Chris swims San Pedro Channel
Catalina to mainland
September 28, 2009.
Los Angeles is not a place we would normally contemplate for a holiday. The urban sprawl and busy freeways definitely don’t appeal to us.
But LA has Catalina (USA’s answer to the English Channel) right on its doorstep. And for marathon swimmers, Catalina should always make the list of possible swims to attempt.
We have done swims out of Santa Barbara, a little to the north of LA, and had great experiences there. And we have built up a friendship with Forrest Nelson, who lives in LA. Forrest is one of a number of people involved with the Catalina Channel Swimming Federation (CCSF), which controls and sanctions all crossings. So, with positive recommendations, and several contacts, it seemed logical to put our names down to swim.
The CCSF has undergone a transformation in the last couple of years to lift its standards and improve the service offering to swimmers. Behind the scenes, the CCSF recruits volunteers to act as kayakers and observers. These people (some of whom hope to swim the channel themselves) undergo structured training in safety, first aid, swimmers’ needs and the rules. This is all very good for enhancing the prospects of a successful crossing.
Having decided to swim, we sent off the application forms and medical (the application process is explained on the CCSF website). And independently of this, we contacted the support boat pilot. The CCSF currently have two sanctioned pilots. Whilst we understand that both pilots are very good, we chose to enlist the services of John Pittman and his vessel “Outrider”, based of several recommendations.
Due to high demand for EC crossings, it is essential to book your pilot a year or more in advance. And even then, you find yourself in a queue with other swimmers for your selected (neap) tide. But because Catalina is not (yet) as popular, the process is much easier. We contacted John twelve months prior to our swim. He took our names and preferred dates and said “Call me in January 2009 to book in”. That we did, and got our dates without any problem. Like the EC, we paid a deposit to secure the booking.
The other really pleasing thing about a Catalina swim is the weather. Often times in Dover, you wait days or weeks hoping for good weather in which to swim. Summer weather in SoCal is a lot more predictable and settled. So you book a day for your crossing, rather than a place on the tide. And it is quite unusual for a swim to be scuttled on account of bad weather.
Three months before our swim, we received an unexpected surprise. The observers appointed for our swims contacted us. For my crossings, they were Claudia Rose and Dorothy Thomas-Reid (both have successful crossings under their belt). Claudia emailed me to introduce herself, and offered to answer questions or lend assistance if I needed it. It was great to bounce ideas off a fellow swimmer with local knowledge, who knew where I was coming from. Claudia also offered to source kayakers for me. The two kayakers (Ralph and Bob) volunteered their time and craft, and would paddle for me in three hour shifts.
All planning was pretty well in hand, so Penny and I just had to concentrate on our training.
Santa Catalina Island lies south of, and directly off the coast from LA. The body of water separating the two is the San Pedro Channel. The straight line distance at its closest point (from Arrow Point on the NW side of Catalina to Point Vincente on the Palos Verdes peninsula) is 32.87 klm (roughly 21 statute or 17.5 nautical miles). You can swim in either direction, but most people go from Catalina to the mainland.
Whilst definitely an easier crossing than the EC, Catalina is still very challenging. The water temperature during the crossing season (July to October) is generally around 18-20 C (mid to high 60’s F). But 3-5 klm out from the mainland, a phenomenon called upwelling occurs, whereby colder water from the depths is pushed up to the surface, causing a drop in water temperature. This temperature variation changes from day to day, but 2 C would be average. If a swimmer is cold and depleted when he/she reaches this point, it can easily mean the end of an attempt.
The other main challenge with Catalina is that most swim attempts take place at night. This is because, under normal prevailing summer weather patterns, winds die off late at night and the sea remains fairly calm until late morning, when the sea breeze starts to build. The prevailing wind direction is westerly (cross wind) and coming straight from the north pacific ocean, a swim undertaken during a fresh breeze would be very tough. So most people swim at night to get better conditions.
Whilst winds are a bigger factor in Catalina than tides, just about all attempts are made during the (weaker) neap tides, as currents also mostly flow from west to east. With both wind and currents pushing you from left to right (as you swim from Catalina to the coast), any unfavourable aspect to the conditions can add considerably to the swim distance.
