The most un-fun swim of all

I was just about two hours into my swim across Monterey Bay, and the conditions were perfect, with a positive forecast for the rest of the night. I was feeling strong and optimistic that I’d be able to finish off a swim that has intimidated me for years. A stray thought floated through my mind, “I wonder what this swim will teach me?”


This Monterey Bay swim is a 25-mile route that goes across the mouth of Monterey Bay, just south of San Francisco. It’s generally swum from the North to the South, starting at Twin Lakes Sate Beach in Santa Cruz and finishing at San Carlos Beach in Monterey Harbor. It’s only been swum a handful of times- I was aiming to be the 10th person when I set out- and it’s on the MSF Toughest Thirteen list. It’s known for being cold, with water temperatures well below 60F/15C, and for being filled will all types of wildlife- sharks, whales, and jellyfish.

The first time I’d heard of this swim was when Amy Gubser made a successful crossing in 2017. All I knew at that time was that very few had made the crossing, and they were all cold-water tough women. Amy was the fourth person to complete the swim, following Cindy Cleveland who pioneered the route in 1980, then Patti Bauernfeind and Kim Rutherford (who did it South to North!) in 2014.

I didn’t give the swim much more thought after Amy’s crossing until Robin Rose crewed my Round Trip Angel Island swim in June of 2019. She suggested the swim to me and I was intrigued, initially thinking it might be a good training swim for the Four Way. But, with conflicts between my training schedule and pilot’s schedules, I put it aside. Between now and 2019, Joe and John Zematitis, Catherine Breed, Sarah Roberts and Brad Schindler all made their way across the Bay, adding to the body of knowledge around the swim and reinforcing the assumption: This is a beast of a swim.


I didn’t start off 2021 with any swims planned, beyond END-WET in June, where I was scheduled as the guest speaker/swimmer. The opportunity to swim the Molokai/Kaiwi Channel in Hawaii fell into my lap in February. I’d planned to kayak SCAR for a friend in April, but when he cancelled, I decided to swim it myself. But that schedule left me with nothing to plan for past June. I was scheduled to crew two Lake Tahoe crossings in August and an English Channel in early September, but there wasn’t anything really big planned for me. While I still had Monterey on my mind, the concerns over jellyfish and cold water deterred me. However, the second Robin heard I was considering it again, she kept poking at me to commit. Robin’s efforts, combined with constant nudging from Fast Mike, eventually made me relent and reach out to get a date scheduled. Because my August and September travel was nuts, we had a small window to fit it in. Fortunately, the Monterey Bay Swimming Association had some availability just after my two weeks in Austria/England and just before a scheduled work trip to San Antonio.

And so the plan was made. I told Ryan we were going, bought some plane tickets and started training.

I upped my yardage and dusted off the ice bath tub (which had been retired since I needed it for Loch Ness training in 2015). I hadn’t done much cold water acclimatization this spring- our lakes don’t open until April and at that time, I was focused on SCAR. After SCAR, I was sick for most of May and focused on getting ready for END-WET. And by June, things really start to heat up. Have I mentioned I hate ice baths? I’m not 100% sure they help much, but the coldest water I had access to in Colorado in July and August was a small lake at 10,800 feet about an hour away. But even then, it was just barely sitting at about 58-60F/14-15C and I could only get there once a week. Ice baths would have to do.


When I took off for Austria on August 30, I was three weeks away from my planned swim start. I don’t recommend international travel as an ideal taper regime, but I was resolved to do the best I could, finding swimming time in the hotel pool in Austria to go along with the beautiful lake Worthersee, and then some longer sessions in Dover Harbor and Folkstone when I arrived in England. After a fun two weeks away, I landed back home on a Saturday night, exactly one week until we left again for California. I was jet lagged and stiff. My first few swims back home were a little rough. But, I did a hard, high intensity shake out swim with Mike on Tuesday and felt better for it.


On Saturday afternoon, we flew to San Francisco. We stayed Saturday night in the city, meeting up with a few friends on Sunday for a quick dip in Aquatic Park. I’ve only ever really swum there in the winter and was shocked at how pleasant the swimming was. Slightly colder than the salt water of Dover, but with the sun shining off the sky scrapers and the Ghirardelli sign, it was glorious. Sunday afternoon, I begged Ryan to play tourist with me, so we went to visit the Golden Gate Bridge before driving down Highway 1 toward Santa Cruz.

