Santa Barbara Channel – San Miguel (Penny) & Santa Cruz (Chris) Island to mainland Swims 2008

Diary of

1.95 crossings of the Santa Barbara Channel

 

Thursday, 25th September, 2008.

Rise and shine at 3.40am for the flight to Los Angeles, with daughter, Nicole.

We take the 5.55am Townsville to Brisbane flight (1 ½ hours), and transfer to the international terminal.

At noon, we board the Brisbane to LA flight (13 hours).

We touchdown at LAX at 7.45am on Thursday, having crossed the international date line (California is 17 hours behind Australian Eastern Standard time).

 

After clearing customs and security, we proceed to pick up our hire car. It’s a red Chevy. A bit like a PT Cruiser only bigger. The sort of car you would drive if you were having a mid life crisis.

At 9.30am, we leave the hire car depot and onto the notorious LA freeways. First the 405 heading north, and then onto the scenic 101 coastal route, which twists its way along the coast to San Francisco. Our destination is Santa Barbara, a small city of 100,000 people, 150 klms up the coast from Los Angeles. Described in the tourist mags as the American Riviera, SB is a pretty place, lying right on the coast, with the scenic Santa Ynez mountains directly behind.

 

At 11.45am, we arrive at the hotel, one block from the beach and close to the marina. We meet up with Penny, who has been in town since Saturday 20th (she swims first, so has been acclimatizing) and Dan Boyle (our very good friend from New York City, who has flown to the west coast at his own cost, to help Penny with her crossing attempt, which is scheduled for Saturday 27th.

 

Penny and Dan have been training together at the local beaches since Monday, and have been watching the weather closely. It has been ideal for the last two days but according to the forecast, will start to deteriorate sometime Friday morning and will probably be unswimable on Saturday. Penny and Dan both think we should head out a day early and ask my opinion.

 

There are a couple of obvious problems with this. Firstly, we had already paid for our charter boat (non-refundable), and second, Neil Vaughan (another good friend of ours from Perth) has added a big dog leg to a business trip to help us with the swim. He doesn’t fly into SB until tonight so we would leave without him. But English Channel graduates (like Penny and Dan) know better than most, that in an area where the weather is fickle, if you get the chance to go, you do just that, or run the very real risk of missing out on your attempt altogether.

 

I digress a little at this stage to bring you up to speed with the proposed crossing.

There are several islands off the central and southern California coast which could be considered swimable. The best known is Catalina, directly off Los Angeles.

For our crossing however, we had chosen the islands which make up the Channel Islands National Park, located south of Santa Barbara. There are four islands off the coast, giving numerous swimming options. From East to West, there is :

  • Anacapa to the mainland, 20 klms at its closest point.
  • Santa Cruz to the mainland. At 40 klms long, Santa Cruz gives many crossing options, but there are two generally recognized routes. Santa Cruz East, as I call it, is 30.6 klms to the closest point on the mainland, and Santa Cruz to Santa Barbara is 38 klms. Only a handful of people have completed these crossings.
  • Then you move up to the big time, serious marathon swims. From Santa Rosa to the mainland is around 45 klm (approx. distance only), and San Miguel to the mainland is maybe fractionally longer. Crossings of the Santa Barbara Channel from these two islands, had never been successfully attempted until this year.
  • There are also shorter, but still challenging, inter island crossings, as follows (distances are shortest direct routes) :
  • Anacapa to Santa Cruz (8.5 klms), only ever completed by Scott Zornig from LA.
  • Santa Rosa to Santa Cruz (9.6 klms), only ever completed by Penny and I.
  • San Miguel to Santa Rosa (6.2 klms), and yet to be conquered.

The weather in this part of California is generally fairly settled and stable during summer. The great thing about this, as compared to the English Channel, is that it is unlikely that the weather will scuttle your attempt. This is particularly so for crossings of the Santa Barbara Channel from Santa Cruz or Anacapa. But the western end of the channel is different. Winds are funneled off the coast from Point Conception into the western channel, creating what mariners refer to as “windy lane”.

