Santa Barbara Island to California Mainland Swim – Penny 2009

Penny swims from

Santa Barbara Island to Point Vincente

September 24 and 25, 2009.


Having decided to visit LA to swim Catalina, Penny had to decide what she was going to do. Whilst I (Chris) was quite happy with a Catalina crossing, Penny wanted more of a challenge. She thought briefly about doing a two way Catalina, but that had been done before, so she started looking at other options. We knew of the Channel Islands off Santa Barbara, having already done a couple of swims from them, and really enjoying that experience. And according to the map, it appeared that the distance from the smallest of this island group, Santa Barbara Island, to LA was roughly the equivalent to a double Catalina.


Penny ran her plan past a couple of people, and knowing her ability, they thought the swim was doable. So the plan was in place. That was exactly twelve months out from the swim. With a major undertaking like this, it was important to have some recognition. Our friend Forrest Nelson from LA said the Catalina Channel Swimming Federation (CCSF) would provide observers for the swim, but would not officially recognize it, as its charter only included Catalina swims. But Emilio from the Santa Barbara Channel Swimming Association (SBCSA) would be pleased to recognize the swim. So we officially registered the attempts with both the CCSF and SBCSA, and paid the required fees. The next priority would be to get a boat. We contacted John Pittman, one of the sanctioned pilots for Catalina swims. And he readily agreed to pilot both of us on our swims, although in the early stages, we suspect he thought we were crazy for even considering a swim like this.  

Santa Barbara island is located in the Outer Santa Barbara Channel, approx 64 klm (40 miles) due west of Santa Monica, on the northern side of LA. The island is tiny and appears as only a dot on a regional map. The swim course would take a north easterly course to Point Vincente, which is also the finishing point for Catalina swims. Straight line distance, as advised by John Pittman was 40.2 statute miles. Pt. Vincente was chosen as the landing point (as compared to Pt. Dume, near Santa Monica, which was 2 miles shorter) because any current and wind, should give Penny some assistance, whereas heading towards Pt. Dume she would be pushed sideways by both.


Santa Barbara island to the coast had never been attempted by a solo swimmer. There had only been two successful swims launched from that island. In 2006, a relay of 6 swimmers (including Forrest) did it in 18 hours 44 minutes. And a year later, a relay of two people swimming in 3 hour shifts, did it in 33 hours. So Penny figured it would take her around 20 hours. Her longest swim to date was just under 15 hours so she was under no illusion as to the difficulty of the task ahead. SB islands main inhabitants are a seal colony, so Penny arranged to get 2 shark shields for the swim. They would be attached to the two kayaks and would be used throughout the swim, especially near the island and at night.


One of the best things about the Santa Barbara island swim (and marathon swimming in general) is the people you meet and the support you receive from people keen to help you reach your goals. Three months out from Penny’s swim, Anne Cleveland from the CCSF, emailed to introduce herself as Penny’s observer for the swim. Penny already knew of Anne from the Channel Group (EC online chat group). Anne has the distinction of being the oldest person to do an English Channel two way crossing (in 28 hours) and one of only 20 people who have so far achieved this feat. Anne offered to give any advice and assistance which Penny might need. And so Penny asked many questions, since this would be her longest swim (Anne had already been in that territory), and Anne was extremely helpful.

Anne also played a big role in assembling an excellent crew. David Clark was the second CCSF observer, and was very experienced, both in the role of a kayaker and swimmer. Jesse Gros from San Diego would also kayak. As would John and Tony, professional kayak guides in the channel island group, based out of Santa Barbara. And Forrest was Penny’s handler for the swim. A more skillful and experienced group of people would be hard to find. I (Chris) would not be on the boat, as I was swimming Catalina only 3 days later.

Penny flew into LA a week before the swim so as to get over the jet lag and acclimate to the cooler temperatures. But the weather was a pleasant surprise for us (hailing from the warm tropics). Throughout our stay, the days were warm to hot, the evenings mild, and the water temperature was a comfortable 68-70 F (20-21 C). We stayed at Long Beach, not far from San Pedro harbour and our boat. And we found a condo right on the beach which was very convenient for our training swims.