Since we live in the warm tropics, we flew into LA a week prior to our respective swims. This would give our bodies time to adjust our internal clocks, get over jet lag and acclimatize to the cooler water. The acclimation was hardly necessary though. The days were warm to hot, the nights mild, and the water temperature was quite pleasant (20-21C / 68-70 F). We chose to stay at Long Beach because of its close proximity to San Pedro harbour and our boat. Long Beach was nice and we stayed at a condo right on the beach, which was very convenient for training swims.
The days passed quickly. Penny’s historic swim from Santa Barbara Island came and went and now it was my turn.
The plan was to meet at 8.oopm on Sunday 27th September, in order to cast off by 9.00pm. The boat crew consisted of John Pittman, relief skipper Jeff and engineer, Dave. CCSF observers Claudia and Dorothy. Kayakers Ralph and Bob. And my coaches/handlers were Penny and Forrest Nelson. After loading the boat, the CCSF guys went through the rules of the swim to ensure we would have a fair, and hence officially recognized crossing. After that, most of the swim crew went below deck for a sleep. Outrider travels well through the water, and the trip across was pleasant.
The weather outlook for my swim was pretty good. The storm surf weather model on the internet showed a 10-12 knot westerly crosswind for the first couple of hours, slowly abating to almost nothing in the latter stages of the swim.
We arrived at the island around 11.30pm. Our departure point was Smugglers Cove, a few hundred meters to the east of Arrow Point. I felt calm, and took my time getting ready. Forrest and Penny were very good. Not in my face, but ready and willing to help as needed. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a bit apprehensive about swimming at night. But I’d done quite a few practice swims in the dark, and I knew the water temperature wasn’t a problem. But getting going was easy. John had the boat facing aft towards the beach 50 meters away, with his powerful deck lights shining in that direction. And Bob had launched the kayak and was stationed between the boat and beach. So my nerves were relatively settled as I jumped off the duckboard for the short swim to shore.
In accordance with the rules, I exited the water completely. I didn’t want to clown around at this point. My biggest concern with Catalina was hypothermia. So I wanted to keep moving. I raised my arms to signify I was ready. The hooter came from the boat, and we were off at 12.09am. As soon as we left the cove, it became quite choppy, with that breeze and a 2 -4 foot (1 meter) swell. It took almost two hours for me to feel really comfortable in the water. A combination I think, of the chop, the sensory deprivation, and worrying that I was going to collide at various times with either the kayaker or the boat. But as the breeze and the chop abated, I felt progressively better. Knowing that conditions were improving gave me a psychological boost and I also started to find a good rythym. The bioluminescence all through the night was amazing. Every time my hand entered the water for a stroke, it created a mini light show.
Looking back now, the 6 hours of night swimming seemed to pass by incredibly quickly, and uneventfully. I fed every half hour from the boat, and that gave me my only real concept of time. And I knew exactly how long I had been swimming by the types of carbo drinks that were given to me. The crew did an excellent job with the feeds. They held up the “5 minutes” sign, so I knew it was coming, then there was the activity on the back deck, preparing the warm drink. John brought the boat in close to me, and then Forrest or Penny lowered the drink to me (a plastic bottle attached to a rope). I drank, dropped the bottle and swam on, and they simply pulled the rope in to retrieve the bottle. All but a couple of the drink stops were less than 30 seconds.
I only had one incident at night, and it scared the daylights out of me. At 4.00am, and pitch black below me (bioluminescence aside), I suddenly saw what looked to be a plastic bag, as my right hand entered the water, but this thing took off and squirted ink into my face. I had almost collided with a fairly large squid. I stopped bolt upright and strained a muscle in my hip region in so doing. The crew said later that there were dolphins around us feeding on these squid.
The first faint hint of daylight started at around 6.00am, and with it, I could see the glorious conditions I now had. There was a bit of light fog and the sea was now almost flat calm. I was quite cool now, but no too bad. So at the 6 hour feed I asked for two things. One was for a volunteer pace swimmer and the other was our secret weapon against hypothermia. Porridge!! Penny and I never eat anything on our swims because it takes too long to chew and digest. So Penny came up with the idea of having warm sloppy porridge on her 18 hour Santa Barbara swim. She raved about it, so I thought I would give it a try. It was heaven. Porridge warmed me up, settled my stomach (I get so sick of carbo drinks after a while) and gave a deliciously different taste for a change.
