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Master strokes from record-seeking swimmers

The 'Deep Six,' six Ventura County swimmers ages 40 to 59, are trying to break the world record for an open-water relay. In numbing cold, they're heading to La Jolla — without wetsuits.

September 18, 2010|By Steve Chawkins, Los Angeles Times

The fog, the frigid water, the jellyfish, a hot tub that suddenly went cold: Despite the countless terrors of the deep, six Ventura County swimmers are trying to break a world's record and reach La Jolla the long way, stroke by stroke.

The "Deep Six," as they call themselves, are members of the Ventura County Masters swim club. They're 40 to 59 years old, and since dawn Thursday, each has put in a grueling hour at a time in the Pacific Ocean before being hauled onto an accompanying 129-foot charter yacht.


FOR THE RECORD:
Relay swimmers: An article in the Sept. 18 LATExtra section about a group of Ventura County swimmers who are attempting to set an open-water distance relay record said that one of the swimmers did a flip-turn off a piling at Santa Barbara's Stearns Wharf. The swimmer, Dr. John Chung, swam past the wharf and turned in open water. Touching the piling —the group's original plan -- was rejected by the international body that governs long-distance swimming.

"They're into a groove, a routine, a mind-set," their land-based spokesman, Michael Newhouse, said Friday afternoon. "But no one said it was going to be easy."

The men had been at sea more than 33 hours by then. A thick fog Thursday night had set them off course by about 15 miles. A hot tub aboard the Pacific Monarch — essential after an hour's freezing dip — had been emptied by heavy swells.

Fog or no fog, their goal was clear: a relay swim of 202 miles — nearly three times as far as the current open-water record of 78 miles set last year on a New Zealand lake.

"It's phenomenal," said Jeff Commings, an elite swimmer and an associate producer for SwimmingWorld.TV. "To my knowledge, there's never been anything quite like this."

Compounding the difficulty, water temperatures off Southern California are hovering at less than 60 degrees Fahrenheit. And, following rules set by the Federation Internationale de Natation, the governing body for distance swimming, the team is not allowed to wear wetsuits.

"That's the kind of cold that numbs your body and numbs your mind," Commings said. "It's all you can do to swim in a straight line."

The men are highly competitive. Jim McConica, 59, became Los Angeles County's oldest lifeguard six years ago. Tom Ball, a 50-year-old martial arts instructor, has been swimming competitively for 35 years. Consulting engineer Mike Shaffer, 45, was a finalist at the U.S. Olympic trials in 1988. Jim Neitz, 42, started to swim only five years ago but is planning to cross the English Channel next year. Kurt Baron, 46, earned five national titles just in 2009.

Accompanied by a massage therapist, various friends and relatives, a documentary crew and an official observer, the men left Ventura Harbor at dawn Thursday. John Chung, a dentist who plays water polo in his spare time, reached Stearns Wharf in Santa Barbara about 9 p.m. He did a flip-turn off a piling and the waterlogged crew changed direction, heading south for the remaining 176 miles to La Jolla.

They ran into a pod of 500 dolphins, making playful arcs through the ocean. One swimmer was stung by a jellyfish. Each wears a device designed to ward off sharks electronically.

Mike Newhouse, their spokesman, said he anticipates a landing Sunday night or Monday in a yet-to-be-determined La Jolla location. At some point Saturday, he figured, they will already have exceeded 78 miles for the world's record.

"Somehow they'll celebrate," he said. "Maybe they'll splash water on each other."

steve.chawkins@latimes.com

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