Twenty Six Miles of Madness

    785

    By Allen Young

    6:30 a.m. A blue spotlight from the Santa Cruz Harbor lighthouse shined out across the calm morning waters of Monterey Bay on Saturday, Sept. 30. UC Santa Cruz upperclassmen Jason Huggett and Jason Martin stood together on Seabright Beach wearing nothing but small Speedos, swim caps, and glow sticks, as they stared out at the dark ocean, awaiting the call. In 10 minutes they would be summoned by the six kayakers assembling a quarter mile offshore, and would dash into the water and begin swimming. For Huggett and Martin, along with 16 other members of the UCSC swim team, Monterey Bay would be home for the next nine and a half hours.
    "Let’s Go Jason."
    As the Jasons began the mad sprint into the crashing waves, they didn’t know if they would encounter sharks, jellyfish, or other predatory creatures of the deep. But they did know it was going to be cold. Stingingly cold. Water temperatures of Monterey Bay generally range from high 40s to low 50s-enough to cause full exterior numbing in people stubborn enough to refuse a wetsuit. The UCSC swim team takes pride in completing the 26-mile swim wearing only small competition suits. And once the relay is well under way – and the coach is out of sight – half the team sheds the Speedos, and it’s a naked race from Santa Cruz harbor to MacAbee Beach in Monterey.
    "The first swim was a little rough," Huggett said. "There were some pretty big waves, and after doing a couple somersaults I got a big gulp of seawater, and I remembered how bad seawater tastes. I’m like, ‘cool, I’m off to a great start.’"This was the seventh annual Monterey Transbay Swim. Each year, in the first week of school, a sign-up sheet is passed around the UCSC swim team and the 12 most eligible members are picked for the event. The participants are divided into two teams of six swimmers. Each athlete swims a 20-minute leg, before tagging the next swimmer entering the ocean.
    The Monterey Bay swim is a team fundraiser that trickles in $6000-$7000 from parents, alumni, and others impressed by the feat, but it takes an ample amount of money and meticulous planning on its own. This year, UCSC donated two boats: the Office of Physical Education, Recreation and Sports (OPERS) boat, and the Long Marine Lab Research Vessel, as well as six kayaks. Three kayakers stay in close proximity of each swimmer at all times in order to keep them on course, spot for sharks and jellyfish, and shout out the amount of time they have left.
    "Five minutes, Jason. Five!"
    As Huggett lifted his head for a breath, he was met with five outstretched fingers from his right kayaker, Coach Kim Musch. Huggett’s eyes widened behind his clear goggles and he gave a slight head nod.
    "I saw [Musch] looking at his watch every couple minutes," Huggett said. "I kept wondering if it was time to get out. You have no time reference out there. You don’t know if you have one minute left or 10."
    The sun split through the fog around 8 a.m. The OPERS boat was filled with lighthearted chatter and sparse cheering as it gently pushed back and forth through the ocean. The water had shifted from a murky brown to a deep blue. But it was still cold.
    "I still can’t feel my toes," said sophomore Lizzy Seelos, several minutes after finishing her first swim. Ordinarily the high demand for a coveted spot on the relay prohibits sophomores from swimming in the event, but a last minute drop-out gave Seelos a spot in the pack.
    As the third hour approached, the general sentiment was that the second leg was more bearable than the first: a fast, brisk, almost enjoyable swim.
    "The water was cold, but compared to years before, it was definitely warmer," said Hitomi Aihara, a senior on the Research Vessel.
    Back on the OPERS boat, the group had been reduced to performing ’90s Disney and boy-band karaoke. There was no escaping it; every two minutes Jason Huggett would shout "Everay Bod-Ay" and the whole crew would be hooked in: "Yeeeaaah Yeah…"
    "Rock Yo’ Bod-Ay!"
    A nerve-mangling fallacy of the UCSC swim team is that they are also a group of talented singers. The distribution of alcohol at a party is a sure-fire passport into this wretched discovery, but it is not needed. Any long car ride, swim meet, or Transbay swim inevitably leads to singing, and Disney show tunes, 80’s arena rock, and boy-band late 90’s hits have become the contemporary team soundtrack. While select swimmers can actually keep a harmony, they are invariably drowned out by a rousing chorus of flat, belligerent, wannabe-sopranos.
    "Back Streets Bayak, Alright!"
    Around 10:30 a.m., the Research Vessel had lost a visual on Kim Musch and the OPERS boat, so they decided to remove their clothes. For Aihara, there is a unique convenience to nude ocean swimming.
    "It’s way better because when you get out, you don’t have to worry about [changing out of] a wet suit," said Aihara. "You just put your clothes on and that’s it."
