Courtesy of WOWSA, Huntington Beach, California.

Penny Palfrey summed up the impression swimmers and non-swimmers had of Chilean ocean swimmer Emilio Casanueva, “Emilio was a wonderful man.”

Casanueva set into motion the Santa Barbara Channel Swimming Association in 2006 when he established the organization to recognize swims between Santa Cruz Island and the California mainland.

Scott Zornig recalls the early days of the Association [read his recollection here], “I heard about a gentleman from Santa Barbara who had founded the Santa Barbara Channel Swimming Association to recognize swims to and from Santa Cruz Island. Emilio Casanueva, a Chilean, resided in Santa Barbara.

I was introduced to him and his business partner, Dean White, by Jim Fitzpatrick in 2007. We met in Santa Barbara and I mentioned to them the idea of a marathon swim organization that recognized swims from all the non-Catalina California Channel Islands (Anacapa, Santa Cruz, San Clemente, Santa Barbara, San Miguel, Santa Rosa and San Nicolas). I had done the research and had all the records. They liked the idea, realized that I could be a resource for observations and recognized my passion for the sport, so they asked me to join their board which also included notable marathon swimmers Ned Denison, Carina Bruwer, Penny Palfrey and Chris Palfrey amongst others.

After forming the SBCSA, there were 2 successful solo swims in 2006, 6 successful solo swims in 2007 and 9 successful solo swims in 2008. There were also 12 successful relays during these first 3 years.

Emilio waa a visionary and a leader who had the ability to inspire others to set goals, take risks and achieve dreams. He was a kind and thoughtful person who will be missed, but will always remembered by the open water and marathon swimming communities. Descansa en paz, querido amigo.

Under his leadership, 37 swims were successfully completed including several unprecedented swims. He remained a lifetime member of the organization until his death.

Sue Dutton Levy recalls his ebullient personality that opened up the tent of ocean swimming to many local and foreign swimmers, “He was so kind and inviting to us new ocean swimmers.”

His reach and touch was evident wherever he traveled and swam.

Lifetime member of the Santa Barbara Channel Swimming Association Seth Streeter wrote on his Facebook page, “I’m mourning the passing and celebrating the life of a dear friend and passionate soul. I had the privilege of working with Emilio over a number of years with the development of an ocean swimming nonprofit. Beyond organizing ocean crossing swims of the Santa Barbara Channel to raise funds for ocean-friendly environmental nonprofits, Emilio also was an incredible community builder. The Ocean Ducks, as we call ourselves, has a loyal crew of swimmers who meet religiously every Sunday morning at Butterfly Beach. After a rejuvenating swim the crew has a potluck brunch on the sand, soaking in the delicious fare, warming sun and loving company.

This is all a reflection of Emilio. He loved. He lived fully. He was raw, honest, daring and ambitious. He knew my soul and I knew his and I know others felt the same. And he always had big plans ahead he was excited about. Even as he fought cancer, he was organizing another swim for this coming September, to raise funds for his nonprofit in Chile. We were discussing this vision just two weeks ago. He was a hard man to say no to because his passion and heart were so big.

I’ll never forget his words from his tan smiling face as we would be walking toward the water together with our goggles in hand…”Amigo, today we swim!” And with that, all my worldly worries would go away

Kimberly Martin posted on Facebook, “My heart is crying. In a world where there is too much harshness, you were gentle, where there is too much darkness, you were light. I’m so grateful that I was privileged to know you. I will forever cherish early morning mate’, and watching the sunrise.”

After learning how to swim in the Pacific Ocean when he was 5 years old in Zapallar in his native Chile, his smile never seemed to leave him when he swam in the open water whether he was off Santa Barbara coast, the Chilean coast or anyplace between.

He completed the 10 km Point Bonita Swim across the San Francisco Bay 3 times, swam around Alcatraz Island from Aquatic Park, and completed numerous swims in Santa Barbara, Mexico, and Chile. In 2008, he accomplished his first solo channel crossing from Anacapa Island to the California mainland in 7 hours 45 minutes and organized many open water swimming events including The Big Swim and the Santa Barbara Channel Swim 6×6 Relay Race.

Ned Denison recalls his good friend, “I ‘met’ Emilio in 2004. We were both organizers of pods of open water swimmers: his in Santa Barbara, California and mine in Cork, Ireland. We joked about the group pictures being nearly identical: mostly 30+, some men missing hair, a few in larger swim suits and all smiles. Emilio liked to say that his looked better because they were tanned.

He picked my brains to help set up a marathon organization and I stole his ideas about marketing and social aspects. When the Santa Barbara Channel Swimming Association was formed, he graciously named me as co-founder. Then, in a typical Emilio marketing move he put on the website that I had signed up for a 24-mile swim under the new association. It was news to me, but Emilio could talk a cat off a fish wagon (as they say) and he talked me around. I paid him back later after a failed Anacapa swim, I helped talk him into a second attempt and success.

He had a natural charm and a keen sense of marketing and governance and we named a stellar board for the association. Success followed and the Association will be just one of his many legacies.

Emilio moved to a small city in Chile and we didn’t see each other for nearly ten years. Last year when organizing my first trip to South America (Devil’s Island swim), I researched the flights and time to visit. At the time it was several thousand extra and many more days off work so I just didn’t go. It was a mistake. I regret not going, sharing a swim, having a beer and telling him how much our friendship meant and that he was one of the ten most influential people in my life. I miss you friend

SBCSA board member Lynn Kubasek wrote, “Swim in peace and joy Emilio Tata Casanueva.”

For a glimpse of his legacy, visit

Upper photo by Cyndi Coyne.

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