top of page

Amphibious Enduro

Welcome to "the event," a swim and scramble through one of the most complex and ecologically rich sections of California's coastline 

The event begins on a September morning with a gathering of about 150 people in a quiet, small cove surrounded by steep bluffs. No signs, no fanfare. It’s sunny, but even when it’s grim, people show up. Lots are tan and lean, physiques that belie years in the ocean. Mixed in are newcomers, swim fins fresh out of the box, goggles and gear nervously dangling from stiff new dive belts. There’re also a few USA swim caps in the crowd: former Olympians. Most of those assembled are painted with sunscreen and keyed up on coffee.


Photo: Michael Roy

Gary Cogorno, who’s been the event’s master of ceremonies since anyone can remember—and is among the small group empowered to call the event on after assessing conditions—speaks to the crowd. “First rule is: the buddy system. Before you go in the water, if you’re no longer with who you came with, grab whoever is close to you. Number two is: have fun, don’t die.”

There’re a few laughs.


“We have a number of lifeguards here, but they will remain anonymous. This is their day off. They’re not going to help you.”

More laughs.


“To be clear: There’s no event today. Or any day. It’s a figment of your imagination. Go home.”


The crowd cackles.


Photo: Michael Roy

Joking aside—and despite the numerous and obvious clues—it’s the event’s non-event status that precludes any naming of specific places. It isn’t a race, either. Instead, it’s a five-mile swim-and-scramble traverse of a state-designated Marine Protected Area, rich with sea life, kelp beds, swim-through caves, and remote coves. Many first-timers often wear a look that says that some Tom Sawyer-ish character among their friends convinced them that painting the fence was fun. For veterans, it’s a celebration of the stunning place they live. The local lifeguard association also receives a donation each year from the event’s unofficial fundraiser (donated funds are tripled by an unknown benefactor), which might explain why the city lets it slide without any red tape. Thus the event remains as grass roots as it gets: no prizes or recognition, except from others who know.


As we set out, the crowd moves with a slight hustle toward the water and begins climbing over rocks or swimming around the first of many headlands. A long-period south swell is dawdling in from New Zealand—lulls, then overhead sets. One young woman, a first-timer, is on the initial rock traverse when she attempts to jump off and swim. A set looms and drags her back, her body streaming blood in places. One of her friends calls out that she needs stitches. “In the first 15 minutes, someone was out of the course,” says Rob Rieders, a masters swimmer and entertainment lawyer from the Bay Area who’d heard about the event for years and finally came to do it. “She had been training, and she was beaten and battered in minutes.”


The woman isn’t the only participant who would, or has, parted with a little blood somewhere along the course. “One year,” says Sherman Spitz, “it was super challenging: the surf was pounding, the tide was high, the water was cold. My friend Steve Cohen and I [Cohn and Spitz are both long-time attendees] were crossing what we thought was a dry beach to continue along the rocks, but here comes a huge set, and we can’t get back out to sea. Steve just ran out and dove under this huge wave. And I did the dumbest thing: I turned around and braced myself against this jagged cliff. I got pounded by the first wave and then another one. My arms got all cut up, then my knees.”

Many event veterans have rescue stories. Cohn and Joe Becker, a local screen writer and five-year participant, once swam around a particularly high-consequence rock formation only to encounter someone yelling. A woman was stuck in a hole, close to the rocks, with a big set approaching. “You just gotta go help,” says Cohn. “I’d already seen people go to the hospital that day.” 

“This year the waves were annihilating people in some sections,” says Pat Parnell, a local TV producer and long-time event attendee. “I watched seven year olds and 70 year olds get thrashed, thrown five feet up, come down on the rocks, and they were just fine—laughing about it. There’s a crazy sense of camaraderie. These are a special kind of people—clearly masochists in the best ways.”


It started in September 1986, when Alan Wolfe, a competitive swimmer who moved to town from Upstate New York in high school, and a few buddies scrambled around the rocky point at their local beach.

“The water was so clear,” says Wolfe. “We were just finding a way to get to the next cove, and we saw a lot of coves that none of us had ever seen. None of us had even heard of some of them.”

The following year, word spread among a small coterie about another cove swim, during which the group went a bit farther. After a few more years of swims and scrambles, Wolfe’s friend, Bob Harman, set up a relief station several miles down the coast with water and a few granola bars. A rough boundary was thus set, and word kept spreading year after year that the event was a perfect blend of type I and type II fun. 

By the 1990s, it was a full-blown underground happening. “One year we had about 40 people on SUPs,” says event veteran Scott McCarter, noting how sections of the traverse have hotels and restaurants within striking distance of the beach. “They went down and stopped at almost every bar and got a cocktail.” 