Claudia jumped in at 6.30am and stayed in for 1 ½ hours. The company was fun. Her swimming alongside gave me something to think about and broke the swim up nicely. And it actually helped to lift my pace slightly, without my even noticing.
David Clark, a very experienced observer who was on Penny’s swim, gave me a bit of advice before the swim. He said don’t look ahead at Point Vincente, as it looks like it’s never getting closder (and this can be discouraging to the swimmer). But when Claudia got out at the 8 hour mark, I snuck a quick peek. Man, it didn’t look far away to me! A few minutes later, Forrest held up a sign “4.5 nm to go”. Wow, only 8 k’s, and less than 2 ½ hours of swimming. This really gave me a lift. At the 5 ½ hour mark, I was told I was half way, and figured that I would be heading for a 11.15 swim. Now, it was starting to look more like 10.30 and a negative split. Also now, Penny was holding up messages of support from all over the USA and elsewhere. Our friend Lynn Kubasek from Laguna Beach, had kindly offered to post a commentary of my swim (which Penny would txt through to her) on Penny’s face book page. Lynn was also txt’ing back all the positive comments and cheering. It was around this point that I knew I had the swim in the bag.
But I still had the cold water upwelling to get through. It had been a constant 68 F (20 C) and I did feel it getting a little cooler in the last few klm, but it was just a gradual drop down to 67 F (19.5 C), so I guess I was lucky. But I never really felt cold at any point during the crossing.
Catalina has a reputation for marine life and my swim was no exception. Apart from the rogue squid, the crew said they saw quite a few dolphins and seals (although I never saw any of either). Also, when we were only a mile off Point Vincente, a 50 foot (15 meter) blue whale surfaced and spouted less than 400m directly ahead of us, but apart from the crew going bananas, pointing and holding up signs, I saw nothing. But I did have an escort from a couple of cormorants in the closing stages of the swim. They took up station first to my left, then behind me, then in front, and did several impressive acrobatic displays when they dived below me.
The last few hundred meters was a bit surreal. The crew were all smiling and cheering. I got emotional for a few seconds, but these thoughts were pushed to the background by my desire to do everything right to ensure a fair swim. I had already seen Penny finish, so I knew exactly where to leave the water and what to expect. The finish is at a small beach beneath the Terranea resort about 1 nm east of Point Vincente. There is no sand, just rocks that you have to clamber over. And you must time the exit with the swell which pushes up on the rocks. If you get it wrong, at best it will be embarrassing and you might end up with a couple of bruises. The best thing is to beach yourself on the rising swell, and then waddle up on all fours. No dramas in my case.
But I had one thing left to do. Successful crossers customarily souvenir a rock from the beach to keep as a momento. At some stage during the night, I came up with the idea that I would like the crew to sign my rock. So it needed to be BIG. Upon finding my rock (more like a Fred Flintstone tablet) I set about shimmying feet first on my bottom, back into the water. There were quite a few people on the beach watching my finish. And one of them, George, was close by as I was struggling with my piece of real estate. Just then, one of the aforementioned rising swells knocked me clean over, somersault style. I had plenty of sore bits from the swim, so it didn’t hurt a bit. But George ripped his shirt off and offered to swim my rock out to Ralph in the waiting kayak. On the boat, the general concensus was somewhere between surprise and amusement, to “Lose the rock!”. I never thought until later about carrying the bloody thing in my hand luggage, and getting it through security at LAX.
I finished at 10:39am, with the official time of 10 hours 30 minutes and 29 seconds, which I was quite happy with. Apart from the negative split, the fact that I had plenty (of energy) left at the end, and didn’t feel cold, were the main positives I took from this crossing. Exactly a year ago, I experienced a failure in a similar crossing from Santa Cruz island to Oxnard due to hypothermia (albeit in colder water), so it was very satisfying to notch up a success this time round.
Penny and I both very much enjoyed our swims. The boat and its crew were great and the people who helped and showed us hospitality were excellent. We thoroughly enjoyed our time in LA and our trip down to Laguna and La Jolla cove.
The CCSF has developed a model service model for swimmers which is probably the benchmark at the moment in the world of marathon swimming. We have no hesitation in recommending Catalina to any swimmer who wants a real challenge.