Robin set us up at her family’s beach house and we slept very soundly on Sunday night. I woke up Monday at 7 am to start work. I worked all day Monday and signed off at around 4 pm, just in time for a quick nap before the swim. Ryan and Robin were amazing getting groceries and supplies for the swim while I worked/relaxed/hydrated.


The plan was to meet around 7 pm, load the boat, grease up, and then start the swim at 8 pm. We’d originally planned to do the swim on Sunday night, but the weather forecast delayed us by a night. Monday night’s forecast was positive and the vibe loading up and during the pre-swim prep was very positive. I was hoping for a 12-13 hour swim, but was prepared for longer, because, you know, the ocean is boss.

We met at the marina behind the Crows Nest restaurant in Santa Cruz, where a few members of the Monterey Bay Swimming Association came to say hello and see me off. We also met our pilot, Greg, for the first time. As official observer, Robin read the swim rules, and then, just as it was getting dark, it was time to get ready. I had Ryan put a ton of Safe Sea  sunscreen all over me. I’d never used it before, but they claim to help repel jellyfish stings, so I figured it would be worth a try. Optimistically, I had Ryan put Desitin on my back, only in the spots I couldn’t reach. With an 8 pm start and a goal time of 13ish hours, I was hopeful I wouldn’t need a full body covering of Desitin (I do hate the stuff). I told the crew that if we were going to finish much after 11 am to stop me and I’d finish the Desitin job from the water to cover my face and arms if needed. We finished with a healthy coat of lanolin in my chafing hot spots: under my arms and along my swim suit straps.

I was nervous, but was as ready as I was going to get.

Kim Rutherford and Scott Tapley then walked me (in my swim suit, cap, goggles, and flip flops) from the marina to the beach starting point. Ryan, Robin, Evan Morrison (as 2nd observer), and Greg took the boat out and around and waited for me offshore.

Givin my goggles a good lick. See the moon?

It was fairly dark at this point and we attracted a small crowd as I made final preparations to swim. My boat was floating a little off shore and the full moon was rising. The surf was mild and the wind was fairly calm. I gave my goggles a dip in the ocean and lick to prevent fogging, and let Scott know I was ready. He radioed the boat and I took off into the night.


Surprisingly, the water felt warm; much warmer than expected. I guessed it was right at 60F or just a touch above. Good news. However, almost immediately, my goggles blurred and I had a hard time finding the boat in the waves. I felt my heart rate rise a little, but a few quick strokes of breaststroke to clear my goggles and get my bearings and I was fine. I hit a few small pieces of kelp in the darkness and felt my heart rate jump again. But it was short-lived and soon enough I met the boat. As I swam up to them, I picked up my head to make sure they were all good and set to swim. When they replied back positively and clearly, I realized I’d forgotten to put in my ear plugs. Oops. I decided to let it go- it IS nice to hear everyone without shouting.

I fell in line next to the boat: The boat on my right, the rising moon just ahead to my left. It was a full moon and it was so bright I could see the boat very clearly. I was immediately grateful for the brightness and comfort of the moon. Several times through the night, I told the moon I loved her.

I always do my first feed at one hour. And the first hour always takes forever. Eventually, in what was probably the longest hour of my life, Ryan threw out my first feed bottle.

And right away, I knew we were going to have some trouble. I sipped my feed, cautiously: It didn’t taste good and I could tell I was somewhat nauseous already. Not a good sign.

At an hour and a half, I asked how my pace was and was told I was doing great. I was still feeling nauseous, but it was minimal, so I took a small amount of my feed and kept up the pace, hopeful things would settle soon.

I still said nothing and kept swimming. My arms felt strong, I wasn’t cold, and so far no jellyfish were coming out to play. The conditions were ideal- very little wind and minimal swells, with that huge moon shining down. I focused on breathing to the right, to see the boat, and to the left, to see the shoreline, counting all the things that were going well, ignoring the growing nausea.

At around hour 2, I could see huge moon jellyfish floating underneath me, glowing in the moonlight. I’d been given a quick tutorial in the types of jellyfish I’d expect to see: Moon jellies and ones that looked like broken egg yolks likely wouldn’t sting. The sea nettles, however, I was told, were nasty and I should avoid them if possible. After snuggling up with a few giant jellyfish that didn’t hurt anything, I knew what the moon jellies looked/felt like and they didn’t scare me.

