Santa Barbara July 2011
The short summary: Chris Layton and Marcia Cleveland successfully swam the Anacapa Channel portion of the Santa Barbara Channel on Saturday July 23, 2011 in 6 hours and 8 seconds. The swim was straightforward and both athletes were well-prepared for the crossing. They encountered jellyfish for the first half of the crossing and were repeated stung. Neither athlete suffered any consequences of these stings aside from discomfort. Feedings were done every 30 minutes. The entire support team participated in the success of this journey. For more in-depth details, please read the following notes written by Marcia.
Chris and I had been thinking about doing this swim since our Chicago Skyline Swim three years ago. We trained diligently for several months, ranging between 28 and 32,000- yards a week. In May, we began open water swims in Lake Michigan when the water temperature was 50 F. As a result of this acclimation and high yardage, the Anacapa Channel was a good swim for both of us.
For me to put one of these swims together takes a Herculean effort. Arranging my family life, work, and everything else gets complicated. These details keep me motivated to be successful since it is unlikely I will get another shot. Most importantly, I prepare to be safe.
Santa Barbara swims are usually swum on the date they are scheduled for, plus or minus a day. We were scheduled for July 23rd and fortunately, all went according to plan.
Richard, Chris, Joe, & I all arrived in Santa Barbara on Thursday. Carol and David came Friday. (Note to self: Fly into LAX and drive north. No need to fly from LAX to SBA.) I had sent a supply box ahead so we didn't have to carry all the feeding equipment, etc., and that was very helpful.
Friday morning we met up with Captain Bob. Since none of us were familiar with the marina, finding the boat was a challenge but getting lost at 10 a.m. the day before was a lot easier on the nerves than at 4 a.m. on swim day. I reserved our escort boat, Tuna Thumper in April but didn't realize there was an MVL (Maximum Vessel Load). Captain Bob could only take six of us, including the swimmers, kayaker, crew, and observers. As a result, we had a crew member who had to stay back. The boat was comfortable, clean and had a full kitchen and preparing warm feeds for us was not a problem. After our boat excursion, we drove south on the Pacific Coast Highway to Zuma Beach where Jim McConica was working and we swam at this beautiful spot. Water temperature was 65F: no problemo. We lunched at a great seaside seafood spot then it was back to Jim and Michelle's for a nap before dinner.
I checked my gear and organized my morning supplies, applied sunscreen all over my body, and went to bed around 7:30 p.m. for the 3am wake up.
When Jim rattled everyone awake at the precise moment, he was probably the MOST excited of all of us. I wasn't nervous since I had done these types of swims before and knew what to expect. Chris was pretty nervous so the best thing for his nerves would be to get going.
Once we got to the boat, the engines came alive and we motored out of the harbor. Dave van Mouwerik, one of our two observers, gave us a final briefing for our tandem swim. Chris and I had practiced for years to swim together. A tandem swim means swimming next to one another stroke for stroke for the entire duration of a swim. The slowest person sets the pace and this person may change during the swim. Richard lines his hips up with ours so you could draw a straight line across the three of us. Any deviation from this plan is unacceptable. It takes a lot of prep work to have a successful tandem swim, especially for the boat captain whose primary concern is the safety of the swimmers. We (Chris and I) stayed together, everyone stayed safe. It worked.
Chris expressed his goal for this swim as "To be able to drive away from the marina in my car when the swim was over, however it ends." I thought that was a reasonable goal. I wanted us all to finish safely. Tuna Thumper pushed away from the dock and we set off for Anacapa.
En route to the island, I got myself all ready to swim: suit, cap, and goggles. We still weren't there, so I lay down in a bunk for a little while, waiting for the boat's engines to cut out. This sensation always gives me a sickening feeling because I know "It's show time" when they finally stop. The trip to Anacapa took longer than I expected it would - about 1 hour and 45 minutes but by arriving at the island around 6am, the skies had lightened considerably. I emerged from below and WOW! What a sight! Anacapa is a small volcanic rock sticking straight up out of the Pacific Ocean west of Santa Barbara. Seen at 6 a.m. in gray light, it was beautiful. Seals were playing all around and these types of sea creatures always make me happy.
