Two swimmers successfully crossed the Frederick Sound near Petersburg in mid-July. They spent hours in the glacier-fed water, which runs 600 feet deep in parts. It’s the first time in living memory that anyone ever made it across the seven-mile stretch.
There were icebergs on the horizon, and the surface temperature hovers in the low 50s. The waters of the Frederick Sound were cold — like knives in your skin, cold. That’s how it felt when I go to grab a “diver down” flag that fell overboard.
When you’re completely immersed, it feels like the breath is being sucked out of your lungs. That’s why Andrew Simmonds was wearing wearing a wetsuit so thick, it takes him half an hour to put it on. The suit protects him from the worst of the chill — but he’ll spend the rest of the day in that freezing water.
Simmonds, age 61, is the first person in living memory to try to swim across the sound. Last summer, he got close, but didn’t quite make it. He wanted to make it all the way this time, in what he says will be his last try.
But things have changed — now, he’s going for silver. Simmons was beaten to the punch when another swimmer made it across just three days earlier. His name: Scott May.
“It was actually the shortest tide swing of the month, and the weather was looking beautiful,” said May.
May, age 59, is a retired teacher from Juneau. He saw the opportunity in a good weather window and pounced.
“I talked to my wife, Bridget, and my good friend, Tommy Thompson, and said, ‘Hey, let’s go out on the boat Wednesday morning,'” said May. “Then we went over there and jumped in the water, and the rest is history, I guess.”
Scott May may have been the first to cross, but he took the shortest route. Simmonds is gunning for the longest way across: seven miles.
However, there’s camaraderie between the two swimmers — even from a distance. They didn’t meet in person until after Simmonds’ second attempt. On the day of Simmonds’ swim, May is watching him from his house through a pair of binoculars. May also passed along some advice — for him, the hardest part was enduring the extreme temperature. He says the cold was almost unbearable at the halfway point.
“I was getting discouraged because it was getting colder, and Frederick Point wasn’t getting any closer,” said May. “I didn’t want to quit — I’m not somebody who gives up easily. When I saw the rocks and the seaweed, I just pushed through that last stop and didn’t even stop and just literally crawled out and sat down. That was the greatest part of the whole thing.”
Last year, Simmonds had to fight a strong current just before he reached the end. It burned him out, and he had to get back on the boat. Gearing up for this trip, he admitted he’s worried his “old bones” won’t make it. But he’s laughing through the nerves — like those surrounding his deep fear of bumping into the marine life lurking below.
“I thought I would have a heart attack if as I looked down into the water and there were eyeballs looking up at me,” said Simmonds. “It would’ve really freaked me out. But that was part of it — facing one’s fears.”
Simmonds is three quarters of the way across the sound when the discomfort really sets in. He’s feeling the cold – his exposed face is pale and bloodless.
Simmonds is on Petersburg’s Search and Rescue team, and he hurt his left shoulder a few weeks ago hauling equipment for firefighters who were putting out a blaze that consumed the local catholic church.
Josef Quitslund is piloting the rescue boat. He periodically stops to check in with the man in the water; sometimes, offering him food – chocolate chip cookies and milk, per his request.
Simmonds is flagging a bit. And he’s fighting the current – just like last year. From the captain’s seat, Quitslund points out how it’s strong enough to move his boat. But Simmonds’ arms and legs never stop churning.
Seven hours after he left the shore of Sandy Beach, Andrew Simmonds touches the face of the cliff on the other side. He lands just a few yards away from a waterfall, tumbling into the ocean.
Last year, Simmonds said he was crossing the sound for “no good reason.” But now, he says he has several.
“It’s about the imagination and it’s about seeing how far I can push these old bones,” said Simmonds. “It’s about the wonderful support I received last year.”
What’s next for the two swimmers? They don’t know — but they’re thinking about starting a club. For now, it’s a just club of two — at least, until others gather the courage to swim across the unforgiving waters of the Frederick Sound.