Cold but unbowed, Stark will finish ferry route swim

Damien Stark, in the water, takes on much needed hydration during his eight hours swim. Eventually Orcas paramedic Mark VanMaren, left had to make the call to pull him out. “There was no decision to be made,” Stark said.  - Contributed photo / Gail Johannes Photography
Damien Stark, in the water, takes on much needed hydration during his eight hours swim. Eventually Orcas paramedic Mark VanMaren, left had to make the call to pull him out. “There was no decision to be made,” Stark said.
— image credit: Contributed photo / Gail Johannes Photography

Orcas Island resident Damien Stark gave it his best shot to swim the Anacortes-to-Friday Harbor ferry route — 19.5 miles — Saturday and Sunday because he believes “There is no greater joy than ... not the swimming itself, but the ability to use swimming in order to help someone else.”

Seven miles into his trek Saturday to raise money for the Breast Cancer Treatment Support Mission Project, despite the tides working with him, despite being checked out by two pods of local whales out of curiosity, Stark’s body temperature fell too far and he needed to be pulled out by his support team about a half a mile outside Thatcher Pass.

“When I was lifted out of the water, I was dead weight,” Stark said. “I left everything I had in the water. There was nothing left.”

Stark, 51, has been into swimming seriously for about 2 years, he said, and swims in the Sound about every other day. He regularly swims two or three miles, he said. With a lot of preparation for the swim, Stark planned the two day swim with the tides and with the help of a number of indispensable friends including Jen Vollmer and Kerry Quirk, of Orcas.

The former photojournalist and Emergency Medical Technician from the San Francisco Bay area came to Orcas three years ago, after Stark acted as a caregiver for a close friend in her final six months battling leukemia. Swimming is something he does well so Stark decided to take it to a deeper level and do something really, really difficult for a cause larger than himself.

When two close friends were diagnosed with breast cancer within six days of each other Stark decided he wanted to do something tangible to help, and found out about the Breast Cancer Treatment Support Mission Project.

The “Mission,” as he refers to it, is a cooperative effort between the Susan G. Komen For the Cure Puget Sound affiliate and the San Juan County Health and Community Services. They offer ferry tickets, transportation and mileage reimbursement to San Juan county residents with breast cancer so they can get diagnostic or treatment services on the mainland.

Stark entered into glassy water at 6:30 a.m. Saturday near Anacortes for what he planned on being a 10-hour swim across Rosario Strait. He made it across Rosario Strait but had to get out of the water twice due to hypothermia. This despite wearing the best equipment money can buy — a 7 mil. Henderson Coast Guard Rescue Swimmer wetsuit with a 5 mil. hood.

By his own watch, Stark was in the water “just shy of eight hours. When they pulled me out the third time, there was not any decision to be made.

“I took in a lot of salt water a couple of hours before, and I started throwing up,” he said. Eventually, his body temperature had fallen so far and his physical condition had deteriorated to the point that his breathing rhythm became erratic and he was putting himself in danger.

Orcas paramedic Mark VanMaren made the call and Stark was hauled into a boat for a third and last time, got him out of the wetsuit and have him warm moist oxygen to breathe. “My tongue swelled up. My tongue was maybe one and a half times the size it should be,” Stark said Monday.

For Stark, this first attempt was just that. Not so much failure, “not by any means,” he said. “This was a beginning. This was not a race. This was about something completely different.”

Even after the event, with his body still recuperating, money for his cause is still rolling in. Stark estimates that he’s raised close to $2,000 to support his cause.”

At first Stark compared his totals to what others had raised for similar causes and became disappointed until a friend put his achievement into a different perspective. “This is going to provide enough money for two women for their complete ferry costs and mileage costs for their treatments,” he said.

When asked if he planned on continuing his effort at a later date, Stark was unbowed and emphatic. “Yes,” he said flatly. “We took GPS coordinates of the place where they pulled me out.”

Stark said that he received a call from Deanna Osborn, co-chair of the San Juan Island Relay for life. “I spoke to her on the phone,” Stark said, “and the very first thing she said was ‘when you do this again next year, I want to coordinate your fund-raising.’ ”

“Will I continue to do this? You betcha. The most important thing is that we started something.”

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