Dave told me then that the water temp was 63F. Without doubting him, I thought, "That's colder than I expected but I'll deal." It was actually 61F but I didn't find this out until after we were done. Didn't matter, my internal dials were set and on 'Go' mode. Chris and I stripped down to our suits, applied grease (Body Glide) to our chafe points, and stood ready on the stern. Chris was hoping I'd linger a bit. HA! I lingered not a bit. Joe took video footage of our start and there I am, jumping off the stern of Tuna Thumper without as much as pausing to put a toe in first (Dave had said it was 63 , right? So let's go.). Chris is seen on tape sitting down on the stern, dangling his feet, thinking a few unprintable words, then followed suit.
I didn't have much of a clue to what I was doing but I knew I had to keep moving and this notion started from the moment I put my suit on. I didn't feel nervous at all, unlike the start of some of my previous swims when I shook visibly. I decided to seize the bull by the horns and figure it out as I went. In my most recent open water swims, I am very confident of a successful outcome but I know Mother Nature has the final say. Taking it one stroke at a time is the only way. The immediate matter at hand was the start: How is this going to happen? Until you see it, you don't believe it. The island juts directly up out of the ocean. There is no "Clear the Water" factor as in other channel swims because there is nowhere to stand. I guess if we brought hiking boats, repelling lines and other assorted rock climbing equipment, we could rig something together but for this start, the rule is to prove you are touching the island. Two sets of hands above water level marks the start and must be seen by the observers on the boat. We found our spot, planted our hands on Anacapa, and BOOM - we're off. I knew right then and there we were going to make it if Mother Nature allowed. The water is a beautiful dark aqua marine color and it would remain so until a mile or two off the mainland. That translates into deep water and great visibility. Within a minute of the start, thanks to the clarity, we were able to spot jellyfish and salp everywhere and the stinging began. My only comment to Richard was "Ouch." He was on the port (left) side and had an accurate view of the endless shoal (a group of jellyfish) in a way those on the boat did not. Only afterwards did they find out the extent of the shoal. Five minutes into the swim, I was stung across the face, the first time of many. This was insulting and uncomfortable but did not get in the way of our goal: to finish. Since neither Chris nor I are allergic to bee stings we were merely in a state of discomfort, not in any serious medical pain. At the first feeding, I asked Chris if he was getting stung; he said yes, and that was the end of the jelly discussion for the entire swim. Lots of people asked me later about these blobby creatures who spend their lives floating in currents. The inquiries usually start with frightened exclamations and always include "Why didn't you stoooooop?" I calmly remark, "We had a goal and we weren't in any serious pain." It was merely uncomfortable. There is a big difference between the two, especially in terms of attitude.
I saw these jellies as our fans, cheering us on. The free-floating tentacles, similar to loose strands of hair and zapping me non-stop, were loud cheers from the crowd. Chris told me afterwards that he came up with his own coping mechanism: Every time he was stung, the sting helped generate heat! Brilliant!
These jellies weren't going to deter us from our goal. A long time ago I realized I was not in charge: a higher omnipotent power has this job and the current plan required us to get out of our comfort zone. When people hear about what happened with the jellies, it's an opportunity to think about when and why a person backs off from a similar situation. Serious medical pain is a valid reason; mere discomfort may not be but the line distinguishing the two is very gray and can only be determined by the individuals involved at the particular instance and the current set of circumstances. This model is never the same twice.
One of the things Chris and I did to prepare for this swim was swim into the waves. Two weeks before our actual swim, we went to the beach around 4 p.m. on a beautiful, hot day - lots of boats and jet skies, creating lots of waves. For an hour, we swam in "The Box", the guarded area which measured about 75 yards wide and 25 yards long. We had one easy 75-yard leg then 3 hard legs of head-on chop and waves. By the end of this, I was nearly sick. When I spoke with Chris later that night, telling him how wiped out I was, he said he was beat too. We didn't have such smack-in-the-face conditions in Santa Barbara but we were ready either way.
