It’s somewhere around 10:00 AM, Sunday, August 23rd. I’ve been in the water for over fifteen hours and awake for over 24. Bill Burton, one of my English Channel swim mates, is swimming off to my right just behind me. My partner Ray, Brad and Lise are escorting us on the journey back up the lake toward Lakeview Municipal Park. As I lift my head out of the water to breath I realize that I have fallen asleep momentarily.
It’s an odd feeling when you fall asleep with your face down in the water, especially when your body continues to move with relative ease. I continued swimming and a few moments later it happened again. I became acutely aware that I was in a fairly dangerous situation. I knew that on the surface of the water everything appeared normal for my crew. I was also aware that watching a lengthy open water swim can be like watching paint dry; it can get very boring and one can be easily distracted. My biggest fear was that I would fall asleep, keep swimming, and no one would know until it was too late.
I had no choice. I had to alert my crew and have them tell MJ in the safety boat know that she may have to pull me from the water if it continues. I had some cantaloupe and then Bill and I continued to swim. We knew Caycuse Campsite, the refresh spot for paddlers and drop-off spot for Bill, was around the corner but I could not see it and it seemed to be taking forever to get there. I sent Ray ahead to find out how far we were while Lise and Brad continued paddling beside us.
I stopped every 15 to 20 minutes for more cantaloupe slices. Oddly it seemed to do the trick as I stopped falling asleep. I think it was a combination of the sweet and fresh … or it could have been the adrenaline rush from the fear of falling asleep again. Either way, I was up and alert.
We finally reached Cayuse and I now had about 20km to go. I was thrilled that Bill swam as far as he did. He had only planned on swimming 3 to 4km and I had not known him to swim more than 6 to 7km in one go. He had just more than doubled that! I asked the folks on the beach to give him a big cheer as he made his way to shore. Bill’s swim was the inspirational charge I needed to push me through the rest of my swim. I knew at that point I would make it to Lakeview.
One thing I try to do before my swims is memorize my route so I know where I am and how far I have to go. I break the swim down into chunks, from one major landmark to the next. I was just about to pass through the Goose Islands and had 3km to go to get to Rock Bay. From there I would have to swim another 6km to get to and through the narrows, 6km across Honeymoon and McKenzie Bays and then 5km from the Forestry Research Station to the finish at Lakeview.
A new crew, Carol Pilon and Rod Carmichael -2 Victoria Masters’ swimmers – joined me for the next several hours as my escorts. They were a fun crew to watch. Every time I took a breath to the left I could see they were talking. It looked like a rather pleasant conversation. I spent time occupying my mind with thoughts as to what they were talking about.
I let them know when we hit Rock Bay. I could tell by all of the rocks on the bottom of the lake. There were hundreds of them from one end of the bay to the other. A this point I had been swimming for 19 hours and awake for 28. I began mildly hallucinating. I could see the shadowy figures of what appeared to be stingrays or as I called them underwater bats. I would catch sight of them as they swim under me and then they would disappear from sight as they swam ahead. I wonder if this is truly a hallucination or if I was seeing things because of the sun in my eyes.
The swim from the end of Rock Bay through the narrows is the most difficult part of the swim. There are typically large waves, chop, and a lot of back eddies. It is also long and visually deceptive. If you have ever been in a boat and seen the shore get further and further away the closer it get to it shore, you know exactly what I mean. The only thing you can do in a situation like this is put your head down and swim, so I did.
The closer I got to the narrows the more difficult the swim became. At times I felt as though I was swimming in a washing machine. I had to remind myself to not swim too close to the shore but as I moved further out the water was colder. I had to decide, do I swim in nasty chop and back eddies or get hypothermia. I tried to find a middle ground.
When I reached 24 hours into the swim I wanted to speak to Alex. MJ told me she was a bay ahead. I stop to tread water and ask for the radio so I can speak to her. Once I could hear Alex I shouted out a congratulations, letting her know we had just joined the 24 hour club – a group of about 120 swimmers world-wide that have swum for 24+ consecutive hours. This was the first communication I had with her since Heather.
I don’t know how or when it happened but at some point my crew switched to Jen and Claire. I was back to the night shift ladies. The two patiently guided me through the narrows, encouraging me to keep moving as things got difficult – as much as I love swimming in the waves one can only take so much chop and side swipes from the water before becoming a bit frustrated. My only solace was knowing that I would soon be through the washing machine water and into the bay. It was about 5:00PM and I had approximately 10 km to go.
