The fearless open-ocean swimmers who are tackling formidable waters near and far
By Neil Pearlberg
The sun had set on the evening of Sept. 27, 2017, and the fog was beginning its usual crawl to the coast of Santa Cruz, when Amy Gubser entered the water at the Santa Cruz Yacht Harbor and set off in solitary pursuit of the beach in Monterey.
Gubser is a member of the close-knit, Bay Area-based group of open-ocean swimmers known as the Nadadores Locos. The name translates to “crazy swimmers”—an apt moniker if you consider their aquatic achievements. These daring athletes have, among other exploits, traversed the Monterey Bay, the English Channel, Lake Tahoe, the Irish Sea, the Straits of Gibraltar, and the stretches of sea from Catalina to Los Angeles and San Francisco to the Farallon Islands. The sport is riddled with physical and mental challenges that test the limits of human endurance like few other athletic endeavors. In difficulty, it’s seen as on par with the Tour de France, ultra-marathons, free diving, mountain climbing and the Iditarod.
In the world of solo open-ocean swims, the 26-mile Monterey Bay crossing is considered one of the most treacherous. Gubser’s swim marked only the fourth time it had ever been accomplished. All four crossings were by women.
During her September voyage over the Monterey Canyon, Gubser swam for more than nine hours in the dark without a wetsuit, in water temperatures below 55 degrees Fahrenheit. She battled strong currents, wind, and hundreds of jellyfish stings, while creatures of the deep—including great white sharks and killer whales—lurked below. Her recollection of the experience borders on transcendent: “Swimming at night is magical,” Gubser says. “It is whisper quiet except for the distinct sounds of the whales and dolphins, and pitch black except for bioluminescent creatures that glow and leave a lighted trail as they swim beneath you.”
Gubser and her fellow “crazy swimmers” (of which there are 12 core members, and up to 40 who join during trainings) strive to conquer the seemingly impossible, continually raising the bar for long-distance open-water swimming. The glue that holds the group together is Santa Cruz’s Kim Rutherford, who achieved one of open-ocean swimming’s all-time greatest feats on Sept. 5 and 6, 2014, when she swam backward (against the wind and current) across the Monterey Bay for more than 22 hours. When she reached Twin Lakes Beach in Santa Cruz, she was hallucinating from total exhaustion and the cold.
Fellow “Loco” Andrew McLaughlin describes Rutherford’s accomplishment as otherworldly. “It is not something humans are meant to do,” he says. “That swim is extra nasty, as the water above the canyon is extra cold. I am sure she was just a shell of a person when she finished.”
In August 2017, Rutherford and recent breast-cancer survivor Robin Rose completed the daunting 28.5-mile “20 Bridges” open-water swim around the island of Manhattan in New York.
Long-distance open-water swimming has come a long way since 1875, when the British steamship captain Matthew Webb became the first person documented to swim across the English Channel. A major driver behind the recent increase in open-water swimming has been an explosion in the popularity of triathlons, which combine cycling and running with a long swim that often takes place in open water, rather than in the confines of a concrete pool.
Ocean swimming entails a daunting set of risks: venomous jellyfish, sharks, skin being rubbed raw by salt water, the freakish swelling of the tongue, and hallucination from exhaustion and hypothermia are all common threats.
One of these dangers left a particular impression on McLaughlin when he crossed the North Channel of the Irish Sea in July 2016. “It’s a very cold swim, however the biggest hurdle of that swim was the lion’s mane jellyfish,” he says.
These behemoths can rival the blue whale in length, growing up to 8 feet in diameter, with many hundreds of tentacles that can reach 98 feet in length. “They are the ugliest creature that I have ever seen,” he adds, “and the only living thing that I have come across in the water that made me stop and shout out, ‘What the hell is that?!’”
There are also logistical hazards that swimmers must consider, including tidal flows, unpredictable currents, large waves, darkness, and ships that don’t veer off course for a solo swimmer in their path. Safety is paramount for the Nadadores Locos, who accompany every swimmer with a boat and a kayak.
In their endless quest to master the Earth’s most arduous swims, the Nadadores Locos have set their sights on a never-before-accomplished challenge: the Ocean’s Seven, the pinnacle of open-ocean swimming, which includes the English and Catalina Channels, the Cook Strait between the north and south islands of New Zealand, and the Tsugaru Channel between Honshu and Hokkaido islands in Japan. Naturally, the Nadadores Locos hope to slay this seven-headed beast.