Santa Cruz Island Swim, Part 2: Drop Dead Conditions

In case you missed it…

Ventura Harbor. 9pm, September 14th.

ME: “How does the weather look?”
CAPT. FORREST: “Dogshit.”

He wondered whether perhaps I wanted to postpone the swim to another day. “What are your ‘drop dead’ conditions?” he asked. “It’s blowing 10 knots right here [i.e., in the harbor]. It’ll be worse out there.”

Here lay the dilemma: My crew and observer were here now. Dave and Rob drove down from SLO; Mark from SB (where he has two kids under the age of 3); Cathy from SF. We could, theoretically, delay for 24 hours – Cathy didn’t go home ’til Monday. But it would suck. I had already dragged these people out here in the middle of the night. Now I was going to send them all home (or to a hotel) and say we’ll try again tomorrow? Ugh.

Not to mention, the film guys were already on their way over to the island on a sail boat from Santa Barbara (a 4.5-hour trip). Would I call them and tell them to turn around?

There were no good options. The wind and waves were supposed to lay down after midnight. Maybe they would; maybe they wouldn’t. Tomorrow might be nicer; it might not.

Such are the logistics of marathon swimming that, at a certain point, you just have to take what the ocean wants to give you on a given day. I thought about the Hudson River during MIMS last year. I thought about the first half of my Catalina swim. And I made the call:

If it was swimmable, I was going to swim.

Photo by Rob D.


The boat ride from Ventura to the island takes about two hours. Nobody slept. The Fuji is a great boat in many respects, but it’s not designed for sleeping. Everyone seemed in good spirits. The excitement of leaving the mainland at 15 knots is always more fun than the reality of trying to get back at 2 knots.

Within minutes of exiting the harbor, Rob was puking. Rob is a man of many skills, and one of them is the discreetness of his puking. It’s a casual, soundless puke. He leans over the gunwale and seems to be inhaling the fresh air of the open ocean, watching the bow wave careen into the distance. Cathy adds:

“Only the spitting that follows the spewing belies the true nature of his tummy, the churning mass his guts have become as the boat rocks to and fro, again and again.  Throughout the whole ordeal, his adventure beard remains unscathed, unsullied by gastric juices or the burger he ate for dinner.”

(Heh… sorry Rob.)

Leaving the harbor. Photo by Dave VM

As we motored out to sea, the lights of Ventura faded and the channel’s oil rigs – lit up like so many Christmas trees – grew looming and bright. Eventually, we left them behind too. It was, I noticed for the first time, really dark out here. I looked around for the moon but it wasn’t to be found. Apparently, I had scheduled my swim on a new moon!

We were all starting to wonder, “How much longer?” when Capt. Forrest cut the motor. We could just barely make out San Pedro Point, easternmost edge of the island.

The Rock

The lack of moonlight would prove challenging throughout the night, but the first challenge was simply finding a place for me to start. While I changed into my swim attire and lubed up, Capt. Forrest, Dave, and the film guys were scoping out the craggy rocks and cliffs with flashlights (we had no spotlight). We ruled out trying to clear the water anywhere — too rocky, too rough. It was totally sketchy.

San Pedro Point during the day.

Eventually they found a rock face that seemed to offer a relatively smooth, semi-vertical surface (I wanted to avoid cutting myself up on barnacles or sharp edges). The Fuji was getting blown by the wind and had to circle around a couple of times to get me close. We launched Mark in the kayak. Ben was already on the water in a separate kayak, to film the start. Let’s do it. I jumped – and followed Mark and Ben to a rock I couldn’t see until I was almost on top of it.

“Action!” Video still courtesy of Element 8 Productions

I approached cautiously, head up, still wary of getting cut up and bleeding in these sharky waters. I let the waves carry me up and down the rock face – once, twice – getting a feel for the timing of it. Near the apex of the next wave I reached up, put my right palm flat on the rock – hopefully long enough to be observed from the boat. “Ready… go!”

I pushed off the rock and started swimming to Oxnard. The ocean floor dropped off quickly below me.

Soundings in fathoms. Courtesy of NOAA.

Santa Cruz Island Swim, Part 1: Prologue

Was it inevitable?

There the island sits, tauntingly, every time I wade into the ocean. It dominates the southern horizon – as prominent a feature of the Santa Barbara landscape as chaparral-covered mountains, tile roofs, and beach volleyball. On clear winter days it’s a textured, multi-hued shadow. On hazy summer days it’s just a faint, misty outline. In the depth of June Gloom it disappears from view entirely – but I know it’s there, somewhere.

The shadow is Santa Cruz Island – largest of the eight Channel Islands, 19 statute miles offshore from Oxnard, the closest part of mainland California.

Looking out at Santa Cruz Island from the mountains above Goleta. New Year’s Day 2012. Photo by Vanessa.

