Legends of Vashon
January 2024, Legends of Vashon

Legends of Vashon

The Orca Club

By Arnold Swimmer

We require two things to be published as a “Legend of Vashon.” It has to be set on Vashon. And it has to be a good yarn. Enjoy!

I heard that, back on Vashon, people are talking about swimming the Colvos passage. That brings back memories! I didn’t swim on the Colvos side, but I’ll never forget the night I swam and nearly died right off the shore of Vashon.

This was a long time ago, back when there were ocean amusement parks where you could go and see dolphins and orcas swimming around and doing tricks. There were companies that would go out and catch these animals, and right off of Vashon for a while there were pens where they’d hold the poor animals. There were guards and a boat, and the further you stayed away, the happier the guards were.

The rumor at the time was that they had an orca in there, and you could see the floats that anchored the nets for the enclosure. Sometimes you thought maybe you could see a fin, and maybe it did look like an orca. I don’t know who thought up “The Orca Club.”

The idea was simple. The orca enclosure was a big upside down letter “U” pointing into the sound. You swim out to the net, follow it along into the sound, and then it curves back. When you reach the other end of the net, you swim back to the shore. You’re now a member of the Orca Club! You’re following the net, and not actually swimming in with an orca, which might, I don’t know, eat you or something.

You had to do it at night because of the guards. It was also too cold to swim in anything but a wetsuit, but I knew somebody about my size who had one. It’s amazing how quickly a dumb idea turns into a dumb guy (me) standing at the shore in a poorly fitting wetsuit. But there I was.

We’d checked the tide tables, and I shouldn’t have had to swim against anything except the usual random currents. There was no moon, but my eyes had adjusted to the dark and there was enough stray light to let me see the net I’d follow. I looked at my buddies, then the water. Too late to back out, so I waded in.

It was pretty muddy, so I was relieved when it got deep enough that I could float clear of the bottom. It was harder than I expected to spot the first net buoy, but there it was, and I swam out to it. I had flippers on and, as it turned out, they were one of the reasons I didn’t die that night.

Laying hands on the cable connected to the buoy, I realized how lucky I was to be wearing gloves – the cable was crusted, and would have cut my hands up. The rubber of my gloves was going to be pretty chewed up by the end of this swim, oh well. I struck out along the cable, letting my hand touch it after every three or four kicks to make sure I was on course, and after not too long, I reached the second buoy.

I had worked my way along several cable spans, and was pretty far out, away from the shore. I had done my several kicks when I reached out for the cable – and it wasn’t there. Oh boy, that was bad news, and I figured I’d drifted out away from it a little farther than I expected. So I angled inward, kicking with one hand out in front of me so I wouldn’t catch the cable in my face.

But now I’d gone far enough that I knew that, wherever the cable was, I wasn’t going to find it by swimming around in the dark. Probably this segment had sagged deep enough that I’d swum right over it. I was getting cold by now, and it was time to finish up this swim. I pointed my body up vertical and flutter kicked to get my head as high up out of the water as possible, so I could spot the next buoy. This was when I discovered that a little surface mist had come up, and all I got was a nice view of nothing.

That got the blood pumping, and now I had to think hard and fast. I needed to pick the right direction and swim in a straight line. If I missed the land, I’d swim out into the open sound, freeze up, and drown. I had tried to keep track of where I was pointing, so now I took my best guess of where the shore was, and started swimming straight at it.

Yes, this meant I was swimming in with the orca. The big, cold, quiet of the water was a lot scarier than a critter which might eat me – or might leave me alone. The sound was going to kill me for sure if I didn’t get out of it pretty soon.

I swam strongly, and those flippers let me move along at a good pace. I was starting to worry that I should’ve reached land by now when I heard a sound off to my left. It sounded just like a fin cutting through the water, and I almost angled away before I realized that I would never swim clear of an orca. I kept going.

And then it hit me, tearing right across my chest. The fear of orcas jumped way up higher than fear of drowning, and I tried to make a sharp turn to the right, to get away from it. But my knee hit something, and then I realized that I hadn’t been hurt by an orca – I’d bumped into a jagged rock. I probed with my foot, and found that I could touch bottom. I’d gotten back to land!

I got up onto the muddy beach, then worked my way along the shore to try and find my buddies. It was high bank, and it quickly got to where I’d have to go back in the water to go further. Not happening. I eventually found a path, up to a driveway, and then up to a road. It was dark, but I walked along until I figured out where I was.

My buddies were nearly ready to call the Coast Guard when I found them. I was pretty chewed up from my crash into that rock, and I told them my story while I bled on the back seat as we drove to somebody who could patch me up. They all told me I was definitely an Orca Club member, and I told’em it was just another name for the Stupid Club.

It wasn’t long before I moved somewhere hot and dry, far from the south Sound. People ask me if I miss the ocean, but I think that night gave me all the ocean I’ll ever want.

January 8, 2024

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