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A Jaw-Inspiring Swim, for Sure
Ashby Harper
October 07, 1991
With sharks in mind, the author ventured across the Santa Barbara Channel
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October 07, 1991

A Jaw-inspiring Swim, For Sure

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

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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 17�-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.

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