The Impetus

A few months ago two local filmmakers asked: Would I be interested in being filmed for a documentary about marathon swimming in the Channel Islands? Would I help shed some light on this odd global subculture of people who swim across 3,000-foot deep ocean channels in the dead of night wearing nothing but a speedo, cap, and goggles?

It was an intriguing project. The wheels were set in motion, and it was soon decided (passive voice partially intentional) that I would try to become the ninth person to swim solo from Santa Cruz Island to the California mainland.

Propulsion starts with the catch. Photo by Rob D.

The History

Marathon swimming in the Santa Barbara Channel dates to the late 1970s. The two names to know are Cindy Cleveland and David Yudovin. In the midst of a golden age of Catalina Channel swimming, Yudovin and Cleveland both completed one-way Catalina solos in 1976 (11:50 and 11:04, respectively), and Cleveland followed up with a two-way in 1977 (24:30).

These intrepid marathoners then turned their eyes north, to the as-yet-unconquered islands of the Santa Barbara Channel. Yudovin and Cleveland both made dates with Anacapa Island for the summer of 1978. Yudovin made the first attempt and, in a story immortalized by Lynne Cox in Swimming to Antarctica, went into hypothermia-induced cardiac arrest a mile from the Oxnard shore. After technically dying, Yudovin was revived at a nearby hospital.

So Cindy Cleveland, then, became the first to complete a Santa Barbara Channel swim on August 9, 1978 – a two-way Anacapa crossing in 12 hours, 48 minutes. This epic swim set up Cleveland’s Catalina circumnavigation (1979) and Monterey Bay crossing (1980) – two of the greatest feats in marathon swimming history.

Meanwhile, David Yudovin had unfinished business in the Santa Barbara Channel. After his brush with death, he returned to Anacapa and completed a one-way in 1982. And then, on August 16, 1983, he became the first to swim from Santa Cruz Island to the mainland (15 hours, 15 minutes).

David Yudovin, crewing for Ned Denison in 2006

Since then, seven others have added their names to the list. Ned Denison was the fastest, crossing in 10 hours, 27 minutes in 2006 (see Ned’s report and video). In a bizarre twist of fate, Ned also ended up in the hospital after his swim, with severe hypothermia. Crewing for him that day was… none other than David Yudovin. On the beach, as Ned was being carted off in an ambulance, an older paramedic recalled memories of another crazy idiot, 25 or so years ago, who almost died trying to swim across the channel. The paramedic didn’t realize he was talking to that very same man – David Yudovin.

To complete the web of intertwined fates: One of Ned’s kayakers in 2006 (Ben) is one of the filmmakers behind DRIVEN. And, four days after my swim, I drove to L.A. to observe a Catalina swim by… Ned Denison.


The Gathering

They converged after-hours on a desolate dock. Fingers in the wind, gauging the unpleasantness in store. And for what? To spend the night on a boat, helping me accomplish some esoteric feat. It’s always humbling, these gatherings.

They’re a familiar cast of characters: Rob, Cathy, and Mark. The frequently submerged gentleman, elite swim blogger, and adventure-beard-ist. The ice swimmer, shark survivor, and Farallonista. And the Olympian. What do they have in common? Putting their butts on the line – for me.

The crew were joined by observer Dave VM and Capt. Forrest of the Fuji III.

It took everything I had to make it across the Channel that night. And it would take everything they had to help me do it.

To be continued…

Two days and two nights on a boat: Observing Catalina and Santa Barbara Channel swims

In the past couple weeks I’ve had the honor and pleasure of observing four swims between the Channel Islands and the California mainland: two 12.4-mile crossings from Anacapa Island to Oxnard (sanctioned by the SBCSA), and two 20.1-mile crossings from Catalina Island to Palos Verdes (sanctioned by the CCSF).

Two Channels: Anacapa Island to Oxnard; Catalina Island to Palos Verdes.

Each swim was a remarkable achievement in its own way. From Anacapa, there was a 4:58 crossing (a new record and the first ever under 5 hours) and an 8:58 crossing under conditions which thwarted two 6-person relays on the same day. From Catalina, there was a 13.5-hour crossing and a sub-9 hour crossing (the first ever by a 50+ year old).

Eyes on the swimmer. Photo by Phil White

I’m quite serious about it being an honor to observe these swims. Having swum across each of these channels myself, I know they’re experiences one doesn’t forget – experiences that change a person. I know what it feels like to stand on a beach in the middle of the night, look out across that black expanse of water and wonder, “How will I possibly get to the other side?” I know what it feels like to give oneself up to the Channel – and hope it looks upon you favorably.

Big ship, small swimmer. Jim N. in the Santa Barbara Channel.

