Woman completes chilly swim

Claudia Rose completed the eight-mile course in just over 4 hours

Posted: Sunday, September 06, 2009

SITKA - A 45-year-old San Diego woman performed a rare feat recently, swimming from Kruzof Island to Sitka. Claudia Rose, who runs an engineering firm in San Diego, is believed to have completed the first-ever recorded swim of Sitka Sound.

Ralph Lufkin / Daily Sitka Sentinel
Ralph Lufkin / Daily Sitka Sentinel

With an assist from Sitkan John Dunlap, who provided logistical support, Rose finished the approximately 8-mile swim in 4 hours, 36 minutes. Without a wetsuit, Rose left Inner Point on Kruzof at 9:24 a.m. and arrived at Halibut Point Recreation Area around 2 p.m. The course took Rose south of Bieli rocks and Middle Island, but a strong current forced her to swim around the north end of Magic Island as she hit the homestretch.

Understandably, Rose was tired and cold as she approached Middle Island and she seriously considered calling it a day. But after being stung by a jellyfish, Rose said she "didn't remember to quit."

After swimming into shallow water at Halibut Point Rec, Rose stood up, walked ashore near the totem pole erected last year and raised her hands above her head in celebration. She had spent more than four hours in 54-degree water, but Rose still managed a smile before hopping back into Dunlap's boat for the trip to Crescent Harbor.

Dunlap, who helped set the course for Rose in a small boat, was impressed that she had enough energy left when she reached the finish line to bask in her accomplishment. He had expected her to crawl to land, not raise her arms and smile.

"It's an amazing thing to hear or read about," Dunlap said. "Having actually seen it, I marvel at what a test of endurance it was."

Rose, an accomplished distance swimmer, said she abided by "English Channel rules," swimming without a wetsuit as she battled jellyfish and strong currents on the choppy course.

Swimming the 21-mile English Channel is like the crown jewel of distance swimming, and the rules stipulate that swimmers start and finish on dry land and complete the swim without a wetsuit.

Rose registered her Sitka Sound time with the United States Masters Swimming, and she said her swim amounted to a "solo swim meet."

She was accompanied on her trip to Sitka by two other San Diego residents and fellow members of the La Jolla Cove Swim Club - Ralph Lufkin, who kayaked alongside Rose and provided her with energy drinks every 20 minutes or so, and Al Brenner, who rode in Dunlap's boat.

Rose, a former triathlete, got serious about distance swimming in 2004. Medical issues forced her to stop running, and when her treatments for pain were unsuccessful, she decided to start swimming. In 2006, she swam Catalina Channel, a 21-mile course from Catalina Island to Los Angeles.

Along with swimming the English Channel, and a race around Manhattan Island, the Catalina Event is part of the "triple crown" of distance swimming.

But Rose is not interested in swimming around Manhattan - she said she'd want a wetsuit and face mask to battle the Hudson and East rivers - or crossing the English Channel, a feat that thousands have accomplished.

"I'm much more interested in things people haven't done," Rose said.

For the last three years, Rose has participated in the Pennock Island Challenge, an 8.2 mile race around Pennock Island near Ketchikan. She got intrigued by the idea of swimming in Alaska when she met Pennock Challenge organizer William Schulz in San Diego. She entered the race, which raises money for the American Diabetes Association, in 2007, and returned in 2008 and 2009.

She and Schulz had toyed with the idea of swimming Icy Strait this year, but the plan eventually fell apart. Instead, he recommended that she swim Sitka Sound. After swimming the Pennock Island race on Aug. 16, Rose extended her stay in Alaska with a jaunt to Sitka. She arrived, did a few practice swims and went out to scout a route with Dunlap.

Rose found Dunlap on the Internet through his Web site for Sitka Sound Ocean Adventures, the sea kayaking company he and his wife Alison run. Rose was struck by the first paragraph of Dunlap's pitch for his kayak tours, which, among other rhetorical questions, asks: "When you get around water - any natural body of water - do you just have to get in it, on it or at least as close as possible?"

Rose read this and thought Dunlap would be sympathetic to her somewhat unusual plan to swim across Sitka Sound.

"She was right on in that assessment," Dunlap said.

Initially, Dunlap had suggested that Rose swim from Shoals Point to the northern tip of Japonski Island, landing at John Brown's Beach. But after a boat trip, Rose and Dunlap agreed the course would be too rough, especially if the wind picked up. They settled on Inner Point to Halibut Point Rec, in part because the entrance to Inner Point wasn't cluttered with too much kelp.

Rose has experienced a lot in her days as a distance swimmer, including a brief encounter with killer whales in Ketchikan. But when Dunlap mentioned that there might be bears on Kruzof, Rose was slightly rattled.

"That had not crossed my mind," Rose said.

Dunlap also told her that while he was unaware of anyone having recorded a swim from Kruzof to Baranof Island, bears had almost certainly made the trip. Rose considered abandoning the English rules in favor of "Alaska rules," a set of guidelines she made up on the spot that would have allowed her to start in the water if there were bears present.

But the swim start from the beach went off without a hitch, and Rose hit the water. What awaited her was cold water, which she expected, and a bevy of jellyfish, which were unanticipated. Rose said that at times she felt like she was "swimming in a jellyfish tank."

She endured several painful stings along the way, but arrived safely at Halibut Point Rec. Rose did not seek out publicity prior to the swim for fear that she might jinx herself. But she said she hopes news of the swim will inspire others to swim in Alaska.

Some in Sitka have taken note of her accomplishment, and had very preliminary discussions about an ocean race here. Rose said after the swim she had posted her time on the Internet and heard back from distance swimmers who were unaware it was possible to swim in the 48th state, particularly without a wetsuit.

"That's what I wanted to show people," Rose said. Rose swims yearround, without a wetsuit, in San Diego and said the conditions in Sitka in August are not unlike what she experiences during the winter months in Southern California. Rose said her previous temperature threshold was 55 degrees, but most of the Sitka swim occurred in 54-degree water.

She said she would consider swimming in 52-degree water, but only for about an hour. She added that there's no objective standard for when cold water becomes dangerous - it all depends on the person.

Part of the reason Rose has no interest in swimming the English Channel is that thousands have done it and thousands have failed, so there is a wealth of knowledge about what it takes to complete the swim. This was not the case in Sitka, where Rose, Dunlap, Brenner and Lufkin had little to go on as they put together the course from Kruzof to Halibut Point Rec.

"We're pioneers," Lufkin said.

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