Last week, I wrote a story about how Seattle City Councilmember Dan Strauss saved a drowning swimmer's life off the coast of a pocket beach in Ballard. That wasn't exactly what went down on the shores of that secret beach at the end of June. I aim to rectify this error.
Strauss first mentioned the story about helping a swimmer in distress during his council update in last week's City Council briefing. Then he told me the story in more detail over the phone after I wrote to him to ask how he was dealing with record-breaking 106-degree heat.
The connective tissue between my ask and this swimmer story felt weak, but I rolled with it. I thought he was clearly using the anecdote to spread water-safety advice and maybe to do a little bit of ego-stroking, and I felt comfortable allowing the latter for the sake of highlighting the former, given all the recent drownings. I then framed the story as Strauss saving someone's life.
However, the swimmer in question emailed me later in the week to let me know that A) she wasn't a man, as I had originally reported (sorry!) and B) she didn't actually need any saving on that fateful day.
As Strauss tells the story, while wiling away a summer afternoon at a pocket beach in Ballard, a beach he only named off the record to stop people from flocking to its shores (classic Ballardite behavior), beachgoers noticed a swimmer venturing into the current in the navigation channel. After some hullabaloo on the beach about what to do, Strauss grabbed his kayak and towed the woman to safety.
Genevieve Sawyer, 25, was that swimmer. She said she was perfectly fine.
"I was not in distress," Sawyer wrote in a lengthy email after her sister sent her the original article about her alleged brush with death. "I admit in hindsight that I hadn't particularly accounted for the current in the channel, but I was fine. I began that fateful swim as what was, in retrospect, a last-ditch effort to get (the fuck) away from my then- (now ex-) boyfriend on the beach (because he was bugging the shit out of me)."
Okay, that reasoning checks out. Sawyer launched into her expedition to escape from boyfriend hell.
"I swam out to the pilings, had a nice chat with another woman (also swimming, also not in distress) before I decided I'd like to go touch (and perhaps stand on) the green channel marker out beyond the pilings," Sawyer wrote.
Sawyer explained that she had this urge because she grew up on Bainbridge Island where "swimming out to and jumping off of channel markers and tall pilings of any kind is a fairly common summertime practice." She wrote that her "experience with swimming long distances to reach a dumb thing to then jump off of is, I think, an important piece of context in this story."
According to Strauss, the people on the beach witnessed this watery pilgrimage to the pilings. They also clocked a boat that passed narrowly by Sawyer. Strauss said beachgoers suspected that the boat may have nearly hit her (swimmers are hard to see), or that she asked the boat for help. Either way, her swim took her into the current-heavy shipping lane, Strauss said. That was enough cause for worry.
"I'd also like to note that there was only ONE boat that went through the channel the entire time I was out there," Sawyer wrote. "If there had been a lot of boat traffic, I obviously would not have embarked on this journey."
Still, Sawyer acknowledged that the stronger-than-she-anticipated current slowed her down. Meanwhile on the beach, according to Strauss, spectators on the shore—around 75 people between the deck and the beach—started counting her strokes. A swimmer near Strauss explained to him that that was a way to spot a distressed swimmer. Sawyer swam seven strokes and then took a break, then five and a break, then three.
"With drowning," Strauss said, "Once somebody goes under that’s it. You don't really have that time to waste," Strauss said. Over a dozen people drowned in King County lakes and waterways so far this year. The beach mobilized. Strauss grabbed his kayak. A crew of people with inflatable kayaks and a paddleboarder followed him. One of Strauss's friends insisted that the swimmer was fine, but the rest of the beach told Strauss to "get out there."
"Someone came from the beach and pushed the kayak out to sea hard enough so it almost flipped me," Strauss said.
Out in the water, Sawyer wrote that she heard "what sounded to me like a bit of encouraging hooting from the beach." She saw people standing up when she looked over.
"I screamed at one point 'I'm fine!' but I don't think they heard that," Sawyer wrote.
She watched Strauss get into his kayak and paddle toward her.
"When he was within about 15 feet, I realized he may be thinking he was coming to my rescue," Sawyer wrote. "I said to him 'I'm really ok! I'm not drowning!' and he said something along the lines of 'Oh! I didn't think you were. They just wanted me to come make sure you were okay.' I said I really was okay. We laughed about it a bit. He started to turn around to let me finish my swim back to shore, and I said with a laugh 'Well since you're already out here, mind if I hitch a ride back?'"
Strauss, in conflict with his original telling of the story, said he "was surprised that the first thing she said to me was that she was fine." The fact that she accepted a ride back to shore confirmed that his assistance was at least somewhat appreciated, and maybe even necessary.
Sawyer grabbed onto the back of Strauss's boat and he rowed them to shore.
"I apologized to everyone loudly and repetitively, and thanked them for their concern," Sawyer wrote, "and told them that I was, in fact, not drowning. Everything was copacetic. I kept apologizing."
Then she dove back into the boyfriend storyline:
"It was at this point that I walked across to the other end of the beach, where my (dipshit) then-(now ex-) boyfriend was waiting (read: sulking). As I walked up to him, in an attempt to cut the tension, I said in jest 'So! I learned there's a current.' He didn't say much. I didn't say much.
"There's a lot that the then- (now ex-) boyfriend could have said to the others on the beach while I was in the water. For example, he could have said: 'She's ok,' or 'She's a strong swimmer, don't worry,' or 'I was with her three weeks ago when she swam out to save what appeared to be an actual drowning man in the actual ocean off the actual coast of California.' (Note: it turned out to be a [recklessly unmarked] lifeguard feigning drowning during training for their new recruits. I was apologized to many times, and offered a job as a lifeguard at that beach by the end of it.) (Another note: I also used to be a certified lifeguard. And I also only say 'used to be' because I don't know how long that certification lasts. I wasn't disbarred, or whatever the lifeguarding equivalent of that is.) (A final note: I, unlike the others at Secret Beach in Ballard on Friday, correctly identified the signs of drowning on that California beach when I swam out to save that man [namely, flailing arms, falling beneath the surface, and popping back up, et cetera) — none of which I was exhibiting during my swim.)"
Strauss said that if Sawyer's then-(now ex-) boyfriend had said something then "that would have calmed everyone down." He paused for a second. "But also just don't swim in the shipping lane."
Sawyer ended her email by saying that "Dan Strauss seemed like a lovely guy. He was very gracious and funny and didn't make me feel uncomfortable. He just didn't save me, and he knew that. I would say, The Stranger, maybe just listen to him next time he insists he didn't save anyone."
She signed it "Buoyantly, Genevieve Sawyer."
Next time, I will refrain from hyperbolically giving Strauss any credit for saving a swimmer's life until I have heard from the swimmer and confirmed their gender. I regret the error. I also regret that I've never jumped off any pilings or channel markers in any Seattle-area bodies of water.