A few weeks ago, I wrote about a St. John resident who had planned to swim 15.5 miles through the Sir Frances Drake Channel from Virgin Gorda to St. John in an effort to raise funding and awareness for two charities that we all hold near and dear to our hearts. Today, I’m ecstatic to say that Thursday evening, just after the sun had set into the sea, Jeff Miller pulled himself out of the water on the shore of St. John’s East End after nine hours and eighteen minutes in the water. On May 25, 2023, he became the first person to successfully swim and document this particular traverse. And he, his wife, Jude Woodcock, and the rest of his safety team maneuvered this stretch of water with the unpredictability of Mother Nature without incident. (Cover photo courtesy Steve Simonsen Photography)
Last Wednesday afternoon, Jeff, Jude, Captain Justin Nesbitt of Salty Daze Charters, Veterans Marilyn Woods and Lauren Byrd of Team River Runner and local support team members Adam Thill and Eric Bauman hopped on board Justin’s boat, Salt Shaker, with two kayaks in tow (one courtesy of Reef2Peak) and made way for the British Virgin Islands. Their plan was to check-in to customs and hunker down for the night at a home on Tortola in preparation for the next morning’s swim.
While on the ground in the BVI, Jeff watched the currents and conditions for the following day via Caribbean Coastal Ocean Observing System (CARICOOS), a site that “brings together coastal ocean data and forecasts from a variety of sources including satellites, ocean instruments and numerical models to give the user an integrated view of past, present and forecasted ocean conditions in the US Caribbean region.” (CARICOOS website) The system apparently went offline early last week and didn’t come back online until about 6PM on Wednesday, according to Jeff. Leaving the team a bit in the dark until Wednesday evening about what Thursday would look like and what time would be optimal to hit the water.
While Jeff had initially hoped to get in the water at Devil’s Bay (The Baths), Virgin Gorda as close to dawn as possible on Thursday morning in order to take advantage of lighter winds that are typical earlier in the day and to avoid being in the deep waters after dark, the currents, once visible again in the system, were not necessarily cooperating. They were pushing much more to the north in the early morning hours which was not ideal and could have resulted in Jeff being pushed towards Tortola and off course.
Those of us following along from home were alerted via a text from Jude at 6:30AM that morning that the start time would be 10AM. A much later start time than anticipated. And with a goal time for the swim lying anywhere between eight and twelve hours, it was likely that the team would, in fact, hit the shores of St. John after the sun had set. Leaving the finish line a questionable feat.
But, failing to attempt, and finish, this swim were not options for Jeff. People were counting on him and rooting him on and he was determined to complete this task. Even in the final grueling hours of the swim, the thought of giving up was pushed from his mind.
“Everything ached but nothing hurt enough to stop,” he told me in an interview Tuesday afternoon. “I kept thinking about who I was doing it for and also how far I had come. All that had been done in the weeks and days before to get to where I was now.”
Thursday morning the team left the home they were staying in and went to Nanny Cay to load Salt Shaker and make their way to Road Town, Tortola in order to meet up with Honorable Vincent Wheatley, 9th District Representative (Virgin Gorda and Anegada) and the Minister for Health who wanted to send the team off with his best wishes for a successful swim. Jeff stressed the importance of Wheatley’s position as the Minister of Health, stating that this entire swim is about health. Both mental and physical. Both for Jeff and for the charities he would swim for that day.
After a brief meeting, they hopped back in the boat and made way for Devil’s Bay where Jeff and the kayaks hit the water. Jeff swam into the beach as he had to be firmly on a shoreline at the beginning of the journey in order to be considered for ratification of the swim via the Swimmers Marathon rules of inclusion.
The swim begins when the swimmer enters the water from a natural shore. If geographic obstacles (e.g., cliffs) prevent the swimmer from clearing the water at the start, the swimmer may begin the swim by touching and releasing from part of the natural shore (e.g., cliff face).- Swimmers Marathon Rules
Additionally, his departure from the beach on Virgin Gorda would be the last time he made human contact or contact with any of the safety vessels for the duration of the swim. The rules prohibit “intentional supportive contact with any vessel, object, or support personnel at any time during the swim.” For the next nine hours and eighteen minutes, Jeff would move continuously through the Drake Channel in the direction of St. John. Every thirty minutes, he would “feed” from a Nalgene filled with water and Perpetuem Endurance Fuel by Hammer Corp. attached via line to one of the kayaks. Even while drinking the supplement, he laid on his back and kicked through the water. Any stop would allow the northernly currents to shift him off course, adding time and distance to the swim.
And, every thirty minutes, as he brought his head out the water to take in the drink, he prodded the team, “Is the tracker still working?” And they would respond, “Yes! But stop worrying about the tracker!”
He was encouraged along the way, knowing that everyone on shore who was rooting him on could watch the progress of the swim via his GPS tracker. During his swim around St. John in 2016, the tracker went down and those who were following along lost imagery of the track. Knowing that his supporters were able to follow along were instrumental in his completion. It made him feel really good that people, far and near, were able to participate by watching the progress.
“Hopefully this will be ratified as the first ever solo, unassisted swim of this route,” Jeff told me. “But it is no way something I did by myself. It was far from alone.”
The 15.5 mile swim was relatively smooth and without incident. Jeff noted that, aside from the ever present sargassum, the only sea life he spotted was two Barracudas and some reef fish. Sharks and other predatory marine life are, of course, always a back-of-the-mind concern in an open ocean swim. He told me that he has actually seen Hammerheads during practice swims! But, this particular day, no large friends or jellyfish made an appearance.