The days passed quickly and there was lots of last minute preparation to do. The plan was to meet at the dock at midday on September 24th, in order to cast off by 1.00pm. They wanted to get to the island (4 hours traveling time), get set up and start before sunset. Conditions according to the online Storm Surf weather model looked very good, with a very light, almost variable breeze. And she was swimming at the bottom of the neap tide. So any tidal influence would be minimal. It was a fairly smooth trip out to the island, allowing Penny and most of the crew, the opportunity to rest.

Upon reaching the island, it appeared little more than a large rock poking out of the North Pacific. There was no beach or easy landing point. After scouting around for a while, they chose Penny’s starting point. A rock ledge just clear of the water, where she would be able to climb out without much difficulty. The observers wanted the swim to be authentic in every way, so she would start by climbing up on the rocks and exiting the water. To ensure she didn’t cut herself on the barnacles, Penny borrowed gloves and shoes from one of the kayakers, jumped off the duckboard and swam the 20 meters to the ledge. She actually had to climb out a few meters away from her chosen spot, as whilst she was getting ready, a baby elephant seal had climbed out onto her ledge. And mum was no doubt close by so Penny didn’t want to cause any aggravation.

She started at 6.10pm, about half an hour before sunset. After handing back the gloves and shoes she was away. For the first twelve hours of the swim, there would be two kayakers in the water with Penny at all times. And she had two shark shields. One would be deployed at all times from a kayak, whilst the other was charging on the boat. Penny was very glad to have the security of the shark shield when, only 200 meters into the swim, she clearly saw a large shark below her. She only saw it from the dorsal fin back but was certain it was a great white. It simply cruised by, it was an awesome sight, Penny describes the moment as surreal and incredible but she didn’t feel afraid at all, probably because she was so focused on the job ahead of her and the peace of mind afforded by the shark shield made her feel much more at ease she never saw it again. Also shortly after leaving the island, Penny received a few minor jellyfish stings, but we are used to that coming from North Queensland.

Penny’s main priority in the early stages of the swim was settling into a steady pace and rhythm. The water temperature at the island was 66F (19 C ) but it warmed up slightly to 68 F where it stayed the entire night. The breeze was less than 5 knots and seas were slight. And best of all the sky was clear. As it became dark, the stars came out and the bioluminescence started. Penny said it was like having stars above and below. It was amazing. Penny felt good and was making good headway until around 10.00pm. At this time, the wind seemed to change direction and she had three hours (until 1.00am) of an annoying chop, which made it hard to keep a comfortable rhythm.


From 1.00am, the wind died and the sea once again flattened. Penny received a lift a couple of hours later, when even though still very dark, she could make out the silhouette of Santa Catalina Island way off to the right. She could clearly see Catalina for a couple of hours and it signified she was around the half way point. She also used other things to give her positives to look forward to 4.00am was significant as that is the time we get up to go training every day. Then there was sunrise at around 6.15am. Then entering and passing through the shipping lanes, before counting down the last few miles.


At around 5.00am, Penny copped another jellyfish sting on the quadriceps area. This one was extremely painful and took a ½ hour to settle down. As she approached the shipping channel, just after sunrise, Penny could hear dolphins singing underwater. This gave her a big lift although she couldn’t see them.

Ashore, myself and others who were following Penny’s swim, were on the edge of our seats. Our friend Lynn Kubasek from Laguna Beach, had agreed to update Penny’s Face Book page with her progress. And she would receive information at regular intervals via txt from Anne Cleveland. But her cell phone was out of range and we heard no word from the time they reached the island until 7.00am. Lots of people were asking how she was going, and all I could say was that she was not home, and that no news is good news.

So when Lynn received an update from Anne, I just had to phone John Pittman. She had 9nm to go and was swimming strongly, averaging around 2.1nm/hour over the last three hours. He sounded very confident and thought she would finish at around 11.30am. wow. She was actually going to do it. Anne Cleveland’s text’s indicated the crews excitement. Comments like, “she smokin’ it”, “swimming sooo strong”, and so on. I  had better get a move on to get to Pt. Vincente in order to see the finish.

Looking out to sea from the Palos Verdes peninsula, the weather was glorious. Warm, sunny and flat calm. I could see the Outrider, tiny at first, slowly approaching land. It appeared as they got closer, and the crew confirmed this later, that Penny was copping a slight head current over the last 3 klm. As the boat got closer, and I could make out the people on deck and penny in the water, I checked her stroke count. It was 75-76 and she still looked strong and had good technique. Amazing after almost 18 hours of swimming.

