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…

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