Paul Lundgren’s first experience with the Sea of Cortez

Humpback whale, Baja California Sur, photo by Peter West Carey

Humpback whale, Baja California Sur, photo by Peter West Carey

In one week (June 3rd), the six swimmer team formed by Swim4Good and Night Train Swimmers will start near La Paz (Baja California, Mexico), in a continuous relay swim across the Sea of Cortez, a distance of approximately 163 km. If we succeed, we will be the first to cross this body of water. The objective of our swim is to raise $100.000 for Worldreader. We thank you for any contribution you can make towards this goal. Donate here please: http://www.sueno88.com

Few swimmers in the world know the Sea of Cortez better than Paul Lundgren.   A few months ago, I came across Paul’s account of his six person relay swim attempt in 2010 to cross the Sea of Cortez.  I found it particularly revealing and helpful for my mental and physical preparation to face this challenge.  Here is an edited and reduced version of his article.  I have also used the fake names of “John” and “Jane” in order to keep the real identities of the two swimmers confidential.

Ultramarathon swimming takes a blend of insanity with intense focus. It is a game where the mind and body try to move in harmony with the unpredictable rhythm of the wilderness. The rewards are as intense as the effort it takes to find them. Since discovering this strange bond I have made with water I have undertaken almost every extreme swimming adventure I could find. I have raced competitively around the world, completed a twenty-mile ocean swim at night, navigated bone crushing river rapids, swum the length of the Salmon River escorted by fingerling salmon, threaded my way through schools of sharks and been tossed over waterfalls.

But when Vito Bialla called me to meet for a beer, a chill flowed across the surface of my skin. Vito controls a special kind of insanity and is a legend among his ultra-sports peers. After fighting in Vietnam, building an empire in executive head-hunting, a successful vineyard in Napa Valley, Vito dedicated himself to undertaking the supreme challenges in extreme distance sports. He has raced the Ultraman multiple times and survived the mind-altering Badwater Ultramarathon. We have been close friends for over sixteen years, when he called for a beer I knew it wouldn’t be casual.

I was right. “So, you want to swim across the Sea of Cortez?” He asked. I finished my first beer and ordered another. He went on in detail. “You know we didn’t make it last year on the first try. To this day there has never been a successful crossing. I have recruited a world-class team and need one more swimmer. You will swim with me, three female Ultramarathon swimmers from Mexico, and a past Div I NCAA swimmer who now swims with the Stanford masters.”

It only took three beers for me to agree to join the team. 

Diving into a wild body of water is as intimate a meeting as any I have ever shared. I am attracted to experiences like swimming the Salmon River, crossing the Catalina Channel or the Sea of Cortez by the mystery of their nature. I want to meet in person the monsters those waters nurture so they can play with the ones in my mind. Something about the Sea of Cortez told me it was a meeting I didn’t want to miss. 

As the departure date for Mexico drew near, like most athletes anticipating the results of competition, I took a deep look at the truth of my preparation. In endurance sports, true confidence is something I value greater than fitness. I was only slightly confident my fitness was enough to endure, but had faith that my experience and spirit would take care of the rest. At least that’s what I told myself.

For us to complete the swim following English Channel rules, we would each be swimming one hour legs of a continuous relay until finished. To cross the Sea of Cortez, we estimated that we would be swimming potentially three days. A major question I had to ask myself was how my body, in its current state of fitness, could handle the regime. I planned to manage the problem with a technique I call “soft swims,” where I would apply as little pressure as possible against the water and move forward efficiently. As a member of a six-person team I had the responsibility to pull my load and do it well. To succeed I would need to engage the discipline of “course management.” Course management is regulating the use of energy with an eye on the total distance and its potential surprises. For these swims, course management would be my lifeline and experience would be my salvation or so I hoped.

As for our swim, well, we didn’t make it. I met that body of water that is the Sea of Cortez and I learned. There is nothing in her nature that reflects the name of a conquistador like Cortez, nobody can conquer her, and there is nothing for her to conquer. As much as I was curious about her she was equally curious about us and our nature. I think our ambitions amused her. And ambitious we were.

Our team was the brainchild of Vito. He had tried the swim the year before. His team stopped the first night when stormy seas caused the boat to lose sight of the swimmer in the water. He was the one in the water when his teammates chose to call off the mission. The five other members unanimously agreed to cut the swim. Clearly this didn’t sit well with Vito.

