What it takes to swim across the Santa Barbara Channel

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(Jonas Jungblut)

After training for seven months, 31-year-old Rachel Horn from Ventura will begin her swim across the Santa Barbara Channel on Saturday.

No wet suit. No breaks. No physical support.

Horn plans to swim 12.4 miles from Anacapa Island to Oxnard in an effort to raise money and awareness for the Special Olympics in Santa Barbara County.

You can track her swim on Saturday here.

KCRW’s Larry Perel visited Butterfly Beach in Montecito, where Horn was training for Saturday’s swim.

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(Kathryn Barnes/KCRW)


KCRW: What kind of training have you had to do to get ready for this swim?

Horn: I’ve been training for seven months now. I started getting into the water earlier in the year when the water temps were even colder than they are now. So, a lot of forced cold water swimming without a wet suit, training in the pool, and physical therapy work. A lot of this sport is getting used to the cold water and being cold. So, I force myself to be cold. After you expose yourself over and over again you just stop shaking eventually.

Can you feel the difference between a degree or two?

Yes, it feels like your chest is cracking like an ice cube in a hot beverage! But, eventually you adjust and don’t feel it anymore.

Some long distance swimmers swim in cages to protect them from sharks. I hate to bring this up, but do you have any nerves about what animals are out there in the Channel?

Yes. Anyone that doesn’t say that is kidding themselves. I definitely have that fear and concern, but that’s part of the beauty of the sport. You’re in the water with other animals and that’s their natural habitat. There’s always that possibility, but people do this sport out here all the time and there hasn’t been an incident.

All the regulations you must abide by (no wet suit, no physical help from bystanders, no touching boats or kayaks) are made by the Santa Barbara Channel Swimming Association. Why do you need to ask for the club’s permission and abide by its rules in order to do this swim?

This is a relatively dangerous sport. The SBCSA exists to make sure people don’t jump in the water and think they can swim across this. It takes months of training. You have to know what you’re getting yourself into. It’s becoming a more popular sport, and it’s great we have the SBCSA.

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(Larry Perel/KCRW)

The swim will likely take you between 6 to 9 hours. How will you sustain yourself during the swim? 

It’s been trial and error to figure out what works best. What I’ve decided on is water mixed with a carbohydrate power, and a little bit of apple juice. If I get hungry, I’ve been practicing with mashed potatoes in a plastic bag. And then diced peaches, if I need something sweet that I can smoosh easily in my mouth. It’s hard to chew because your jaw gets cold, so you need something you can wash right down.

I have a team on a boat that will be throwing the food to me on a rope. It’ll be like feeding a seal. I’m the seal.

How do you stay focused during the swim?

I teach yoga in Santa Barbara, so I practice mantras. The main one I focus on is “Warm, Calm Strong.” Those are the three things that I can’t really control, but I can mentally decide to be warm, calm and strong no matter what’s happening around me. I also use, “Hot buttery biscuits,” if I’m cold. Then I go to the French Press coffee shop and get a hot buttery biscuit after my swim!

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Horn has trained for several years without using a wet suit, to get her body used to cold water year round. The water will likely range between 60 and 68 degrees Fahrenheit during Saturday’s swim. (Kathryn Barnes/KCRW)

You’ve been swimming since you were a kid, and you’ve been involved in the Special Olympics since high school. Why do this swim now?

I recently started swimming long distance in Santa Barbara through Semana Nautica. I did the 3 mile, the 6 mile and then I wanted to do something longer. I signed up to do this channel crossing, and as part of that I wanted to support the Special Olympics.

What makes the Special Olympics special in Santa Barbara and Ventura?

There are Special Olympics programs everywhere, and I think a lot of people don’t know that they’re here in town, too. We have a great community here in a lot of different sports, and a lot of local companies support them. They have events almost every weekend that you can go out to and support and volunteer at. I fortunately found out about it when I was in high school when I was a swim coach for them.