To the Maxxx: Morrison’s channel swim featured at Santa Barbara Film Festival

Bella Vita - Santa Barbara International Film Festival

At this year’s Santa Barbara International Film Festival, Bella Vita is the surfing film to be showcased at the Arlington Theatre with a red-carpet U.S. premiere on Monday, February 3.

There were many times Evan Morrison could have drowned while attempting to swim across the Santa Barbara Channel from Santa Cruz Island to the mainland.

On a black night in September of 2012, Morrison, an experienced marathon swimmer, battled Neptune’s washing machine — stronger-than-forecasted winds and heavy chop — to complete a harrowing 19-mile journey in a record time.

Driven - Santa Barbara International Film Festival

Driven, a documentary film about marathon swimming set in the Santa Barbara Channel, debuts on Tuesday, February 4.

Morrison, a Dos Pueblos High alum, is one of the featured swimmers in the documentary, “Driven: A Glimpse Inside the World of Marathon Swimming,” which will be shown at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. The film, part of the festival’s To the Maxxx series of sports-oriented projects, delves into the mindset and the swims of Morrison, 13-year-old Fiona Goh and single mom Cherie Edborg.

The film will make its world premiere on Tuesday, Feb. 4, at 10 a.m. at the Museum of Art. A second showing is Friday, Feb. 7 at 7 p.m. at the museum.

The SBIFF runs Jan. 30 through Feb. 9.

The other films in the To the Maxxx series include:

“A Life Outside,” a story about six surfing pioneers on the Jersey Shore. (Saturday Feb. 1, 11 a.m. at the Metro; Monday, Feb. 3, 2 p.m. at the Metro)

“Bella Vita,” So Cal surfer Chris Del Moro’s pilgrimage to his ancestral homeland off the Italian west coast. (Monday, Feb. 3, 8 p.m., Arlington Theater)

“The Old, the Young and the Sea,” a road trip through surf spots and communities along the coast of Portugal, northern Spain and France. (Saturday, Feb. 8, 4:20 p.m. Metro; Sunday, Feb. 9, 10 a.m. Metro)

Russ Spencer, the coordinator of the To the Maxxx segment of the SBIFF, said the four films show “how sports connect people with the world both inside and outside themselves. It’s about how sports spur people to engage in activities that bring out their strengths and weaknesses, and about their relationships with themselves and the people around them.”

Three of the four films have a local flavor. In addition to Morrison, “Driven” features a part of the Pacific Ocean area residents view and play in every day: the Santa Barbara Channel.

“The film is really interesting to locals because it’s about swimming the Santa Barbara Channel and what place the channel holds in the international marathon swimming world — which is an essential place. It’s a place to conquer,” said Spencer.

The Old, The Young, & The Sea - Santa Barbara International Film Festival

The Old, The Young & The Sea plays at the Metro Theatre in Santa Barbara on Feb. 8 and 9.

Santa Barbara’s surfing Coffin brothers, Conner and Parker, are friends with Del Moro and ride the waves with him in “Bella Vita.” The Coffins are also nephews of the film’s director, Jason Baffa, and share Baffa’s Italian heritage. “Vita Bella” was the Audience Award Winner at the London Film Festival in October.

Local resident Shaun Tomson is one of several surfing legends who checked out the spot off the Casino Pier in Seaside Heights, N.J. and hung out with Jersey boys Greg Mesanko, Chris Mesanko, Kevin Casey, Jim Purpuri, Richard Luthringer, and Bucky Walters in “A Life Outside.”

“It’s just an added bonus,” Spencer said of the local people in the films.

There are no Santa Barbarans in “The Old, the Young and the Sea,” but some of the locales shot by Austrian filmmaker Mario Hainzl have a similar vibe to California surf spots.

“He came up with an amazing array of personalities along that coast, some of which are very much like California 40 years ago,” Spencer said. “It’s interesting to see the relationship between the way people view surfing there and the way it’s viewed here, and how much the California lifestyle and surf culture has rubbed off and effected that part of the world. The film is beautifully shot. You just go along for the ride.”

One segment of the film features the ultimate ride: Garrett McNamara flying down the face of a mutant 100-foot wave at Nazaré, off the coast of Portugal.

When he thinks back to that September night trudging along in a choppy channel, Morrison said it’s the darkness that mainly comes to mind.

“Both literal and figurative,” he said in an interview from his home in San Francisco. “It was a new moon that night, so very dark in a literal sense, which was disorienting. And, because the conditions were so bad, I got discouraged early in the swim and had to push through many thoughts of wanting to quit. So it was a dark place mentally, too.”

Morrison covered the 19 miles from San Pedro Point at Santa Cruz Island to Oxnard’s Hollywood Beach in record 9 hours, 47 minutes, 49 seconds. The previous mark was 10:27.

Considering the conditions he had to deal with, it’s a remarkable he even finished the swim, let alone set a record.

A Life Outside - Santa Barbara International Film Festival

“A Life Outside” is a story about surfing pioneers in New Jersey.

“Honestly, the record was the furthest thing from my mind,” Morrison told Presidio Sports two days after his strength-zapping journey. “At times, it took all the effort I could muster to just put one arm in front of the other. I’m still not sure how I made it across. Just standing on dry sand at the end seemed more important than any records.”

Morrison, a graduate of Dos Pueblos High and Princeton University, jumped into the water at 12:45 a.m. and finished around 10:30.

He said he thought about quitting constantly. “From about one hour into the swim until the sun rose,” he said. “Once there was sunlight, I felt less discouraged, and more determined to finish.

Morrison’s paddler, 2008 Olympic open-water swimmer and two-time 25k national champion Mark Warkentin, admitted he wasn’t prepared for the extreme conditions that night.

“It was a humbling admission when I eventually told Evan that I needed to go rest on the boat, and it’s a true testament to his determination and conditioning that he didn’t quit along with me,” said Warkentin a couple days after the swim.

“Evan had a great race under terrible conditions,” he continued. “Everyone from the boat captain to Evan and definitely everyone in between hoped that the conditions would get just a little worse, so we’d have a good excuse to stop. Unfortunately, the conditions were just barely good enough for us to keep trudging along.”

Filmmakers Ben Pitterle and Brian Hall of Element 8 Production were on the escort boat for Morrison’s record swim.

Morrison said originally they were supposed to use a Santa Barbara Channelkeeper powerboat but it broke down the day of the swim.

“They had to scramble, and found a sailboat out of Santa Barbara Harbor,” he said. “The conditions were bad that night, of course, and I think it took them a good 4-5 hours to get over from Santa Barbara in the sailboat. But they made it in time for my swim start.”

Morrison said he doesn’t have any big swims planned, but he’s very much involved in the sport.

“I’ve been busy starting a new global marathon swimming organization —  the Marathon Swimmers Federation (,” he explained. “We just published a new globally standardized set of rules for the sport, which, surprisingly, has never been done before.”

Find a complete list of films at the film festival HERE