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Can you say cold?

July 6, 2010

The Alaskan waters of Clarence Strait proved to be a very tough challenge.  The first attempt on Saturday did not go according to plan due to the weather picking up.  On the 4th, Willie and I spent the day enjoying the festivities and then relaxing in the “cave” to prepare for the next look see at Clarence Strait.  

Monday arrived and we met the boats early.  The last weather forecast looked ok-ish.  The posted weather was 10 knot winds picking up to 15 knots in later morning.  Thankfully one of our amazing crew called one of their friends to get the latest.  Yes the weather and winds were supposed to pick up.  However, it looked like the forecast was 6 hours off and it wouldn’t show until afternoon.  That opened up a window for Willie and me.  We loaded up the boats and headed to the starting point of South Point Higgins on Revilligegado Island.  We safely launched the kayakers and the weather continued to hold unlike Saturday’s attempt.  Willie and I were ready to go.

At 6:23am, we started our swim from the beach.  There were two things that I noticed immediately.  1.  There were a lot of jellyfish.  2.  The water felt colder than previous days.  I didn’t think much of these starting out as we had light winds and the sun was shining.  The water was only covered by small waves.  It was all very manageable. 

We first had to swim through the Tongass Narrows.  This part of the swim seemed to buzz right by.  It probably took 2 hours to complete this part of the swim.  Again nothing much to report as our crews were doing an amazing job keeping us safe and fed.  Around 2 hours I noticed that I had lost feeling in most of my toes.  Nothing that I hadn’t experienced before but it was much sooner than on other swims.  In addition, I had run though a few lion’s mane jellyfish.  Stingy things.  We passed through the Narrows successfully and now were onto Clarence Strait.  All thus far was going according to plan and to schedule.

3.5 hours into the swim, the weather gods smiled on us.  The strait became flat calm.  It was like glass and we could see our kayaker and boat support reflections in the water.  You couldn’t ask for better topside conditions.  On the flipside though, the water became colder.  Clarence Strait wasn’t going to make this super easy.  It is only later that we think that the previous days weather and winds had churned up the water bringing colder water up from the deep.  I believe that most of the swim the water temp was in high 40s never reaching more than 52 degrees.  Not good.  There was some reprieve when the sun peeked out from behind the clouds.  And of course we had ideal wind conditions.  Willie and I continued to swim.  (Note:  Willie and I each had our own escort boats.  At this time, I was out front and didn’t know about Willie’s progress other than that he was still swimming as my crew informed me). 

Besides jellyfish and cold, we did have some minor boat issues.  The stove on Willie’s escort boat went out so my escort boat would heat up water and then go take it over to Willie’s boat for his feedings.  We were trying to maintain core tempurature by taking in warmer feeds.  I found this to be a welcome respite every 30 minutes. 

At 5 hours we were both making progress, but the affects from the cold were taking their toll.  Unfortunately Willie was unable to continue his swim due to hypothermia.  He was unable to stop shivering in order to swim.  It was a safe and correct call to make to stop the swim.  It was also decided that this information was not to be shared with me as I was still in the water.  To my knowledge, Willie was still in the water experiencing the same thing I was.

Like Willie, I too was having trouble with the cold.  Besides losing sensation in my feet, my hands started to cramp up along with my forearms.  I was now practically swimming with fists.  In addition, I was having light shaking throughout my legs and bum.  The cold was starting to move it’s way towards my core.  Thankfully my brain was still functioning and hadn’t started to feel the affects of the cold, but I knew if the swim went on much longer that I would also be in a dangerous situation.  Thankfully I was told at this time that we were about 3 miles from the finish.  I figured about 1.5 hours of swimming as I was averaging in the high 2 miles per hour.  I wanted to see if I could push through the cold to the finish.  After 30 minutes, I had knocked the distance down to 2 miles.  Clarence Strait wasn’t done throwing curve balls.  At the 2 mile mark from the finish, I got stuck in the tidal outflow from Kasaan Bay and forward progress all but stopped.  Adding insult to injury, the water got colder.  Now I was swimming with clenched hands, numb feet, quivers and I wasn’t making forward progress.  I was pretty defeated.  I looked at my kayaker after a feeding with tears in my eyes and shaking voice said “I don’t know if I can do this.”  He replied strongly “We are with you the whole way.  You CAN do this.”  I gave a faint “ok” and put my head back into the cold water.   He was right and I needed to give it my all no matter what the outcome.   We swam on.

In that thirty minutes, I had swum 1/3 mile in 30 minutes.  We were still in the tidal flow.  It wasn’t great progress but it was still in the right direction.  Eventually sometime in the next 30 minutes, I broke through the tidal flow and I heard my kayaker yell “1.5 miles left”    Forward swimming progress picked up and the shore started to finally look closer.  (Note: I know I know I shouldn’t have looked, but it was 2 miles! No one anticipated the tidal flow or at least I didn’t know about it)    Then finally the shore was so close that I knew soon the swim would be over and I could get out of the water.  My kayaker had one final comment as we pushed towards shore “The current is going opposite the way from the rock beach,  I’m not sure you can punch through.”  We were maybe 100 yards or so from shore.  My reply “We are landing this somewhere.”   

