“Cold, nauseous and afraid” — that’s how Rachel Horn describes feeling while smack-dab in the middle of a 12-mile swim across the Santa Barbara Channel last year.
“When I first touched the sand, I couldn’t believe it was finally over,” the 32-year-old Ventura native recalled. “And then somehow within a month, to my own surprise, I was planning my next one.”
That “next one” isn’t quite the same swim, because Horn’s going to greater lengths this time around — 19 miles, to be exact.
She’ll swim across the channel again on Sep. 19, from Santa Cruz Island to Silver Strand Beach — the oceanside community adjacent to Oxnard — in an effort to raise money for Santa Barbara Channelkeeper.
As of Friday, Horn has raised nearly $3,500 on her official charity page.
Horn isn’t a professional swimmer, though she did swim competitively throughout school and at Loyola Marymount University.
Training year-round and enduring a nauseating sort of physical exhaustion, both during and after the long haul across the channel, isn’t just for her own personal fulfillment. And, as Horn said, she isn’t being sponsored or paid to take on the challenge.
It’s by keeping in mind the charity involved — in the case of this most recent swim, the money she’s raising for Channelkeeper — that Horn stays motivated enough to pull through.
“I wouldn’t be able to spend so much time in the ocean if it wasn’t for those who work to keep it clean and safe to swim in,” Horn said.
The Channelkeeper, a nonprofit organization, works to ensure clean ocean water in the Santa Barbara Channel and pushes for enforcement of local environmental laws to limit pollution and harm to aquatic life, especially in more biodiverse underwater regions.
“They have a very small team of people who love the ocean as much as I do,” Horn said, “so I wanted to use this swim to bring attention to their cause, and help them continue to do the great work they do in our community.”
Horn expects this year’s swim taking between 11 and 14 hours. Maintaining concentration on the task at hand for that amount of time can be a task in itself.
Some swimmers recite song lyrics in their head, Horn said, while others count strokes to give their mind something to do. She prefers to “treat the whole swim like an extended meditation” by continuously drawing her attention to her breath and each stroke. Still, remaining focused is a process, she said.
“Just like the water in the channel, rising and falling, your mental state goes through ups and downs the entire time,” said Horn, who enjoys practicing and teaching yoga as a practice of mental fortitude.
The 19-mile swim is grueling; Horn said that immediately after completing her 12-mile swim a year ago, she was too exhausted and nauseous to think about eating food (though she ate plentifully during the following week).
To stay nourished during the challenge, she plans to take a combination of water and maltodextrin powder, which the body absorbs as glucose. A splash of apple juice every half hour completes what marathon swimmers call “feeding” during a big swim, Horn said.
Swimmers take breaks by treading water, but cannot leave the ocean at any time during the swim, according to official rules on the SBCSA website. A support team in a boat will keep up with Horn to make sure she can continue swimming the whole way through.
Last year’s swim taught Horn about all the details of preparation that go into these extended challenges, such as what foods to eat and things to watch out for in the middle of the ocean. This time, Horn says, the challenge is all mental.
“It’s overwhelming if you think of the hours you’ll be swimming, that half of the time you’re swimming it will be completely dark, that there have been more shark sightings in our area this year, etc.,” she said. “But if I can try to be present and focus on my breathing and just take it one stroke at a time, one 30-minute feeding at a time, that’s how I’ll get through it.”
Swimming 19 miles may seem like a gargantuan challenge, but as Sep. 19 approaches, Horn is looking to it as just the next step in a sport that revolves around testing one’s own endurance and limits.
“For now, I feel better the longer I go,” she said. “I guess I just haven’t hit my limit yet. That’s part of the fun of this sport, you don’t really know what you’re capable of until you get out there and give it a try.”