McCarter has been doing the event since year four, when the organizers extended it to end at a Ritz Carlton Hotel, which sits at the far end of a long beach, making the course 9 miles in total. The post-event gathering came to be known as the Survivor’s Party. “Imagine 100 people who have been in the ocean for six hours coming into the Ritz pool. We had 50 people in the jacuzzi. The staff thought we were VIPs, but they didn’t know why,” says Wolfe.

After a decade or so, the hotel realized the event’s participants were not their core clientele and withdrew the welcome mat. The course was again shortened to nearer Bob Harman’s old pit stop. The crowd, however, continued to grow. One year it swelled to nearly 300 people. Today it typically hovers around half that. Most of the characters from the early years still show up, along with all the new faces, comprising everything from locals and elite watermen and waterwomen, to soccer moms and accountants.

For some, it’s a way to get over fear. For others, it can help them process loss. For many, it’s just fun. And for most, it’s a mixture of those things—and something more. 


In 2015, for example, Guy Kornblum, a portfolio manager from the San Francisco Bay area, came to visit his friend Todd Miller, who lives in town. The two had climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro and Kaala Pathar together. Kornblum excelled in the mountains, whereas altitude always hit Miller harder. Now it was Miller’s chance to introduce Kornblum to the ocean, his zone.


He told Guy to bring his boardshorts, goggles, and an old pair of tennis shoes. Guy knew something was up. He wasn’t much of an ocean goer, and had a long-held fear and respect for its power. Miller loosely outlined his plan:“We’re just going for a little swim.” he said.


The next morning, Kornblum found himself on the event’s first stretch. As the group spread out around the rocky headland, Kornblum was caught by a set and pushed close to the rocks, an intense and disorienting moment. He swam hard in the circulating currents, but couldn’t make progress. Miller wasn’t immediately visible. Kornblum barely made it to the beach, his mind surging from panic. 


His long-held fear and respect of the ocean had metastasized into something crippling. “I said ‘Fuck this,’” he remembers. “I didn’t say anything to the group. I just bee-lined past the beach, up some stairs, and was in my boardshorts, goggles in hand, walking down PCH. I’m not sure if I was crying or not, but I was angry at Todd and pissed at myself.”


Eventually, his pulse came back down to earth and his thoughts cleared. He knew if he quit, he’d regret it. He walked back down and happened upon his friends. He copped some customary shit, but they were glad to see him back.


The next stretch had less rocks and more buddies. Kornblum got through the swim. Afterward, his group ducked into a beach-front hotel with a high-vibe crowd for lunch. After drinking some water, he started feeling refreshed.


“The last swim is probably one and a half miles—and I told Guy that we were going to do the whole thing,” says Miller.”

“Todd and I were right next to each other,” says Kornblum, “and I had this amazing ocean swim. I was smiling underwater. We got out and I gave him a big hug.” 

Afterward, Kornblum went home and signed up for a triathlon. He’s since won several Half-Ironmans, does Alcatraz crossings, and other open-water swims in the San Francisco Bay each week.

“I’m not scared of swimming in the ocean anymore,” he says. “If it wasn’t for the event, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now. I credit it toward changing my life.”


Locally born, James Pribram’s relationship to the event follows a different arc—a close relationship to this coastline has always been a part of his life. At age five, he was already jumping into the Blowhole, a swim-through cave and fearsome local rite of passage. Pro surfing, competitive paddle boarding, and spearfishing soon followed. His first time at the event was rugged: foggy with four to six foot south swell and wind. 


“I put on a full suit with a little flask of whiskey in it and just charged,” he says and laughs. “It was low tide, so you could scale a lot of the cliffs in [the south end of town]. Some of the best coastline is that whole stretch—natural swimming pools, good cliffs to jump off, caves. The last swim was really harsh with the south swell and wind. By the time I got in, I was hurting.” 

A year ago, he completed the course with no wetsuit, no fins, but admits to using goggles, as though they were a mark against his purity. Being in the ocean had always been meaningful for Pribram, but this year’s event was even more important. Since the pandemic, he’d been taking care of his elderly parents full time. His father died last year, his mother a month before the swim.

“I was crushed. We were thick as thieves,” he says. “I picked a couple events just to have something to look forward to, to get ready for. I wanted to have things in my life instead of just mourning and being stuck. And this year was gnarly. There was no sand on the beaches, the swell was solid 4 to 6 feet, high tide, slamming on the rocks, lots of backwash. In the beginning I tried cruising with a couple of friends, but then I just took off solo. I was a man on a mission. I think I was burning off a lot of sadness.”

He pauses for a moment. The conversation turns.

“Afterward,” he says finally, “I ran back, cracked a cold beer, sat on the deck, and thought, ‘What a day.’ It’s total waterman shit, you know? I love it.” 


