A Jaw-Inspiring Swim, for Sure

With sharks in mind, the author ventured across the Santa Barbara Channel
October 06, 1991

But aren't you afraid of sharks?" That was inevitably the first question put to me when friends heard of my newest (and most harebrained, in their considered opinions) plan for a long-distance swim. "Nah" was always my spunky reply—always, that is, until Aug. 18, 1984.

In 1981, when I was 64, I swam to within four miles of France on my first attempt to cross the English Channel, but was pulled unconscious from the water after 12 hours. A year later I went back and made a successful 14-hour Channel swim. What my friends did not realize was that although the English Channel has icy-cold water, strong flood and ebb tides, jellyfish and crowded shipping lanes, it does not have sharks.

In 1983, together with 11 other masochists, I swam the 29 miles around Manhattan Island. There are also hazards in that swim; most of them are too unpleasant to discuss here, although I will mention that one of our group swam into a corpse that was floating in the East River. But no sharks.

The following spring, a California friend suggested that I try to swim the width—26 miles—of the Santa Barbara Channel, from Santa Cruz Island to Santa Barbara, a feat that had never been accomplished. (The previous year someone had swum from the island to the mainland, but by a shorter, 15-mile route.) Well-wishers again asked me, "Aren't you afraid of sharks?" My fearless reply: "Nah."

But at 2:20 a.m. on Aug. 18, 1984, the people on the stern of Captain Rob Durfos's fishing boat, Zuma, could tell that I was less than enthusiastic about the project. I had tried to sleep during the three-hour trip across the Santa Barbara Channel, but the sound of the waves smashing against the hull had made that impossible. As we approached the island, my wife, Madge, came into the dark bunkroom to tell me that the radio had been broadcasting small-craft warnings. Durfos, however, thought I could handle the three-foot swells we had been plowing through.

My bravado had long since disappeared, but when Durfos said, "O.K., Ashby, it's time to get in the water," I could think of no alternatives. During the two or three minutes it took to have a pound of Vaseline smeared on my chest and shoulders, I was able to hear the barking of sea lions in Painted Cave, where my swim was to start. The barking reminded me that the large seal and sea lion populations in the Santa Barbara Channel attract an impressive number of their predators—great white sharks—and that for the first time in three years of open-water swimming, I was going to have to think about the dreaded great white.

I slipped from Zuma's stern into the black water at 2:24 a.m. and slowly breast-stroked to the island's shore to the accompaniment of an even louder chorus of barks. After touching a rock—to ensure that my 26-mile swim would be official and not 10 yards short—I turned back toward the open sea and started to swim. Durfos turned his spotlight on me, and I immediately remembered that fish are attracted by lights on the water. I pictured myself silhouetted on the surface—easy prey for the monsters I was sure were lurking below, waiting for the sea lions to return to the water at dawn. I yelled at Durfos to turn off everything but the running lights, and when the first paddler, Georgia Gatch (nicknamed Choo Choo), came alongside on her surfboard, I began to relax.

Someone who has not made a long ocean swim cannot imagine how much comfort the presence of a paddler provides—especially at night. The loneliness and fear that are part of every swim are lessened—they never go away entirely—if the swimmer can look up on every stroke and see a reassuring face and perhaps an encouraging thrust of the fist. Choo Choo stayed close for six hours, gave me my hourly feedings of Ensure (a nutritional supplement), monitored my stroke rate, kept me on course and watched for sharks.

After I settled into a steady crawl stroke, my thoughts were: Would the 68° water get any colder? Would the 10-knot wind increase, would the three-foot swells become breaking waves? Could I keep up my 50-strokes-a-minute pace for the 15 hours we thought the swim would take? And would I be visited by any large, hungry and unfriendly fish?

Neither the English Channel nor the Manhattan Island swim had prepared me for this. Only a sliver of the crescent moon rising in the east enabled me to see Choo Choo, 10 feet on my port side. I have a habit of closing my eyes on each stroke when my head is under water, but that night I kept them open, looking for the flash of a fin or for the phosphorescence that might indicate the presence of something swimming below me.

