Moments in Time

A good snapshot keeps a moment from running away. — Eudora Welty

My friend Rob D is a man of many talents; among them a knack for taking remarkable photographs with relatively low-end equipment (typically, smart-phone cameras). What follows may be a bit self-indulgent; but I thought it worthwhile to collect a sampling of his images (of, um… me) in one place.

One photo in particular, I might even call “iconic.” I can’t remember a picture (of, um… me) that has ever spoken to me so powerfully. From just a few minutes before jump-time for Santa Cruz Island swim last September: scruz_glow Now, going back to the beginning…

2010 – “Freshwater Swimmer” is born

On the shores of Lake Michigan, where it all began. Ohio Street Beach, home of the Big Shoulders 5K. big_shoulders Photo-bombing Chris LaBianco at the USMS 1-mile National Championship in Huntersville, NC:

Note: This picture was featured on the Daily News of Open Water Swimming at some point. Whenever Chris LaBianco wins a race, no matter how trivial, it inevitably appears on the Daily News of Open Water Swimming.

2011 – Catalina Channel

Jumping in to pace swim for Cliff C.


A week later, my own Catalina swim…

Surveying the situation. 22nd Street Landing, San Pedro.
Surveying the situation. 22nd Street Landing, San Pedro.
Last minute nutrition.
Last minute nutrition.
The darkness.
The darkness.
With Catalina world-record holder Grace van der Byl as pace swimmer, and 10K Olympian Mark Warkentin in the kayak.
With current (but not then) Catalina world-record holder Grace van der Byl as pace swimmer, and 10K Olympian Mark Warkentin in the kayak.

2011 – Visiting Avila Beach


2012 – Santa Barbara Channel

Observing on a Santa Barbara Channel attempt
Observing on a Santa Barbara Channel attempt
Starting the Semana Nautica 6-mile swim
Starting the Semana Nautica 6-mile swim
Mark and I watch the sun rise over the Channel.
Cathy and I watch the sun rise over the Channel.
Mark and I approach Silver Strand Beach in Oxnard after 19 miles of swimming.


Jumping off the Avila Pier on January 1st.
Jumping off the Avila Pier on January 1st.
Cathy jumps
My kinda girl.

Thanks, Rob, for keeping these moments from running away.

Postscript: Rob posted the following to his Facebook page, regarding this post:

This folks is why you make sure to always take pictures of your friends when they’re doing cool stuff! One of the more valuable things you can do as a crew person on a big swim is to take all the pictures that your swimmer can’t. Not every picture is going to be any good, but if you take enough you may get lucky and snap that one pic that encapsulates the whole feeling of the swim and your friend is going to be able to hang on to that feeling forever through your work.

I couldn’t agree more.

14 Essential Open Water Swimming Blogs for 2013

These are a few of my favorite OWS blogs. 14 of them, for 2013. Because I couldn’t choose just 13. They are listed in order of when I first added the RSS feed to my Google Reader (oldest to newest):

1. Rob Aquatics


Rob D. is the godfather of open water swim-blogging, known for his comical prose stylings, his GoPro ninja skills, his seeming indifference to cold water, and his fearsome adventure beard.

2. Lone Swimmer


Donal is my Irish BFAM and fellow co-founder of the Marathon Swimmers Forum. He’s an English Channel and MIMS soloist known for his stunning photography and authoritative writing about cold-water swimming. We founded our blogs in the same month, literally (February 2010).

3. Penny & Chris Palfrey


Quite simply: Penny is a legend. After her nearly-70 mile Cayman Islands swim, an almost-completed Cuba-to-Florida swim, and six of the seven channels in the Oceans’ Seven, one wonders what box she could possibly have left to tick?

She’s not the most active blogger, but I include her on this list because her entries remain fascinating even years after she’s written them. She is still the only successful solo swimmer off San Miguel and Santa Barbara Islands, so her reports are required reading for anyone attempting to follow in her wake.

