There are lots of records up for grabs in open water swimming. For any race or crossing, you can be the fastest, the slowest, the youngest, the oldest, or if you keep coming back, you may notch up the most number of crossings.
By definition though, all records are made to be broken, except for one. To be the first person to swim a stretch of water is one record which can never be erased.
Penny and I had the opportunity to attempt a “first” not so long ago, out from Santa Barbara in California.
Our adventure started when we gained entry into the 2008 Manhattan Island Marathon Swim (MIMS). (A 45.8km circumnavigation around Manhattan Island, on which New York City is situated). We both swam MIMS in 2007. It was such a unique and awesome race, we just had to go back. Particularly as it was to be held the day after the Independence Day, 4th July celebrations.
We chose to stop over in California to acclimatise to the cooler water since the water is always warm here in Townsville (North Queensland) where we hail from.
Santa Barbara is a picturesque seaside town, 150klm up the coast from Los Angeles. We first heard about Santa Barbara from Ned Denison, an American friend of ours who lives in Ireland. Ned swam the Santa Barbara Channel in 2006 and raved about the marine life and the beauty of the Channel Islands. And Ned introduced us to Emilio Casaneuva, founder of the Santa Barbara Channel Swimming Association (SBCSA).
Since the SBCSA is still in its formative stages, Emilio asked Penny and I for advice on a range of issues to help enhance the experience of swimmers wishing to attempt a crossing. And he did us the honour of inviting us to become directors of the association, which we gladly accepted.
The Channel Islands consist of, from west to east, San Miguel, Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz and Anacapa. Unlike the English Channel or Catalina, very few people have swum the Santa Barbara Channel.
A handful of people have swum from Anacapa and Santa Cruz, but no one has swum from Santa Rosa or San Miguel to the mainland. And until October, 2007 no one has ever swum between any of the islands.
Scott Zornig from LA, got his “first” by swimming the 8.5k approximately from Anacapa to Santa Cruz. Reading the report on his crossing, we thought “This is a bit of all right. Why don’t we have a go at one of the other crossings”. But I guess it is rare that you can be first to ever do a swim, without having to overcome a few obstacles. And we certainly had a few of them.
Of most concern to us was Scott’s reason for choosing the Anacapa – Santa Cruz crossing. Of Santa Rosa and (particularly) San Miguel, he said “there are more fatted Elephant Seals around those two islands than ants at a picnic. And I didn’t want to mistaken for one”.
Regular open water swimmers know the chances of a shark approaching and taking an interest in a swimmer are so remote as to be hardly worth contemplating. But when you are out beyond the shore break in unfamiliar waters, that creepy feeling occasionally overrides logic and makes one a little edgy. So what about swimming across a stretch of water known as a hang out for Great White Sharks?
Well I have to admit we were nervous about this swim. But Penny had a great idea.
We had heard about “Shark Shield”, an Australian company which makes shark repellent devices. We contacted the company, told them of our attempt, and asked if they would loan us two units for the swim. They readily agreed. They gave us two “Freedom 7” units which comprise a transmitter (the size of a small fist) and trailing behind this is an antenna which emits a signal that repels (but does no harm) sharks in a 3 – 5 metre radius.
There is a Velcro strap attached to the transmitter which allows you to attach the unit around your ankle. But we didn’t want the drag of towing the unit so instead we draped them over the side of our support boat, and this worked well for us.
The shark issue dealt with, the next obstacle would be the weather. The wind along the Southern California coast in summer is usually fairly predictable. There is normally very little breeze and gentle seas at night and in the early morning. But as the sea breeze comes in from mid morning, the sea (and swimming conditions) gets progressively sloppier.
The western Channel Islands (particularly San Miguel) are an exception to the rule. Winds tend to funnel off the coast around this area creating what mariners refer to as “windy lane”.
The distance from San Miguel to Santa Rosa is 6.2klm compared to 9.6klm from Santa Rosa to Santa Cruz.
Because we were swimming MIMS only seven days after this crossing we favoured doing the shorter crossing. But since the sea conditions were a major factor for the crossing, it was decided that we would have a greater chance of success by doing the Santa Rosa to Santa Cruz crossing, as this offered more protection from the prevailing westerly breeze.
The other major factor on this swim was the water temperature. Two weeks before our attempt, a very good swimmer we know attempted the crossing between Santa Rosa and the mainland. He lasted 21/2 hours in the 12 – 13 C water.
For warm water swimmers like us, that was scary, and I in particular, doubted that I could endure the cold for the time it would take to complete the crossing (at home, the coldest the ocean gets in winter is 20 C).
Thankfully, southern California got some very warm weather in the week before our crossing. So hopefully, it would be a little warmer by the time we got our to the islands.
