Steve Sutton and Steven Munatones Pioneer Palos Verdes Peninsula Swim
The Palos Verdes Peninsula Swim between Cabrillo Beach and Redondo Beach is a new 24.03 km coastal swim in Southern California around the Palos Verdes Peninsula. Depending on the amount of kelp along the coastline, the actual swimming distance can be slightly or much further.
Abundant marine life co-exist along the course and include gray whales, blue whales, humpback whales, lemon sharks, fish (from Garibaldi to kelp bass), kelp beds, killer whales, pilot whales, sperm whales, minke whales, and fin whales. Additionally, common dolphin, Pacific bottlenose dolphin, Pacific white-sided dolphin, Risso’s dolphin, northern right whale dolphin, Dall’s porpoise, California sea lions, harbor seals, northern elephant seals, false killer whales, and southern sea otters dot the course.
The straight-line tangent course is 24.03 kilometers; however, swimmers must veer well off the straight-line course to avoid impassable kelp beds that hug the shoreline.
The first two swimmers who successfully completed the Northern Course (from Cabrillo Beach to Redondo Beach) were a pair of Southern Californians: Steve Sutton of Agoura Hills and Steven Munatones of Huntington Beach on June 10th 2022.
Munatones said, “It was a game-day decision to go or not. We chose to go on a foggy morning with a thick marine layer that helped tamper down the ocean swells with low wind speeds. It was our choice to tackle the course on this type of day rather than swim on a bright sunny day with heavier winds that would kick up unpredictable eddies. It was a choice between sun and surf or fog and calm. Because of the fog, we kept close to shore – much more than we had planned in our original Plan A. So we swam inside several rocky points along the peninsula and had to crawl over and through a lot of kelp. The water swirls around these rocky points and the ride got quite bumpy. But, all in all, the day that we selected was about as perfect as we could have expected. I can see how this swim can get extremely difficult, given the wrong day with stronger winds that generate endless whitecaps. There is still much to learn about the optimal times and seasons to make this swim so Steve and I will try swimming from Redondo Beach to Cabrillo Beach sometime in July.”
With the temperature differential between the warming inland temperatures of Southern California’s early summer and the colder waters of the Pacific Ocean, the fog and marine layers tend to make coastal swims more difficult to navigate this time of year. The thick fog and marine layer tempered the wind that could have caused much more turbulence of the surface waters, it forced Ryland to make many critical decisions.
Should Ryland escort his father along the coast close to shore in order to keep the coastline within their eyesight – a critical safety aspect of this course under these conditions – or should he swing wide of the coastline, lose sight of land, and avoid the thick kelp forests?
Ryland chose the former for much of the first part of his father’s swim. But the canopy of the kelp was so thick, the blades (i.e., leaves) and stipes (i.e., stems) would wrap and twist themselves around Steve’s arms, neck, and legs. At times, he had to crawl in the kelp beds to make his way forward; this crawling, pushing and pulling through the kelp put different forms stress on his swimming muscles.
Along the way, as Sutton’s passed the Point Fermin Lighthouse, the Trump National Golf Club, Terranea Resort (the oft-used finish for Catalina Channel crossings), and the Point Vicente Lighthouse, the rock formations and ocean floor were visible underwater, but most of the time, the kelp arose from the depths, floating upwards gently and swaying with the currents.
Eventually, the fog partly lifted and the marine layer went away as the air temperatures rose, clearing the way for Ryland to navigate more easily about and around the kelp beds and along the capes and coves.
“Sometimes, the kelp was being pushed in the direction that I was swimming; sometimes, the kelp understory was vertical, standing straight up and down, which indicated a neutral current; and sometimes, the kelp was moving in the opposite direction,” said Sutton. “One time, the kelp was so thick that I yelled to Ryan, ‘Head straight out to sea!‘”
Ryland had a compass and GPS equipment, but when they passed the Air Force Station located just past Point Fermin, Sutton said,
“Well, the Bermuda Triangle of the Cabrillo to Redondo Swim has been located. I had some electronic equipment failure on my GPS device, but we had backups were in place.
Even though we missed the window of the migrating whales by about a week, the kelp forest was like giant sequoias. There were Garibaldi, calico bass, salp chains, a few beautiful jellyfish here and there, dolphins, and a falcon family learning to hunt up on the cliffs.