 

To illustrate the point with hard data, click on the “Current Ocean Temperature” on the Santa Barbara Channel Swimming Association (SBCSA) website. Find the weather buoy options and key in 46053, which is the eastern section of the channel, off Santa Cruz. Then look at weather station 46054, in the western channel, off San Miguel. The wind here is always stronger and comes from an unfavourable direction, and the water temperature is always lower. Consider the conditions and how long you would be in the water and it is not at all surprising that no one has attempted the western channel crossings.

 

But having conquered the English Channel, Cook Strait and several other marathon swims, penny was not satisfied with the traditional routes. She wanted a first. But then in July this year, Marc Lewis from San Diego, put in a fantastic effort to swim from Santa Rosa to the mainland in a time of 15 hours and 46 minutes. So that settled it. Penny would attempt to swim from San Miguel to the mainland.

And hence Dan’s and her sense of urgency about the weather. At 1.00pm we phone Emilio, the president and founder of the SBCSA, voice our concerns and request a meeting. He tells us to come right over. We meet at his office to discuss the forecast. He agrees we should go early so we phone Travis Casper. Travis owns a Hunter 31 yacht which he charters out. Dan and Penny have already spoken with him and he is willing to assist us. Travis confirms the weather outlook and says he is ready when we are. We agree to meet at the marina at 3.00pm. Emilio makes one more call, this time to Dean White who is a very experienced skipper and knows the waters well. Dean works at UCSB and hastily arranges to skip work early. He races home on his pushbike to throw a few things together for the trip. He will be an invaluable and welcome addition to our crew.

 

We hasten back to the hotel. We have one hour for Penny to pack and recheck her swim kit, to prepare her carbo drinks, and gather together the other items required for up to 36 hours at sea. I had to unzip my suitcase from the flight and do the same. So much for a couple of hours snooze to get over the jet lag. Thank god for Dan who had to do all of the above, but still found time to go to the shops and buy food and drinks for all the crew.

 

At 3.00pm, we present at the marina to load the boat. Brooke (Dan’s partner) whilst flat out with her real job, has been helping us prepare and doing sundry ancillary tasks.

 

Having stowed and secured all the gear, we cast off from the dock at 3.35pm. On board is Travis and Dean (skippers), Emilio (observer), Dan and myself (handlers) and Penny (swimmer). Ahead of us is 79 klm motoring in a westerly direction to Cuyler Harbour at San Miguel. The prevailing wind is westerly, and you guessed it, we were motoring straight into a 15 knot headwind. We were told to expect at least 12 hours steaming, so we settled in and tried to rest as best we could (sleeping was impossible).

 

From time to time, Emilio, Dan or I would sit and make small talk with Travis or Dean who took turns keeping watch. The headwind kept up throughout the night, it became cold after the sun set, and in the early hours of the morning, a thick fog descended upon us. At its worst, we estimated visibility to be less than 50 metres. At this point I had a really bad feeling about the swim.

 

Friday, 26th September

Whilst the boat was equipped with radar, the fog and headwind forced the skippers to slow down. And it wasn’t until 5.30am that we were told we were close to our destination. Penny made her final preparations whilst we were still underway, bouncing around in the darkness. She ate, drank and applied sunscreen. We arrived at Harris Point, the most northerly point of San Miguel, at 6.00am, after 14 ½ hours steaming. Not the best preparation for a major marathon swim. We apply the liberal quantities of lanolin, Penny thanked all the crew, clambered into the inflatable boat, and was ferried by Emilio to her starting point.

 

At 6.13am, in the darkness, Emilio runs into a kelp bed which stops the boat dead. They are 50 metres from the cliffs of Nifty Rock, so Penny says this will do. She jumps straight into the kelp, swims to the cliff face (there is no way of exiting the water to start from dry land).

