Santa Cruz Island Swim, Part 3: Demons of Doubt

Santa Cruz Island Swim, Part 3: Demons of Doubt


In case you missed it…

From the beginning, something just felt… off.

The chop disagreed with my stroke – pounding me randomly, from odd angles, making it impossible to develop any sort of rhythm.

The moonless night completely disoriented me. Shortly after the start we had a snafu with the glowsticks on Mark’s kayak, so it was insufficiently lit. He tried using a camping headlamp, but it was so blindingly bright that it seemed worse than the darkness.

It was a constant battle through the night – especially the first few feeds – to maintain a consistent distance from the boat and kayak. They were getting blown around by the wind; I was getting knocked around by the chop; and I had no depth perception to adjust to it.

I made 1.3 nautical miles of progress in the first hour - an incredibly slow pace for me. Possibly there was a head current near the island; but my constant zig-zagging didn’t help. I would bump into the kayak; Mark would yell at me; I’d try to adjust left but then get too close to the boat; Dave, Rob, and Cathy would yell at me; I’d try to adjust right; rinse & repeat. Occasionally, I’d actually find myself behind the boat (i.e., near the propeller), at which point Cathy screams and Capt. Forrest loses a month off his lifespan.

This may produce some entertaining documentary footage someday, but at the time it was fucking miserable - for everyone. 

“Get away from the boat!” Photo of Cathy by Rob D.

Around my 5th or 6th feed (a couple of which I didn’t keep down) the constant bumping and adjusting and yelling had decreased, but I began to notice something else: I wasn’t swimming well. The random chop and disorientation and mid-stroke adjustments had already taken a toll. I could feel the sloppiness and tightness creeping into my stroke.

The realization dawned on me: I might not finish this swim. I was doing the calculations in my head: At this pace, I could have another 10 (12?) hours in the water. After only 2 hours, I was exhausted and sick. (I had never gotten seasick while swimming!) I’m not sure I can do this for another 10 hours. I’m not sure I want to.

I could hear it in the voices of my crew: They knew all was not well. They had all seen me swim before. Something wasn’t right. Something was… off.

My thoughts drifted to them: my crew, my friends. Why am I putting them through this? They should be home, in bed – and so should I. This is a meaningless, selfish lark – and their suffering is pointless.

There’s a famous Ted Erikson saying: “Marathon swims are a dumb thing.” I knew exactly what Ted meant, right then.

I was ready to quit. I looked at the boat and thought, It would be better to be there than here. I thought about the film crew, the documentary, and how it would look on the big screen when I got on the boat. I didn’t care. I thought about the pre-swim publicity in Santa Barbara (which I didn’t ask for), and how I would explain to everyone back home how I quit after two hours. I didn’t care.

I kept repeating the phrase that always seems to be invoked after failed marathon swims: “It just wasn’t my day.” It had a comforting ring to it. It just isn’t my day.

The demons of doubt* spoke quite powerfully to me that morning. But there was another voice – quieter but insistent:

There is nothing wrong with you, physically. You are making progress. Not great progress; not the progress you hoped; but progress. At this moment, nothing can prevent you from finishing except your own choice to quit. 

For the next few feeds, I considered the two voices, the two options. And here’s the thing: I didn’t decide not to quit. But I put off the decision… for one more feed. And then another. And another…

Photo by Rob D.

* A Phil White phrase.

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