As Hank Slodden, St. John Cancer Fund Board Member, other supporters of the swim and I gathered at the Windmill Bar around 5PM that day, anxiously waiting each update from the tracker, we started to comment on the distance Jeff still had to traverse versus the timing of the rapidly setting sun. Would he finish if the sun completely set, leaving him and the safety team in the dark?
Meanwhile, photographer Steve Simonsen was positioned in his boat, Jackson, at Flanagan Island located between Privateer Point and the Indians. He was waiting until the team was near the USVI in order to take some aerial drone photos that Jeff had requested and do a live stream of a few moments of the swim. The problem was, at his remote location, he was unable to get the tracker to update. So, from the Windmill Bar, we were sending Steve thirty-minute updates via screenshot until he was able to locate the safety boat, two kayaks and a lone swimmer in the water.
“It was challenging, I can tell you that,” Steve laughed as we recapped the experience earlier this week. He was tasked with finding the small dots on the sea via drone in the air while they were still a mile out.
But, he succeeded in locating them and was able to capture the amazing drone imagery of the swim that you see in this article. He also did a live stream of two minutes of the swim as the sky began to turn to hues of pink and the sun slowly set (The live stream is still available to view if you would like to take a peek!).
As Jeff swam into the sunset and the light began to fade, he swapped out his dark tinted daytime goggles for clear ones for nighttime use and glow sticks were attached to those and to the kayaks so he would have guide in the darkening waters as the shoreline disappeared.
“Swimming in the dark is a very, um, interesting experience,” Jeff said as he recalled the last miles of the swim. An hour and a half of which was swam in dark waters. The last 30-45 minutes with dark waters and sky. He recalled the bioluminescence providing a natural light show of sparkle and encouragement with every stroke.
It was in this darkness that Jeff finally touched the shores of his home on St. John once again at a rocky shoreline northeast of Privateer but not yet Newfound Bay. Safety kayaker and Team River Runner Veteran Lauren Byrd paddled ashore in advance of Jeff and approached the area where he struggled through urchin infested rocks to make his way to shore with the team shouting to her from the water “Don’t touch him!”
Remember that no contact rule? Well, this applies until the swimmer is planted firmly on the shore of the destination once again. So, Jeff was tasked with his last hurdle of the day. As the team watched from afar, he finally pulled his tired body from the sea and planted himself firmly on the shoreline of St. John’s East End.
At 8:15PM on Thursday evening, the support squad at the Windmill Bar received confirmation via text that the team had safely arrived at the dock in Coral Bay. Jeff had completed the 15.5 mile swim that he had planned, trained and fundraised for.
“I could not be more pleased,” said Jeff earlier this week in an interview. “Everybody has been tremendously supportive.”
Supportive is absolutely a term that Love City is familiar with. And this swim was an opportunity to support Jeff, Team River Runner and the St. John Cancer Fund. And this island and supporters near and far have done just that! As online donations are currently nearing $30k to be split between the two charities and on the ground fundraising efforts led by Hank and “The Heart of Love City” are nearing $10k it’s clear that Jeff was right. He absolutely was NOT in it alone.
Businesses rallied their fiscal support in online donations while Hank literally hit the street, ringing his bell alongside one of his three iconic heart statues that were built in 2019 for the sole purpose of raising money for the St. John Cancer Fund. As Jeff put it, these efforts and support put his initial fundraising efforts “on steroids.”
All of this, from the weeks of anticipation and fundraising, leading up to the swim to the evening of Jeff hitting the proverbial “finish line” brought the community, online supporters and local businesses together to rally for a common cause.
“It bridged the community, it bridged the BVI and USVI,” said Jeff. “So much has been so negatively polarized in this country, in the news.”
It was so nice to see our island come together to support something as important and as positive as this effort for Team River Runner and St. John Cancer Fund via a swim that, coincidentally, occurred just days before the Friends of Virgin Islands National Park Beach to Beach Power Swim. During which Jeff and the Team River Runner Veterans swam alongside more than 330 other participants. And just days before Memorial Day, a day dedicated to the fallen comrades of the survivors who supported Jeff in his swim. Survivors who will benefit from the fundraising efforts of Jeff and his teams.
In addition, Jeff commented that he has been thinking about this swim for a number of years. While on-island fundraisers for the two charities have been halted by two hurricanes and a pandemic, the veterans didn’t stop needing assistance and cancer didn’t stop either.
“We are all here to help each other,” said Jeff. “It has been so wonderful hearing people talk about St. John Cancer Fund again. By raising funds for SJCF, St. John cancer patients may be able to focus less on the finances and more on the healing.”
The fundraising portal is STILL open and online donations are still being accepted in support of these two charities and Jeff’s absolutely awe-inspiring efforts. If Jeff can swim 15.5 miles unassisted through open ocean in just over nine hours, we can all rally behind him! Be it $5, $50 or $500…Every little bit helps bring more veterans to St. John for health and healing and support more cancer patients on St. John with their battle to survive.
Jeff, Team River Runner and St. John Cancer Fund would like to extend a gracious THANK YOU to all of the supporters and to the following businesses who have, so far, supported this endeavor: 340 Real Estate Co., E-C Service Station, The Inn at Tamarind Court, The Windmill Bar, Beach Bar, High Tide, American Paradise Real Estate, Lovango Resort + Beach Club, Reef2Peak, Salty Daze Charters, Upstairs Bar, North Shore Deli, Coral Bay Adventures, Cinnamon Bay Beach and Campground, Flyaway Charters, Coral Bay Yacht Club, Island Roots Charters, Wharfside Watersports, The Marketplace, St. John Scoops, Sun Dog Cafe, The Tap Room, Vacation VI, Caravan Gallery and Big Planet.
It truly does take a village, doesn’t it?