July 15, 2000
Not the easiest way to Sumatra
22-mile trip through terrifying waters wraps up year of achievements
David Yudovin of Cambria dodged vicious whirlpools and endured “thousands of jellyfish stings” for more than 10 hours to become the first human to swim across Sunda Strait in Indonesia.
The approximately 22-mile swim was a watershed event for Yudovin. It was a second try at the potentially deadly endeavor and “was the culmination of all my skills,” Yudovin said, “from swimming and sailing to business skills of inspiring people to work together and develop personal relationships.”
|Back home on the North Coast, David Yudovin towels off after a swim Friday afternoon north of the San Simeon Pier. photo: Robert Dyer|
The swim between Java and Sumatra wraps up quite a year for Yudovin. In May, the athlete, who holds five other world records, was inducted into the Marathon Swimmers’ Hall of Fame in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., joining an honor roll of only about 130 other swimmers from around the world.
For his latest marathon swim, Yudovin was in the Sunda Strait from 4:01 a.m. July 8 to 2:25 p.m., in basically calm seas. He left from Pujut Beach (northwest of Jakarta on the northwest end of Java) and arrived “on the only stretch of beach to land on” – a narrow patch of sand surrounded by jungle north of Kanggalan in Sumatra.
While Yudovin swam, a native guide with a hand-held compass (who stood in the bow of the primary escort boat for the entire trip) relayed course corrections to the Javanese captain, said Yudovin’s wife and co-captain Beth Yudovin.
From a previous attempt at the swim in April 1997, the couple knew the risks. “It’s a hellaciously dangerous swim,” David said earlier this year, “with potentially deadly tidal currents and vicious whirlpools, huge brown, bulbous jellyfish with long, long tentacles along with highly poisonous sea snakes and crocodiles.
“The whirlpools were awful,” he said. “The fishermen had told me ‘If you get caught in a whirlpool, you are not coming back up again.’
“It’s as dangerous an adventure as anyone could go on. I was sure I was going to die. It was like a washing machine. It took me six months to recover.”
David Yudovin knows the hazards of marathon swimming. In 1978, while finishing a marathon near Ventura, Yudovin suffered a near-fatal heart attack.
Fortunately, the latest attempt in Indonesia was both successful and not nearly as hazard-laced as his first try.
Besides the risks, David and Beth also had to tackle language barriers between Bahasa and English, cultural and religious differences, chokingly thick smog and smoke, and the logistical difficulties of launching such an endeavor from half a world away.
“This was no cookie-cutter channel swim,” he said, such as the classical swim across the English Channel, which he completed in 1996.
In the end, none of those differences in Indonesia mattered, David said. “It was working together to achieve a goal, a microcosm of international diplomacy.
“I wanted this swim so much, and they wanted it just as badly as I did. That’s what made it happen.”
All it took to turn the native fishermen’s emotional tide was watching David’s first workout in the water, Beth said. At that point, the natives converted from being employees (who desperately needed the money) to wholehearted cheerleaders.
Hours after returning home to Cambria on Thursday, the swimmer still was awash in the emotional impact of what they’d accomplished and how that feat had touched others’ lives.
“This was magic,” he said. “We are absolutely, totally flying high.”
David repeatedly gulped back tears as he recounted the superstitious, mistrusting Muslim fishermen who helped coordinate the event and later escorted the swimmer and his wife on the swim.
“These fishermen are very heavily religious and spiritual. They believe in ghosts and spirits,” the swimmer said. Before the Javanese would participate, “they even wanted me to go meet a powerful magic man.”
Beth explained, “After David’s beach workout, they marched us a mile and a half over hill and dale through the jungle to a dirt hut, where the magic man was sitting on a floor, smoking a cigarette.”
David said, “The magic man said, ‘I can’t make you swim any better, but I can make the weather better.’ ”
Afterward, the natives joined the spiritual leader in elaborate ceremonies to pray for good conditions.
The alliance between the successful business couple and 11 Third-World poor fishermen and three native boats worked incredibly well, David said. “I had the technical knowledge, the charts and tide tables, the high-tech equipment like my GPS (global positioning system equipment) and the ability to use them all. They had their traditional fishermen’s knowledge and lifelong experience with the water, the currents and the weather.”
In the end, native knowledge won out.
The day before the swim, all the electronic gadgetry indicated conditions that would have caused the Yudovin’s to scrub the mission. But “the fishermen said ‘when the sun rises, the wind will die,’ and it did. It went flat,” said David.
“They knew the nuances of currents and weather that our books and equipment don’t show. We believed them. And it worked.”
But nothing about this swim was normal, the Yudovin’s recalled. Even at the end, David said, “I swam parallel to the jungle and forest for about three-quarters of a mile, about a half-mile out. I said to myself, ‘I just hope there’s no horrible things in the water out here.’”
Because of a long, shallow ocean shelf, Yudovin had to jog across coral, rocks and sand to get to the beach. And, once the onshore celebrating was over, he had to throw the boat’s rope over his shoulder and tow it past the sandbar to get it back into open water so everybody could go back to Java again.
“I was the only one strong enough to do it,” a laughing Yudovin said. “It was a surrealistic end to an incredible swim.”