Beach sports – Swimming with jellies
by Scott Tapley
With encouragement from a Junior Lifeguard instructor and a fellow JG whom she married, Amy Gubser has completed over a dozen marathon swims in just two years
September 22, 2017 8:19 PM, Santa Cruz, CA : It’s a quiet night. The beaches are empty and the ocean is calm. The sky is clear and the air feels cold on bare skin, reminding us it’s the first day of fall. Amy Appelhans Gubser, 49, stands beside a rock jetty, near the Santa Cruz boardwalk, wearing a swimsuit, cap and goggles. She takes a deep breath and wades into the chilly Monterey Bay and starts swimming.
The Monterey Bay, between Santa Cruz and Pacific Grove, is 25 miles wide, nearly five miles wider than the English and Catalina channels. The Bay plunges to a depth of 2,600 feet and the water temperature hovers around 55 degrees. Afternoons are windy so swims are attempted at night. There are more than 1,000 species of jellies in Monterey Bay. Of these, the biggest threat to swimmers is the Pacific Sea Nettle. Their 24 tentacles grow to 15 feet in length and they reproduce quickly into massive armies, over a mile wide.
There had been just 11 previous attempts and only three recognized, successful attempts to swim across the Monterey Bay. The first successful attempt was in 1980, by Los Angeles County Lifeguard Cindy Cleveland, of Palos Verdes. Cleveland finished the swim in 15 hours, 20 minutes. The second successful Monterey Bay swim wasn’t until 2014, when Patti Bauernfeind, of Dublin, completed the swim on her fourth attempt in exactly 13 hours. She was followed that same year by Kim Rutherford of Capitola, who finished in 22 hours 6 minutes. Only one man has swum across the Monterey Bay and he did it in a wetsuit.
Monterey Bay Swimming Association rules, like those governing Catalina and English Channel swims, prohibit wetsuits. Swimmers must depart from land and finish on land under their own power, wearing only a swimsuit, a single swim cap and goggles.
A promising Junior Lifeguard
Amy Appelhans moved with her family to Playa Del Rey from Illinois in 1978, when she was 10. Her mother, a swimmer in her youth in Wheaton Illinois, encouraged her daughter to swim at the Westchester YMCA. But Amy preferred bicycling to Toes Beach, where longtime Toes lifeguard Mike Maurry introduced her to surfing and convinced her to join Junior Lifeguards. That year, she tried out as a swimmer for the local JG team that was going to the Nationals Championships. After the swim, the 10 year-old asked if she had made the team. You won the race, her JG instructor told her.
In 1981, her family moved to Palos Verdes, where she swam for Peninsula Aquatics, the San Pedro/Peninsula YMCA and Rolling Hills High School. “Our high school team had only five swimmers and one diver. But we all advanced to the finals and our team placed second in CIF,” Gubser said.
Ten years after qualifying for the Junior Lifeguard Nationals team, she qualified to become a Los Angeles County Lifeguard. Her first Lifeguard boss was legendary ocean swimmer Cindy Cleveland. In 1976, Cleveland swam the Catalina Channel, from the island to the mainland. The following year, she swam from the mainland to Catalina and back to the mainland. Two years later, one month prior to her precedent setting Monterey Bay Swim, Cleveland circumnavigated Catalina Island, swimming non stop for 34 hours, 24 minutes, a distance of 46.4 miles.
“Cindy would workout for hours on her days off. I was in awe of her discipline, both mental and physical. She was always encouraging me to swim events like the International Surf Festival Pier to Pier Swim and the La Jolla 10 Mile Swim,” Gubser said.
One day, while lifeguarding at Hermosa Beach, Gubser rescued a young boy with assistance from a fellow lifeguard named Greg Gubser, whom she remembered from her first year in Junior Lifeguards. While lifeguarding a few days later, she saw a paddler coming ashore in her swim area. “I ran down to scold him and was surprised to see it was Greg. He had been fishing and caught a huge halibut. He invited me to dinner. That was our first date and two years later we were married.”