I did take three jellyfish stings at about 3 hours into the swim, pretty close together in time- I didn’t see or feel them, other than the blast of pain, so I have no idea what they were. Fortunately, something in my combo of Safe Sea and the Claritin/Pepcid cocktail I’d been taking kept the stings from hurting too much. They lit me up for about 2 minutes, and then I didn’t think about them (until I got out of the water and saw the raw marks). Because the pain was manageable, I actually started to feel more confident. The jellyfish had been my biggest fear going into the swim, and I’d managed 3 stings just fine so far- so my worries subsided a little.

Three hours into the swim I was feeling optimistic. Conditions were great, I wasn’t especially cold, and the jellies weren’t too troublesome. As long as I could push down the nausea, we were going to have an amazing swim.

This is what night swimming looks like. Photo credit: Ryan

I knew that the wind was predicted to pick up overnight and that it was going in the opposite direction of the current/swells, which was likely to make some tall waves, especially as we swam over the Soquel Canyon. I’d hoped to start strong, then be able to back off if things got rough in the middle, then pick it up at the end for a strong finish time.

I also knew the temperature must be dropping because Ryan kept asking me if I wanted a warm feed. I was resolved to hold out on the warm stuff as long as possible, knowing I’d need a boost around 3 am like I always do. After the 3rd or 4th request, I snapped up at him, “I’ll ask for it when I’m ready for it.” I felt bad at the direct communication- but apparently the boat crew thought it was hilarious.

Around midnight the nausea was just getting worse and I was facing the realization that we were in for a rough, rough night. I held off on vomiting as long as I could. Sometimes, you know a good puke will make you feel better, so you just let it go and feel better. But, this felt like Molokai all over- and I knew as soon as I started to puke, I was going to puke until the sun came up.

Vomiting on swims is a fairly new experience for me, but fortunately I’ve learned a lot in a short amount of time. In both Molokai and the Four Way, I threw up pretty consistently for about 6 hours. Molokai was a little better than the English Channel- I was able to go about an hour between vomit sessions overnight. But in both cases, as soon as the sun came up, I was able to throw down some M&Ms and my regular feeds and then get back on top of nutrition and hydration rather quickly.

Monterey proved to be an entirely different animal.

The waves picked up as we approached 1 am- And they were choppy monsters, not friendly rollers. The waves were coming from the west, while the wind pushed out from the east, creating 6 foot peaks in the waves. The wind built until it felt like it was blowing sustained 10-15 miles an hour most of the night. That meant I could no longer breathe to my left to see the shoreline/horizon without getting a face full of water and risking swallowing salt water. I had to resolve to breathing to my preferred right, but all I could see was the boat being tossed around like a toy in the waves. I was concerned the boat captain would declare the conditions too rough to continue (please, please, please, please!), but every 30 minutes, my feeds kept coming down.

Yup, pretty exciting stuff.

By the time we hit midnight, I could tell my arms were getting a little more tired than I’d like and I knew a puke-fest was imminent. I had originally asked for a dose of Advil at hour 5 (1 am), but knew as soon as I tasted it I’d puke, so I pre-emptively refused it. I’d have to do without on this swim.

I made it until about 1 am until I puked the first time. And, as predicted, I didn’t feel better. I asked for a warm feed next- if I wasn’t going to drink it, maybe I could at least hold it in my hands and pretend it was warming me up? And from then on out, every 30 minutes I would throw up. Generally, I would sip straight warm water, throw it up, start swimming while I was still choking and dry heaving, feel ok for about 15 minutes, then start to feel sick knowing the next feed was coming. I was tempted to skip feeds and refuse everything, but I knew I had to at least keep trying to get something down. According to the observer log, I had a few long, sustained puke sessions around 3:30 and 4:00 am, where it was impossible to believe I had anything left to puke up. When things go wrong, I purposely try to lose track of time and just go into the pain cave so I can mentally block it all out. At some point, I remember asking for the time, thinking it was still like 2 or 3 am, and was relieved it was already just after 4 am.