    There was no singing or nudity during the 2004 Transbay Relay, however, the year this author swam the event. The sun never rose that day, and as the cold fog set in around the bay, poisonous jellyfish ascended to the surface in groups of threes and fives. From behind a pair of goggles, jellyfish look like pulsating basketballs, but can be twice as large, and when the red spaghetti-like tentacles touch you, the sting feels like a string of razors sliding across the skin.
    Several people were stung that year. Just like bee stings, a jellyfish sting affects everyone differently. My sting arrived on my third swim, and scraped across my inner arm. By the time I made it back on the boat, my armpit had swelled and curdled up-looked a bit like I had stuffed cottage cheese under my skin.
    Fortunately, every year Coach Kim Musch packs a liter of vinegar on each boat, "just in case." Vinegar subsides the pain and swelling immediately, and is more comforting than urine, the alternate neutralizing agent. If a swimmer is stung, the group readies the vinegar and tries not to make it seem like a big deal. Perhaps this ritual plays into the inevitable team bonding that Coach Musch always refers to when the press asks why he subjects his swimmers to the bay swim. Throughout the day, no matter the conditions, the team has to be constantly looking out for one another: offering up their towels, parkas and energy bars. And if a swimmer catches a dreaded sting, another teammate waits on deck with a cup of vinegar, so no one is left writhing around the boat deck with a blistering wound, begging for someone to piss on it.
    Staring out on the silky bay, those searing past memories of unforgiving jellyfish seemed like a distant bad dream. Having felt that I fulfilled my tenure as a bay swimmer (and wanting a cushiony final year on the swim team), this year I opted to kayak. My day was spent meditatively staring out across the placid ocean. By 2 p.m., the sun was out, and the water was calm and glassy-no waves, no jellyfish, and no worries. As the sun beat down on the boat, the overhead chitchat slowed down. The team lucked out: these were the best weather conditions in UCSC bay swim history. MacAbee Beach was in sight. It appeared that the relay would be wrapping up in the next couple hours.
    As Sara Cartwright stepped up to her final swim, she curled her toes over the side of the boat and screamed, "This one is for Ian Carney" before catapulting herself into the water.
    In 2005, the annual Monterey Bay Swim became the Ian W. Carney Memorial Swim, named after a teammate who passed away in December 2004. Ian Carney died in a sudden hiking accident while glissading down Mt. Tallac in Tahoe. He would have graduated last year.
    Sara Cartwright and several other current juniors and seniors swam alongside Carney in the bay swim two years ago. Although she didn’t utter his name until the last leg of her final bay swim, Cartwright had been thinking about Ian Carney throughout the entire day.
    "The bay swim embodies who Ian was: the kind of person who was kind of crazy, who would do anything and make it fun," Cartwright said. "Even swimming in the ocean, he would have a smile on his face. He’d make everyone excited about it too, even when people were freezing, unable to get warm, totally miserable. The bay swim embodies Ian’s ideas on life; to live to the fullest."
    Carney loved the bay swim, and would have been the only swimmer to do it all four years of college. (Back then, with the team sizably smaller, underclassmen were allowed to swim in the event). The tragedy of his death was intensely felt by all the UC swimmers, yet these days his name seldom comes up within the larger social circle of the team. Sophomores and freshman know little about Carney, except his motto, an epitaph that made the 2005 team t-shirt: "No Fears. No Limits. No Regrets."
    When the OPERS boat approached the last five hundred yards to the beach, the entire group plunged off the boat in a ritualistic final swim. They were greeted at the shore by a handful of current and former team members, and met with applause, high fives, towels, hugs, and a warm car ride home.
    "This woman in Monterey asked me how far we had swam, and I told her ‘from Santa Cruz,’" said Coach Musch. "And she said, ‘that’s great, but where did you start from today?’ And I repeated, ‘from Santa Cruz, we started at 6:30 in the morning.’ She smiled, but I think she still didn’t believe me."
    After participating in the event all four years of college, Hitomi Aihara has adopted a unique perspective on the exhausting ordeal.
    "I think it’s just the fact that we have this opportunity to swim to Monterey. I guess you can’t really think about it, because then it’s really stupid. Who would do that? It’s for the excitement, the feeling afterwards. You think, ‘ah, that was really an accomplishment.’"
    No fears. No limits. No regrets.