When I swam in close to the boat for my fourth feeding, Madge took one look at me and shouted, "What happened to your shoulder? It's bleeding." I had forgotten to shave the night before, and the stubble on my chin had rubbed my left shoulder raw. At once I thought of a shark's supposed ability to detect a single drop of blood in the ocean and then to home in on his injured prey from as far as a mile away. I couldn't recall any marathon swimmers' being attacked, but there are plenty of accounts of swims that were aborted because of the menacing presence of sharks. After the feeding, I stayed very close to Choo Choo's board, and the sun was never a more welcome sight than when it rose over the California headlands half an hour later.

At daybreak I moved to 15 or 20 yards starboard of the boat, because its strong exhaust fumes were giving me a headache, and by 7 a.m. I had passed through the coastal shipping lanes without incident. The water temperature held steady, the wind velocity gradually dropped to five knots and until early afternoon, observer Judy Meyer's log entries were routine. Then, at the 1 p.m. feeding, she wrote: "Ashby looks good and is still stroking at the same rate he has held all day. But he told us cheerfully that he had been looking at the bottom for the last hour." Since the bottom was 125 fathoms below us at the time, I can now understand why Durfos, an experienced channel pilot and fisherman, rolled his eyes toward heaven when he heard this; he obviously thought that his swimmer was hallucinating (an early sign of hypothermia) and would soon have to be pulled out of the water.

But the crew apparently concluded that I was still in good shape, and I continued on my way. (I'm still convinced that for more than an hour in mid-channel I could clearly see wavy lines of sand caused by the currents on the bottom. An oceanographer with whom I spoke a year or two later confirmed the possibility: "If you have a bright and sunny day, crystal-clear water and a swimmer with good vision, he could probably see the bottom even at 100 to 125 fathoms.")

By now I was using an old stratagem to help the long hours pass more quickly: I counted each stroke—50 a minute—and was childishly pleased when I was called in for my hourly feedings just as my stroke count approached three thousand. On through the afternoon and the sparkling blue water we went, but I was beginning to tire. At this stage of a marathon swim one is easily irritated, and I was considerably upset when a novice paddler came into the water and promptly knocked me in the head while maneuvering into position with her board. Then, upsetting me even more, she drifted astern where I couldn't see her. My god, I thought, she's drafting on me. Perhaps my irritation helped, for Meyer's log entry at 4 p.m. said, "Ashby's stroke rate, which has been 50 all day, is up to 54. He says he's eager to get there."

A week before my attempt, another swimmer, age 23, had come to a virtual standstill when he ran into a strong offshore current and had to come out of the water with only three miles to go. At 4:30 p.m. I ran into the same current three miles offshore, and the hills around Santa Barbara didn't seem to be getting any closer. In an hour I advanced little more than a mile. Meyer's log entry for 5 p.m.: "Strong offshore current, and Ashby is making little progress. Two-and-a-half miles to the nearest landfall. Crew's spirits dampened, but we're still determined and hopeful." On the boat it was now decided that Choo Choo could cheer me up by actually swimming beside me for a while; her mother took over the paddling. Durfos changed course so I wouldn't be swimming directly against the ebbing tide, and the hills behind Santa Barbara gradually began to loom larger. The log again: "Ashby looks strong and steady at 5:30, and is slowly getting through the current. Only a mile and three-quarters to go. Our spirits are up again."

Finally, at 6:40 p.m., with only a few hundred yards to go, I broke into what I laughingly call my sprint. Meyer's final entry: "Our course has taken him to Hope Ranch Beach, two miles northwest of Santa Barbara. As Ashby approached the shore he did 10 strokes of butterfly. Elapsed time: 16 hours and 24 minutes. Hurrah!" I could swear that I butterflied the last 50 yards, rather than a mere 10 strokes.... But I also know that I saw the bottom at noon.

Five days later the Santa Barbara News-Press carried a story and a photograph of a 17½-foot, 3,200-pound great white shark. The captain said that it had been caught 10 miles off Santa Cruz Island-four days after my swim. If I had seen the photograph before that long August day in 1984, I'm sure I would have found something else to do that weekend.

PHOTOSTEVE HILLHarper doesn't mind sharks in the water as long as they're inflatable. PHOTOSTEVE HILLOut for a casual swim off the Jersey shore, Harper still keeps an eye out for hungry sea creatures.

The author recently completed his fourth swim around Manhattan.

Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)