Each swim is totally unique. The starts and finishes are approximately similar, but everything in between is, basically, unpredictable. I find it interesting and personally fulfilling to watch people negotiate this journey, each in their own way. As an observer, I’m there both as witness and as chaperone – to verify and to ensure safe passage.

Nick V. and Darryl in the Santa Barbara Channel

Each swimmer used distinctly different approaches in achieving their goal. Indeed, each swimmer’s style seemed to, in some way, reflect their personality.

Jim N.’s stroke is workmanlike, seemingly impervious to wind, waves, and chop. It didn’t matter what the ocean threw at him. Jim – a veteran of both the English & Catalina Channels – was getting across, no matter how long it took. Anacapa to mainland, 8:58.

Nick V. – a star high-school distance pool swimmer – is lithe and powerful. The kid pulls a lot of water. He’s not old enough to vote, but he approached the the channel swim with a seriousness and tenacity that belied his age. With an hour left, he was right on record pace, and we told him. He picked his stroke rate up from 68 to 75 – just like that – and smashed the record. I pity the kids who have to race him in dual meets. Anacapa to mainland, 4:58.

Get thee gone, witches! Jaimie M. in the Catalina Channel

Jaimie M. is precise and deliberate. Each hand placed gently in the water – no bubbles. 44 strokes per minute, precise as a metronome. 44 SPM would be helicopter-evacuation time for me, but for Jaimie it’s a moving meditation. One… stroke… at… a… time. All the way across the Channel. Catalina to mainland, 13:28.

Ned D. – gregarious and full of energy – makes lots of bubbles. A former water polo player, he churns up the water with a tempo almost inconceivable for someone his size and age. A force of nature – as a man and as a swimmer. Catalina to mainland, 8:50.

Ned D., up for air in the Catalina Channel. Photo by Phil White.

I’ll conclude with some few brief nuggets:

  • Feeding from a kayak is generally more efficient; but always have a contingency plan to feed from the boat in case of snafus.
  • Narrow, “tippy” kayaks may have problems in these channels, where swells are often coming from your side.
  • There’s often (but not always) a “downhill” cross current about a mile offshore from Oxnard. Aim for the middle of Silver Strand to hit the southern edge. The current will affect slower swimmers more than faster swimmers.
  • At the finish – whether sandy or rocky – stay horizontal (hands & knees) longer than you think you need to. Just trust me.

Santa Cruz Island swim (the making of…)

I haven’t mentioned it on this site yet (or at least, the nature of my connection with it), but my recent Santa Cruz Island swim will be a subject of an upcoming independent documentary film, DRIVEN.

You will hear more about the film in the coming months. For now, I want to alert readers to the official website – – which includes a page for recent production updates. The most recent update is worth reproducing here:

Last Friday was touch and go as we prepared to film Evan’s Santa Cruz Island crossing. Last minute film crew boat troubles left us scrambling to find another boat to get us out to the islands to film Evan’s swim. Thanks to Dave S. for coming through for us at the last minute!

We left SB Harbor at 7 PM Friday night and began our 4.5 hour crossing to San Pedro Point by sail boat. 15 – 20 knot winds in 3 – 4 foot seas left some of our crew feeling less than chipper as we made our way across the channel. Extra uncertainty was added to the situation not knowing if Evan and his support crew would postpone the swim at the last minute due to the windy conditions. In the end, both boats met at around midnight, and the rest of the filming went without a hitch.

Evan started his swim shortly after midnight. A beautiful sunrise provided a great background and lighting for some fantastic above and under-water shots. Both Evan and his crew struggled until the very end through far from ideal conditions. We followed Evan all the way to the finish as he rode the waves onto the beach, thoroughly exhausted, and setting a new speed record for the Santa Cruz Island Crossing. We want to give a special thank you to Evan and his crew for having us along for his remarkable journey. And an extra special thanks to Alex, my dedicated kayaker, who pulled it all together to get the job done despite some serious sea-sickness!

It was a day to remember…


Why independent observation and verification is essential for marathon swimming, Reason #3425

Don’t think for a second that this couldn’t happen, wouldn’t happen, or hasn’t happened, in marathon swimming:

“Marathon Man” (by Mark Singer). In The New Yorker, August 6, 2012.

Related question: If Diana Nyad touching the boat during her feeds hadn’t been captured on video, would we have ever known she was doing this?

Also See: Two Golden Rules of Open Water and/or Marathon Swims (LoneSwimmer)

Auau (Maui) Channel solo swim – Preview

I was in Maui over Labor Day weekend, and managed not one, not two, but three round-trip crossings to nearby Lanai: as a member of a 6-person team in the Maui Channel Relay; a solo swim along the same course; and a snorkeling outing (via ferry) to otherworldly Hulopoe Beach.

Here’s a short video with some pictures & GoPro footage from the solo swim (click through to Vimeo for HD version):

Maui Channel solo swim from Evan Morrison on Vimeo.