Chris and I swam on and on, from feed to feed. There is a humongous oil rig named Gina in the Channel. By the time we got to "Gina", I figured we'd been in for at least 5 hours but in fact, we reached her in 4 hours. I also thought Gina was 4 miles off Anacapa but she's 4 miles from the mainland. We came up on her fast so we could see how big and rusty she is, making me glad we didn't get too close. Chris has a sister named Gina and she is much more attractive than this one.
The rig came into distant view around the time I started playing a game I'll call "Count the number of strokes you take until you see another jellyfish". For at least one entire feeding span of 30 minutes I only got to 6, then 8, then 3, etc., so we were still well into the shoal. As Chris was generating his own sting-induced heat, I was playing this game. Just before the feeding at 3 1/2 hours, I took 87 strokes without seeing a jellyfish and reported this amazing fact to Richard shortly. It's a blur as to when the stinging stopped but the sting marks that emerged after the swim all over my arms, legs, torso and face took about 3 weeks to fade from looking like angry chickenpox to skin-colored bumps. The two jellies that went down my suit during the swim became the gifts that keep giving and were merely annoying. Is there any doubt that I skip the jellyfish rooms at Aquariums? Thanks but been there, done that, all without the glass.
A bonus in dealing with all these jellies is that it took our minds off looking for sharks. Richard hung a shark shield off his kayak as a preventative but my view is that sharks don't come looking for humans. On the intelligence scale of living creatures, sharks rate slightly higher than jellyfish but neither species is in danger of taking over the world anytime soon. Sharks are predators, always looking for food. It has been my experience that sharks steer clear of big noisy boats up on the surface of the water. Even if they could see us, we weren't dressed like seals or other similar shark delectables. Chris was wearing a red suit and I had on a purple one; we intentionally avoided black and dark blue.
At some point, Chris told me he was really bored. Instead of snapping at him something like "Why don't you enjoy the beautiful ocean all around you?" I knew how he felt: it's stroke after stroke, the downward view isn't changing, shore isn't getting any closer, and why the heck am I doing this anyway??? During our last swim in Chicago before leaving for Santa Barbara, we found an old anchor on the bottom of the lake and marked the coordinates so we could retrieve it later. When Chris told me of his boredom, I asked him to come up with a plan to bring the anchor up thus keeping his engineering mind busy for quite a while.
Some people get bored when doing these types of swims. I do at times but with experience comes the knowledge that you have to get through this mundanely laborious on-and-on part in order to feel the land under your feet. During the first two-plus hours, after I came to terms with the fact that the jellies were everywhere and they weren't going away, I thought about all the things I was going to be doing instead of the 17 to 20 miles of swim training every week of the past several months. Talking to a jellyfish expert came to mind! On several occasions, I smiled a lot at the boat and they smiled back. I always want to let the observers and crew know that my mental state is ok, if it actually is. Since Richard was feeding us from the kayak, Carol, Dave and Joe cheered us on from the big boat during every feeding, and we really appreciated this. At one point, I looked over at Chris stroking strongly, not complaining, getting the job done, and thought, "He's become a real pro." (It's a pleasure to swim with you, Chris!) In any activity in which experience can be a major divider between success and failure, it is up to those with more experience to mentor those trying to gain it. This self-dictated and self-monitored edict seems to thrive in the open water swimming community.
What and how did we eat? Our feedings were every 30 minutes, with the first coming at 1 hour. Richard held up 2 fingers at 28 minutes and we would sprint until we stopped. He handed us our liquids (carbs & protein drinks) in water bottles, then handed me a gel (none for Chris), and then mouthwash which helps clear the salt from your mouth and keep the swelling down. We each took one final swig from our liquids bottles and then we were off again. Elapsed time 30 seconds to one minute. I had told Chris ahead of time how important fast feedings were to our overall success and he definitely got it. When Chris and I resumed swimming, Richard would then paddle over to the boat and hand the feed bottles to Joe to prep for the next feeding then we'd do it all over again in another 30 minutes. Smartly, Richard didn't "dump" any liquids into the ocean after we drank, allowing Joe to assess how much we were taking in at each feed. I drank about 8 ounces and Chris drank about 5. Joe did a magnificent job making sure we got the necessary nutrition to get us across, measured in precisely the correct amounts. I had taken an Aleve before we started and received another at 4 hours, making this the full extent of the meds either of us took in conjunction with the swim. When I am getting sick of my feeds I know we are getting close to the end.
