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Reflecting on a Channel Crossing

Relay's rewards last a lifetime for team of swimmers on a channel adventure.

The Concepcion breached and crashed through the tall, windswept waves in the dark. The night air whipped and tussled our hair as we bent our bodies over the bow. Straight ahead, the North Star cut a swath over the surface of the billowing waves, guiding us toward Santa Cruz Island, our destination for the beginning of the Santa Barbara Channel Swimming Association’s fourth annual relay.

The foam at the bow was backlit by luminescent phosphorescence; diamond-like sparks glistened in the spray as they were tossed into the inky fluid. We broke into childlike cries of wonder and joy when, again and again, fiery spirals appeared out of nowhere, swooped like arrows toward the bow, and morphed into silver, diamond-studded bullets: Dolphins! For several minutes they leaped, undulated and flashed with dizzying speed just ahead of the boat’s nose before disappearing as magically as they appeared. We were also delighted and thrilled by the sudden, radiant fan of fish streaking to dive into the safety of the deep sea to evade the boat bearing down on them.

Come On In, the Water’s Fine

The fifth annual Santa Barbara Channel Relay Swim will be held June 27-28. This year’s relay will benefit the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation in support of ocean conservation in the Santa Barbara Channel.

Thinking about it? Here’s how you can help:

Swim or kayak the channel. The relay is open to anyone who can confidentally swim 20 to 30 minutes in open ocean water.

Swim the last leg. Can’t commit to the whole crossing? Join “The Sandpipers” for the last leg to shore on Saturday.

Sponsor a swimmer or kayaker. Reward those who are crazy enough to do this by sponsoring them.

Become a corporate sponsor. Be a part of our campaign and get your name on our promotional items.

Volunteer. Join the crew or help with the Landing Party.

Cheer us from your own boat. Join the flotilla party and motor or sail out to meet us anytime during the day.

Emilio Casanueva, the founder of the SBCSA, initiated the relay four years ago to benefit local Santa Barbara environmental groups. In September, he and his cohorts managed to recruit about 60 volunteers to swim the Santa Barbara Channel in legs of approximate 20 to 30 minutes’ length each. To make the 26-mile relay back to Santa Barbara by the following afternoon, we had to arrive at Santa Cruz Island by midnight.

We began swimming in the dark, always accompanied by kayaks to guide and help if necessary. For the sake of kayakers and the boat crew, and to be visible from some distance, we wore glowing neon sticks squeezed between our goggle straps and bathing caps. Swimming at night is a standard procedure for distance swims because the sea tends to be at its calmest.

This time, however, we stayed in the bay of Cueva Valdez for the nighttime swimming rather than crossing the hazardous and very busy shipping lane of the Channel, because there were many novice swimmers on the team. Many chose to swim at night since this was a unique opportunity to experience their beloved element in a different setting: luminescent bubbles on their arms and hands in the inky darkness of the sea, while the stars glittered in the Milky Way above.

Shortly before dawn, and after the last of the nighttime swimmers had curled up in their sleeping bags, the Concepcion’s mighty diesel engines sprang to life, and we motored to the other side of the shipping lane.

To enter the water, swimmers had to back down the boat’s stern ladder, rest a knee on the bow of the heaving Zodiac dinghy, then lurch back to the stern and grab hold of a loop on the Zodiac’s side, hanging on for dear life, while being taken to the group they were relieving. The retrieval was even more comical: two strong men had to grab swimmers under the arms and heave! They would bellyflop face down onto the boat’s deck like ungainly beached whales, scrambling to regain their composure by kneeling on the deck or sitting on the gunwale. Grazed knees and bloodied shins were common.

The first daytime legs consisted of groups of three, flanked by four kayaks. We were admonished to stay very close together, since it was foggy and visibility could become opaque within seconds if the fog should close in. Casanueva was concerned with losing sight of swimmers or kayakers, a very real and familiar threat to all skippers in the Santa Barbara Channel.

But by noon the fog had lifted and five swimmers at a time were sanctioned. Given the different abilities, the line sometimes spread out very far, as some swimmers surged ahead and others took their time. After all, this wasn’t a race and speed wasn’t essential.

At one point in the afternoon someone cried out: “There’s a plume of spray!” In the distance we witnessed one brief wave of a whale’s tail and several spouts. We’d heard that blue whales were migrating through the Channel and the sighting confirmed the reports.

We made good time on the crossing and were greeted at Goleta Beach with warm food, awards, friends and family. What a wonderful way to spend a weekend: part cruise, part sporting event, and part fellowship with like-minded friends and companions. I highly recommend it!

Tara Stockton is the founder of Mind Your Manners.

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