Ultra-marathon swimmer Susan Simmons training in darkness near Oak Bay. (Submitted)

Both brains and brawn essential for Vancouver Island marathon swimmer

Susan Simmons is eyeing Aug. 1 for her historic attempt at crossing Juan de Fuca strait twice

Special to Black Press Media

When Susan Simmons steps off the beach on Aug. 1 for an epic attempt to swim across Juan de Fuca strait from Victoria to Port Angeles and back, the feat will be as much about brains as it is about brawn.

The date of the swim is weather dependent, and conditions must be exactly right if she is to have a chance at success — warm with very little wind and down-to-the-minute timing with the tides.

Simmons has spent hundreds of hours training for this event, along with her husband Ray Este paddling alongside her in a kayak.

But behind the scenes, local sailor Gordon Higgins has also spent hundreds of hours on the quest; painstakingly planning the course, reading tide and current tables so that Simmons can use the power of the moon to help propel her to Washington State and back again.

“It’s called a neap tide,” Higgins says. “It’s one of the weakest tides of the year with the smallest difference between high-water and low-water.”

READ MORE: Open water swimming from Victoria to Washington State

Higgins sounds very much like the computer scientist he is when reciting weather forecast stats off the top of his head.

“Long-range forecasts are 50% accurate,” he says. “Five-day forecasts are 80% accurate, and 48-hour forecasts are 95% accurate. It’s really all about the wind.”

And in the hours leading up to the decisive decision-making part of the swim, Simmons will bring herself to a place of peace.

“I listen to Ziggy Marley,” she says. “He sings about love and lifting ourselves up. These are things that are important to me.”

It’s about 33-kilometres as the crow flies from the small beach near the Ogden Point breakwater to Dungeness Spit near Port Angeles, but if Simmons left at the wrong time, she would be fighting a current most of the way and chances are she would never make it.

At 11 a.m., if conditions are right, Simmons will swim past the breakwater and aim for Race Rocks. At that point, about four hours later, she hopes to catch the tide change, and have the Pacific Ocean’s enormous flood tide push her to Dungeness Spit.

If she arrives successfully at Dungeness Spit before 11 p.m., she’ll then swim toward Royal Roads University, being pulled by the current back to Ogden Point.

“The plan is to have the tide behind her at all times, pushing her toward her objective,” says Higgins. “Timing is critical.”

READ MORE: Island woman plans to massive swims this summer

Besides the incredible effort of swimming a minimum of 66 km in open ocean, there are innumerable problems to solve and details to consider.

Higgins has rigged his boat — a Beneteau 34 called Synapse — with lights and spotlights, both to illuminate Simmons’ course throughout the night and to fend off other boats. The Beneteau has a 30-horsepower engine, so Higgins will be constantly on the look-out for Simmons’ two safety boats, whales, deadheads, logs and crab traps, engaging and disengaging the engine as she swims at a little less than 3 kilometres per hour.

Higgins will be in radio contact with U.S. and Canadian marine shipping authorities, warning freighters in the area to steer clear.

Simmons has permission from U.S. authorities to step out of the water up to her knees at Dungeness Spit. The rest of the 10 support crew do not. She’ll have only 10 minutes before she must depart again, if the plan works, at about 11 p.m., Higgins and the support crew carefully following in her wake.

“My support crew is my family,” Simmons says. “They are the people who really get me from shore to shore and truly do the most work. All – or most of – my crew are public servants. They all want to make the world a better place.”

By Paul Bucci

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Gordon Higgins, skipper of ultra-marathon swimmer Susan Simmons’ support boat, works below decks preparing material for Simmons’ swim last year from Port Angeles to Victoria. (Submitted)

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