Q&A: Nanaimo swimmer circumnavigates Saysutshun Island

Sarah Webber reflects on how long ocean swims are changing her perspective on the place she calls home
“I’m regularly astonished at what I see when I’m swimming, like being surrounded by a school of thousands and thousands of fish. I cry in my goggles because it’s so stunning.” Photo by Whelm King

Nanaimo resident Sarah Webber has always been a swimmer, since she was a kid in the White Rapids swim program, and then as an adult doing loops in Westwood Lake.

But as her 40th birthday loomed last summer, Webber decided to set a more ambitious target and switched to long-distance ocean swimming, with a goal to circumnavigate Protection Island.

After she completed that swim in August of 2022 with energy to spare, she set this summer’s goal even higher — a circumnavigation of Saysutshun(formerly known as Newcastle Island), which at 8.5 kilometres is about twice the circumference of Protection Island.

As the summer wore on into August and ocean temperatures began to drop, time was running out to safely plan the trip. Finally, after carefully watching the weather, wind and currents, on August 27 she realized there wasn’t going to be a better time than right then.

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With her father in his boat and kayak support alongside her, she entered the cool water off nearby Protection Island at around 2:20 p.m. At just before 6 p.m. she had completed the swim, in three hours and 40 minutes.

“I grew up on this island and in this community, and I thought I knew the ocean,” Webber said, when we recently spoke. “I’ve grown up near these bodies of water, I’ve swam in all these different locations as a child and throughout my life. But suddenly, I felt like I went from a lifetime of looking at the ocean, to suddenly being in the ocean in a totally new way.” 

Webber told me about how ocean swimming has changed her perspective, how she navigates the safety risks, and why she completed many previous swims — including the one around Protection Island — alone. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

JC: Why do you like to swim alone?

SW: It sounds a bit wild, or treacherous even, but [on previous solo swims] I was always close to shore, so in many instances I could have stood up and walked out of the water at any point. In some stretches there’s cliffs and there’s no way to just get out, but I’m a strong swimmer.

People are gonna say I shouldn’t, but I love swimming alone.

Last summer, Sarah Webber circumnavigated Protection Island for her 40th birthday. This year, she decided to swim the entire coastline of Saysutshun. Photo by Whelm King

I feel safe because I’m not concerned about the sorts of things I would think about if I was jogging around my neighbourhood, which would be interactions with other people. You may encounter a person, maybe a kayaker, but there’s usually no one else swimming.

The issues around safety are that you might get too cold or you could have an unexpected health issue arise. Boats are treacherous. But I’m so close to shore that boats aren’t usually coming there. And you can hear boats a long way off when your ears are underwater all the time.

There could be a risk with mammals, but I’ve only ever had seals approach me.

When I started swimming alone, my presence with myself and my swimming dramatically increased. Whereas previously it was a social and a shared activity, once I switched to swimming alone it became a meditation of self presence, attunement to myself and my environment.

I’m looking into the depths the whole time and I have to be willing to be with myself in a pretty intense way, because there’s no distraction and there’s no escape from yourself, which is part of why I do it. For me, it is a deeply meditative process.

[It’s similar] when I swim with kayak or boat support, because I can just focus on the swim. It lets me settle even deeper into that meditative state, being in the ocean and staring down into the depths. When you’re in deep, deep water it just feels like you’re staring out into the endless expanse of the universe.

It’s a moving meditation. Swimming long distance is not as much about speed and exertion as it is about endurance. There’s a lot more just steady presence with the movement of my body, my breath, and my awareness of my environment. The positive impact of the swimming, in terms of how it has affected my state of mind, my mental health, and my overall peace, is significant.

There’s [also] a lot of awe and wonder. I’m regularly astonished at what I see when I’m swimming, like being surrounded by a school of thousands and thousands of fish. I cry in my goggles because it’s so stunning, and I’m alone there and I’m like, ‘Wow, this is so beautiful.’

Knowing what the coastline looks like from Departure Bay all the way to Lantzville, every section of it, is a different depth of knowing the natural environment that I live in. It gave me more connection to my place of origin and where I’m currently living, and I’m excited to see more of it.

“It was the most extraordinary feat of endurance sport I have ever seen in person,” says Whelm King, who provided kayak support during the swim. Photo by Whelm King

JC: What do you particularly like about ocean swimming?

SW: There’s so much to see. If you’re staying close to shore, you’re seeing everything — all the sea life, the starfish, schools of fish, the seaweed, all the rock surfaces, the oysters, the mussels, the crabs, how the bottom of the ocean changes from one stretch to another. It’s mentally and physically challenging — the cold, the waves — it fosters in me a capacity to navigate uncertainty with a depth of self-reliance.

JC: Okay so tell me about the Saysutshun circumnavigation.

SW: So I was watching for the perfect combination of wind, tides, weather and current. I had one day that was about perfect, but I didn’t have any kayak support, so I waited. And then I got COVID-19, so I didn’t actually swim much for a couple of weeks.

I plotted it out again and made a chart of all the days of the week coming up and realized that none of them were great, some of them were miserable, and one of them was maybe doable.

The ocean was getting colder, and I wanted to do it without a wetsuit because the wetsuit changes your buoyancy and changes my swimming in a way I dislike. I wanted the experience of doing it all under my own effort, with no assistance.

Finally I chose August 27, and I had kayak support — my dad and my friend Whelm King, who has enough knowledge of my swimming to pay attention to any changes that would indicate that I’m getting too cold, because hypothermia when you’re many hours in the water is a risk, and the temperature was about 18 degrees. So, not very warm, but also not so cold I was worried.

That morning we had set to depart Nanaimo Harbour at 1:30 p.m. and I was watching the winds all day. They were slowly increasing, already at the edge of what I would want, especially for the back side of Newcastle and the outside coastline — Kanaka Bay and all that.

