Susanne Baab-Simpson plunged into the English Channel’s chilly waters at 7:10 a.m. Aug. 14 to embark on a challenge that marathon swimmers equate to a climber’s Mount Everest.
At age 56, the longtime Spokane competitive swimmer in 50-meter pools successfully completed the 21-mile crossing in 11 hours and 47 minutes. The average time is about 15 hours.
“I’ve wanted to swim the English Channel since I was a little kid; it was on my bucket list,” said Baab-Simpson by phone. She is living temporarily in Sacramento to train for open water swims. “It’s 21 miles if you can swim it straight, but it’s impossible to swim straight because the tides are so strong.”
“With my day’s weather report, we thought the water was going to be relatively smooth, but in reality, there were white caps. I had about 3-foot white caps. In England, they call them white horses.”
Under channel swimming regulations, she couldn’t wear a wetsuit – only one swimsuit, a cap and the same pair of goggles – to traverse stroke after stroke in the choppy water, averaging about 60 degrees. It’s officially an unassisted swim, so she couldn’t touch the accompanying boat, or another human.
The boat captain determines the start time based on conditions, and a separate observer on the boat must keep the swimmer in sight. Baab-Simpson’s nourishment, mostly electrolyte carbohydrate drinks or gel mixtures, got tossed out with a rope.
“They blow a whistle for a feed,” she said. “I had it set up every 30 minutes, but I swam the first hour straight. You need to have that energy throughout the swim.”
Nearly 10 hours into her journey, Baab-Simpson came close to seeing her quest aborted. A buoy line got caught around the boat’s propeller, causing a stall.
“I thought I was going to have to abort because that had happened to a friend earlier that week at midnight, and they couldn’t see her, but I sprinted back to the boat and treaded water. They were able to fix it quickly; it was maybe about a 10- or 15-minute pause.”
Another challenge came in the final leg, when the tide proved so strong that she kept moving parallel to the coastline.
“I could see the coast of France every time I was breathing to my right, for three hours. I said to the people on the boat, ‘I’m not getting anywhere.’ The tide was so strong, I couldn’t push through it and turn in towards the land.”
“Eventually, the tide started to change and the boat was able to guide me, so I could actually start swimming toward the shore.”
Baab-Simpson finished her swim a little before 7 p.m., ahead of darkness. A swimmer has a glow stick or light attached, in case the journey lengthens into nighttime.
With the English Channel checked off, she’s completed two of three open water swims considered marathon swimming’s Triple Crown. A year ago, Baab-Simpson swam a 21-mile route called Catalina Channel, from Catalina Island to San Pedro near Long Beach, mostly at night in 11 hours and 17 minutes.
Remaining is a 28-mile trip around Manhattan Island, “which I’m going to do, most likely next summer,” she said.
A sprinter first
A mother of three, Baab-Simpson moved to Spokane in 1995 where she stayed more than 20 years. Raised in Seattle, she started in competitive swimming at age 5. She continued in the sport until 18, then took a 20-year hiatus.
“As a child, I was sprinter,” she said. “I swam 50 free, 100 free, 50 fly, and 100 fly.”
Her return to the pool at age 38 came after trying an aerobics class on land and feeling awkward.
“I thought I should go back at least to what I’m good at.”
She started doing laps at the Spokane Club, later at other regional pools, and Baab-Simpson eventually set FINA Masters Swimming world records at age 42 in 200-meter butterfly and freestyle. She also did a stint coaching for Spokane Area Swimming.
Slowly, her preference for swimming turned to open water events, and Baab-Simpson only recently discovered a love for ocean swimming. Divorced about three years ago, she traveled in November 2014 to a Southern California swim camp with a friend, another open water swimmer.
At that camp, they joined a 3-mile swim to distant caves. Baab-Simpson couldn’t believe how vividly the water came alive around her.
“It’s like we’re swimming through an aquarium,” she said. “There were fish everywhere, and the clarity of the water was absolutely beautiful.”
When Baab-Simpson returned to Spokane from that 2014 swim camp, she realized she was ready for a change. California, and more ocean swimming, beckoned.
She continued to journey back and forth between California and Spokane, until her stay in Sacramento to train in cooler-temperature waters the past year. Baab-Simpson sold her Spokane home in October but still returns often. She also has a home in Poulsbo, Washington.
“To train for the English Channel, the No.1 thing is to acclimate yourself to cold water,” she said. “You have to train in cold water for a long time and not have your core body temperature get too low. I also traveled to the San Francisco Bay frequently, and there, the water was usually 58 degrees.”
“In training, I didn’t wear a wetsuit.”
An official English Channel swim also requires an application process, medical exam, proof of swimming, and evidence of a six-hour certification swim in water at 60 degrees or less, she said.
After her 2015 Catalina Channel swim, Baab-Simpson turned her focus on the English Channel. Generally, swimmers have to wait two to three years to charter a boat, but in January she found an opening for this summer.
“I really lucked out in getting my spot,” Baab-Simpson said. “A woman who is a coach in Australia had bought the position three years prior for people she coaches, and she didn’t have a person to fill one of those positions, so I was able to purchase it.”
An English Channel swim must be timed during what’s called a neap tide, a tide of minimum range occurring at the first and third quarters of the moon. “There are 12 boats you can charter,” she said. “They’ll sell one to five positions per boat during each summer of the neap tide.”
Because of changing weather and her position on the boat, she stood ready beginning Aug. 7 in England. She didn’t get the green light to swim until a week later, when she departed from Samphire Hoe, south of Dover.
“The weather can change so quickly, and it can be so windy. Every day I’d have to call my boat captain at 7:30 at night to see if I could go in six hours, and that was mentally very challenging.”
But now that the swim’s completed, the entire experience resonates with her.
“I feel like you’re never too old to pursue your dreams,” she said. “That’s one of the things people ask, ‘What do you think about when you’re out there for that length of time?’ I honestly was continuously thinking about how grateful I was to have this opportunity, whether I was successful or not.
“Just the fact that at my age, I have my health. I’m strong enough.”
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.