4. Chicken’s Nuggets


Amanda (a.k.a. “Chicken of the Sea”) is one of the funniest, quirkiest humans I know, and her missives are always good for a chortle or two. (Here is a classic.)

I miss a few things about living in the Midwest, but none more than swimming at Promontory Point in Chicago. These days, “Chicken’s Nuggets” are the closest I get to feeling the soft freshwater embrace of my beloved old swim spot.

5. Gords Swim Log

Gords is an English Channel soloist and the founder and race director of the Great Salt Lake Marathon Swim.

He is also famous for his super-human tolerance for long monotonous pool sets, and for being abandoned by Vito (along with Goody and Cathy) on the other side of Clear Lake, left to hitchhike back in a Rob Aquatics speedo.

Personally, I think it was Luigi’s fault.

6. WaterGirl

Katie is an enthusiastic open-water swimmer and compelling writer hailing from Arizona — another up-and-coming open water area in the Mountain West region of the U.S.

She recently completed her first official marathon swim – Swim the Suck in Tennessee.

7. 10K Marathon Swim


When I first came across “Iron” Mike’s blog, he was an American living in Moscow. An unlikely location for an open water swimmer, perhaps, but one that allowed for occasional fascinating trips to nearby events.

He recently moved to northern Virginia, so it will be fun to see him tackle the more plentiful OWS offerings in the States. Like Katie, Mike, recently completed Swim the Suck.

8. Feel for the Water – the Swim Smooth Blog


Swim Smooth is one of several “schools of swim improvement” in the marketplace and, to my mind, the most sophisticated and worthwhile (especially for open water swimmers).

I especially enjoy the posts that are written with, essentially, a three-part structure (e.g., this recent one):

  1. Here’s something you may have learned from TI.
  2. Here’s why that makes you slow.
  3. Here’s what you should do instead.

Of course, Paul Newsome is a polite man (unlike me), so he never actually calls out TI by name. Always gives me a laugh, though.

9. The Long Swim


Karen is a sociologist from the UK, and as such, she often writes about marathon swimming from an academic perspective. Her posts are invariably thought provoking.

She’s also a successful English Channel and Catalina Channel soloist, and will complete her Triple Crown this June at MIMS.

10. Ollie’s Long Distance Swimming Blog

ollieOllie is an Aussie living in the UK, and a very fast swimmer. He and I had an exciting race a couple years ago in the Hudson, and he subsequently became the record-holder around Manhattan. Similar to me, Ollie’s marathon swims are often semi-masochistic experiences.

11. Shark Research Committee

sharkrcBecause you can never know too much about what’s swimming around below you. Or can you?

12. Throw Me In the Ocean

throwmeWhat Caitlin’s blog lacks in quantity, she more than makes up for in quality. In my opinion, the best prose stylist on this list.

13. Trent Grimsey’s Blog

trentElite athletes’ blogs and/or Twitter feeds are often poor quality (or possibly not even written by them), but Trent’s is pretty good. And it appears that he actually writes it himself!

14. Fermoy Fish

owenokeefeA relative newcomer to the OWS blogging community, Owen is already making a name for himself, in his homeland of Ireland and beyond. In 2009, Owen swam the English Channel at 16 years old – the youngest Irish person to do so.

If young Owen is any indication, the future of marathon swimming is bright indeed.

Avila Polar Plunge

So, here’s what I did for New Years’:

Photo by Ed

Not pictured is the Avila Pier, from which I had just leaped.

See Rob there, already in the water, closest to me, holding a GoPro on his wrist? He’s about to take this picture:

Photo by Rob D, instagrammed by yours truly

The water was nice, about 53F. Typically I would at least wear a cap at this temperature, but I forgot it. Oops. Ice cream headache.

