger than I had anticipated,” Malinak said.
Malinak tweeted: “Off course. We will not make Crescent Bay in this current, and are adjusting accordingly. Land is the goal now.”
Also on board for the swim was Capt. Charles Martin of the Water Limousine in Sequim; Scott Lautman, NOWSA official observer; and Erika Norris, swim support.
When the swim ended Walker was west of the mouth of the Lyre River, a couple miles west of Crescent Bay.
“I’m actually really happy,” he said.
“The goal is obviously always to finish, but that’s the longest, coldest I’ve ever done.”
________Reporter Jesse Major can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 56250, or at [email protected]