catalina channel

After a short break from the English Channel I decided to reset my goals for the swimming triple crown which involves an officiated swim of the English Channel, a circumnavigation of Manhattan Island NYC and the Catalina channel off LA.

Training continued with the Vlad squad, although the confidence of having the EC notch on my belt helped a lot. Longer swims with a focus on night swimming became the routine and weekly mileage reached 50 kilometres. 

Catalina is an open stretch of 32 kilometres from the Californian holiday island to the rocky dry coast of San Pedro just north of LA. It is a very deep and busy shipping channel well known for its large variety of marine wildlife.

This coast is renowned for its windy afternoons at this time of year and for this reason the channel pilots start the swim well before midnight in the hope that most swimmers would be finished before the wind chops up the water.

I knew there was a tendency to underestimate this challenge and many people pointed out that its warm, that there are no cross currents and that the swim generally is a straight line unlike the Chanel’s notorious 'S'.

Despite this I kept up the cold training going once more around the gruelling cold camp weekend in Melbourne’s Port Philip bay. Seven swims over three days of sub 16 degrees culminating in an 8-hour swim in the bay, which also qualifies one for the EC.

On this occasion I had the great pleasure of meeting a number of other long distance swimmers including Meg, a determined young 16-year-old from WA who was to take on the EC in August. My son Daniel came along as support and we had a blast. This was the first time he had actually seen first hand how tough this kind of swimming is and how determined candidates are!

If for no other reason than to bond over a shared physical challenge, this weekend was a highlight for me and an awakening for Daniel. From this camp onwards both Daniel and Michelle shared the difficult task of paddling and long distance support.

When the time came to pack up and fly to LA I felt well prepared and ready for all conditions. 

And so with a month’s leave up my sleeve and a refinanced mortgage to cover any eventuality, Kylie and I flew to LA.  We were quickly joined by Vlad, Michelle and the only other swim couple we know Michael Hanisch and Rachael Elkaim. These guys are strong and seasoned swimmers who had met on a Vlad cold camp three years earlier and trained together ever since. Apparently, our young friends fell in love soon after the cold camp and are due to be married in August 2017. 

Rach and Mike were also chasing the triple crown and swam in wonderful conditions two days before me. Theirs was the only dual Catalina crossing I’ve ever heard of and we took great pleasure in swimming out to greet them a few hundred metres from the end of their 10-hour journey. They reported warm, calm conditions and because Vlad had lit up his kayak so well the pilot didn’t need to use the boats spot light which accentuated the beautiful bioluminescence. This beautiful and rare phenomenon is a brilliant psychedelic display of blue light caused by millions of microscopic organisms generating light from the movement in the water. On dark moonless nights this Star Wars like spray of lights blasted ahead by every stroke and can keep a swimmer entertained for hours.

They finished side by side and clambered up the San Pedro beach very satisfied and to the applause of a small and bemused crowd.

Finally, it was my turn. I was well rested but couldn’t sleep throughout the day. Everything was checked and double checked before meeting the grumpy pilot and two official observers on the boat at 7 p.m. 

I have to recognise the Catalina Swimmers Federation and the generosity of their supporters and volunteers. Kent and Steve each gave up an entire night and in Kent’s’ case flew in from Arizona as a way to 'give back' something to the sport. Both had swam the channel and were extraordinarily professional and supportive.

At 8 p.m. the wind was still strong and gusting but we cast off and began the two-hour boat ride to Catalina. The captain and two of his mates, Kylie, Michelle, Vlad and the two observers hunkered down for the bumpy ride.

By the time we reached the starting point just off the holiday isle I had stupidly allowed myself to get cold and was feeling sea sick. Kylie was in a bad way but that was only the beginning of a chronic night of horrible, relentless seasickness for her.

Michelle remained bubbly and excited and helped me put on the grease, focus on the swim and organise the paddling shifts. She was the mainstay in this swim.

I slid into the dark surprisingly cold water at about 10:30 p.m. and swam through the kelp forest to reach the shore. The boat sounded its horn and the clocks started. Vlad was ready in his kayak and we met up a few hundred metres off the Catalina. 

The wind hadn’t died off as we were promised and water was choppy. 20 minutes into the swim I saw a large slow moving animal cruise 3 metres under and across me gliding from my left. It was lit up from the cluster of lights from the boat. I stopped and told Vlad who immediately claimed it was only a whale – keep swimming, he yelled! Never ask Vlad to confirm any fears, he is a rusted on optimist and has a way of dismissing any negative signs without any evidence.

At the first feed, after 45 minutes I asked Vlad which way the swell and chop were coming from and he couldn’t tell. The swell, wind, tide and currents were all coming from different directions and the confused water made for a tough swim. I felt cramps in my foot and was starting to worry about that getting worse. All Vlad said was 'tough conditions but you’re a tough guy… lets go' and that was enough.

It’s a curious feature of long distance swimming that you look for clues or some other kind of human interaction along the swim. Time is elastic and often 45 minutes between swim feeds can feel very brief and others an eternity. All of our natural senses are dulled to the point of depravation and communication is limited to the 30-40 seconds every 45 minutes while trying to take on food. 

At some stage Vlad said he was worried about changing paddlers after 3 hours because of the bad conditions and danger associated with getting on and off the boat. I told him Michelle would be fine and soon I was joined by my brave daughter smiling and well rugged up against the weather. 

Michelle has paddled hundreds of kilometres with me and has become very good at the psychology of the paddle. She hurries me along from feeds, gives me no information about how far to go and encourages without speaking. As she took up her shift the seas began to calm and we got into a strong rhythm, father and daughter battling the elements together in an unfamiliar sea at night.

Unlike two nights earlier there was no warm water, no light show of bioluminescence and no calm water. I felt happy for Rach and Mike and just accepted that each and every swim is different. 

I swam on feeling and identifying the strength in my arms and shoulders knowing that this is the reward for training and good preparation. The conditions improved and I calculated that at some stage of the next paddler shift I would see the sun come up.

The glimmer of the LA lights is always ahead but at about 5:30 a.m. I recognised the first signs of a clouded sun rise. At the same time the sun was coming up so too was the weather. By another hour it was like a washing machine again and I considered telling both kayakers to stay on board the pilot boat. 

Of course both Vlad and Michelle would not be dissuaded but later Vlad told me that at times while he was paddling he completely lost sight of the 35 foot pilot boat in the trough of the swell.

I had been in and out of the head space which swimmers look for. That place where time is irrelevant and you become mesmerised by the rhythm of the stroke and the sound of yourself breathing. This is where i wanted to be and only be interrupted every feed.

Finally I could make out the silhouette of the cliffs and as I drew closer the captain blasted out his customary but inaudible tune of his bagpipes to herald in the imminent end to this swim. 

About one kilometre from the beach i was joined by Michael and Rachael who had swam out to shepherd me in safely to shore. It was a beautiful gesture and as we clawed our way through the forest of thick kelp to reach the rocky shore i was happy to have such wonderful friends.

I knew the crew were doing it tough but i had no idea how ill Kylie had become. It must have been a horrible experience for her and when we came close to shore she didn't waste any time took to dive in and swim to the beach. I thought she she was celebrating with me but she was in survival mode.

My good friend and LA local, Stefan was on the rocky beach with some very surprised onlookers. It was a fitting finale to my second channel but it was no picnic. Vlad and Michelle once again proved themselves stoic supporters while Kylie endured a terrible night just to be with me.