A 13 hour, 28 mile swim across the Monterey Bay

By Leonie Sherman

Patti swimming the Bay.

Thousands of tourists flock to the Monterey Bay to sail, surf, and explore. Patti Bauerfiend comes to swim.

“I think some people stand at the bottom of a cliff and wonder if it can be climbed,” Patti told me. “The first time I stood on the shore in Santa Cruz and looked across at the Monterey peninsula, I just wondered if I could swim to the other side.”

She tried three times before proving she could. At 4 AM on August 18, 2014, she slipped into the waves and left the glittering lights  of Santa Cruz behind. Thirteen hours later her feet touched sand in Monterey and she became the second person to cross the Bay ”English Channel style,” swimming with only a bathing suit and goggles.

It’s 25 miles across the Monterey Bay, but Patti actually swam 28 due to winds carrying her slightly off course. “Time-wise, this was the longest swim of my life,” Patti explains. “Distance-wise the swim around Manhattan Island was slightly farther.”

Patti began swimming competitively at the age of five through a YMCA swim team in her hometown of Jacksonville, Florida. In college she began competing in triathlons, which sparked her interest in open water.

Smiling after a good swim (Kate Webber).

Smiling after a good swim (Kate Webber).

“Open water swimming is a lot like mountain climbing,” Patti explains. “We get to know water the way climbers get to know different kinds of rock. The physical challenge is so dynamic; you can never repeat the same swim. It’s a creative process and you have to adapt and work with what you’ve got.”

When she moved to California she traded in running shoes and road bikes for a swimsuit and goggles. “There are so many great places to swim out here,” Patti gushes. “The San Francisco Bay has great landmarks so navigation is easy, but the tides are super challenging. The Monterey Bay is protected so it’s all about the
wildlife. Lake Tahoe is fresh water so it’s less buoyant and you have to swim at night to avoid the afternoon winds, so it feels like swimming through stars.”

Among the buffet of open water challenges in California, swimming across the Monterey Bay stood out, partly because only one other person had ever done it. Only a few months after Patti completed her swim another woman successfully crossed as well.

“Swimming the Monterey Bay is sort of the ultimate exercise in problem-solving,” Patti admits with a sigh. “You need a boat, you need a crew of reliable people, you need to gather data from NOAA about tides and winds, you need to figure out how to ingest enough calories without touching the boat… in some ways it’s really a logistical challenge.”

Kayak support crew feeding Patti during her swim.

Kayak support crew feeding Patti during her swim.

But no single person can tackle that challenge alone. “It takes a village for one person to swim across the bay,” Patti explained. “I was humbled and honored by how many people were willing to support me. One guy swam with me for five hours. He got stung by jellyfish so many times he was practically immobilized by the toxins.”

Not surprising, since jellyfish terminated Patti’s first two attempts to swim across the Bay. “Pacific Nettles are so ethereal and otherworldly beautiful in the aquarium,” Patti says with a shudder. “But swimming through them is like running through a swarm of bees… in your underwear.”

After repeated exposures, Patti has developed a severe allergic reaction to jellyfish. “My throat swells up and I can go into anaphylactic shock,” Patti explains. “My crew needs to carry an epipen.”

Just another problem to be solved. “Some people suggested I swim with nets in front of me to sweep jellyfish out of the way,” Patti said. “But I don’t want to harm them, I’m in their environment.”

Fortunately for Patti, a scientist in Israel designed a jellyfish repellent that prevents the creatures from releasing their toxins.  “He sent me the stuff for free and I’ve never even met the guy,” Patti explained. “I mix it up with lanolin and Desitin to make a sticky stinky white paste and cover myself head to toe in the stuff…” She pauses. “Yeah open water swimming in the Monterey Bay is a really sexy sport.”

Swimming for thirteen hours across the Bay is also an incredibly repetitive sport. “A lot of the challenge is mental, it’s definitely a form of meditation,” Patti says. “You have to keep your mind occupied and guard vigilantly against negative thoughts. I make lists of things to think about while I’m swimming.”

2013 Monterey Bay swells.

2013 Monterey Bay swells.

So as she is hauling herself through frigid water past jellyfish and sharks, she lists things she’s grateful for, birthday gifts she has received and alphabetical synonyms for the male member. To combat hypothermia she visualizes warm things, like a log on a fire. And she thinks about the children.

Her swim didn’t just raise the bar in open water swimming, it raised four thousand dollars for Afghan refugees. “I tutor these kids one or two nights a week,” Patti told me. “Really I did the swim for them. The money I raise allows these kids to build new lives here.”

And when things got hard on her swim, the kids are there to hep her out. “In my darkest moments, when I am struggling the most, I remember that no amount of jellyfish or cold or wind can compare to the suffering these kids have been through. Thinking about them is ultimately what fuels me and allows me to push through the pain and hardship.”

2014 Monterey Bay Sunrise.

2014 Monterey Bay Sunrise.

To learn more about Patti and her work with Trust in Education (TIE) visit her at ikeepswimming.com.