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.

Outbound 

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.

Yikes.

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.

A movie about marathon swimming: Fundraiser in Laguna Beach

This Thursday from 5:30-7:30pm Pacific time, Laguna Canyon Winery will host a wine tasting / fundraiser for an independent documentary film about marathon swimming. The Santa Barbara Channel Swimming Association, on whose board of directors I serve, has been involved in the production of this film in several interesting ways. At the wine tasting, the filmmakers will give a brief presentation, answer questions, and show some preview clips.

If you think marathon swimming is cool, and you live in Southern California, please consider attending. It’s a great opportunity to support both the sport and independent filmmaking – not to mention, taste some great wines and hang out with other swimmers. Entry is $35 and can be purchased at the door.

Laguna Canyon Winery is located at 2133 Laguna Canyon Rd in Laguna Beach. 5:30pm this Thursday – be there!

Virgin Waters: Distances between and around the Channel Islands and the U.S. Mainland

The biggest season in the history of the Santa Barbara Channel Swimming Association officially began yesterday, with a previously “undisclosed” relay crossing from San Clemente Island to the mainland – a distance of 54 miles.

Compared to the most famous Channel Island – Catalina – the remaining seven Channel Islands are still relatively virgin waters for marathon swimmers. Here are the number of successful solo swims, by island:

  • Anacapa to mainland (12.6 miles) – 25 swims by 23 individuals
  • Santa Cruz to mainland (various distances) – 8 swims
  • Santa Rosa to Santa Cruz (6 miles) – 2 swims
  • Santa Barbara to mainland (37.7 miles) – 1 swim
  • Santa Rosa to mainland (27.5 miles) – 1 swim
  • San Miguel to mainland (25.9 miles) – 1 swim
  • Anacapa to Santa Cruz (5.6 miles) – 1 swim

There are 80 possible swims between and around the eight Channel Islands (including Catalina) and the U.S. mainland. Only 11 of those have been conquered by solo swimmers. The following table shows the distances (in statute miles) for each of the 80 swims:

Notes:

  • Abbreviations: ml = mainland; SM = San Miguel; SR = Santa Rosa; SCru = Santa Cruz; Ana = Anacapa; SN = San Nicolas; SB = Santa Barbara; Cat = Catalina; SCle = San Clemente
  • orange highlight = one or more successful swims
  • from [island] to [same island] = circumnavigation

First-time channel swimmer? Consider Anacapa Island

For the most up-to-date information about Anacapa Island swims, please see the new dedicated Anacapa Island page at the Santa Barbara Channel Swimming Association website.

A channel crossing is a special kind of marathon swim. From one piece of land, you swim to another, non-contiguous piece of land, with nothing but water separating the two. Unlike a lake or bay crossing, there are no shortcuts – you can’t fudge the distance by adjusting where you start and finish. Unlike a river swim, there’s no consistent current to speed you along. Indeed, the only way out is getting on the boat.

For Americans, the most commonly attempted channel swim is the Catalina (a.k.a. San Pedro) Channel. The second most-attempted channel by Americans is, I would imagine, the English Channel. These are both substantial swims – over 20 miles each. So the question arises: How do you build up to them? One approach is to do a swim of similar distance, but in a more controlled setting – e.g., Tampa Bay or MIMS.

But there’s another, overlooked option for building up to a major channel swim: Do a real, full-fledged channel swim – but a shorter one. And guess what? There’s one such swim, right here in Southern California: Anacapa Island.

Anacapa channel swim
Anacapa Island to Port Hueneme, California

Anacapa Island comprises three narrow volcanic islets, 12 miles or so off the coast of Southern California. One of eight members of the Channel Islands (another of which is Catalina), Anacapa is also part of Channel Islands National Park. Compared to its neighbor, Catalina, Anacapa is relatively untouched by swimmers – only 25 successful swims since 1978.

The 12.4-mile (20 km) swim, from East Anacapa to Silver Strand Beach near Port Hueneme – has many desirable qualities for marathon swimmers.