When we first arrived in La Paz, Mexico to our surprise our host rushed to a press conference. A room full of reporters and cameras awaited our appearance and a few words from the U.S. team leader Vito followed by a few speeches from our Mexican Teammates. The buzz leading to the start felt crazy and exciting.

It was Saturday afternoon, the twenty-second of May, when we settled in at our host sponsor’s resort, The Gran Sueño, found on the Bay of Dreams just east of La Paz. A lake-like Gulf greeted us. In the few days before our launch, we swam in this body of water which housed coral reefs and was rich with sea life. She was warm and welcoming, her water glassy and flat. Swimming just offshore felt like swimming in a giant aquarium. Someone even spotted a six-foot shark, but wisely chose to share the news sparingly.

There were no questions in anyone’s mind about the abilities of our teammates—Vito made it clear he was returning to get the job done. Our handpicked team included six swimmers—three Americans and three Mexicans. Vito and I were the only men. Our four female teammates, all accomplished athletes, were impressive to say the least. Nora Toledano served as the Mexican team captain. Her open water swimming experience gave us much confidence in her ability and heart. She has crossed the English Channel eleven times- one double-crossing, five solo crossings and five relay crossings. She has swum the 43.8 miles from Cozumel to Cancun in Mexico. There was no doubt that she was a strong asset to our team. Edna LLorens and Monica Ramirez had similar credentials and experiences. Christina Gonzales, our third American team member, was an NCAA Division I swimmer. All the team members shared a passion for open water swimming and had the backgrounds to express it.

On the beach just before sunrise on the day of the swim a reporter asked if I had any fears. I said: “I do I fear what lives below.” The reporter replied, “Don’t worry. The whole country is watching and praying for you.”

Out of respect for her star status in Mexico, Vito selected Nora to do the first leg of the swim. At the start, the press followed her and our boat out to sea. For over fifteen minutes, they chanted her name, “Nora, Nora, Nora,” over and over again, before turning back to shore.

When Nora completed her hour, the press had gone and we were alone. The wind came and calm seas grew to 6-foot swells. My idea of recovery between swims was now impossible. The calm before we launched made me think I wouldn’t need anything for seasickness. I was wrong.

My first hour swim took what seemed like half a day. It was rough. I couldn’t find a rhythm. The waves broke my stroke and choked my breath. People on the boat used hand signals to tell us how far we were into our hour swims. I asked to know when thirty minutes had passed and when I had ten and five minutes to go. I thought a game of guessing the time to pass before signals would be fun. Again, I was wrong.

Like in life, marathon swimming has its peaks and sometimes dark valleys. Between my third and fourth swims, lying alone on a cot in the darkness of the captain’s quarters, I began to have doubts. My legs were cramping and I feared my body would fail and that I would break the chain of swims that would link us to the other side. The thought grew into panic, which led to the monsters swimming not far below my cot. I fought to find some light, but each new image was darker than the last.

Before I jumped into the water for my fourth swim I realized this adventure had shaken me to the core of my soul. In desperation I told myself, “The adventure begins here and now.” I dove in with my eyes open and looked deep into the depths of darkness for signs of life. The water was comfortably cool. With their distinct rhythmic sound, the waves became my thoughts. At night there is no need to close my eyes when my head is down; I do in the day, to avoid seeing the shadows moving below. I saw, or maybe I felt, the sea in the deep darkness around me; I heard her waves move through me. With her sound, her taste in my mouth, her smell, the coolness wrapped around my skin, I came to understand I was not and never would be alone.

The waves intensified with each stroke. They pounded against the bow of the boat and crashed over me as I swam. The sea, I realized, had awakened for our visit. In her way, she was showing her spirit and wild heart. In my way, I swam driving each stroke with all my force into the night. Again, no person could hear me when I cried and laughed. It is overwhelming to realize loneliness is forever gone. She helped me realize this was no place for a “soft swim.” I was seeing the glory of her spirit and her strength—I owed it to her to share mine.

I rose to the crest of a wave. I waited for its peak to breathe. I could see the light from the moon and the stars. Stars shine brighter at sea, where there are no city lights to still the night. My stroke felt strong. I was in my mind’s place where I enjoy going long. Before I noticed, the hour was gone.

Vito awoke me saying, “We have an emergency.  Jane was hit hard by a squid.” It was midday. I asked him to clarify, “Did you say squid?” “No, a jellyfish,” he said. “We need to have a meeting.”