My partner Ray and friend James Gardner paddle over from Gordon Bay and joined Claire, Jen and I. Ray was excited as he could see I was going to make it. He had paddled for me all year at Thetis Lake. We had both invested a lot of heart and soul into this day.
As Ray and James got closer James flipped his kayak and was in the water. I wasn’t sure if he knew how to right his boat so asked Ray to go over and help. I wanted to wait but my crew wanted me to keep swimming. Safety is not just an issue for me but also those who support me. Jen assured me that she had called the escort boat and they would come and help. I reluctantly and slowly swam forward, slowly, looking back to see that James was ok. On my next stop my crew let me know that he was back on the boat to which I replied “good, now I can continue swimming.”
The water was pretty wavy but this time the waves were working to my benefit. Having an expert outrigger and dragon boat stern paddling beside me also helped. Claire positioned me on the waves so I was able to hop on top of surf. I would swim 100 stroke bursts and rest for about 15 seconds in between for the next hour. It was a blast!
As the sun set the water calmed. It was about 7:00PM – 29 hours into the swim and I had finally reached the last 5km stretch from the Forestry Research Centre to Lakeview. I stopped for a drink and out of the corner of my eye I saw someone approaching in a sit-on-top kayak. It was my friend Johnny Greaves. He was with his wife and two kids. He called over and asked if he could join the swim to which I replied “Absolutely. Jump on in.” So he did, making sure to swim off to the left and slightly behind me.
It grew darker and darker as we made our way to Lakeview. Jen had me switch to my night googles which had a small red blinking light on the top so they could see me and they turned on small light on the side of the boat so I could see them. I could see Alex’s crew’s lights ahead. I was about 30 minutes behind her. I had managed to gain an hour and 30 minutes between Rocky Bay and the Research Centre.
I think my vision had taken quite a beating during the day from the sunlight and I was tired. It was very difficult to see what was in front of me. At one point I stopped for some electrolytes and the water in front of me disappeared for about 4 feet. On the other side of the gap was a white statue block of angels. They appeared to be talking. It was rather odd so I put my head down and kept swimming.
I stopped again after about a half an hour for some more electrolytes. I looked up and had a similar hallucination only this time it was devil there was devil like creatures inside the block. They were taunting me. I put my head down and swam on.
9:00 PM drew near. I had been in the water for close to 31 hours and awake for 40. I could hear chattering around me so stopped. Jen asks if I would like some of my friends (Selena and Martin) to join me in the water signaling to me that I had reached the education centre and was about 1km from Lakeview.
Selena and Martin (and possibly others) joined Johnny and me in the water. I looked forward again and once again saw the gap in the water and odd characteurs on the other side. I put my head down immediately as I no longer wanted to be taunted by the hallucination and decided to just swim; no more stopping.
For the last 30 minutes of the swim I felt an odd sort of presence. I was there, but at the same time I was in a bit of a dreamlike state. I could see Claire and Jen in the boat beside me but wasn’t aware of much else around me. I was determined to finish the swim and knew the only way I would get there was with the help of my crew. I released myself to them and simply swam. The water was still and it was dead quiet.
Out of nowhere I could hear people but I could not make-out what they were they were or what they were saying. It got louder. I found out later that the kids had lined the dock to cheer me to shore and were lighting my way with sparklers.
I heard someone yell “swim into the light.” I looked up and I could see a very bright white light and a blue light beside it. I heard it again – “swim into the light – the white light.” I laughed to myself thinking that’s probably not the best thing you can say to me based on the hallucinations I have been having.
I slowed down as I got closer to the lights. Someone yelled out “no, not the white light, the blue light.” I thought, phew, this is a much better choice as I really don’t want to swim into the white light right now.
I swam to the blue light which was lit a path between two logs that were part of a chain of logs protecting the beach. On the other side I saw an angel! Kidding, actually it was my friend Lauren. She was there to guide me through the logs and point me to the finish line. She yelled out “swim to Len Susan.” I looked up and I could see my friend Len standing on the beach. I am usually very happy to see Len but on this occasion I was overjoyed. He was standing on the beach with his arms crossed yelling “don’t touch her” as I made my way to shore.
There were a lot of rocks on the walk up to beach. I stumbled as I made my way out of the water. Once I had cleared the water I either fell into Len’s arms or leaned forward to give him a hug. My guess at this point is it was a bit of both. It was now near 10:00PM and I had been in the water for about 32 hours. I made it and Alex arrived half an hour on shore prior to me. We made it!