“Errrggmmhh.” Photo by Rob D, instagrammed by yours truly

Here’s Cathy, a somewhat more photogenic jumper:

Photo by Rob D

As it turns out, Cathy and I are experienced hands at this sort of thing. Back in September in Maui, this happened:

(NOTE: For those reading via RSS or email subscriptions, use the link at the bottom of this post to see the video.)

Anyway, the swim back to shore was about 400m. We sat on the beach for the next couple hours, re-warming and eating empanadas with our fellow outlaws.

A fine start to 2013.

Some other reports from the day:

Santa Cruz Island Swim, Part 5: The Test

In case you missed it…

Sometime between 2 and 3 in the morning, I had decided to spare everyone another (potentially) 10 hours of needless unpleasantness, and end my swim. I was just waiting for the right time; a convenient excuse. If Mark or Cathy or Rob or Dave had said at some point that night, “Evan, it’s pretty rough out here. Maybe you want to get on the boat and go home?”, I can’t say I’d have insisted on continuing.

It’s a testament to the loyalty and intestinal fortitude of my crew and observer that I never got that chance. Three hours later, I was still swimming.

Video still courtesy of Element 8 Productions

At 5:30am, we were halfway across the channel – 8.3 nautical (9.6 statute) miles to go. At 5:45, the first hint of grey appeared on the horizon: nautical twilight. And it changed everything.

As any Catalina swimmer knows: The dark thoughts, the “witches,” are inseparable from the literal darkness of the night. Even the slightest hint of light changes everything. Instead of resolving to quit, I resolved to grind it out – however long it took. Instead of feeling that the Channel was punishing me, it now seemed that the Channel was testing me.

If you want this, you’re gonna have to work for it.

Cathy in kayak. Photo by Rob D.

It was a test – and it had nothing to do with time or records. It was about confronting the darkness and vastness of the ocean, my own physical vulnerability and mental weakness – and finding a way to the other side.

When the sun rose on September 15th, I was more than halfway across the channel, and – despite all – still on pace to break Ned’s record (10 hours, 27 minutes). At that moment, I honestly couldn’t care less about the record.

Cathy replaced Mark in the kayak. It had been a stressful, physically demanding night for Mark, but he handled it like the Olympian he is. I think he felt responsible for keeping his old friend safe in a situation that often seemed anything but. He commented a few days later to Presidio Sports:

It was a humbling admission when I eventually told Evan that I needed to go rest on the boat, and it’s a true testament to his determination and conditioning that he didn’t quit along with me.

Everyone from the boat captain to Evan and definitely everyone in between hoped that the conditions would get just a little worse, so we’d have a good excuse to stop.  Unfortunately, the conditions were just barely good enough for us to keep trudging along.

Mark takes a well deserved nap. Photo by Rob D.

After the sun rose, the filming kicked into gear again. I occasionally noticed Ben – decked out in full Frogman attire – cruise past me underwater with his GoPro. It was startling at first, but actually kind of fun. I can’t wait to see the footage. A preview frame:

Video still courtesy of Element 8 Productions

Cathy paddled for the next three hours, until around 9am. A more patient, nurturing presence… and a comforting change of pace from Mark’s more verbal, taskmaster style (he is, after all, a swim coach – and a very good one).

At 9am I had about 2.5 nautical miles remaining – less than an hour and a half of swimming at my current pace. Cathy sensed I had hit another rough patch, and she was right. My shoulders throbbed painfully, and I was resorting to increasingly long stretches of backstroke. It was clear now I would finish the swim, but the record was in the balance.

Cathy and Rob made the call to wake up Mark and put him back in the kayak. His Olympian strength, his ability to motivate, was now needed.

“We can see the beach.” Mark back in kayak. Photo by Rob D.

Evan, we’re less than three miles out. You’re still under record pace, but there’s a good chance, if you pick it up, that you can break 10 hours. The choice is yours.

Those were Mark’s words shortly after he re-joined me. It was exactly what I needed to hear.

