December 2023, Island Voices, Legends of Vashon

Legends of Vashon – Swimming the Colvos

As recounted to Tripper Harrison

I’ll just dive right in here because that’s what I do. Mom always said to never go swimming for at least two hours after you eat, or you could seize up and drown. I generally tried to stick by her advice, but she never said anything about liquids doing the same. Downing a couple beers right before crossing the Colvos on a bet was a bad idea.

No matter if it’s summer or fall, that first plunge into the Sound is always a shock, and I was used to that from going into Quartermaster and Dockton. By high school, I might not have been the best swimmer or athlete, but I was in good shape and completely confident of being able to swim across the harbors. Or to Tacoma if I damned well felt like it. So to me, the bet was as good as won.

But this time, not long after wading in from Anderson Point, I started to feel a little off, and by the time I looked back, the beach was already about a quarter-mile away. The problem was my legs had pretty much stopped working. It was all I could do to not start heading back, but it was too far to make in a panic. Anyway, I’d rather die and be remembered as a fool, not a quitter. On top of reputation, there was 100 dollars on the line; real money at the time.

This was before the era of sticking your nose into a cell phone or playing all night on Xbox, and 100 bucks would still go a long way to getting into a car. We were out partying after the Gig Harbor football game when things got to things and the subject of animals – bears, cougars, raccoons – swimming over to Vashon from the peninsula came up. A group of rich kids said we didn’t know what we were talking about; I said it was a fact and if I could do it, so could a bear and vice versa. The challenge was given, I responded, and we shook on it for Sunday.

We drove up the 16 and turned right towards the point down past the Ormann’s old place, where the Swedes of my families’ line settled. Team members were waiting across the way down at the Cove. This was the first or second week of October, just after 2:00 P.M., sunny with a little breeze, but no waves to worry about.

There was maybe a mile still left to go, so I stopped thrashing and rolled over onto my back to just focus on floating and to make some forward progress. Doing the backstroke means you can’t look around for boats, but my arms were doing OK and there was no chance of missing Vashon as long as I kept the current on my south side and the mountains at my feet. 

After 15 or 20 minutes and 10 gulps of the Puget Sound, my legs came back. I rolled over onto my stomach and kicked into my freestyle. The old Island started getting closer, and for the first time from almost the get-go, I was sure about making it. What I wasn’t sure about was making the rendezvous at the Cove; the tide was pulling a lot stronger than it looked.

In fact, it pulled me right past Cove, where they were whooping and waving. I motioned to mean that I’d be further up the beach, so they left. I caught shore and crawled up on a sandy spit near Shinglemill and recharged a bit before trying to walk, so it worked out by the time they got there. The Gig Harbor boys paid up, and with that plus some savings, I was able to buy my first car, a 1972 Mustang Boss 302 fastback. 

That led to bragging rights, then to other bets, and to the service. I often think of that moment when things weren’t looking good and could have gone either way. Listen to your mothers and don’t eat or drink anything before swimming across open water. It would be best to have a boat right next to you, and if you take a bet these days to cross the Colvos, I wouldn’t do it for less than $500.

December 8, 2023

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