In 1993, one year after the couple married, Greg joined the U.S Coast Guard and they moved to the San Francisco area, where he was stationed. Eventually, they settled in Pacifica, a small beach town just south of San Francico. The area had no Junior Lifeguard program, so Amy and Greg started Surf Camp Pacifica. Amy also worked in a Pediatric Intensive Care Unit as a neonatal nurse.
Work and raising children Justin and Holly left little time for swimming. But in 2014, with her kids having finished high school, Gubser accepted a friend’s challenge to swim in the San Francisco Bay. It was in February and it had been nearly two decades since she had swum competitively.
“I tried every excuse to get out of it,” she recalled. “And when I jumped in I lost my breath. I cried and had a panic attack. Finally, I relaxed. Every cell in my body suddenly felt alive. I loved it.”
She began swimming year-round in the San Francisco Bay in preparation for marathon swims.
In April 2015, she swam the 10-mile-wide Strait of Gibraltar, from Spain to Morocco. Four months later, in July, she swam the 21.3 mile length of icy Lake Tahoe. And a month after that, she and five fellow members of the Nadadores Locos completed a 59.4 mile, relay swim from the Golden Gate Bridge to the shark infested Farallon Islands and back.
Then in 2016, Gubser swam the Catalina Channel. She finished in just under 15 hours, well off her regular pace. After reaching shore she was rushed to the hospital. She had spent the last six miles struggling to breath because of an anaphylactic reaction to an algae bloom in the water.
“I only finished because I didn’t want to have to do it again. A finish is a finish,” she said afterwards.
The adverse reaction aside, Gubser felt she hadn’t trained hard enough for the channel swim. So in preparation for the even longer and colder Monterey Bay swim she embarked on what she calls “no recovery training.” Each morning in the dark, she began a three hour workout in the San Francisco Bay, where water temperatures range from 48 to 60 degrees. Then she worked her 12 hour nursing shift.
“If you can’t find the time you make it,” she said. In the six months prior to her Monterey Bay swim, she made time to swim across four Arizona lakes in four days, and swim across the Santa Barbara Channel, from Santa Barbara to Anacapa Island.
When fall approached, the 49-year-old said, she felt like she was in the best shape of her life.
September 22, 2017 8:24 PM, Santa Cruz: A sliver of moon slips behind the mountains, revealing a thick blanket of stars. Gubser’s team waits offshore in two small boats and a kayak. Her husband Greg, retired from the Coast Guard and now the Deputy Harbormaster for San Mateo Harbor, was driving one of the two escort boats.
The team sees the waterproof light on the back of her goggles as she enters the water. To monitor her pace, they listens to the rhythm of her hands. Slap, slap, slap. 70 strokes per minute. The bright lights of the Santa Cruz Boardwalk fade slowly into the background. Gubser stops every 30 minutes for liquid carbohydrates and the occasional sports gel. At every stop, she shares a smile and a joke or a silly song. It’s not long before she reports her first jellyfish sting. The water temperature is 54. The night air is two degrees colder and she is swimming against the current. The crew is bundled in heavy coats and hats, but Gubser appears unaffected by the elements. When dawn arrives, the crew sees what Gubser has been swimming through most of the night. Pacific Sea Nettles are just below the surface, in every direction. As she nears the Monterey Peninsula the wind picks up, the current threatens to push her off course, and every stroke is paid for with another sting. Finally, she reaches the protected cove outside Monterey Harbor and works her way through clumps of kelp until her feet can touch the bottom. Seventeen hours, 49 minutes after leaving Santa Cruz she becomes only the fourth person to have swum solo across the Monterey Bay. Family, friends and beachgoers all cheer as she walks ashore, unassisted.
“I felt amazing, physically and emotionally. It was a big swim,” she said.
On June 7, her 50th birthday, Gubser plans to return to the South Bay to swim across the Santa Monica Bay. To date, only two people have completed the 26 mile swim. On March 16, 2013 marathon swimmers Jen Shumaker and Forrest Nelson departed together from Point Dume in Malibu and finished together at Lunada Bay in Palos Verdes in 13 hours, 10 minutes, 35 seconds.
For more information about Amy Gubser’s Monterey Bay swim, visit SwimMontereyBay.org.
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