I came to town 15 years ago, following a young woman. I was frustrated that first winter, as northwest swells marched past the coast, delivering high-quality surf elsewhere, while retirees calmly paddled their SUPs, satisfied, like the water was a perfectly trimmed putting green on their favorite golf course. I felt like I was living in the Diet Coke of beach towns: looks good, reminds you of the real thing, but with a bad aftertaste. I hardly surfed unless I hit the road. 

Then I found other ways to appreciate the area. By then, I’d married the young woman I’d been chasing and we’d just had our first child. I began exploring the tidepools of the recently designated Marine Reserve, more and more so through my son’s eyes, as the place transformed: thicker kelp, bigger sheephead, calico bass, yellowtail, lobster, green abalone—an intact marine ecosystem, an example of how things can be if we protect important places.

“Growing up here you become a renaissance waterman,” says Parnell. “There’s a less than stellar setup for surfing, so it makes you open to appreciating everything. You get into freediving, the rocks. If you’re not getting in the water on flat days, you’re not getting in the water enough.” 

Gradually, I came to agree.


Paul Salopek, a National Geographic Explorer in Residence, walked 24,000 miles while tracing the route stone age humans took as they migrated out of Africa and “made the Earth ours,” as the magazine put it. He took ten years getting to know each place and its people at a walking pace, recreating a fundamental human experience. 

The event seems to offer something similar on a tinier scale. “On the course I walk wherever I can, and swim when I have to,” says Cohn. “Some people just swim cove to cove. I like the walking, the rock climbing, the reef dwelling, navigating the ins-and-outs of the water. You see more tide pools, more marine life. It’s part of the adventure.”


“Cogo [Gary Cogorno] knows every nook and cranny, so if I walk with him for a while he’ll tell me a story about this one spot,” says John Mann, a former captain of the US Olympic water polo team. “Then you walk with somebody else and they have another story. You’re experiencing this history and this coastline through all these eyes, and they’re excited to share it with you.”

I began introducing my son Cedar to it as early as he could hang onto my back and swim around the rocks at our home beach. At nine years old, he and his friend, Alia, were ready to try the event.


“I think it’s super important for kids to have gratitude for this clean, beautiful coastline, and not take it for granted,” says Mike Marriner, Alia’s dad. “And people are raising kids with so much safety now. Putting them through some rigorous situations to build some resilience is good.”

Mike and I are ex-lifeguards and we felt comfortable with the risk. Still, it was a big challenge, and the kids easily could’ve had a defeating experience. Instead, they did the entire traverse. 


“Did you like the event,” I asked Cedar afterward. 


“No, I loved it,” he deadpanned.


“How did it feel when you were done?” I asked.


“I felt accomplished,” said Alia. “There were definitely some scary parts, but I got it done.” 


Recently, they cooked up their own, scaled-down version only for kids, and ran it with 18 buddies, raising $16,000 for a local ocean conservation group in the process.



We’re on a ribbon of sandstone between a small cliff and the ocean. Rocks ahead, rocks behind, no entry into the water and an overhead set looming. We gather those around us into a little alcove and brace ourselves—all strangers, all watching the ocean, all wide-eyed and keen. After the set, we scurry across a vein of rock jutting into the water, dive in, and hustle through the impact zone.

Part way through the swim, I realize how far we still have to go. There’s so much water to cross, so many kelp paddies, so many caves and trenches to explore. A bat ray cruises by like a little starship. A defensive Garibaldi thumps in protest. Leopard sharks swirl in twos and threes. 


Surfers are often highly focused when looking at a coastline. We’re myopic in our search for waves. “Because you’re used to it you don’t realize that through that car window everything you see is just more TV,” wrote Robert M. Pirsig in his 1974 book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. “You’re a passive observer and it is all moving by you boringly in a frame…On a cycle the frame is gone. You’re completely in contact with it all. You’re in the scene…and the sense of presence is overwhelming.” Within this metaphor, we have the windows up, driving past 95 percent of the shore to get to a surf spot. The event is like being on a motorcycle—one that’s moving at a crawl through kelp beds and tide pools for six hours.

Long before this area was designated as a marine reserve—a major effort by legislators, conservationists, and a complex group of stakeholders that essentially created the underwater equivalent of a swim-through Yosemite—Wolfe and his friends knew this place was special and, without trying to, they built a tradition.

As we near the final stretch, I’m reminded that this coastline is familiar, and there is a calm pleasure in re-enacting movements my body recognizes. There’s no need to think. It’s like a walking meditation in wet sand. Eventually, however, we reach a more remote part of the coast I’ve never been through and the newness gets me excited. How could there be parts of a coast I’ve explored for 15 years that I still haven’t seen? It’s a grounding feeling when our feet touch the sand, still underwater, at the end of the long ocean swim. We will do that many more times today—and in the years that follow.

bottom of page