On Friday, July 8, 1955, Bert O. Thomas (1925-1972), age 29, is the first person to swim across the Strait of Juan de Fuca from Port Angeles, Washington to Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. He accomplishes the 18.3 mile trip in 11 hours and 10 minutes, winning $3,500 in prize money. In May 1956, Thomas will swim between West Seattle and Tacoma, a distance of 18.5 miles, bucking strong winds and the tide, in 15 hours and 23 minutes. In 1958, he will attempt to be the first person to accomplish a two-way, non-stop crossing of the English Channel, but will be thwarted by a leg cramp on the return trip. Tragically, Thomas, a world-class, long-distance swimmer, will die of a heart attack at Tacoma General Hospital at age 46.
Growing Up Swimming
Bert Owen Thomas was born in Durango, Colorado, on July 17, 1925. He started swimming competitively at an early age, winning his first award when he was 8 years old. In 1936, the Thomas family moved to Tacoma where he attended Lincoln High School, played football, and swam.
During World War II (1941-1945), Thomas, age 17, joined the U.S. Marine Corps and fought in the battles for twin islands of Roi-Namur in the Kwajalein Atoll of Marshal Islands (1944), Saipan in the Mariana Islands (1944), and Iwo Jima (1945) as a member of the Fourth Marine Division, 24th Regiment. The Marines trained for amphibious assaults in the Hawaiian Islands and it was during this time period that Thomas learned to swim long distances. He competed in swimming events, including an eight-mile marathon, while stationed at Pearl Harbor and was recruited as a combat swimmer with a Marine reconnaissance battalion.
Watching Florence Chadwick Swim
After six years in the Marines, Thomas mustered out in 1948 and returned to Tacoma where he worked as a logger and longshoreman. He got the idea to swim across the Strait of Juan de Fuca from watching Florence May Chadwick (1918-1995), the famous American open-water, long-distance swimmer, on television. She was the first female to swim across the English Channel both ways. She made the first , 21-mile swim from France to England on August 8, 1950, setting a new record of 13 hours and 23 minutes. Chadwick made the swim from England to France in the summer of 1951.
The Victoria Daily Times offered her $7,500 for an attempt to swim from Victoria B.C., to Port Angeles, and $10,000 if she accomplished it. Chadwick made the try on August 9, 1954. After five hours and 11 minutes in the 47-degree water, she had swum only five miles and was pulled from the water, suffering from hypothermia. She decided against a second attempt.
Swimming for Hours
For that kind of money, Thomas, who stood six feet one inch tall and weighed 275 pounds, decided he would change careers and beat every channel-swimming record Chadwick ever made. And soon he began training for the event by swimming back and forth across Tacoma’s Commencement Bay. “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,” Thomas said (The Marine Digest).
The Victoria Daily Times offered a standing prize to the first person to conquer the Strait of Juan de Fuca. However, now the purse was $1,000. But business owners in Victoria added $700 more and the Port Angeles Chamber of Commerce contributed $1,800 to the pot. Including Thomas, there were seven serious swimmers competing for the record. And amateur swimmers turned up daily in Victoria to take a shot at the record and the money.
In March 1955, Thomas and his wife, Marion, moved to Victoria B.C., and took up residence at the Cherry Bank Hotel, owned by Bert’s manager, Bernard Nichols. He began working out every day in the cold, choppy water of the strait, often swimming 10 miles just to show the community what he could do. Thomas also swam countless laps in the Empress Hotel swimming pool to increase his endurance. Spectators were amazed at his powerful swimming and apparent immunity to debilitating cold water. Thomas’ routine included huge meals to increase his weight and store calories.
Swimming South from Victoria
On Thursday, April 14, Thomas made his first north-to-south attempt and swam six miles in four hours and 10 minutes before severe stomach cramps forced him to quit. At the start, he was accompanied by John Glese of Vancouver, who, in an impromptu attempt, managed to swim just one-half mile in 40 minutes.
Thomas made his second attempt from Victoria on Tuesday, June 4, 1955, accompanied by three competitors. He kept swimming well after the others gave up, lasting 10 hours and 22 minutes, but finally quit some nine miles from Port Angeles. Thomas tried again on Thursday, June 23, and Sunday, June 26, but tide changes and treacherous currents pushed him back toward Vancouver Island. This gave him the idea to make his next swim “the easy way,” from Port Angeles to Victoria.
