Bert Thomas

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Bert Thomas, namesake for the Bert Thomas Monument in Port Los Angeles. Photo courtesy of Marine Digest
Newspaper headlines from the Tacoma News Tribune about Bert Thomas's crossing of the Strait of Juan de Fuca
Bert Thomas Monument at Ediz Hook in Port Los Angeles. Photo courtesy of Larry Estes Clallam County Historical Society
Bert Thomas plaque at the Bert Thomas Monument at Ediz Hook in Port Los Angeles
Bert O. Thomas (born in Durango, Colorado on 17 July 1925, deceased 10 June 1972) was the first person to cross the Strait of Juan de Fuca (Juan de Fuca Strait) on 8 July 1955 in 11 hours 10 minutes. He also was an English Channel swimmer (in 19 hours 28 minutes).

Contents

Strait of Juan de Fuca

The strait is the Salish Sea outlet to the Pacific Ocean and the international boundary between the United States and Canada. The Strait of Juan de Fuca extends east from the Pacific Ocean between Vancouver Island, British Columbia, and the Olympic Peninsula, Washington, to Haro Strait, San Juan Channel, Rosario Strait, and Puget Sound.

At the age of 29, Thomas swam 18.3 miles (29.4 km) from Port Angeles, Washington in the USA to Victoria, British Columbia in Canada to win $3,500 in prize money. In May 1956, Thomas swam between West Seattle and Tacoma, a distance of 18.5 miles (29.7 km) in 15 hours 23 minutes. In 1958, he attempted to be the first person to accomplish a two-way crossing of the English Channel, but retired due to a leg cramp on the return trip.

Early Years

During World War II, the 17-year-old Thomas joined the U.S. Marine Corps and fought in the battles for Roi-Namur in the Kwajalein Atoll of Marshal Islands (1944), Saipan in the Mariona Islands (1944), and Iwo Jima (1945) as a member of the Fourth Marine Division, 24th Regiment. The Marines trained for amphibious assaults in the Hawaii where Thomas learned to swim in the ocean. He competed in an 8-mile marathon swim while stationed at Pearl Harbor on Oahu and was recruited as a combat swimmer with a Marine reconnaissance battalion.

After six years in the Marines, Thomas returned to Tacoma in the state of Washington in 1948 where he worked as a logger and longshoreman. He was inspired to swim across the Strait of Juan de Fuca from Florence Chadwick on television. As a renowned English Channel swimmer crossing both ways in 1950 and 1951, the Victoria Daily Times offered her $7,500 for an attempt to swim from Victoria, British Columbia, to Port Angeles, Washington with a total of $10,000 if she accomplished the crossing. Chadwick made her attempt on 9 August 1954, but retired in the 47ºF (8.3ºC) water after 5 miles in 5 hours 11 minutes.

Thomas was motivated and explained his unique abilities to The Marine Digest, "The cold doesn’t bother me. It was stiffening fingers and arms that helped beat Chadwick. But the cold doesn’t affect me that way. I go into the water feet first, a little at a time. That way, it’s not such a shock to the system. The blood cools gradually. Once I get warmed up, I can keep going for hours."

The Victoria Daily Times offered $1,000 to the first person to conquer the Strait of Juan de Fuca while business owners in Victoria added $700 and the Port Angeles Chamber of Commerce added another $1,800. To prepare, Thomas moved to Victoria in March 1955 and began working out every day in the cold, choppy water of the strait, often training up to 10 miles.

But his training required more commitment than he first imagined. On 14 April 14, Thomas made his first north-to-south attempt, swimming 6 miles in 4 hours 10 minutes before retiring. On his second north-to-south attempt from Victoria on 4 June, he was accompanied by 3 competitors who all quit earlier than Thomas' 10 hour 22 minute attempt. Thomas tried on 23 June and again on 26 June, but tides and currents defeated him for the third and fourth time.

He switched strategies and decided to swim in the south-to-north direction, starting in Port Angeles. He started with the outgoing tide at 5:55 pm on 7 July 1955 in 46ºF (7.7ºC) water. It was his fifth attempt and 16th try overall to conquer the strait. 3 hours 15 minutes from the start, he crossed into Canadian waters. Supporters built a large bonfire on the headland above Holland Point in Victoria to keep the King Bacardi on course. A local radio station set up loudspeakers and broadcast military marches over the water.

The last mile, which took more than two hours, was against the tide and the most tortuous. Finally, at 5:05 am, Thomas waded ashore at Saxe Point Park in Esquimalt where 2,000 spectators cheered him on.

Thomas thanked everyone for their strong support, especially his wife, Marion, and dedicated the new record to his mother, Mrs. Nadine Dimond, as a belated Mothers Day (May 12) present. He concluded the victory speech by announcing his plan to swim the English Channel both ways non-stop, a feat never before accomplished. Florence Chadwick had attempted a round-trip crossing in 1953, but gave up during the return journey, suffering from hypothermia.

Early Crossings

1. Bert Thomas - 8 July 1955 (11 hours 10 minutes)
2. Cliff Lumsdon - 17 August 1956 (11 hours 35 minutes)
3. Amy Hiland - 18 August 1956 (10 hours 51 minutes)
4. Ben Laughren - 18 August 1956 (10 hours 17 minutes)
5. Marilyn Bell - 23 August 1956 (10 hours 38 minutes)
6. Vicki Keith - 10 August 1989 (14 hours)

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