 

At 6.15am she yells to Emilio to start the clock and she’s off. She swims past the rubber duckie towards us on the yacht (about 300m offshore). We link up with her, get on course and start to settle in. Emilio catches up to us a couple of minutes later and informs us that he was untangling kelp from the outboard’s propeller. We head toward the coast (which we won’t be able to see for another 3 hours) some 24 plus nautical miles away, on a compass bearing of 20 degrees. We soon notice there is a current pushing us sideways (eastwards) but we hold our course.

 

Soon after we get underway the sky becomes lighter and the wind drops to a very light westerly breeze. The sea flattens out and there is only a light westerly swell. The sun slowly rises and it appears that we have good weather ahead. It looked anything but that a few hours before so we thank the weather gods.

 

We have arranged to feed Penny half hourly with warm carbohydrate drinks and gels. The drink stops are no more than 20 seconds.

 

For the first 2 hours she holds 80 strokes per minute and is swimming slightly quicker than 4 klm per hour. From the 2 ½ to 9 hour marks of the swim, she is like a machine, holding a stroke rate never under 78 per minute. Her rating dropped to 76 for an hour or so, partly as a result of a westerly sea breeze (crosswind) which made conditions sloppy between the 7 ½ to 10 ½ hour marks. But as the sea breeze eased off for the last hour of the swim, she picked up her rating to 77 to 78 strokes per minute. On the boat, we all wondered how she could hold that pace for so long and where her energy came from. Travis in particular, was used to taking people out on pleasure cruises and had never been on a marathon swim. He probably thought we were looney to even contemplate such a swim, as private recreational boats rarely venture out to San Miguel on account of the weather conditions.

 

Between feeds and relaying information, there was lots to keep us entertained. Firstly, there was a seagull which seemed fascinated by the swimmer and tagged along with us, continually taking off and landing just in front of Penny for about 20 minutes. At one point, it tried to land on her swim cap, which had us all laughing.

 

Between 7.30 and 9.00am, we saw three separate pods of common dolphins with at least 50 in each group. Some came to within 200 metres of the boat and delighted us with their flips and other antics. And then there were the numerous seals which came right up to the boat, and which Penny could see underwater.

 

The western channel near San Miguel, is well known for a healthy population of great white sharks and so we had a shark shield (a device which emits a signal to repel but not harm sharks. See www.sharkshield.com.au ) ready to deploy and an action plan to keep Penny out of harms way. We didn’t see any great whites, but we did see three blue sharks during the crossing.

 

I saw the first one at about the 5 ½ hour mark. At first I thought the gray object which broke the surface was the snout of a seal, just popping its head up for a look see. But there was something else on the surface a little over a metre away, and if it was a seal, it seemed to be going backwards. I then realized I was looking at the dorsal and tail fins of the shark, which was leisurely cruising along the surface soaking up the glorious day. It was no more than 40 metres away and showed no interest whatsoever in either boat or swimmer. It slowly moved away after a couple of minutes. The second and third shark encounters occurred at about the 6 ½ and 8 hour marks. Again they were just cruising along and our paths and theirs just happened to cross. It was hard to tell how big the first two sharks were, but not so with the third, as it crossed our bow, no more than 10 metres ahead. Looking down, I would say it was very close to 3 metres long (allowing for magnification of the water). Whilst we were ready to pluck Penny out of the water, none of the sharks seemed the slightest bit interested in her.

 

Following the old adage, “what you don’t know can’t hurt you”, we held off telling her about the sharks until the day after the swim, when we were visiting the local wineries. It made for a good story as we sampled the local produce.

 

Dan and I (handlers) were kept busy with making drinks, keeping watch, giving encouragement and relaying information. Dan was also busy sending a receiving text messages to and from various people in the USA and Australia. The swim was largely uneventful for us on the boat, until the 7 hour mark, when we had a major problem.

