Swimming to Protection Island

Posted by Gerry Thomasen on Wednesday, July 11th, 2007 at 9:06pm.

I've become accustomed to canoeing home from work in the evenings, to my place on Protection Island. I love it.

But I was annoyed at work today, because my canoe was back on the island without me (long story), so I was going to be riding the boring old ferry home instead of having my personal time with the ocean.

It was a hot day (32°C?), so it was easy to decide —once and for all— to swim home to Protection Island. I've always thought it would be cool to swim across the channel from the Yacht Club to Newcastle, and I think every capable Protection Island resident should consider swimming home at least once.

 Swim route to Protection Island

I told everyone at work that I was going to do it, so that I couldn't psyche myself out later, when I would be standing in my ginch beside the crusty ocean. I'm SO glad I didn't wimp out, because it was a riot.

Crossing the first channel

I left work at 8:10pm so there would still be lots of light and warmth. I walked across downtown to Swy-a-Lana Lagoon, and across the Millstone Estuary onto the Queen Elizabeth Promenade — you know, where the rollerblading path is. It was a beautiful evening, with lots of people out walking.

I went out onto that little breakwater with the bench at the end, right beside the Nanaimo Yacht Club. A guy and two girls my age were sitting there. I picked my way down to the shoreline and stripped to my boxers, carefully packing my flip-flops, clothes, cellphone and mp3 player into a couple of garbage bags, and tied my package to a shoelace I stole from a pair of shoes at work (sorry, Reed). I tied a loop at the end. I was shivering with adrenaline and public exposure.

I jumped into the water, which was pretty warm, and bee-lined across a short stretch to a ramp leading onto the south dock of the Yacht Club. Soaking in my underwear and carrying a black plastic garbage bag, I ran between upscale pleasure craft to the end of the dock, imagining how figures in white might suddenly step out and scowl at me.

I sat on the end and got ready, avoiding a rusty nail and also noticing that it's jellyfish season now. There was some hip older guy in his sailboat, and he looked amused to see me. He just said, "I have to know." I think I laughed giddily.

He offered me a ride, but I explained that I wanted to be able to say I'd done it. He said he'd watch out for me as I crossed.

The channel between Nanaimo and Newcastle Island is narrow, but it's busy. There were no floatplanes, but a tug only missed me by about twenty seconds. I was lucky, because I had been delirious on the Yacht Club's dock, and hadn't actually looked at the traffic to time my crossing.

I must have looked so stupid, with my bald head bobbing along with that black plastic garbage bag.

As I neared the island, I noticed deer on the shore. I was able to drift in pretty close before the biggest one noticed me.

The sailboat village

Aware of a bunch of jellyfish stings on my sides, I hobbled barefoot along the barnacley sandstone to Mark Bay, a deep bay that cut me off from the part of Newcastle Island that's close to Protection Island. My original plan had been to run along the trail inside this bay, but the ocean was so inviting that I just got back in the water and bee-lined for my destination on Protection Island.

This was a long, strange journey between every kind of boat. The pictures I've included here were taken (by satellites) when there were fewer boats in the harbour. Imagine that I was sunk to my neck in a huge gallery of hulls and sails, moving by me oh-so-slowly, with me trying to keep the thick taste of salt out of my head.

Some boaters smiled and some scowled. A young guy drove up from the docks in his zippy little inflatable, to make sure I was alright and to find out what the hell? I appreciated that he thought I was novel. I like attention.

A big yacht loomed toward me. I waved, and the driver (up top) waved back, and I was glad. I felt out-of-place and vulnerable, like a badger stopping traffic.

By the time I reached the shore at last, I felt like a god. I was singing The Who's "Pinball Wizard":

"That deaf dumb blind kid-
SHOA plays a mean pin-ball!"

EDIT (February 2017):
1) I have no idea, 10 years later, why I put that Pinball Wizard bit in.
2) It's really not a good idea to swim in the harbour, unless:

  • You're a good swimmer
  • The water's warm (I did it on a hot July evening)
  • The sea's calm
  • The tide isn't too low, and
  • You stay alert for boaters and do your best to be seen

Another swim route to Protection Island

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