A jellyfish stung Jane so bad that it had temporarily paralyzed her in the water. The sting looked like somebody had poured battery acid on her arm and chest. Dr. Dave pulled her from the swim with thirty minutes to go in her hour shift. Vito just finished his swim leg and had his swimsuit on. He jumped in the water and did a legal transition (English Channel Rules) passing her on the right while Dr. Dave pulled her out. Vito continued swimming the remaining portion of Jane’s leg.

We were down to five swimmers. When he got out of the water, on a satellite cell phone Vito called Stephen Munatones, the FINA official who had deputized Dr. Dave said, though our swim did not stop, we had officially broken the rules when Jane got out of the water, but that we should keep going forward with five swimmers. The event would still go down in the record books and the notes would show we had made the swim harder, not easier, with Jane out of the rotation.

I had completed my fifth swim, but it took a Snickers bar to do so. About fifteen minutes into the swim I felt seaweed sliding down my arm. I was wrong. It was jellyfish. It started to tingle, and the tingle became a startling sting. This was happening rapidly over and over. One sting felt as if I had live electrical wires pressed against my skin on the under side of my arm. I nearly jumped on top of the water. Suddenly, as if I had run into a wall, the jellyfish drained every ounce of my energy out of me. I doubted that I could continue. In a panic, I screamed for a Snicker’s bar – I had a stash in the fridge for such an emergency. Andy Lebuhn, one of our support crew, snatched one and threw it to me. I bit it in half and shoved the whole bar in my mouth and chewed while I swam. Famished, I choked the bar down as fast as I could. Vito yelled, “Relax, take your time, there is no hurry.” Within moments I felt rejuvenated. It didn’t take long for me to find my stroke. The jellyfish continued to sting me over the next five to ten minutes until the wind picked up and the water grew rough. As the waves grew larger, the jellyfish started to disappear. The rest of the hour passed quickly and before long I was back on the boat.

John  was swimming in the water while Vito and I were discussing our fate. He suggested we turn the boat around and swim with the wind and waves to make going forward easier.

We had swum 63.8 nautical miles and 75 was the world record. It shocked me to hear him say this because, in my mind, I didn’t care about the record; I came to cross the Sea. If we turned the boat around we would only swim to 75 miles and then the swim would stop. We would be farther from the other side and crossing would not be a choice, and I told him so. He said, “You sound frisky for somebody who just had a difficult swim.” I tasted the blood from my lips between my teeth as I waited to find my words.

Vito asked for Christine’s opinion and that’s when I knew I better start talking or this trip was going to make a drastic change in direction. I argued that we still needed to swim no matter what direction and if we turned now we would not have the choice to get to the other side. Christine agreed and recommended we take it one swim at a time. The rest of the women felt the same and Vito agreed. 

Don’t get me wrong—I understood where Vito was coming from. The idea of the swim originated with the first team and with only a world record in mind. He chose the Gulf of California as an ideal location. Crossing the Gulf was a second thought that would only add to the adventure. When I first heard of the swim, what stood out in my mind was going from one shore to the other. I never thought about the record until that moment when Vito posed the question. Later, Vito commented that under the circumstances he appreciated how I handled the argument. I recognize now we just had different ideas of what the swim meant to us personally.

Not thirty seconds after we agreed to go forward, awaiting John’s mutual consent, John, who was still in the water swimming, started screaming. Jellyfish had stung him in the face and neck. The pain was obvious. Within seconds he had jumped onto the back deck asking for vinegar to pour on his face. Dr. Dave handed him the vinegar bottle. He doused himself and immediately jumped back in the water to finish his hour.

My heart sank to the bottom of my stomach. I looked to the sea and felt my eyes begin to burn and water. I looked off the stern from the direction we had just swum. The horizon faded into a haze of smog floating over what would shortly become a calm sea. Unknown to John, he broke the chain the moment he touched the boat. We swam 63.8 nautical miles unassisted and when John touched the boat, he stopped the swim. We were 63.8 Kilometers from the shore.

The jellyfish had stung me repeatedly throughout the swim. There were moments when I thought I might pass out because of the pain. But not one of my stings produced the burns and marks that John and Jane received from their stings. I have no doubt in my mind their pain was unbearable and I have nothing but respect for John. He jumped back in the water not realizing that he had stopped the swim. He dove back in, ready to face the same jellyfish that struck enough pain in him to make him scream. I don’t know many people who would have done the same. I do know that no pain compares to that which he felt with the realization the swim had ended.



Categories: Sea of Cortez

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  1. Not this time | Swim4Good
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