At 1.15pm, we were just about through the northbound shipping lane, and had just finished the half hourly feed. The feed involved passing her a cup attached to a rope. She drank, dropped the cup and swam on, whereupon we pulled the rope in to retrieve the cup. But on this feed, the rope broke and the cup drifted off. My first instinct was to race to the stern and jump in the rubber duckie to fetch the cup. I started the 3 hp outboard and Emilio cast me off. I put the engine into gear. Nothing. I put it in neutral and back in gear. Nothing. I looked down at the propeller which was absolutely choked with kelp, and wondered how Emilio had ever got back to the boat. It took me a minute to clear the kelp. Back into gear. Still nothing. The strain on the small engine had broken the sheer pin. There were no oars/paddles in the duck and the yacht was now 150 metres away. Oh dear.

 

I did the only thing I could think of and hung off the front of the duck, paddling two arm butterfly style as hard as I could. But after a few minutes, I was making no headway into the gap between us. Meanwhile, back on the boat, they came up with a way of rescuing me and the duckie. They dropped the kayak in the water and Dan stayed alongside Penny whilst the yacht came back for me. As the guys pulled alongside, one of them said “that was close” and pointed behind me. A fully laden container ship was passing 250 metres astern of us. I had no idea it was there.

 

At about this time, two other things were happening. The current, which had been pushing us from west to east for the first 6 hours of the swim, was starting to change direction. We had been taken about 3 nautical miles eastward (towards Santa Barbara) and now we were being carried slowly westward. Also, at around noon, a westerly (crosswind) sea breeze started to develop. It never got over 10 knots, but did make conditions a little sloppy for a few hours.

 

The decision was made to keep the kayak in the water as it was easier to keep alongside Penny at her speed. Dan paddled with her until 8 ½ hours and then I took over until the finish.

Not long after the 8 hour mark, we passed the “Heritage” oil platform (one of many along this part of the coast) to our right. We had first seen the rig 3 hours earlier, so it was a relief to finally leave it behind. We now had 7 nautical miles (about 13 klms) to go, and the features and landmarks on the coastal hills were becoming more defined. The last 3 hours of the swim were uneventful. The sea breeze, which had made the going a little uncomfortable, eased off during the last half hour of the swim.

 

Our landing point was an area called Gaviota (the locals also referred to it as Holister Ranch). The hilly coastline was sparsely populated and the well to do residents accessed the outside world via a private road. The rail line linking LA and San Francisco ran right along the coast, and we landed on a tiny beach, at the mouth of a creek, directly below a railway bridge.

 

Penny’s time for the 24 plus nautical mile (approx. 45 klm) crossing was 11 hours, 29 minutes and 33 seconds. Considering the magnitude of her achievement, she was in very good shape at the end. Back on the boat, we hosed her down, wiped off what little grease hadn’t already worn off and she changed into warm clothes. We then had to motor along the coast for an hour to reach a pier where Brooke and Neil were waiting to take her back to Santa Barbara. Dan went back in the car, whilst I stayed on the boat to help with the clean up. Travis, Dean, Emilio and I arrived at the marina in Santa Barbara at 2.00am on Saturday after 35 hours at sea.

 

So Penny achieved her first. Whilst we were quite lucky to have very good weather, it was a huge swim (definitely one of the toughest successful marathon swims completed anywhere in the world this year). And only time will tell how great the swim was. First someone has to emulate the feat. But locals think her time will stand for many, many years.

 

Saturday, 4th October

It’s 2.00am at the Santa Barbara marina. Here we are again, heading out to the Channel Islands for my crossing of the channel. We had originally planned to go the day before but weather forced a postponement. Once again we were on Travis’ yacht, with he and Dean as skippers, Emilio as observer and Penny as my handler.

 

I am inexperienced with marathon swimming in cold water, so I had two options to choose from for my crossing. Anacapa (the smallest and eastern most island in the group) to Oxnard is 20 klms. Fractionally longer than Rottnest, I was pretty certain I could complete this crossing without difficulty. But having swum Rotto 8 times and comfortably completing 2 other decent marathon swims this year, I thought a longer crossing would give a greater sense of achievement.

