Author Susann Babaei, a project engineer with our Seattle Transportation Design team, recently joined a swimming group that ventures the open waters of the Puget Sound. Susann is a motivator and resource for open-water swimming, among other activities, through SCJ’s Health and Wellness group.
As a triathlete, I’ve been swimming for a while. We race in open water, but train almost exclusively in the pool, mostly working on form and speed sets.
I’ve always enjoyed the open water more than the pool, but I was too busy training to explore that feeling. When COVID hit, every part of my routine got shut down, including the pools. I didn’t swim for three months. I did keep running and biking, but in isolation.
I live on Alki Beach, but since the Stay Home order was issued the crowds keep me away during spring and summer peak seasons. I came up with different running and biking routes to avoid my favorite spots. Like so many others, I grew depressed.
Then on Memorial Day weekend, I discovered an isolated beach in West Seattle. I call it Secret Beach and started visiting it every day to take a short dip in the water. At first it was just to play. The sea has always cheered me up in hard times, and this was no different.
I invited friends, including some SCJers, to Secret Beach for socially distant beach days complete with tacos and blue drinks. Gradually, I could stay in the water longer and longer. I started swimming farther and farther out.
One day a group of swimmers passed by and ended up inviting me to join them on Wednesdays at a nearby cove for a swim and some pizza. I couldn’t say no! I hadn’t done a real swim in almost six months, but I trusted my triathlon training and went. I was hooked from the first day. Now I swim with them five days a week.
The group is known as the Notorious Alki Swimmers and has about 50-100 regular swimmers. Before COVID everyone swam together. Now we swim in small, socially distant pods. There are 10 swimmers I regularly swim with. We mostly swim parallel to shore and wear buoys so we’re visible to boaters. Everyone looks out for each other.
Mostly I swim in West Seattle, but I’ve also swum to and from Cutts Island, around Blake Island, and in the Pacific at Westport. I wear a wetsuit for any swim longer than 1.5 miles. Currently, I can’t really push beyond an hour without it. I’m aiming to do the Bremerton-to-Alki swim next summer. It’s 10 miles and wetsuits are not allowed.
I will keep swimming through the winter to build my cold-water tolerance. There are many studies showing the health benefits of cold water, both physically and mentally. My hope is that as the Sound cools, I will acclimate with it. It’s already cooled from 57 to 52. The low will be around 46 in February. Then as it warms up again, hopefully I can push beyond that hour mark and do longer swims without my wetsuit.
I love swimming in the Sound for so many reasons. The water is beautiful, the sea life is interesting to look at, the waves are fun, and the scenery is gorgeous. I feel alive when I’m in the water, more so than I do at any other time. I’ve pretty much been neglecting triathlon training for open water swimming. It’s my new passion.
Open water swimmers are also the friendliest and most welcoming people I’ve met. I’ve made so many friends through this sport, and it’s meant a lot to me during the loneliness of COVID. The depression I felt earlier in the year is completely cured.
I’ve encountered a variety of wildlife out in the water. Seals are very curious creatures and will swim very close to you. Mostly harbor seals, but I did see a female elephant seal one day. I’ve also had several encounters with lion’s mane jellyfish. They pack a pretty bad sting, so I try to avoid them. I’ve only been stung once.
Now that it’s getting dark earlier, we’re doing night swims. We put lights in our buoys to make us visible. I never knew the Sound had bioluminescence, but it does! Swimming through the dark water, seeing light everywhere you touch, is so magical.