Swimming North from Port Angeles
Thomas waited a week in Port Angeles for favorable weather conditions and was anxious to get underway. As the tide was going out at 5:55 p.m., Sunday, July 7, 1955, Bert Thomas entered the 46-degree water off Ediz Hook for his fifth try and the 16th attempt to conquer the strait. His official escort vessel, the 35-foot cabin cruiser King Bacardi, with his manager, Bernie Nichols, and 11-year-old daughter, Sharon Lee, aboard, was waiting offshore. Thomas set a fast pace, advancing at two miles-per-hour, and three hours and 15 minutes later, he crossed into Canadian waters. From the escort vessel, his trainer fed him liquid nourishment through a plastic tube while his daughter chanted “Go, Daddy, go.” 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 a.m., Thomas waded ashore at Saxe Point Park in Esquimalt where he was greeted by Victoria’s mayor, Claude Harrison, and 2,000 cheering fans. He made the 18.3 mile trip from Port Angeles in 11 hours and 10 minutes, winning $3,500 in prize money. In early August, Cliff Lumsdon of Toronto, Ontario, succeeded in swimming the difficult north-to-south route and on August 19, Amy Hiland of Long Beach, California, swam the south-to-north route in 10 hours and 51 minutes. But since Thomas was the first to conquer the Strait of Juan de Fuca, subsequent efforts were academic.
"Quite a Haul": Seattle to Tacoma
After his historic swim, Thomas announced he would be the first person to swim from Seattle to Tacoma, a distance of 18.5 miles. His first attempt was on January 26, 1956, and he lasted only one hour and 20 minutes before the choppy, frigid water and leg cramps forced him to quit. His second try was in April 1956. This time Thomas lasted 9 hours, but was defeated by the strong outgoing tide, approximately six miles north of Tacoma.
At 11:41 a.m., Monday, May 14, 1956, Thomas made his third attempt, entering the water at Fauntleroy Cove at slack tide. The event was sponsored by the Tacoma Athletic Club which assigned two official escort vessels: the Memories and the Sharon Too, with Thomas’ wife, Marion, daughter, Sharon, and manager, Erling Bergerson, aboard. Thomas started with his powerful side-stroke and shortly after noon was swimming south with the tide and making significant headway. He took a break every hour and Marion fed him liquid nourishment through a plastic tube. Then she routinely passed him a lighted cigarette which Bert smoked while swimming on his back.
Shortly after 9:00 p.m., while Thomas was still in East Passage, a southwest wind and the turning tide slowed his progress. About this time, he suffered the first of several leg cramps, which plagued him throughout the remainder of his ordeal. At about 10:30 p.m., Thomas was off Dash Point and could see the lights of Tacoma in the distance, but he still had three miles to go. Now, in addition to the outgoing tide, he had to struggle against the water flowing from the Puyallup River into Commencement Bay. He battled on with grim determination and at 3:05 a.m. on May 15, staggered ashore approximately 500 yards south of the Old Tacoma Dock on Ruston Way.
An estimated 5,000 cheering spectators were was on hand to greet Thomas. They had been sitting around bonfires throughout the night, talking and listening to portable radios, waiting for their hero to arrive. Marion Thomas, who had come ashore in the Sharon Too, was there with his official “Tacoma Athletic Club Swimming Champion” bathrobe, as was physician, Dr. Franz Hoskins. The first words Thomas managed to utter were, “Man, it was quite a haul” (Tacoma News Tribune).
The cabin cruiser Memories transported Thomas and his wife to the Old Tacoma Dock for an official victory celebration. Mayor Harold Tollefson proclaimed Thursday, May 17, “Bert Thomas Day” in Tacoma and announced the public had pledged $1,500 to fund his future challenges. Popular big-band vocalist Helen O'Connell (1920-1993), appearing at the Greater Tacoma Home Show, gave him the traditional glamour-girl victory kiss and took the opportunity to invite everyone to “Bert Thomas Night” at the Home Show, featuring a special program organized by the Tacoma Athletic Club.
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.
The Challenge of the English Channel
In July 1958, Bert Thomas began training in Dover, England, for his two-way assault on the English Channel. According to the rules of the Channel Swimming Association, which regulated attempts to swim between England and France, Thomas would be allowed to stay ashore for only one minute before starting back. He chose Saturday, August 23, 1958, the day of the annual English Channel race, to try for the record.
Thomas made the swim from France to England in 19 hours and 28 minutes, touching shore at the village of Kingsdown, five miles northeast of Dover. After resting in the water for a few minutes, he headed back toward France. He swam for another two hours before developing a severe leg cramp, forcing him to abandon the record attempt. The escort vessel brought Thomas back to Dover where he told the press he was feeling fine and would try again next year.
Washington's Greatest Long-Distance Swimmer
Back in Tacoma, Thomas talked about returning to England and attempting to swim other bodies of water, but he never did. Tragically, on Thursday, June 8, 1972, he suffered a heart attack and died at Tacoma General Hospital.
Thomas, age 46, was buried on June 10, at Mountain View Memorial Park in Lakewood. There is a brass plaque on Ediz Hook, placed by the people of Port Angeles shortly after the historic swim, commemorating site where Bert Thomas, Washington’s greatest long-distance swimmer, entered the Strait of Juan de Fuca on July 8, 1955.