“Two more hours until daylight. I can do this for 2 more hours,” I told myself, before heading back into my cave.


Sunrise

As 6 am approached, the sun was starting to rise and I could tell the wind was dying down a touch. But, I was still really, really sick. Ryan was offering me my favorite M&Ms, but I kept saying “no, not yet.”

At 7 am, we tried a hot chocolate feed. I’d never tried that on a swim before, but it sounded good and I knew we had some. I took a few, careful sips, and for the first time in 6 hours I didn’t vomit immediately. The calorie intake was minimal, but at least it was something. We did it again at 7:30 and I bravely took a bigger gulp. And immediately it came back up. At 8, we put my daytime goggles on and I took another hot chocolate feed. It stayed down.

“Come on, get something to vomit up!” Yes, this feed stop took forever. Don’t judge. I probably puked.

With the sun, I was starting to feel better and was making an effort to pick up my pace. Confidently, I asked for warm water and some Chewy Chips Ahoy cookies (which I always have on hand for every swim, because delicious!) on my next feed. I managed to sip hot water and chew 2 cookies. I still felt sick, but thankfully, they stayed down- my first true calories in nearly 8 hours. Unfortunately, I puked on my next feed.

Instagram story, thanks to Ryan

Eventually, I quit asking for things and whatever Ryan sent down, I’d try. Small sips of hot chocolate here and there, some water next- anything to keep from puking. By the time we got to 10 am, I was feeling much better and could see land to my left. I knew we had to swim down the coast a touch before reaching the landing spot, but couldn’t remember how far it was. I was refusing to ask, just focusing on the task at hand: Try to drink something, move arms in circles, don’t puke.

Feed stop!
At least the crew was having fun- Ryan and Robin enjoying some fried chicken!

I should admit some disappointment here. I had been promised a beautiful swim in really fun water. I’d been looking forward to sunrise so I could really see some things. In Molokai, off the coast of Oahu, I was treated to hundreds of fish swimming below me, birds soaring above and beautiful, clear water. All during the night, I could tell the water was clear- I could see things floating by in the moonlight. But, with the dawn, all I could see was brown, murky water, and endless, calm rolling waves. I nailed a few more moon jellyfish and saw something swimming below me that was apparently a sea lion who popped up a few meters behind me. But otherwise, there was nothing except brown sea water and my crew bobbing along next to me. They assured me I was picking up the pace in the improved conditions and that we were getting there, but I knew we still had a ways to go.

Beautiful conditions once the sun came up! I was too sick to appreciate it.

At 10 or 10:30ish, I finally gave in and asked for the distance. I was told we had about 2.4 nautical miles left. I laughed to myself: In normal times, I could probably bust out 2.4 miles in under an hour. “How long will it take me now?” I wondered, trying to guess. I told myself it was going to take 2 hours, prepping for the worst.

Robin had a friend who took some pictures from her plane!

At 11, I asked for a regular Carbo Pro/Nuun feed at half strength. I managed to get it down ok, and then was shockingly told it was my last feed. I had no real idea what time it was and didn’t hardly believe we were that close, but hey, they wouldn’t lie to me. I had to make a work call at 1 pm, and judging by the location of the sun, I knew it wasn’t that late, so I was happy to soak in the last 30 minutes of a miserable swim.

The site of the last feed! We were so close!

And sure enough, before long, there was the sea wall. Patti Bauernfeind (the 2nd person to complete this swim!) came to meet me a little way off the shore to guide me in. She gave me some directions for swimming in safely and avoiding the kelp. Fortunately, the surf was pretty mild and we waded up onto the beach together.

Done.

15 hours, 39 minutes.

We landed just after 11:30 am, nearly 2-3 hours longer than I had hoped. Though, I had packed 21 hours’ worth of feeds to be safe, so I was prepared for longer. And a finish is a finish!

I was told on this swim, you either get wind or jellyfish. I definitely got the wind. Sorta wish I’d had the jellies instead.

The finish

There was a handful of folks there to cheer me in, which is always nice. I showed off my very swollen salt tongue- I’d been so sick, I hadn’t had the energy to try and use my mouthwash after the first couple of hours. And the minty smell wasn’t helping the nausea anyway. Kim Rutherford was there with a towel and my flip flops. After a few minutes of chit chat and regaining my land legs, she bustled me off to the shower, where she fed it a lot of quarters and let me stand under the delightfully warm, non-salty water. She scrubbed the Desitin off my back with Dawn dish soap and we chatted, trading war stories about the brutality of this swim.


