VICTORIA — A Victoria woman had to stop her swim across the Strait of Juan de Fuca and back after almost nine hours of swimming in cold, choppy waters.
Ultra-marathon swimmer Susan Simmons, who has multiple sclerosis, left from Ogden Point in Victoria at 1 p.m. Saturday, aiming to reach Simmons Dungeness Spit about 20 miles away and then return to Victoria — a first-ever attempt to swim across and back. And all without a wetsuit.
Simmons, 53, said the swim began well with flat water but that large waves and a cold water temperature of 48 degrees eventually led to hypothermia before she crossed into United States waters.
“I choose to exit the water because I knew that if I continued I would pass out and possibly die,” Simmons said Sunday.
Waves were up to 6-feet-tall and she grew even colder once the sun went down, she said.
She asked her crew for tea and when she tried to drink it she began shivering.
“I knew at that point that I had to exit the water,” she said.
She couldn’t swim so she was towed to the sailboat and the crew brought her aboard.
“I was violently ill and stayed in one of the cabins under blankets and shivered uncontrollably for two hours,” Simmons said.
Sangster Elementary students in Victoria had researched her planned journey and became concerned; they asked her to stay safe.
“I made a promise. I said if anything is not safe, I will exit the water and I needed to be true to them,” she said.
By Sunday afternoon, she was fine.
“I’m back to normal,” she said. “My shoulders are a little sore from being tossed in the water.”
She said the swim didn’t seem to aggravate her disease. Her legs were a little numb Sunday morning but that went away, she said.
“I’m looking forward to the next expedition, whatever it might be,” Simmons said.
This weekend, she plans to work with Special Olympic athletes at Cowichan Lake to help them prepare for an English Channel swim in a few years.
Simmons became the eighth person to make a sanctioned one-way swim between Victoria and Port Angeles without a wet suit in July 2017. She also was named one of the World Open Water Swimming’s World’s 50 Most Adventurous Open Water Women that year.
She uses a vegan diet and cold water swims to help manage her multiple sclerosis, she has said. The swims also are a way to spread the message of resilience, strength and awareness of the disease.
“It inspires everybody, even someone who has very little mobility now watches this and thinks, you know, there we go, ‘because I can’,” said Clare Gomez, Simmons’ friend who lives with MS, referring to the slogan on her MS Athletes shirt, the Victoria News said.
“She’s inspired me to do things I couldn’t do before. She inspires everybody.”
Simmons was monitored by 12 people aboard two support kayaks — one piloted by her husband, Ray Este — a motorboat and a sailboat. She was not allowed to hang on to any of the craft, according to rules by the Northwest Open Water Swimming Association, which sanctions marathon swims.
Simmons doesn’t know now if she will try the marathon swim and back again. She needs to talk with her crew and her husband, she said.
“I’m really happy with what we’ve done,” Simmons said. “I would never want to put myself in harm’s way. I do this for health and fitness and wellness. If I had allowed myself to go beyond what I did, I could have damaged myself.”
Simmons added that she saw a pod of orcas while swimming. The animals came close but were “chased away by whale-watching boats,” she said.
“I saw the boats surrounding them. That actually broke my heart. I just want them to have peace.”
Executive Editor Leah Leach can be reached at 360-417-3530 or at [email protected].