I told my dad and Whelm, “Okay, here are the circumstances. I haven’t trained enough. I’ve had COVID. And the weather conditions are getting worse. I’m aware that I’m asking you guys to give many hours of your day. I want you to be aware that there’s a probability that I won’t succeed. Are you still keen to do this?” And they were both like, “Yep, no problem. Let’s go.” 

I didn’t want to do the outside stretch at the end of the swim, so I decided to tackle that first.

It was a hard start. The first three kilometres took quite a bit longer than I thought, but I wasn’t struggling with it, I was steady and going for it. My swimming is pretty consistent, in terms of speed, normally I will swim one kilometre in just under 20 minutes, and this was taking me 24 to 27 minutes per kilometre.

None of my times are impressive to anyone who swims competitively, even endurance races. But that’s not the point, the point is the long swim.

When I rounded the tip of Newcastle where there’s those cool rock formations you can see from the ferries, I realized, ‘Oh, I’m gonna finish this. I’m gonna do this, I’m not gonna give up.’ 

Swimmer Sarah Webber uses a watch that uses GPS to map the swim, shown here as a red line around the satellite image of Saysutshun. Photo submitted by Sarah Webber

I was about halfway done. And then probably 45 minutes later I started to feel really nauseous and was thinking, “I don’t know if I like this.” There’s a lot of movement when you’re swimming and around the back it was pretty rough. In the channel between Nanaimo and Newcastle where all the boats are, there was a lot of diesel fumes, smell and boats going by.

All there is in that moment is moving my arms and breathing. The water was not very clear. It was really turbulent, and the visibility was low, which meant I couldn’t swim that close to the shoreline. There’s a lot of irregular rock formations and I couldn’t see very well to notice them coming up in front of me, so I had a few near misses. 

Once you get your pace going, you don’t want to be in a situation where you could bump into something. So the tediousness got to me after a little while. 

But once I rounded the last corner, facing Protection with Newcastle on my left, there wasn’t very much to go, maybe two kilometres at that point, and then Andres Araujo joined me by kayak too. We’ve swam together for years, so it was significant to have him there alongside me as well. It was also meaningful to me to have my dad’s presence there, that he was there to witness my accomplishment.

So I swam with Andres and Whelm on either side and my dad in his boat in the background, and they were encouraging me and reminding me it’s not that far and to keep going, because I was definitely slowing down. 

Seeing the support, with each breath I took, of people who love me and are championing me along was really encouraging at that point.

And I did it.

JC: When you were at that point, were you more physically worn out or mentally? It sounds like you weren’t in the usual meditative space that allows you to get lost in it and keep going.

SW: A bit of both. I was tired. I was really nauseous. And yeah, I had lost the mindset. Endurance sport requires a mindset where you settle into it and you really stay away from getting lost in the suffering of it [such as] turning a corner and realizing, oh, I still have way more to go than I thought I did.

It was just keeping my head in the game. My body could keep going. It was nice to stop when I finished, but just before then I was really hitting that wall of losing the point of it and losing the focus of my own goal. At that point I was like, “‘Eh… I don’t know.”’ (laughs)

JC: How did you deal with the temperature?

SW: I did a swim the night before. I went to Piper’s Lagoon and did a one-kilometre swim to check my tolerance, because I had heard from a few people that the ocean felt colder. I track the ocean temperature on an app and knew the temperature was dropping, and I didn’t really want to get everyone out in boats, only to realize 10 minutes in that it’s too cold.

This is a risk not just for discomfort. I swim all year round — in the snow, in the winter — regularly, every week. My cold tolerance is pretty high. But with this swim, my main concern was that I would risk hypothermia because of the length of time in the water.

When you’re swimming in cold water over a long period of time, your blood moves to your core, so you have less warm blood in your limbs, which means your limbs are less effective. That’s a bit of an issue for swimming, and the bigger risk is when you finish the swim you get out, and start to recirculate properly, and all that warm blood moves out towards your limbs. The cold blood moves from your limbs towards your heart, so your core can drop significantly in the first half hour after a swim.

JC: What did you do to prevent that?

SW: When I got to shore, I just sat there in the water for a few minutes and then wrapped up in a towel and went inside and had a hot shower. My hands were numb, my fingers were pretty numb, but my cognition was good the whole way through and that was reassuring.

The ocean temperature really comes in pockets, so you’ll be swimming along and then all of a sudden it’s really cold. And then you’ll be swimming along and it’s quite pleasantly warm. It shifts a lot. 

That’s part of why I did this swim on that day, even though the conditions weren’t the best, because it wasn’t ever going to be warmer this year, and I was aware that I would be waiting another year if I didn’t attempt it. 

Which was okay —, I set out knowing I might not succeed., I had a lot of odds against me. But it was worth the effort and it turned out.

Sarah Webber just prior to last summer’s swim around Protection Island, which is about half the circumference of Saysutshun. Photo by Whelm King

So what’s next?

I’m continuing my coastline project. I felt pretty satisfied last fall when I finished the Departure Bay to Sebastian Beach stretch because it [covers] the majority of Nanaimo, but I am continuing that with swims that will connect across to Nanoose, and from Protection Island to Duke Point, and then over to Gabriola and from Gabriola to Cedar, and then I’ll be able to go from Cedar through Yellowpoint and into Ladysmith.

I’ll continue up and down the coast. The goal is — in this lifetime, to see how much of the coast of Vancouver Island I can chart out by swimming. Every time I go somewhere, I try to do a stretch of ocean along the land and mark it out on a map.

Editor’s Note, Sept. 16, 2023: This story was updated to specify the distance around Saysutshun.

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