  • It offers similar challenges as Catalina – open-ocean conditions, low-to-mid 60s water temperature – but at only 60% of the distance.
  • Like Catalina, swimmers have the support and backing of an official, legitimate marathon swimming organization – the Santa Barbara Channel Swimming Association.
  • Like Catalina, swimmers have access to a boat pilot with extensive experience escorting swimmers – the Tuna Thumper, captained by Bob Andrieux. Captain Bob has a 100% success rate: He’s never had a swimmer enter the water who failed to finish. A remarkable achievement in this business.
  • Like Catalina, swimmers will share the water with all matter of interesting marine life – for better (dolphins, porpoises, and whales) and for worse (the occasional jellyfish).
  • Unlike Catalina, a swim from Anacapa occurs during daylight hours, which some may find less psychologically intimidating.
  • Before and after your swim, you’re well-positioned to enjoy either Santa Barbara (a 30-minute drive north) or Los Angeles (a 1-hour drive south).

Being 60 miles further up the coast than Catalina, Anacapa has slightly cooler waters – perhaps 1-2 degrees Fahrenheit on average. The following chart shows the average, minimum, and maximum daily sea temperature for each day of the year, using all available data from the relevant NOAA buoy (2002-2011).

anacapa passage average sea temperature
Daily sea temperature: Average (black), maximum (red), & minimum (blue): 2002-2011. Data from NOAA buoy 46217. Chart by yours truly. Click to enlarge.

Swim Overview

(The following section is adapted, with permission, from a document authored by 2011 Anacapa soloist Dave Van Mouwerik.)

Anacapa Island topo map
Swim start at top right

The swim begins at a sheer cliff on the eastern edge of East Anacapa, near a lighthouse and distinctive formation known as “Arch Rock.” While the escort boat idles 50-60 yards offshore, the swimmer enters the water and approaches the cliff. The swimmer places his/her hand on the cliff, and at the observer’s signal, the swim begins.

Anacapa Island arch rock and lighthouse
Anacapa Island: lighthouse & arch rock. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Swimmers typically commence their journey just after sunrise, which casts Anacapa’s crags in a spooky, otherworldly light – as seen here:

Lynn Kubasek Anacapa swim start
2011 Anacapa soloist Lynn Kubasek enters the water. Image courtesy of Rob Aquatics (www.robaquatics.com)

Of the 25 successful Anacapa solo swims, the shortest was Nick Caine’s 5:03 in 2008; the longest was Jim Neitz’s 10:43 in 2011. With the length of day approaching 14 hours in the height of summer (plus an additional hour of visible light), even the most plodding of swimmers should be able to finish with light in the sky.

Four statute miles from the finish, you swim past an oil rig named Gina:

Gina the oil rig. Photo courtesy of Rob Aquatics (www.robaquatics.com)

The swim finishes at Silver Strand Beach, which separates the entrances to Channel Islands Harbor (to the northwest) and Port Hueneme Harbor (to the southeast):

Anacapa channel swim finish
Satellite image of Silver Strand Beach. Courtesy of Dave Van Mouwerik

In contrast to the sheer cliff start, the Anacapa swim ends on a soft, sandy beach. Typically, there isn’t much surf to contend with – but if you do have to bodysurf, at least you won’t faceplant on a bed of rocks. After clearing the water, the swimmer returns to the boat for a brief ride back to Ventura Harbor (where the Tuna Thumper docks).

2011 Anacapa soloist Lynn Kubasek finishing at Silver Strand Beach. Photo courtesy of Rob Aquatics (www.robaquatics.com).

Anacapa Swim Narratives

  • And, a narrated slideshow by Dave Van Mouwerik:


How to Sign Up for an Anacapa Island Swim

  • Book a date with an escort boat. The most frequently used boat for Anacapa swims is the Tuna Thumper, operated by Capt. Bob Andrieux (805-535-8519, salineenterprises@yahoo.com)
  • Join the SBCSA (annual or lifetime) and notify us of your upcoming attempt.
  • Follow the steps described on this page.
  • Feel free to contact the SBCSA leadership with any questions or concerns. Scott Zornig (board president) can be reached at [szornig at aol dot com]. I am also a SBCSA board member and can be reached by leaving a comment on this website.