California Channel Island Swimming History 1926 to 1978

Courtesy of Scott Zornig of the Santa Barbara Channel Swimming Association. Scott Zornig of the Santa Barbara Channel Swimming Association did research on the early history of crossing channels along the coast of Southern California.  “I have a great deal of respect for those who completed and even attempted swims in the early years. These strong-minded and courageous people paved the way for me (a former drop dead sprinter and water polo player) to do a few marathon swims of my own. I can guarantee you that I would have never attempted Catalina and Anacapa back in 1999 and 2001 respectively if it were not for Mike Suttle (Catalina 1986 #61) and David Yudovin (Anacapa 1982 #2). Their early success and on-going encouragement made me feel that I may also have it in me. As Lynne Cox wrote in her book, South with the Sun, ‘We look for hope, inspiration, and direction in others who might be able to help show us the way.’  In my opinion, we owe the marathon swimmers who forged a path for us. Therefore, I feel it is important to find, recognize and pay tribute to our history. We now are discovering marathon swim history in the Southern California Channel Islands that we simply did not know existed.  Thus far, we have found mostly attempts and not a lot of successes by these amazing trail blazers, but the information is still fascinating. Pre-Santa Barbara Channel Swimming Association successes include a single successful solo swim down the Santa Barbara coastline and a relay off of Santa Cruz Island. We also found claims of a success which would rewrite the record books if true, but we have no way of confirming this particular swim. In 1926, a local newspaper reported, ‘Pioneers declared an Indian is claimed to have the made the swim from one of the Channel Islands to the mainland, but no definite historical record of the feat is to be found.’  There is no date, island, channel or swimmers name provided. Chances are that it is just hearsay and will remain this way unless etchings are found on a cave wall or a very early newspaper goes online which supports this claim. Therefore, our swim history begins on August 23rd 1926, when Zane Steenrod, who was well known at the time in the Atlantic Coast aquatic community, attempted to swim from Santa Cruz Island. This is the same year that Gertrude Ederle became the first woman to swim the English Channel.  It was also 18 days before the first successful relay off of Catalina Island and almost 5 months before George Young’s successful solo swim during the Wrigley Ocean Marathon.  Zane quit his swim after five hours in the water, but this likely was the first attempted swim off of any California Channel Island by modern man. Can you imagine how marathon swim history might be different if Zane had been successful with his swim? William Wrigley Jr. may have never hosted his January 15th 1927 marathon swim to promote Catalina Island or at minimum, the event certainly would have lost some of its luster. It is possible that had Zane succeeded, Santa Cruz Island (19.9 miles) with only 11 successful solo swims to date could be the second most popular marathon swim in the world instead of Catalina Island (20.4 miles) with 286 solo swims. On September 26th, approximately a month after his first attempt, Zane Steenrod again tried Santa Cruz Island. This time, he brought two other soloists with him which included Alan Barker and 17-year-old Gertrude “Teddy” Crawford. The trio left Point Diablo on Saturday evening at 11:14 pm. Unfortunately, Miss Crawford gave up after 3 hours and 5 miles, Alan Barker remained in the water completing 8 miles in 5 hours and Zane Steenrod made 12 miles in 9 hours 42 minutes before giving up. Since members from the Santa Barbara Kelp Club had come along to support the three swimmers, they decided to take over from where Zane finished and turn it in to an 8-person relay. We do not know the names of the 5 additional relay members, but we do know they finished on September 27th 1926 at 6:01 pm in 18 hours 27 minutes. This is now recognized as the first successful swim in the history of the Santa Barbara Channel Swimming Association. In December 1926, there was also a 12-mile marathon race held along the Southern California coast. The race started in Santa Barbara and finished in Carpinteria. Three swimmers, Marjorie Buffington, Zane Steenrod, and Jean McKensie started the race. Rough water forced Buffington out at Serena, while Steenrod lasted until Summerland. 19-year-old McKensie was the only person to finish. Although this swim did not take place from a Channel Island, it may have been the first successful solo marathon swim in the history of Southern California. Three years later, Paul Swenson, who was a long distance swimmer from New Jersey, attempted to swim from the foot of Chapala Street [on the California mainland] to Santa Cruz Island on August 12th 1929, a distance he called 30 miles. Swenson was confident of his ability to finish the swim predicting a time of 12 hours 30 minutes. There was no information in the newspapers on his actual swim which is a pretty good indicator that he did not finish. It was another 9 years before there was there was another attempt from a Southern California Channel Island other than Catalina. In 1938, Paul Chotteau of France swam for 44 hours 41 minutes in an attempt to swim 50 miles from Santa Barbara Island to Malibu. He was reported to be only 4.5 miles from the Malibu pier when he climbed aboard his support boat and called it quits. You can watch a clip of Paul’s 1938 attempt is here. The next high profile attempt came on July 4th 1956 when aircraft worker, 51-year-old Roy Sutter was pulled after only two hours of swimming from Santa Cruz Island.  Apparently, the conditions were quite bad and the crew feared they would not be able to keep track of Roy during the evening. In 1965, the Ventura Junior Chamber of Commerce decided it was time to call attention to the swimming possibilities off of Anacapa Island. They offered US$1,000 to the first successful swimmer to cross the channel. They set the swim window from June 25-28 for this event. We believe the event was postponed due to conditions. On July 2nd, a trio of swimmers – 19-year-old Erick Gullen, 23-year-old Dave Smith, and Canadian Betty Benedict – together went after the US$1,000 purse.  Unfortunately, we have not found documentation to tell us the outcome of their endeavors.  We believe the 3 abandoned the swim at some point.  Quite possibly, they went to the island, determined is was not swimmable and returned to Ventura.  It seems that with many of the swims which took place in the 20th century, each swimmer was a masterful at using the press to pre-announce their swims. Unfortunately, there is very little follow up when the swims did not result in success. Of course, it could be too that some of this follow up information has not yet been put on line. We came close to having our first successful Anacapa swim on July 20th 1978 when David Yudovin left Anacapa Island. David made it over 12 miles to the surf break at Silverstrand beach and was only a few hundred yards from shore when his heart stopped and he went into cardiac arrest. David was taken to the hospital and made a full recovery, but did not receive credit for finishing the swim. Three weeks later, we finally had our first successful solo swim when 23-year-old Cindy Cleveland left Point Hueneme at 10:08 am on August 10th 1978, swam to Anacapa, touched the island, and then swam back to Point Hueneme completing the round trip in 12 hours 47 minutes 51 seconds. Cindy became the first person to do a solo swim off a California Channel Islands other than Catalina. Keep in mind that in 1978, there had already been 50 solo swims off of Catalina and not a single successful solo swim off the other 7 islands. There were concerns at the time if it was even possible to complete swims from the “other” Channel Islands. Cindy showed the world it could be done. It has been 36 years since Cindy’s historic swim and the Santa Barbara Channel Swimming Association now recognizes a combined 67 successful solo swims from these 7 islands. Cindy pioneered the way by showing it could be done and marathon swimmers followed her. The Santa Barbara Channel Swimming Association does periodic searches on the internet so don’t be surprised if we find more marathon swimming history in the future…..maybe even something astonishing. It is always fun to learn about these amazing and brave water warriors. Copyright © 2008 – 2014 by World Open Water Swimming Association
Steven Munatones