Six women’s epic swim around Santa Cruz Island

Team captain Claudia Rose shows how it’s done.

by Mira ReverentePicture this. Six women swimmers. Fifty-four miles. Almost 40 hours in open water.

It happened. An epic swim around Santa Cruz Island took place back in late September. “As far as we know, it’s the first time it’s ever been done,” says team captain Claudia Rose, 53, of San Diego.

“Most of us swam six legs which took about an hour each average,” says Michelle McConica, 61, of Ventura.

Late start, fearless finish

What would inspire women with such diverse backgrounds to undertake a feat like this? An ongoing quest to meet bust obstacles, reach goals and just like mountaineers who say they climb because the mountain is there – for these women, the ocean is also right there.

Carol-Lynn Swol finishes her leg and hands off to Michelle McConica

McConica, who grew up in a copper mining zone in Arizona, only started swimming in college, for a physical education class. Most of her teammates got into swimming in late adulthood.

Rose grew up in New England and moved to California 30 years ago, competes in triathlons and likes to analyze maps and charts, being the systems engineer that she is. “I taught open water swimming and kept hearing about Santa Cruz so that piqued my interest,” she says.

“In fact, you can see the island from Michelle’s house,” she says, explaining the appeal of their monumental undertaking. There have been various successful attempts in swimming from the mainland to the various islands and back, but never around Santa Cruz Island.

Louise Darlington, 57, from Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania, remembers meeting Maryland native Diana Corbin at a lake swim. “I was drawn to Diana’s Channel Island tattoo so we started talking,” says the librarian who only started swimming at the age of 40, to distress from work.

The two became fast friends and connected on Facebook where there’s a fairly active open water swim community. In March of 2016, Corbin invited her to join the team. Jeannie Zappe of Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, completed the all-women team.

Swim support

“We had a support dive boat called “The Peace” owned by fellow Venturan Eric Bowman,” says McConica. “His crew graciously kept us fed for 24/7.”

The team also had one to two escort kayakers with then all the time, for support. Says Rose, “You never want to do any of this alone. You need a support crew and observers.”

What thoughts were swimming around their minds during those grueling 40 hours? “We actually weren’t anxious about the sharks. We were more frightened about LA freeways,” says McConica with a chuckle.

Ocean obstacles

The team gets asked the obvious questions all the time. Given that no wetsuits were allowed for sanctioned events, was the water cold? “You get used to it clad only in your swim cap, goggles and bathing suit.” Were there sharks? “No.” Was it tough to stay awake? “Yes, but you try to sleep whenever it’s not your turn to swim.” Was it hard to figure out where you were exactly in the ocean? “Sometimes, because unlike pools, there are no lanes.”

The fog can be a challenge. “You just try to stay as close to the kayak and dive boat as much as possible,” says Darlington.

They may not have trained together, given their geographic challenges. Four are from the East Coast while two are in SoCal. However, all of them  trained individually in adverse, nasty conditions to prepare for strong ocean currents and other challenges like the presence of sea lions, dolphins and an illegal fishing boat.

A few days before the epic swim, the team practiced some night swims in San Diego.

Rose also broke her elbow in April and Corbin had wrist surgery around the same time. Teammate Carol-Lynn Swol’s mom also passed away the day before their swim.

Open water swimming has its own special appeal. McConica explains, “We have a great deal of respect for the ocean. Swimming at night was just sheer magic.”

The ladies’ epic swim undertaking has been recorded and can be found on: https://santabarbarachannelswim.org.

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