When I emerged from the shower for a team photo, I already felt pretty well recovered. Greg told me later that he was shocked at my quick recovery, from how sick I was in the water to being totally fine now that we were back on land. Lisa Amorao and her dog Prim were on hand and presented me with the most delicious sandwich of my life. After puking for the entire night and most of the morning, it was glorious to taste real, solid food, and to not feel sick while eating it.


Kim loaded me and Ryan into her truck, me in the backseat. I had that work call to take at 1 pm, so about halfway back to Santa Cruz, I was on the phone with my team. When we got back to Robin’s beach house, I took a real shower to wash my hair and cozied up with my laptop. Ryan took a nap while I worked until about 5:30 pm. We went for dinner as a thick fog rolled in. I ate heartily, including a delicious chocolate mousse pie (I had some calories to replace!!!), and we went to bed. I’d been awake for 36 hours, with nearly 16 of them swimming, and bed had never been so glorious.


A few stray thoughts for you.

Even though this was a miserable swim, lots of things went right:

-The Safe Sea and medication combo works! I feel a lot tougher when it comes to jellyfish after this swim. I’ve been stung a few times now, with no major allergic reaction. I know not all jellies are created equal, but I’m definitely confronting my fears where these evil monsters are concerned.

-My boat pilot was rock solid. He doesn’t want the recognition and doesn’t necessarily want to take more swimmers, but I still gotta say something. He was amazing. And I’m pretty sure he and Ryan are going to be buddies. I’m grateful he didn’t want to head back in the rough conditions and that he was down for the adventure. He didn’t flinch at my puke fest and trusted Ryan was taking care of me.

-Water temps were 56-57 all night, a little warmer at the start and finish. Despite being sick and not taking in any calories, I never felt uncomfortably cold. I warmed up really quickly at the end, so the cold was a non-factor this time. This also gives me some confidence for other cold water, jellyfish laden seas in the future.

Three puncture-like jellyfish stings. One is right on top of my port scar!

And what did I learn?

A lot went wrong on my end. It’s not exactly ideal to puke everything up for 8 hours+. I packed 21 hours of feeds. When I got home, I had 12 hours remaining. Ryan said he wasted at least 4 hours worth of feeds (I only took one feed out of my last bag, one of the bottles came open in the waves so we dumped it, etc). Mathematically, that means I consumed my regular feeds for only 4-5 hours of a 15.5 hour swim. Combine that with a few sips of hot chocolate and 3 chips ahoy cookies, well, that’s not a lot of calories going in. Hydration was also poor. And that’s not healthy. Clearly night-time swimming and nausea is something I’m going to have to address, after dealing with it on my third straight night swim. This is a new problem for me, and I have to take it seriously if I want to continue long, overnight, wavy swims. I have a few theories, and I see some wavy ocean night swims in my training future.

This was decidedly the most not-fun I’ve ever had on a swim. Sure, I’ve done things that were harder, from a distance and time perspective. I’ve swum in rougher conditions and been in more pain. I’ve been colder. But, I’ve never been quite so miserable. It was a decidedly a Type 3 Fun adventure. My core was sore for days afterward from being sick for so long, so frequently. My tongue was raw and two weeks out my jellyfish stings are still itchy.

However, during the struggle, I was always able to stay aloof from my predicament: I was comfortable acknowledging that I was sick, but knew my arms and shoulders were still spinning around just fine. (There was no discernable drop in stroke rate through the night, even though my speed was dropping due to more frequent stops and poor conditions.) I was sick, but I wasn’t cold. I was miserable, but I was still fine. And I just kept swimming, from one feed and vomit session to the next, without any real desire to quit. Didn’t even cross my mind, if I’m being honest. I kept thinking, “I’m not great, but I’m ok.” And carried on swimming.

Through all of that, I found myself wondering: What makes some people willing to push through the pain and discomfort, when others would just (wisely) throw in the towel? In the absence of real medical issues (i.e. hypothermia, SIPE), is this ability to take a thrashing and still continue a genetic trait or is it something that can be learned? I honestly don’t know the answer, but if you’ve made it this far, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Thanks for reading!