The upwelling off the coast had caused the water temperature to drop to 66 F (19 C). Penny was still in really good shape at the end, with energy still in reserve. She finished at midday, after swimming the 40.2 statute miles (65 klm) in an official time of 17 hours 53 minutes and 41 seconds. The swim crew and kayakers had done a great job, preparing her drinks, keeping her spirits up, and guiding her. John Pittman and his crew also did a great job. Penny’s course, as plotted on the chart, was quite straight, with only a few divergences off a straight line, probably caused by the effects of current in certain parts of the swim.

Whilst Penny has done one swim of longer distance, this one was by far the longest in terms of duration. And it was done without any real assistance from the natural elements. Penny wondered before the swim how she would handle swimming throughout an entire night, and for so long without sleep. But she coped well and found the reserves required. And post swim, with the help of some lemonade to give her a pick up, she even managed to stay awake for the afternoon meal with the crew.

Our thanks go to all the crew. Forrest Nelson did an outstanding job as coach/handler. Anne gave much helpful advice and support. David Clark with his wealth of knowledge and organizational skills. And the skills of Jesse, Jon and Tony were excellent. Jesse also took some fantastic photos from his kayak whilst off duty from paddling. Thanks also to the CCSF, who helped in quite a few ways with Penny’s epic swim, even though it was not within their charter.

Both Penny and I had successful swims and thoroughly enjoyed our time in Southern California with some truly great people. We would not hesitate to recommend this part of the world (Catalina and Santa Barbara) to any prospective marathon swimmers.


Penny Palfrey – Swimming with Great White Sharks

On two of my channel crossings I’ve swum very close to a great white shark. The moments were fleeting the memories will last a lifetime.

The first time I saw a great white shark during my swims was very early on in my successful 40 mile crossing from Santa Barbara Island to Point Vincente on the Californian coast, which is the same finished place as where the Catalina Channel swimmers finish.

Organising the swim had taken months of planning and training. I had my charter boat booked and a wonderful crew assembled for the crossing. I flew from Australia to Los Angeles and trained at Long Beach, California for a week prior to my swim. Finally my day came, everything was in place and everyone was ready to go. We met at the marina and boarded the charter boat at midday. Knowing I was about to swim through the night and well into the following day I went below and tried to rest on the five hour boat trip out to Santa Barbara Island. There was a good size swell running but the boat was large on comfortable.

We knew we needed to start my swim well before dark, this was Great White Shark territory, and there were baby seals in the area, the Great Whites would be here for their share in the food chain. Since we were unable to load the boat before midday, the five hour boat trip wouldn’t leave us much time to waste in getting me into the water before sunset.

When we arrived at the tiny island, the weather was good and the sea quite settled, but the ocean swell was surging around the rocky island. We motored for quite some time trying to find the best place for me to begin my swim; finally we found a small ledge I felt I could pull myself out of the water onto. I was greased up and ready to go. My goggles pulled down over my eyes and about to jump into the water….oh no! A baby seal hauled itself up onto my chosen ledge. Where there are babies, there are sure to be mothers…I couldn’t use this ledge now, we needed to find another. More time went by, the day was wearing on, I found a new ledge and made me way to shore, the sun was close to setting, I knew I didn’t have much time to get away from the island
before sunset. Finally I was away, the clock was started and I began stroking my way back out to my support boat and towards the mainland. I could still see the bottom; I like to look at the bottom when it’s in view because for most of my swims it is not. I watched the rocky bottom slowly deepen beneath me, then within just a few minutes of starting my swim, oh my goodness, my heart was thumping in my chest, my eyes bulging, I could hardly believe what I saw, yes I could still see the bottom but cruising right below me was a Great White Shark. I looked, instinctively took my regular breath, then looked back again, yes it was a shark, yes it was a great white shark, it was majestic, I was in awe of this huge, graceful creature beneath me, it  looked like a small airplane. I took another breath and moved a little closer to my support boat and looked again, it was gone. I didn’t see it again; I don’t think it was at all bothered by me. Though as the sun sank over the horizon and disappeared into the ocean I did think about
my encounter with the Great White shark, a little apprehensive of where it might be, but mostly I was in awe of the beautiful creature I’d seen cruise effortlessly beneath me.

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