Almost simultaneously, the wind shifted… the chop settled down… and the swells were at my back. For the first time on this swim, the ocean let me find a rhythm. There was nothing left in my shoulders… but at the same time, there was nothing left to lose. I could see the beach.

In the breakers. Photo by Rob D.

9 hours, 47 minutes, 39 seconds after pushing off a vaguely menacing rock near San Pedro Point, my feet found dry sand on the shores of Oxnard.

I collapsed. Not because I lost consciousness, but because the weight of the past 10 hours was just a little too much to bear standing up.

The sun was high in a cloudless sky. A nice day at the beach.

What just happened. 

I still am not quite sure.

Video still courtesy of Element 8 Productions

News clippings:

Santa Cruz Island Swim, Part 3: Demons of Doubt

In case you missed it…

From the beginning, something just felt… off.

The chop disagreed with my stroke – pounding me randomly, from odd angles, making it impossible to develop any sort of rhythm.

The moonless night completely disoriented me. Shortly after the start we had a snafu with the glowsticks on Mark’s kayak, so it was insufficiently lit. He tried using a camping headlamp, but it was so blindingly bright that it seemed worse than the darkness.

It was a constant battle through the night – especially the first few feeds – to maintain a consistent distance from the boat and kayak. They were getting blown around by the wind; I was getting knocked around by the chop; and I had no depth perception to adjust to it.

I made 1.3 nautical miles of progress in the first hour – an incredibly slow pace for me. Possibly there was a head current near the island; but my constant zig-zagging didn’t help. I would bump into the kayak; Mark would yell at me; I’d try to adjust left but then get too close to the boat; Dave, Rob, and Cathy would yell at me; I’d try to adjust right; rinse & repeat. Occasionally, I’d actually find myself behind the boat (i.e., near the propeller), at which point Cathy screams and Capt. Forrest loses a month off his lifespan.

This may produce some entertaining documentary footage someday, but at the time it was fucking miserable – for everyone. 

“Get away from the boat!” Photo of Cathy by Rob D.

Around my 5th or 6th feed (a couple of which I didn’t keep down) the constant bumping and adjusting and yelling had decreased, but I began to notice something else: I wasn’t swimming well. The random chop and disorientation and mid-stroke adjustments had already taken a toll. I could feel the sloppiness and tightness creeping into my stroke.

The realization dawned on me: I might not finish this swim. I was doing the calculations in my head: At this pace, I could have another 10 (12?) hours in the water. After only 2 hours, I was exhausted and sick. (I had never gotten seasick while swimming!) I’m not sure I can do this for another 10 hours. I’m not sure I want to.

I could hear it in the voices of my crew: They knew all was not well. They had all seen me swim before. Something wasn’t right. Something was… off.

My thoughts drifted to them: my crew, my friends. Why am I putting them through this? They should be home, in bed – and so should I. This is a meaningless, selfish lark – and their suffering is pointless.

There’s a famous Ted Erikson saying: “Marathon swims are a dumb thing.” I knew exactly what Ted meant, right then.

I was ready to quit. I looked at the boat and thought, It would be better to be there than here. I thought about the film crew, the documentary, and how it would look on the big screen when I got on the boat. I didn’t care. I thought about the pre-swim publicity in Santa Barbara (which I didn’t ask for), and how I would explain to everyone back home how I quit after two hours. I didn’t care.

I kept repeating the phrase that always seems to be invoked after failed marathon swims: “It just wasn’t my day.” It had a comforting ring to it. It just isn’t my day.

The demons of doubt* spoke quite powerfully to me that morning. But there was another voice – quieter but insistent:

There is nothing wrong with you, physically. You are making progress. Not great progress; not the progress you hoped; but progress. At this moment, nothing can prevent you from finishing except your own choice to quit. 

For the next few feeds, I considered the two voices, the two options. And here’s the thing: I didn’t decide not to quit. But I put off the decision… for one more feed. And then another. And another…

Photo by Rob D.

* A Phil White phrase.

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…