Santa Monica Bay Swim Recap
This season of marathon swimming has been unusual and unexpected. I thought that I would be swimming in North Dakota and Lake Michigan, and instead I got to complete two swims in the Pacific, a little close to home. The idea for the Santa Monica Bay Swim initially came from an off hand comment in June from a friend who suggested that maybe I should swim the bay. For the rest of the summer, I could not get the swim out of my head, and decided to book a boat and give it a go.
We boarded the Pacific Star in San Pedro to take the three hour trip out to the start up in Malibu. We all had our temperatures taken and wore masks and distanced. I’ve never really liked boats but I wasn’t particularly concerned about the trip, and figured that I would just sleep. The swells were large as we rounded the lighthouse to get out of Cabrillo and even though I tried to fall asleep, I ended up feeling very seasick and basically couldn’t stop throwing up. I cannot remember ever being that miserable. I ended up dragging my sleeping bag out onto the deck and sleeping on the floor of the boat for two hours before we got out to Malibu because it was the only way I could minimize being seasick.
Around 10:30pm my mom woke me up to tell me that we were arriving at Point Dume and I needed to get ready I. I was still so nauseous and didn’t even want to stand up but I slowly put my suit, cap, and goggles on and greased and put on sunscreen. I waited for the all clear to jump out of the boat. Jax told me that many successful Catalina swimmers have been sick on the way over and still had successful swims. This made me feel better even though I was dreading jumping in the cold water. The swells were big so I had to time it just right to get on the swim step and into the water safely. As soon as I hit the water I started feeling better. Jax accompanied me in the kayak over to the beach where I could tell the swells were breaking hard. Once Jax couldn’t get any closer to the beach in the kayak, I carefully swam in and almost got crunched by the pounding shore break, but managed to get my footing and get onto dry land. Something bumped my foot in the shallow water. I walked above the high tide line and there were a couple of people on the beach who wished me good luck on my swim. The boat gave a blast and I walked carefully into the water and swam back out to Jax.
Jax was accompanying me around the point and the swell was still quite large. She told me to use my eyes and ears to make sure I didn’t run into any submerged rocks but I didn’t see any so we kept going around the point. The wind picked up and was gusting and soon Jax couldn’t keep up with me because I wasn’t as affected by the wind in the water as she was in the kayak. I had to stop twice to wait for her to catch up so that we didn’t get separated in the dark water. Jax is one of the best kayakers I know and these were totally harrowing conditions. Eventually, Jax decided the best thing to do was the radio the boat have them come pick her up and I would just swim alongside the boat. I was not happy about this because I generally don’t like swimming alongside a big boat and much prefer having a kayak in the water, but it wasn’t actually a big deal because the captain did a great job and made it really easy to swim next to him. I had to wait and tread water for about 15 minutes while Jax caught up to us and they pulled her on board the boat and then we were off again heading south around Point Dume.
The water at the start had been quite warm but it quickly dropped and probably settled around 63° for most of the rest of the swim. After I started swimming next to the big boat, I finally began to find my rhythm and was actually enjoying myself despite how miserable I had been on the boat. For the next couple of hours, the swells stayed large and I was being tossed around a bunch but it didn’t feel like I was hitting them head on so it was okay. I was not too cold as long as I kept moving but for the first five minutes after stopping for each feed I would shiver until I got back up to maintaining my warmth. I wasn’t sure if starting a swim already kind of cold (from sleeping on the deck) and with absolutely nothing in my stomach (from repeatedly throwing up) was going to make me cold for the swim itself, but I seemed mostly okay and so I decided not to worry about it. I was continuing to swim alongside the big boat and take my feeds on a rope from the big boat and I was reminded of him swimming along my English Channel boat and feeding the same way three years ago. Every so often Steve would tell me that I was a little too far away and I would come back close to the boat, but I really didn’t have a problem following the boat in the dark. We were very lucky that despite the wind and chop it was a clear night with a full moon and I could see the horizon line the whole time which was making it feel more like grey light than pitch dark night. It was a completely different experience swimming under the moon!
At around four hours in when I was still alone in the water with just the big boat next to me, I started to hear dolphin chirping and suddenly there was a pair of dolphins swimming underneath me checking me out. They swooped back under me two or three times and I got to see them glowing in the moonlight. I’ve never actually seen dolphins during a marathon swim before so this is very very cool. The dolphin encounter could not have been more magical if I had imagined it.
I felt like I had a couple of support swimmers with me in the water for those few minutes. I knew that sunrise proper would be around six in the morning but around five the sky started to get lighter and I could see the horizon turning a bit orange. I was very excited for daylight because I was tired of the darkness and was actually having a bit of a hard time keeping my eyes open because I was sleepy but I knew that as soon as the sun came up I would be more awake.
One thing that was kind of funny was that in the darkness it was easy to make out the lights on the shoreline and I really felt like I was swimming across the bay, but when the sun came up a bit of fog rolled in and I couldn’t see the shore at all. I could’ve been out in the middle of the ocean for all I could see. As it got lighter, I took a feed and my mom told me that they were going to put a kayak back in the water with me now that conditions were slightly better. I was excited to have some company and glad there will be someone in the water during sunrise because I know that some kinds of animals like to come out around that time and I didn’t wanna be alone. Dan got in the kayak next to me and around this time also the water flattened out and I was finally getting the glassy conditions I hoped for for the swim. I picked up my tempo a bit trying to capitalize on the good conditions and make up some of the ground I knew I had lost in the time with big swell.
