Lord Bryon, the prolific writer of the early nineteenth century wrote, “The great art of life is sensation, to feel that we exist, even in pain.” Byron, long considered the father of open water swimming, could have been describing his love affair with the sport that inspired so much of his great writing. Fast forward more than a century later, a group of open-water swimmers with the nickname The Notorious Alki Swimmers, in Seattle, Washington, USA train in the painfully cold water of the Salish Sea.
The cold water sea swimmers that meet weekly at the Alki Beach Bathhouse in West Seattle have been doing so for years. The Puget Sound or the newly designated Salish Sea boasts chilling year round temperatures ranging from 45 F (7 C) in the winter to 53 F (11.8 C) in the summer. It’s a temperature that would put most people into a state of shock, but for these swimmers it’s invigorating, a type of poetry in motion. Different swimmers have come and gone, but on any given weekend, people get tips on the latest in open water swimming, meet friends old and new, and swim safely amidst a crowd of diverse athletes.
They have attracted swimmers from near and far for a dip or a training session. Even the inimitable Sarah Thomas of Colorado who did a double crossing of the English Channel has come to train alongside Alki's thalassophiles.
It’s not only channel and marathon swimmers that show up to Alki. The majority of swimmers are there for the sense of community and for the sport’s health benefits. Whether it’s getting out in nature, being part of a community, or the shock from the cold that activates the bodies fight or flight response, more medical professionals are beginning to believe in the benefits cold water in order to aid depression or stimulate better mental health.
Year round, an adventurous few from the Alki group take to night swimming. Many show up for the great sense of adventure in their own backyard, or because they are preparing for a future channel swim. Long distance channel swims often start at night when the sky is obsidian black and then follow into the light of day.
While I was catching a night training swim in the Salish Sea, an excellent swimmer named Todd came whizzing by. The only swimmer without a lit up buoy, he stopped long enough to notice he was near another swimmer. To summarize a very short and choppy conversation over loud crashing waves, Todd said he trains in pools for fitness, but sea swimming was for his overall well being. A few moments later, he was off kicking into a wave and disappeared into the sea of night.
The Brits have long dominated the sporty pass time, from forging the world famous English Channel swim or the current craze for leisurely nature swims known as wild swimming. Yet, in America, Washington’s Pacific Northwest with its similar weather to the UK and great coastal waters, is the wild west of open water swimming. It has some the finest bodies of water in the world, ones that reach well beyond Alki Beach in West Seattle and who knows, this little known hub for open water swimming might have inspired even Lord Byron himself.
Produced with a 35mm underwater analog camera and waterproof video camera during training. Bethanie Mitchell, wetsuit free endurance swimmer.