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.