I did manage to land on the barnacled rocky shore and wobbled to dry land.  It took 3 agonizing minutes for me to wobble, stumble, fall, etc. to get to the rocky beach so that there was no water behind me.  I turned and quickly raised my hand to signal the end.  It was over.  Clarence Strait had been swum.

It was then I noticed Willie’s boat right next to mine.  “What happened to Willie?”  I was then informed that the cold had been too much and he had stopped early.  I was also informed he was safe and ok which were my next concerns.   Once this was cleared up, I looked back at the water.  I had to get back in to get back to the boat.  This was awful.  The air temp was around 60 maybe and it felt like a sauna.  I knew getting back in would feel even colder than any of the previous sensations.  My kayaker was wonderful offering to tow me back to the boat, but it wasn’t going to keep me out of the water.  I stumbled back over the rocks and slid back into the water.  I swam as fast as possible back to the boat.  My boat crew helped me get warm as I was shaking and had no fine motor skills in my hands to help. 

6 hours and 46 minutes.  They were long and cold, but we made it.    (Note: As soon as the kayakers and all were back on the escort boats, the sky became overcast and the winds picked up.  We had made it just in time.)

I couldn’t accomplish these swims without all the great support here in Alaska and all others around the world. 

Thank you Alaska crew members:

Michelle’s crew: Vern and Joy Craig, Elizabeth Einset, Michael Schuler.  Thanks for the comments, cheers, flowers on my feeds, etc.  You helped me get through.

Willie’s crew:  Tom and Mary Schulz, Sue Doherty, James Klineschmidt. 

General Support: Mike Rath, Jay Diorec

12 Responses to “Can you say cold?”

  1. Courtney says:

    Wow!  Congratulations from me and Kevin!

  2. Julie Andrade says:


    I’m in awe of you Michelle.  I read your “Can you say cold” post with tears in my eyes.  I have several thoughts running though my mind as I read.  Things like…  I hope you swam Berry Fast.  Is she out of her mind?  No she’s not out of her mind.  She will stop at nothing until her goal is met.  When you have a cause bigger than yourself you will do whatever it takes no matter what.  You are an inspiring and amazing.  Congrats you Pioneer Woman.     

  3. Sarah Schneiderman says:

    What perserverence! Congratulations on the swim. I didn't realize that there are jelly fish is such cold water.
    Michelle, you continue to be my hero. I'm amazed as your ability and tenacity.

  4. Dolores says:

    Michelle, you are an amazing athlete and an even more amazing person!  I'm truly in awe of you and what you do!   You are such an inspiration for so many of us, congratulations on an incredible swim!

  5. Diana McCandless says:

    Fantastic, Michelle!  I am new to open water swimming, and I rely on stories like yours to get me motivated. Earlier in my workday, using my cellphone on Facebook, I saw Stephen Munatones had posted a link to this story, but I didn't read it at the time (I was at work).  Just a few minutes ago, back at home, I got my swimsuit on and was in the car headed to my training lake, going to do a 2 mile swim.  But I thought "Oh! Let me turn the car around and go back home to read that story, to keep me motivated during my swim!" So I did.  Here I am, wearing a swimsuit with my cap already on, getting inspired!  I will look forward to visualizing your Great Victory as I am practicing.  Thank You!  Fantastic job!

  6. mike says:

    stunning!  hats off to Willie too!  i also envy your ability to surround yourself with a fine crew, specifically, a crew that you can trust to the point of allowing yourself to push yourself so far into the unknown.  gifted swimmer, gifted team builder.  you rock.  what could ever be next?

  7. Michelle – that is an AMAZING accomplishment. Well done and kudos to your crew!

  8. Joni says:

    How inspirational! I hope you are doing well & hope to see you soon! Thanks for keeping me motivated, my swims are puny compared to yours.

  9. Dougal Hunt says:

    Michelle, what a fantastic effort! You must be so proud of yourself.
    I know what you mean about those blasted Lion's Mane Jellies. I had to contend with those in Ireland and every time I swam over one it made me almost jump out of the water I hated them so much!
    Congratulations girl, you did good.

  10. Rob says:

    Congratulations on an amazing swim! 
    I always find it is very hard to express in pictures or words how cold "cold" is!  I run a group in Toronto called LOST swimming (Lake Ontario Swim Team) and Lake O "rolled over" last weekend, 3 weeks ago it was 67F, two weeks ago it was 52F and I was the solo non-wetsuit in the bunch… and that was COLD!  Last weekend I had to break down and wear a wetsuit as it had dropped to 49F… I was fine in the wetsuit and about a dozen of us made it for about 1/2 hour.  My point is… I know exactly how cold of water you swam in and I know that to go for 6+ hours is a long swim in any water… the long and short of it is… that was an incredible and remarkable swim!!!  You should be very proud of your swim!  Congrats.
    PS. I'll be thinking of your swim this week when we are swimming… as it has now warmed back up to 65F!  😉
    Rob Kent

  11. Barb Pellick says:

    What a blast, well done. Great story, great achievement and another successful swim. You are amazing.!!!
    I'll be thinking of you tomorrow morning when I jump in the ocean here in Western Australia at a cool 16oC (61oF)… Now there's a bit of a difference.!!!
    Take care and all the best for the next one.

  12. kristy says:

    hadn't heard or read about this swim yet…WOW!  so proud of every attempt you make at conquering the world of open water swimming.  congrats michelle…love hearing about your adventures!

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