Byline: Shane Scott
On Sept. 21, reaching his numb arms across the icy water, Julian Rusinek, age 52, could see nothing but blue in either direction. He couldn’t feel his fingers or his frozen face.
His throat had swollen from the saltwater. The only thing keeping his mind off the cold was a sweet little country song he sang in his head as he continued his trek toward becoming the first man to cross the San Miguel Channel from San Miguel Island to Santa Rosa Island.
Rusinek, a finance director and avid open water swimmer who has swam competitively since the age of 6, is no stranger to cold water. On any given night, at 6 pm on the dot, you can catch him paddling along the coast near Oak Street in Laguna Beach.
There, Rusinek and his aquatic athlete companions freestyle straight through to the Main Beach buoy.
“I swim year-round,” he said. “Swimming in February at 6 a.m. when the light’s coming up at Shaw’s Cove, it’ll typically be 55 degrees.”
Nor is Rusinek a stranger from swimming lengthy routes, having completed a relay race across the Catalina Channel with a team of five other swimmers — all over the age of 50 — that earned his team the a place in the top 20 fastest relay swims in history. The man is a strong roughwater swimmer — stronger than most.
Two years ago, while Rusinek paddled a lap in the Pacific with swimming partner Scott Zorning, president of the Santa Barbara Channel Swimming Association, his companion pointed something out. “Pretty much all the channels have been swum by one person or another” — except for the San Miguel Channel,” he said.
“It’s known for its rough seas, fast-moving currents, violent winds and an abundance of sharks,” Rusinek said. But more than anything, the water is very cold.
“I think that’s why a lot of swimmers have turned away from it,” he explained. “Scott knew I was strong enough to handle it.” With that, the two began planning, and Rusinek started training.
The San Miguel Channel, spanning from Santa Miguel Island to Santa Rosa Island, is about 3.6 miles long, and consistently 58 degrees Fahrenheit. In order to officially complete the swim, under Channel Federation rules, Rusinek would need to finish the crossing wearing only his goggles, silicone swim cap and zebra striped trunks, which he had custom patterned after reading the findings of recent study on shark attacks.
Scientists “put certain wetsuits on dummies,” Rusinek explained. “The sharks liked red, black, blue … (but they) didn’t like zebra stripes. So, I had my jammers made to look like that. I didn’t get bit. Either it worked or I just didn’t encounter any (sharks).” Swimming about 1.5 miles a day at 2 mph, Rusinek is usually in and out of the water in 45 minutes. He had never faced temperatures like he would at the San Miguel Channel, for two hours straight. So, breaking away from his normal swimming routine, Rusinek would train for the long haul, moving through the water as far as he could before getting fatigued.
“We try to push ourselves and go as far as we can without feedings,” he said. Feedings, which generally consist of liquid combinations of carbohydrates and protein, are consumed in 30-minute intervals.
“Most are powdered, containing electrolytes,” he said. “I don’t know how many calories are in the damn thing. but it sure tastes like chalk.”
He doesn’t know how many calories his feedings have, but he knows there are a lot — and that is exactly what Rusinek would need to fuel himself for his journey from San Miguel to Santa Rosa Island.
The feat began at 7 a.m., off the back of a fishing boat. This vessel, Thumper, would act as his escort boat, keeping him on track with its GPS navigation.
Rusinek went for the next 30 minutes, counting his strokes. Whenever he felt off course, he looked to his left to find Thumper. Whenever he looked to his right he saw Allison Bayne, an EMT paddling along next to him in her seafoam green kayak. Should they run into trouble, aka sharks, Bayne planned to scare them off by whacking them with her paddle, Rusinek explained.
“When I told her that was her job, she didn’t want to do it. She was more scared to be in the kayak than I was to swim,” he said.
Rusinek, who as a diver has seen his fair share of sharks, is still afraid to encounter one. “Whenever I saw a sea lion, I thought hopefully there’s not a shark chasing it. It’s always on the back of your mind,” he said.
While the swimmer managed to steer clear of predators, he did run into a krill bloom. “I was worried I’d run into a whale rising to eat them and get eaten like Jonah from the Bible,” he said.
Paddling through the blue abyss, about halfway through, the current picked up, forcing Rusinek to swim even harder. After about 40 minutes, he looked up. It felt as though he hadn’t moved at all. All he could do was try to keep his mind off of the cold and the fear of sharks, as he struggled forward with each stroke.
His head ached; the smoke from Thumper’s diesel exhaust had taken its toll on his lungs. Surrounded by water, with nothing around him for miles, Rusinek felt more like he was in outer space than the Pacific Ocean.
“I’m not going to make it,” he thought to himself.
“I thought about throwing in the towel,” Rusinek recalled. “But then I thought about the time it took to get here, my family and crew and how I didn’t want to disappoint them.” So, he swam on.
He heard a bullhorn — signaling feeding time.
Rob Dumouchel, Rusinek’s feeder, walked to the aft deck and tossed a small plastic sports bottle into the water, with a string tied around its cap. Rusinek swam up and grabbed it, rolled onto his stomach and chugged.
Taking any longer than the 20 seconds he used to down the fluid could mean an onset of hypothermia.
He made sure to stay clear of the boat. Had it even looked like he grazed the vessel, Zorning, his observer, would have disqualified the attempt to swim the channel.
The swimmer pushed on, pulling himself through what felt like a series of wet bed sheets — a forest of kelp paddies. “You don’t even want to think about what’s stuck in there,” Rusinek said, recalling times when he’s swum through decaying sea lions, stuck in the tangles of seaweed.
As he neared Santa Rosa Island, the swimmer had one more challenge: a beach full of elephant seals.
“We figured it’d be a bad idea for me to walk onto the beach and greet them, so I had to swim around to the other side.” While the route from end to end should have been 3.6 miles, it took Rusinek an extra 1.4 to get around the unforeseen obstacles — taking him to the far side, edged by cliffs. He swam up touched the rock wall and escaped, just before a six foot wave could crash into him. Time.
Rusinek swam the San Miguel Channel in 2 hours, 25 minutes and 55 seconds.
“I was miserable. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” Rusinek said.
Rusinek wearily boarded Thumper, and his crew headed back to the mainland. As they cruised, they saw a pod of blue whales suddenly rise out of the water. One of the giants raised a fin out of the water, and then slapped it against the surface.
“It felt like they were saying ‘congratulations,’” he said.