 

The next longer swim was from San Pedro Point (at the eastern tip of Santa Cruz) to Oxnard on the mainland. At 30.6klms, it was the same distance as Catalina (off LA) and only 3k’s shorter than the English Channel. The clincher for choosing this route was the possibility of clocking the fastest crossing (currently held by our friend Ned Denison from Ireland, at 10 hours 27 minutes).

 

The forecast was not ideal, but as we arrived at the island in the half light there was hardly any breeze and only a slight swell. We were a little behind schedule, so I was politely told to get my finger out. 15 minutes later, after applying liberal quantities of woolfat, I was swimming the 50 metres from the yacht to the island for a wall touch (no chance of exiting the water due to sheer cliffs) and off.

I started at 6.45am. The 64 F degree water didn’t feel at all cold to start with. Whether it was the adrenalin, the grease or a bit of both, I’m not sure.

My stroke rate was 70 initially, but soon settled down to 68, which is what I hoped to maintain for most of the crossing.

One thing I have learned from Penny is to break a marathon swim down into manageable parts or milestones, which can be ticked off as you go. I used the shipping channels for this purpose. I asked the crew to tell me when we had entered the southbound lane, the separation zone and the northbound lane. Once through the shipping channel, I was over half way to my goal.

 

Like Penny, I fed every half hour on carbo drinks and gels, keeping the stops as short as possible.

I was making good time in the favourable conditions and reached the half way point (just over 15 klm) in a fraction over 4 hours. Though a bit cold, I felt good and was on track to comfortably break the record for this crossing. But after crossing the shipping lane, my progress seemed to slow markedly. I don’t know why as I felt ok, but the miles seemed to take much longer to tick by.

 

At around noon and 5 hours into the swim, the breeze started to pick up. Like Penny’s day, it was a cross wind, and it never got over 10 knots so wasn’t a big deal, but the breeze, combined with a cool, dull, cloudy day, was making me colder.

Not long after passing the “Gail” oil rig, I saw some pretty neat marine life. Penny had previously held up the “dolphins” sign twice before but I didn’t see any. On this third occasion though, she no sooner held up the sign, before I had at least a dozen of them swim beneath me. They were only in view for a few seconds, but my ear to ear grin took ages to disappear. Not long after that, a lone seal did a few acrobatic flips directly below me.

The wheels started to fall off after 7 ½ hours. Normally, I hold a pretty straight line and stay right next to the support boat, but I regularly started to find myself drifting off to the left. And on the boat, they noticed my stroke rate slowing. After holding 68 for almost 6 hours, it dropped to 66. And by 8 hours, it dropped to 64. When they informed me of this, I picked it up to 66 for a short time, only to slow again. I was annoyed at myself for slowing down. In Manhattan and Tampa Bay (both 8 hour plus swims), my rating hardly ever dropped below 68. But I seemed to be lacking the energy to pick up the pace.

 

Reading Ned Denison’s (Irish marathon swimmer) account of his crossing, he spoke of a face on current (and colder water) in the latter stages of the swim, which slowed his progress to a crawl. Whilst I wasn’t aware of any current, for the sake of my ego, I would like to say I was subjected to something similar. For the first 15k had taken 4 hours and the next 10 k had taken another 4 hours (which is extremely slow for me).

 

Just after 8 hours, Penny informed me that I had 3 miles to go and that there was a “big, fat beach” directly ahead. I was pleased with the news, but was now suffering a bit and knew I didn’t have the swim in the bag just yet.

 

I only remember patches of the last hour. I was swallowing a bit of water, which I never normally do. I asked Penny to hop in and pace me at around 8:45. She did so for 45 minutes and then got out because she was cold (from swimming at my slow pace). Then she paddled next to me in the kayak for the rest of the journey.