18 thoughts on “The most un-fun swim of all”

  1. Sarah, thank you for the honesty in your “What did I learn” section.
    As someone preparing for an EC swim, the mindset regards what hurts or doesn’t hurt – what’s not working but what is! suggests great personal understanding, which seems to me now, is a must when it comes to the needed tools to succeeding.
    Regards
    Lorraine ( observer haha!)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Good question. I’m assuming you’ve watched the documentary “Driven.” I wonder if some of us are more genetically /mentally predisposed to doing things like this. Maybe our upbringing? Not that I’ve done anything close to this but I have had my moments.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think there are things in every day life that count- studying for a hard test, going through a divorce, dealing with mental health issues, etc. It seems like some people push through and come out ok, while others don’t. Or sometimes we do and other times we don’t. I know I’ve had situations where I just say “Enough.” Just not in the water (yet).

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  3. Sarah, first of all I am so proud of you. Your determination is a trait I wish I had a small percentage of. I’m so proud of Ryan too for the way he is always there for you. Loved the UCONN sweatshirt you were wearing afterwards. UCONN should do a write about you and all your swims and hope that it will inspire other swimmers on their swim team. I can remember cheering for you in a swim meet several years ago when you and Court were roommates. You are amazing with all that you do between your swims, training, your job and having some down time. Make sure you’re taking time to take care of you. What do you think you will title your book? Your stories are all so well written.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I find it hard to find the words to describe how amazing your will is. The preparation, planning, and execution. All that you go through and to want to do it again! Hats off to you and your team behind you!

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  5. Sarah. You should talk to someone about changing your Advil med to naproxen, easier on stomach, easier on the kidneys and longer duration of activity. Available as 220 mg doses over the counter med. just a suggestion

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    1. Thanks- I actually didn’t take any medications on this swim at all, so not sure I need to change that at all. I like Advil because I can get it in liquid form (infant stuff), which makes it easy to get to me, over a pill of some kind. I don’t use it much on shorter swims and assume heavy use once every several years is a-okay, as long as I’m staying well-hydrated. 🙂

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  6. Huge congratulations! I’m no distance swimmer compared to you, but I’m very sensitive to motion sickness while ocean swimming and have had a lot of success with taking ginger pills or sipping a little ginger juice in water before hitting the water. This might not be effective for a long swim but it definitely staves off queasiness for a couple of hours in the water and I think ginger has anti-inflammatory effects too.

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    1. Thanks for the ideas. Ginger stuff tends to burn my mouth a little when I’m not swimming- I’m having a hard time imagining it in a salt-filled, swollen tongue, but may have to give it a try!

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  7. Hi, Sarah: That was a harrowing account of swimming in impossible tall waves in the middle of the night! Congratulations!! You posed a question at the end; to paraphrase, what is it that makes most people quit or decline to start such a swim (put me in that camp!) versus people who keep going… interesting and good question that I was seeking to answer when I started supporting you guys. I got a bit of an answer when I was with you on the Red River earlier this year; I saw you close up able to take personal inventory of your resources and liabilities and to make small adjustments as you needed to over the 13 hours of the swim. I think that those of you who succeed are able to build, based on experience, a fund of resources that permit you to gradually advance your swims. You could not have thought of doing this swim back when we swam the mere 2 mile Boulder Bare Bones in a shark-free reservoir years ago! Also, at your core, I perceive there is joy and gratitude… that I saw when you played in the cooler water near the end of the Red River swim. That fuels you; I hope Monterey evolves to Type 2 fun for you as you look back on it!

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  8. Hi Sarah! Amazing tale. I got my start in open water swimming in Aquatic Park, and love the Monterey Bay Aquarium – it never occurred to me to swim there though 🙂 I’ve been asking the same question about perseverance as I prepare for my English Channel attempt this summer. I think that part of it comes from a combination of being able to dream big but execute small. In addition to a certain amount of stubbornness that at least my mother would say was innate. I think that is a somewhat rare combination – the moxie to think we can accomplish these insane things, but also the willingness to deal with the fiddly details that go into the planning and training. And the enthusiasm for learning from each experience. And I think that just flat out loving it out there helps. A League of Their Own gets it: “It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The hard… is what makes it great.”

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