Woman swims across Sitka Sound without wetsuit

54-DEGREE WATER: San Diego engineer made it from Kruzof Island in 4 hours, 36 minutes.

September 6, 2009 

San Diego distance swimmer Claudia Rose enters the water off Inner Point on Kruzoff Island on her way to swimming across Sitka Sound. Rose is believed to be the first to complete the swim.

RALPH LUFKIN / DAILY SITKA SENTINAL VIA THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

SITKA -- Claudia Rose was cold, tired and seriously considering calling it quits as she approached Middle Island during her historic swim across Sitka Sound last month.

Then she was stung by a jellyfish, Rose said, and she "didn't remember to quit."

Rose, a 45-year-old from San Diego, went on to complete what is believed to be the first recorded swim across the Sound, an eight-mile journey from Kruzof Island to Sitka that she completed in 4 hours, 36 minutes.

Swimming without a wetsuit and with logistical support from Sitka's John Dunlap, Rose left Inner Point on Kruzof at 9:24 a.m. and arrived at Halibut Point Recreation Area around 2 p.m. Along the way she battled jellyfish and strong currents.

After swimming into shallow water at Halibut Point Rec, Rose stood up, walked ashore near the totem pole erected last year and raised her hands above her head in celebration. She had spent more than four hours in 54-degree water, but she managed a smile before hopping into Dunlap's boat for the trip to Crescent Harbor.

Dunlap, who helped set the course for Rose, was impressed she had enough energy left to bask in her accomplishment. He expected her to crawl out of the water, not raise her arms and smile.

"It's an amazing thing to hear or read about," Dunlap said. "Having actually seen it, I marvel at what a test of endurance it was."

MAKING HER MARK

Rose, a former triathlete who runs an engineering firm in San Diego, got serious about distance swimming in 2004. Medical issues forced her to stop running, and when her treatments for pain were unsuccessful, she decided to start swimming.

In 2006, she swam Catalina Channel, a 21-mile course from Catalina Island to Los Angeles, which along with the English Channel and a race around Manhattan Island makes up the triple crown of distance swimming.

But Rose is not interested in swimming around Manhattan -- she said she'd want a wetsuit and face mask to battle the Hudson and East rivers -- or crossing the English Channel, a feat that thousands have accomplished.

"I'm much more interested in things people haven't done," Rose said.

For the last three years, Rose has participated in the Pennock Island Challenge, an 8.2 mile race around Pennock Island near Ketchikan. She got intrigued by the idea of swimming in Alaska when she met Pennock Challenge organizer William Schulz in San Diego.

She and Schulz had toyed with the idea of swimming Icy Strait this year, but the plan eventually fell apart. Schulz recommended that she swim Sitka Sound. And so after swimming the Pennock Island race on Aug. 16, Rose extended her stay in Alaska with a jaunt to Sitka. She arrived, did a few practice swims and went out to scout a route with Dunlap.

Rose found Dunlap through his Web site for Sitka Sound Ocean Adventures, the sea kayaking company he and his wife Alison run. Rose was struck by the first paragraph of Dunlap's pitch for his kayak tours, which asks: "When you get around water -- any natural body of water -- do you just have to get in it, on it or at least as close as possible?"

Rose figured Dunlap would be sympathetic to her somewhat unusual plan to swim across Sitka Sound.

Initially, Dunlap had suggested that Rose swim from Shoals Point to the northern tip of Japonski Island, landing at John Brown's Beach. But after a boat trip, Rose and Dunlap agreed that would be too rough, especially if the wind picked up.

They settled on Inner Point to Halibut Point Rec, in part because the entrance to Inner Point wasn't cluttered with too much kelp. The course took Rose south of Bieli rocks and Middle Island, although the day of her swim a strong current forced her around the north end of Magic Island as she hit the homestretch.

WATCH OUT FOR WHAT?

Rose has experienced a lot in her days as a distance swimmer, including a brief encounter with killer whales in Ketchikan. But when Dunlap mentioned there might be bears on Kruzof Island, Rose was slightly rattled.

"That had not crossed my mind," Rose said.

Dunlap also told her that while he was unaware of any humans having recorded a swim from Kruzof to Baranof Island, bears had almost certainly made the trip.

Rose abided by English Channel rules for her swim -- which prohibit the use of a wetsuit and require that the swim begins and ends on dry land -- but briefly considered abandoning them in favor of "Alaska rules," a set of guidelines she made up that would have allowed her to start in the water if there were bears present.

But the swim start from the beach went off without a hitch, and Rose hit the water.

What awaited her was cold water, which she expected, and a swarm of jellyfish, which she didn't.

The cold she could handle. Rose swims year round in San Diego without a wetsuit and said conditions there in the winter months are not unlike those in Sitka in August.

The jellyfish were another story. It was like "swimming in a jellyfish tank," she said, and she endured several painful stings before arriving safely at Halibut Point Rec.

Witnessing Rose's historic swim were two other San Diego residents and fellow members of the La Jolla Cove Swim Club -- Ralph Lufkin, who kayaked alongside Rose and provided her with energy drinks every 20 minutes or so, and Al Brenner, who rode in Dunlap's boat.

Rose didn't seek out publicity prior to the swim for fear that she might jinx herself. But she said she hopes news of the swim will inspire others to swim in Alaska.

Some in Sitka have taken note of her accomplishment and had very preliminary discussions about an ocean race here. After she posted her time on the Internet, Rose heard back from distance swimmers who were unaware it was possible to swim in Alaska without a wetsuit.

"That's what I wanted to show people," she said.

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