Our support crew for the attempt was small, but very competent. The boat skipper and navigator was Dean White. Dean was very thorough and professional and we felt very comfortable with him in control. He and Emilio own the 30 foot sail boat “Olita” which was our main support boat and they both knew the local waters very well. Assisting Dean on Olita was Marianne. All three were open water swimmers, so they knew well, our needs and requirements.
The plan was to leave Santa Barbara harbour at 12.30am and motor out to Santa Rosa, a little over five hours steaming time. Conditions were good for the trip across the channel and we even managed a tiny bit of sleep.
Dawn greeted us as we anchored off Skunk Point at the eastern tip of Santa Rosa. We have had our fair share of rough weather and adversity in swims we have done, but on this day, fortune was smiling upon us. There was no wind at all and only a gentle swell. A light mist made the distant hills on Santa Cruz island look kind of eerie. But best news of all was the water temperature of 61 degrees F (16C) as measured by the onboard instruments. Our spirits lifted with all the good news.
There was a fair current running between the islands, so it was agreed to start at slack water which was at 7.30 AM. So we took our time having a light breakfast of cereal, a power bar and our carbo drink.
Then it was on with the gear and grease. Any crossing of the Santa Barbara Channel is made under traditional, purist rules, adopted from the English Channel. This is so all swimmers have a level playing field and no one benefits from “fast” swimming costumes, or those which give thermal protection. We were allowed to wear a basic costume, goggles, one standard swim cap and ear plugs.
We also had to start and finish from dry land, above the water line. So Emilio ferried us to about 50m off the beach in his small, 3m inflatable. 16 degrees is a lot better than 12, but it was still cold for us, so we didn’t mess around. It was straight into shore and up the beach ready to commence our Inter Island crossing.
We both raised our arms to give the signal to go and then we were off.
Since Penny is faster, she would swim next to Olita, which had all the navigation equipment and Dean and Marianne would keep her company. And Emilio in the inflatable would guide me across, by simply following Olita.
Once we settled into our rhythm, the time just flew by, as it does on most of our long swims. We saw quite a few jellyfish on the way across but received no stings. And whilst we saw lots of inquisitive seals before we hit the water (and our crew saw lots more whilst we were swimming), we weren’t lucky enough to have any swim with us.
We also didn’t see any big predators on our crossing, and so the Shark Shields probably weren’t necessary. However, they gave us great peace of mind, knowing they were close by, silently doing their thing. So all we had to concentrate on as swimming to the other side.
Penny and I swam pretty hard for the whole way, as the extra effort generates body heat to keep the cold out. At about the half way point, the fog lifted and the sun come out. And by the time we finished the crossing, the water temperature had climbed to 65 degrees F (18C).
Our target on Santa Cruz was Kinton Point, at the western end of the island. The presence of large masses of kelp signified that we were getting close to our landing, the current was working against us toward the end. Penny swam north of the point and into a large beach which she named Penny’s Beach. And I finished just south of Kinton Point in a tiny sandy spot between two large rocky outcrops, which I called Chris’ cove. Not sure if the names will make their way onto the charts, but at least they will be etched in our memories.
To finish and achieve our goal was such a huge relief. Many hours of planing and dozens of emails had gone into putting this crossing together. And after we finished, it really felt like the swim was the easy part. Penny’s time for the crossing was 2 hours and 30 minutes and I did 2 hours and 52 minutes. The effect of the current meant that we did about 11 klms of real swimming.
Our team of Dean, Emilio and Marianne were excellent, and as any good open water swimmer knows achievements like this are not possible without a good support crew.
It had turned into a glorious day. Warm and sunny with a light westerly breeze starting to pick up. We were able to drift for a while and enjoy the coastal panorama whilst the crew had a dip.
If anyone is looking for a decent open water challenge, we would definitely recommend the Santa Barbara Channel (and not just because we are on the board). Since it is new on the marathon swimming scene, visitors receive great hospitality and assistance with organising their crossing. You can attempt the Anacapa crossing which is similar to Australia’s Rottnest Channel Swim, except a little colder. Anacapa would also be a perfect six hour qualifying swim if you are planning an English Channel crossing or want to enter the Manhattan Island Marathon. Then there is Santa Cruz to the mainland which is comparable, but maybe fractionally easier than the English Channel.
And then there are still some firsts there for the taking. At the time of writing no one has done the 6.2k crossing between the islands of Santa Rosa and San Miguel. And then, if you’re game no one has swum across the channel from either of those two islands to the mainland – exciting stuff.
Whilst Penny and I have got our first, we are always looking for new challenges. So we’re heading back to Santa Barbara in September when we hope to be the first Aussies and the first married couple to complete crossings of the Santa Barbara Channel.
Santa Barbara Channel Swimming Association: www.santabarbarachannelswim.org
Shark Shield: www.sharkshield.com
Manhattan Island Marathon Swim: www.nycswim.org
Rottnest Channel Swim: www.rottnestchannelswim.com.au