 

The crew were getting concerned about my welfare. My back was blue from the cold. And they said I was swimming in circles. I think that was an exaggeration. I would say more like zig zags. And they said later, that I wasn’t responding to their communications. The truth is, I’m half deaf at the best of times and had silicone putty stuffed very firmly in both ears. So I had hardly heard a thing all day. But had I have heard them debating whether or not to pull me out, I would have told them (with respect) to bugger off.

 

After 9 hours, they dropped my feed intervals down to 20 minutes and gave me warmer drinks. They lied that I had picked up my stroke rate (to give me confidence) but it didn’t make any difference. By 9 ½ hours, my rating had dropped to 62.

 

Not long after this, they made the decision to pull me out. Penny, still kayaking beside me, touched me, which disqualified me according to channel swimming rules.

 

I didn’t stop. I wasn’t even aware that she touched me. A few minutes later, I stopped in surprise when a swimmer appeared right in front of me. It wasn’t Penny. After a few seconds, I realized it was Emilio. It took a few more seconds to realize that that was the end of my swim.

 

It was 4.40pm, I had covered 29 klms., and only had 1 mile (1.6 klm) to go. They pulled me out after 9 hours 55 minutes. Bugger!

 

The boat came alongside. They got me out, dried me off, put me in a recovery suit and wrapped me in blankets, scarf and a beanie. Having stopped, I now started shivering in a big way. It didn’t take long at all to motor into Channel Islands Harbour at Oxnard. I was able to walk unaided to where we had left the car, although I had to stop to throw up half way down the jetty. My stomach musn’t have digested any of the sports drinks and salt water for the last couple of hours.

 

Penny and I set a number of goals for each major swim we do (an idea we got from Penny Lee Dean’s book). The first and most basic is always to finish. So I was disappointed with the final result.

 

I think I could have finished the swim. Emilio said at the pace I was going, it might have taken me another hour. It’s a question of what damage (if any) I might have done to myself by doing so. Ned Denison had 5 hours in hospital after his swim. I only had a mere 15 minutes of shivering.

 

But one thing an open water swimmer should never do, is criticize the support crew for making a decision in the best interest of his/her welfare. Their decision was final and I respect it totally.

 

I could come up with a few good excuses for not making it, but they count for nothing. At the end of the day, if you really want to achieve something, and at first you don’t succeed, you don’t find excuses, you assess what didn’t work and you find solutions. I take away from the Santa Barbara, some valuable lessons which hopefully will lead to success in a couple of cold water marathon swims we are planning in 2009.

 

Sunday, 5th October

The day after my swim was excellent. We crawled out of bed at the crack of 9.00am, and went to Butterfly Beach for a swim/paddle with the Ocean Ducks (locally open water swimming group who meet every Sunday). After that, we met up with Amber and Mitch (our friends from up the coast) for lunch and ice creams.

And in the late afternoon, we attended a meeting of the Santa Barbara Channel Swimming Association. In addition to Emilio and the local board members, Ned had flown in for the meeting, and Scott Zornig (who has done a number of interesting solo and relay swims) had driven up from LA. The main focus of the meeting was how to improve the service and experience offered to potential swimmers. At the dinner afterwards, Scott’s friend Jim Fitzpatrick joined us. At age 53, Jim had just swum from Catalina to Orange County, the first person to do so. The distance was similar to Penny’s cfrossing. We had a great time swapping yarns with these world class endurance athletes.

 

Unfortunately, that was the end of our stay in California, and we had to fly out the next day. It’s strange that neither Penny or I had any desire at all to visit America, until we were accepted to swim Manhattan in 2007. And now we have been there four times. We really like the people, and they love aussies and are genuinely interested in us and our country. There is lots to see and do and some excellent swims of different shapes and sizes, so I’m sure we’ll make several more visits and hopefully add to our growing list of American friends.

 

References :

www.santabarbarachannelswim.com

www.nycswim.org

www.distancematters.com

www.sharkshield.com.au

 

 

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Open water swimming crossings and races in Australia and around the world. Stories and reports of our adventures in and out of the water.