There was patchy fog at the start – it was like swimming in a cloud. I used the bend of the kelp and depth to navigate along with the apparent direction of salp chains and other odd white floaty things. A few times, we stepped off the highway and entered a kelp neighborhood with few exits. A little kelp exfoliation and crawling and we got back on the current highway.
We had a good push current to Point Vicente which brought back gentle memories of Hells Gate on my 20 Bridges Swim. That’s where the kelp stood up and leaned the other way. Oh oh, I thought. I was no longer out swimming with the floaties and jellies; they were zipping by me in the now oncoming current. This happened just as the fog cleared enough for me to see a few landmarks that did not seem to change for some time. Once at the sloshy point, we dug in and pulled hard.
Ryland was intrigued by a rock outcropping a few hundred meters further off the point. After a brief conversation, that adventure was aborted and we slogged through to some of the most beautiful waters I have swum: clean, clean, clear water filled with aquatic neighbors and giant kelp forests.
Time flew by and there it was: the finish at Redondo Beach. We encountered a rising tide and glass-smooth water with a bit of breeze building to the back and the sun breaking through the marine layer. It was unbelievable, an unforgettable swim. I’ll be back again. This is one I highly recommend.”
Munatones recalled, “The kelp forest was tremendously thick, forcing us to swim-crawl over the kelp blades on the surface of the water. We had to balance swimming close to shore to keep the view of the land and swimming wide to avoid the bulk of the kelp forest. Along the way, the massive kelp understories – that reminded me of the fairy tale, Jack and the Beanstalk – were beautiful to see from the water’s surface. The experience of swimming over and through the kelp forests was unusual, but swimming over the less thick areas was majestic – it seems these giant stalks emerged 20-30 meters from the depths below me. It was a blast to see the kelp pointed in the direction that I was swimming – and it was a real bummer to see the kelp and salp chains flowing in the opposite direction. The currents and tidal flows can be tricky along the way, but it was easy to know when the currents are going in your favor – and when they are not.
I had prepared myself psychologically to encounter sharks, but fortunately, none came into my view. I had memorized most of the coves and landmarks (i.e., Point Fermin, Trump National Golf Course, Terranea Resort, Point Vicente) along the course so I had a very good idea of where I was swimming, but rounding the last point and seeing Redondo Beach was a sweet sight.
With any swim that had never been attempted or completed before, there is always some doubt in my mind as to whether success will be achieved. Things can change so quickly out there, so I was always saving some energy to tackle whitecaps and preparing myself mentally for staying longer in the water than I expected. You just never know and consider myself very lucky when my hand finally hit the sand of Redondo Beach.
It is an outstanding course to explore due to its highly technical challenges. I also think Palos Verdes is also a great prep area for a Catalina Channel (or perhaps even an English Channel) crossing. A swim in March or April with the water in the mid-to-high ’50s (i.e., 12-15°C) would be an outstanding test for the English Channel, the Cook Strait, or the North Channel.
Going forward to benefit other interested swimmers, Steve, Ryland, Quinn, Romina Caristo, and I are going to formalize the course alternatives, identify 21 vista points on dryland (for friends, family, and observers), and locate at least 5 emergency egress points for both swimmers and escorts, and set up a system of dryland and kayak observers.
But there is still a lot to experience and learn about this course.“
Redondo Beach Mayor Bill Brand said, “This was a demonstration to showcase this swim venue as the women’s and men’s 2028 Olympic 10K Marathon Swim. Where could there be a better backdrop than the Palos Verdes Peninsula and finishing in King Harbor? PV to Redondo Beach is the perfect course.”
Note 1: the swim is unusual in the marathon swimming community because no escort boats are guiding the swimmers; only escort kayakers or paddlers through the Point Vicente State Marine Conservation Area and the Abalone Cove State Marine Conservation Area, both governed by the State of California Department of Fish and Wildlife. Volunteers fulfill the role of observers at the start and along with the 21 vista points (see here) viewing the swimmers from up on the sea cliffs.
Note 2: this swim presents an ideal preparation and training for Catalina Channel crossings. With the abundant marine life, kelp forests, upwellings, currents, unpredictable eddies, wind patterns, fog, marine layer, ocean swells, and surface water turbulence can all be replicated in a channel crossing.
Documentary on the Palos Verdes Peninsula Swim is coming soon.
Photos courtesy of Ryland Sutton and Quinn Fitzgerald.
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