When the sun was truly up I asked Dan if I could swap to my dark goggles because the light was bothering my eyes in my clear goggles so I quickly changed my goggles and then we continued to head south. I felt like I was getting a push at this point while the water was so flat, but after talking to the crew later it turned out that the currents were actually quite swirly and we weren’t making nearly as much progress as I thought we were; I’m glad I didn’t know that at the time. I continued to follow my feed plan of a Carbo Pro every half hour with a GoGo Squeez apple sauce on the fourth half hour, but I did ask for the Carbo Pro to be made warm. After about 8 hours, I added Honey Stinger gels to my feed cycle and these extra calories really made a huge (and tasty) difference in my performance!
I was still thoroughly enjoying myself and laughing about how much I have been dreading doing this swim. By this point I had basically decided that the only way I was getting out before I finished was if someone had to pull me out because I had no intention of pulling myself out of it. At my next feed my mom told me that some of the classes at my elementary school The Willows, including my own 2nd grade teacher, were going to live stream my swim for the kids so when I stopped next, I waved hi and thanked them for watching me and supporting me. Dan was still in the kayak and was playing with my GoPro taking videos of me in the water. I asked him how far we had left to go and he told me 11 miles, which I was disappointed to hear because I had been hoping it would be closer to 8 miles. 11 miles meant 6 more hours in the water. Dan told me that at the next feed he and Jax were going to swap out.
I had to give myself a mental boost here because I was disappointed that I was going to have to swim for six more hours when I had been hoping it was just four. Part of me regretted asking Dan how much farther we had to go and part of me was just glad to know. I was just about to sing through the sound track of Heathers for the 10th time. Shortly after Jax got back in with me the wind started to pick up from the west and I knew we were starting to get the afternoon conditions that I was hoping to minimize but there still wasn’t much swell other than the wind chop. Because the wind was from the west and Jax I were to the east of the boat, we were both breathing in a lot about fuel fumes so Jax requested that we move to the west side of the boat instead. We were swimming on the west side now which took a little bit of adjustment for me but since I breathe bilaterally anyway it wasn’t a big deal to swap which side the kayak was on.
Around 12 hours in I started thinking about how my longest swim previously had been the English channel which was 13 hours and 15 minutes and then once I hit 13 hours and 16 minutes this would be my longest swim ever. Also around this point I thought that I finally had about four hours left so I started swimming very much feed to feed taking the swim in 30 minute intervals.
I was very ready to be done now, but also not feeling too tired and enjoying pushing the limits of how long I had ever been in the water before. The water was still quite choppy but since the wind was from the west at least I wasn’t taking the chop head-on. When I hit 13 hours 30 minutes I told Jax I was really happy that this was now my longest swim ever and Palos Verdes was becoming much clearer in the distance. When I had been in the water about 15 hours we were getting very close to some parts of shore but it seemed to me like we were heading for the North facing edge of the point when I knew that to finish the swim we needed to finish past the western point of the bay.
Jax, Dan, and I had a discussion and we all agreed that we needed to head further west and around the edge of the point into Lunada Bay to finish. This now meant that we had to turn and swim directly into the wind chop which was frustrating but we were just so close that I just wanted to get there. I saw a large fish of some kind underneath me and told Jax “there’s a big Fish”. Jax and I headed into a kelp bed because the water was calmer and we needed to get into shore. I spent about 15 or 20 minutes kelp crawling which was not fun to do but I’m sure it was funny to watch. Looking down at one point in the kelp I was surprised to see a turtle swimming beneath me. I had never seen a turtle in California before so I was very excited! Jax tried to get a picture with the GoPro but couldn’t get it out quickly enough and the turtle swam down away from us.
I decided that as much as crawling through the kelp was not fun, it was 100% worth it to see the turtle. Jax and I crabbed through the kelp getting closer to shore and Dan also hopped in a kayak to find the best landing spot for me. We headed in towards a rocky cliffy part to finish. It soon became clear that the way the surf was breaking and the way the cliff and rocks were slippery and covered in urchins and other dangerous things that I was going to need to finish by touching a rock connected to the cliff rather than completely clearing the water. Dan pointed out the best rock for me to use to finish and I timed it with the surf to reach and touch the rock to finish. I was a bit bummed that I didn’t get to completely clear the water on the finish but safety has to come first in these things and there wasn’t going to be a safe way for me to get out of or back into the water if I tried to clear it
After I finished I hopped on the back of Dan’s kayak so that I didn’t have to crawl through the kelp again and he paddled us back out to the big boat with Jax right behind us. Besides the first hour and last hour of the swim, I thoroughly enjoyed myself. I think that I trained well so I wasn’t ever horribly tired and my feed plan worked well so I never had a big energy/caloric crash.
As much as I was ready to be done when I finished I could have kept swimming for several hours if I had needed to and I’m really really proud of that. Most of all I’m really proud that as terrible as I was feeling on the boat I still hopped in the water and gave the swim a try. I’m so grateful to my amazing crew (Jax, Dan, Steve, Natalie, and the whole crew of Pacific Star) for keeping me safe and happy to have a successful swim! I am also super grateful for everyone who followed along and cheered me to the finish.