Surprisingly, nothing really hurt during this swim. My hips were fine and my left shoulder became a little cranky late into the game but all in all, my 47-year-old bod held up. Jellyfish venom may act as maybe a pain reducer but further research is needed. HAHA!
Shortly after passing Gina, the coast came into clear view. Wow! Almost there! Dave told me he saw me doing some prairie dog sighting over the chop. I wanted to know how much further and got yelled at for wasting time to look around. The water color was shifting from that beautiful deep blue aquamarine to a mossier green and eventually to a murky green. The bottom was coming up and it wouldn't be long now. Even though we didn't have the lovely blue color to gaze at, we lost the jellies.
There was a slight inshore current push, but our motivation to get there was a major factor in our closing speed; we covered the last four miles in 90 minutes. I was in my element and lovin' every minute of this. Several feedings back I told Chris he never had to do this again and he didn't dispute it. We were going to finish on Silver Strand Beach in Oxnard, the shortest course. I was AMAZED when the boat told us we'd been in the water 4.5, then 5 hours because it felt more like 6 or 7. Once again, in my weird way, I was sad we couldn't swim for longer.
Jim and Michelle called the boat around 5 hours then realized we would be done within the hour so scrambled to make it to Silver Strand in time. They took several great pictures of us emerging from the ocean. I knew they were on the beach because I could see their blue t-shirts, emblazoned with "Real Swimmers Swim Naked." Their support throughout this entire swim has been awesome and we greatly appreciate all they did.
At the finish, Chris and I rode the waves in, joining up with the surfers, then the bathers, and finally the castle builders. When I felt the sand underneath my feet, I knew we had made it. We had set a goal, trained for it, and succeeded. Despite the discomfort for both of us during the swim and plenty of times during training, we persevered and made it. It's pretty straightforward but the barbs thrown up all along the way give an aspirant all the reasons in the world to quit.
We sat on the beach for a few minutes, answering questions from many interested by-standers. The best one was "What are you training for?" which I answered with a laugh. When we landed, the water temperature was 60 F. Chris had been cold for the last portion of the swim, and sensed the drop; I was happily oblivious. The fact that we had to swim back to the boat nearly 100 yards off shore wasn't making him too happy. Past the breakers we rendezvoused with Richard; Chris got a kayak tow. Richard told me, "You're fine. You get to swim."
Back on the boat, Joe bundled up Chris quickly in a sweatshirt, hat, and towels. Chris had some minor shivering but within an hour, he was fine. I wrapped a towel around me and sat in the sun on the back deck with everyone else, completely all right with the world. Pictures show some facial puffiness for both of us but the smiles convey so much more.
The trip back to Ventura Harbor was quick. We unloaded and sat down to lunch less than an hour of finishing. With everyone together afterwards we had a sense of unity and closure regaling the swim. The bellies of my forearms started to itch, in reaction to the jelly stings, so I rubbed them with ice to cool them down. Chris felt it too. Sadly, I didn't take the advice I gave Chris: power-wash yourself in the shower and rub-rub-rub those tentacles off. His spots took a week to emerge and lasted a few days while mine started coming out on the plane ride home and lasted 3 weeks.
We got back to Jim and Michelle's house around 4PM tired but satisfied. I packed my gear to take home, joined in with everyone for the non-stop swim debriefing, and ate two bowls of ice cream (!!) for dinner. Life is good.
Sunday morning I left at 4AM to catch an early flight back to Chicago. Immediately I was immersed back into family life for which my own needs are usually secondary. But I reflect back onto our Santa Barbara swim knowing I was well-prepared, in my element, and doing something I love.
As for the next one? I've always got some ideas in mind.
notes assembled & edited by Marcia Cleveland