Some people might call it crazy. Preston Drake prefers to call it purifying.
Drake, a 50-year-old Santa Ana resident, is a veteran at competitive ocean swimming, where finishing a race is often more important than winning.
“It’s hard to explain the feeling I get when I swim a race in the ocean,” Drake said. “I certainly don’t get the same feelings when I work out in the pool. . . . It’s like being a kid again.”
Drake will be among those competing in Saturday’s Seal Beach Rough Water Swim. Races will be contested at one, three and 10 miles, as well as 200, 400, 800 and 1,200 yards. Participants range in age from 7 to 70.
Drake will compete in the 10-mile race beginning at 6 a.m. at the Huntington Beach Pier and finishing more than three hours later at the Seal Beach Pier.
“It’s funny. You start the race running into the water. You’re pumped up, ready for the challenge,” Drake said. “Then about halfway through, you start thinking about why you’re doing this. Then about two-thirds of the way, you don’t care what place you finish, you just want to finish the race.
“At that point, it’s just a race for survival.”
With paddler Valerie Hogopian helping Drake stay on course and providing him with liquids, Drake said his goal is to win the event for his age group. His best time--3 hours 34 minutes--came in his first race in 1979. Drake said goals can sometimes change, depending on the conditions or water temperature.
“But that’s what so great about ocean swimming,” he said. “No race is ever the same.”
One of the most grueling is the “Alcatraz Sharkfest” on Aug. 2. It starts on the prison island and ends a little more than 1 1/2 miles away at the Aquatic Park in front of Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco.
“The ferry boat takes you to the backside of the island,” Drake said. “You have this mass of people running into the water. I’ll tell you, it’s a shocker when you get in.”
Drake said there are two groups of competitors in the Sharkfest.
“One group wears wet suits, and the others don’t. I’m from the old school and would never think about using a wet suit.”
Water temperature in San Francisco Bay runs between 62 and 65 degrees this time of year, but Dave Horning, the event organizer who has made the swim 65 times, says it can be as cold as 48 degrees. Since 1981, there have been more than 7,000 competitors--more than 700 are expected this year alone--and the fastest time has been 28 minutes.
“I like that race,” Drake said. “It’s kind of strange when you’re in the water. Especially with the history Alcatraz has. It just seems kind of eerie to be having a race at this place.”
Open water swimming events take place year round all over the country, but most are in the summer and in California.
Besides Seal Beach and Alcatraz, Drake has competed in the Newport Beach Pier to Pier swim as well as competitions at Lake Tahoe, La Jolla, San Diego and in Hawaii.
He started ocean swimming as a member of the San Clemente High swim team, which trained by paddling around the city’s pier.
“It was great. We would race the lifeguards and kill them,” he said. “That’s when I really started to love ocean swimming.”
Passion for the sport, however, is an acquired taste.
“This is not pool swimming and is not for the mainstream,” said Rick Walker, head coach of the U.S. National Open Water team. “You not only have to be physically fit, but you also have to be mentally prepared.
“You must have the character that can cope with the conditions of nature. To be able to swim for miles after you’ve been stung by 30 jelly fish. To keep swimming even while you’re ill.
“It’s the kind of sport that you can finish one race in first, and then 10th the next week.”
The sport can trace its roots to Capt. Matthew Webb, the first man to swim across the English Channel in 1875. Since then, open water swimming has developed professional and amateur circuits and has its own committee within swimming’s international governing body (FINA).
“It’s obviously something you don’t do for money or the accolades,” said Irvine’s Chad Hundeby, who holds men’s records in numerous open water swims, including the English Channel and Catalina Channel swims--both 20 miles long.
By the sport’s standards, Hundeby and, before him, Lynn Cox of Los Alamitos are considered superstars.
Cox made worldwide headlines in 1988, when she braved the icy waters of Lake Baikal in Eastern Siberia. She swam the seven miles in water between 38 and 48 degrees.
Cox also became the first woman to leave from North Africa and cross the 18-mile Strait of Gibraltar, arriving in Spain in 8 hours 19 minutes.
“When you race in the ocean or the lakes, it’s just for you,” Hundeby said. “It’s the joy of accomplishment--the fact that you were able to swim 10 miles, three miles or even one mile and finish the thing.”
Hundeby, too, got his start in ocean swimming in high school. Then a senior at Woodbridge, he participated in the Seal Beach Open in 1989.
“I was hooked the moment I tried it,” said Hundeby, who works for the Department of Education in Los Angeles. “It certainly beats looking at a black line at the bottom of a pool. You can swim and enjoy your surroundings.”
Hundeby said the sport is not without its dangers.
“Unlike pool swimming, where the environment is controlled, open water swimming is completely out of your hands,” he said. “Besides the swells and water temperature, there’s also the marine life. I can’t begin to tell you how many times I’ve been stung by jellyfish or the chance of picking up some kind of viral infection in some of these lakes.”
Hundeby will be a paddler for his friend, John York, in Saturday’s race. He said he has “hung up his Speedos” and has no plans to compete in any more open water swims.
“I’ve accomplished all of the goals I set out to do,” Hundeby said. “And I really don’t have a desire to do it again. But that’s not to say I won’t ever swim in the ocean again.”
Drake, on the other hand, says he hopes to continue ocean swimming until he can’t do it any longer. He’s even thinking about trying to swim the Catalina Channel.
“I have a friend who’s done it,” Drake said. “It’s pretty tough though. You start at midnight and basically swim in the dark sea all night long. But that would be my ultimate swim, and that’s what this is all about.”
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Open Water Swimming
* What: The 29th Seal Beach Rough Water Swim
* When: Saturday. Events begin with the 10-mile race at 6 a.m., followed by the three-mile race at 8, age-group races at 8:30 and the one-mile race at 10.
* Where: 10-mile race starts at Huntington Beach Pier and ends at Seal Beach Pier. Others start on west side of Seal Beach Pier, located at Ocean Avenue and Main Street.
* Admission: Free.
* Information: (562) 424-4227, ext. 236
* Also scheduled: In addition to the Seal Beach swims, one-mile ocean swims will take place this weekend at the San Clemente Ocean Festival. Saturday’s races will be for juniors (18 and younger), those competing in the open division and for seniors (35 and older). Age-group races will be held Sunday. For more information, call (949) 440-6141.