Catalina Part III

Since I had planned to have little feedback and conversation while swimming, I was completely in the dark as to how much longer I might be in the water. I had read many accounts of English Channel swimmers spending three/four/five/six hours fighting the last half mile only to surrender unsuccessfully… close enough to smell the croissants baking, but this isn’t the EC. It isn’t supposed to be like this! With no visual reference, I didn’t know if I was gaining toward the mainland at all, and I wondered if I would be pulled for lack of progress. No matter, I was going to swim until I hit land, got pulled, or my arms fell off.

As it turns out, I was making progress. The Outrider was on auto-pilot and we were creeping slowly toward my rocky exit. As the current swept northwest, we turned southeast to face it, and so, inched sideways toward the California coast which was mostly blocked from my view by the boat on my left.

I tried to keep my pace steady and my stroke rate held in the mid 60’s throughout. My neck was getting sore. I tweeked it a bit the day before my swim in a sneezing fit (of all things) and though I managed to keep it loose for a good 12 hours, it was time to quit alternate breathing and go to my old standby left only for the home stretch. I hoped my kayakers, paddling on my right side, would not be offended. I could see the hull of the kayak under water and follow easily.

Tobey jumped in again, and sensing that I was in need of some encouraging words said the perfect thing: “Hey, lets just go for a swim.” We did. I felt a surge of energy and picked my stroke rate up a bit. The end didn’t matter to me now and I was able to enjoy just moving through the water…. finally the Zen moment! I felt briefly that the coast would get in the way of my finding out just how long I could keep going and started to feel sorry for all those poor bastards whose swim is over after nine or ten hours.

A strange thing happens when one is engaged in a singular activity for hours on end, and its the exact opposite of what one would expect; time accelerates. The time between feeds passed so quickly now and loud cheering now accompanied each chug-a-lug like a frat party drinking contest. I can only assume we are getting closer to the beach and try to keep up the pace. Jim gives me a two fists in the air salute and holds it until I respond with a thumbs up. It feels good to have the officials so solidly in my corner.

I deliberately avoid looking forward but hope to see some kelp soon…. No kelp, but the end is near. John, Tobey and Harris were all in the water to escort me the last 200 yards to the rocky beach. The surf was slight, but I lacked the balance to deal with it, so I crawled slowly on all fours until I could find some footing. There were a few people sitting nearby in some beach chairs; they looked pretty relaxed.

After a very brief respite, we swim back to the Outrider.

Back aboard the Outrider, hot chocolate, mini snickers, degrease, and a hot shower… yes a hot shower! Everyone was exhausted and I’m sure looking forward to terra firma followed by a soft bed… as was I. The boat ride back to the dock wasn’t long enough to fully express my appreciation to everyone on board. Before the swim, I had thought it would be fun to buy everyone a few rounds at some dockside bar and grill, but we were deep into double overtime, and I could sense that everyone was anxious to get on with the rest of their lives. Feet dragging but spirits high, we cleared our gear from the deck of the Outrider and made our way to our vehicles that waited patiently for us, parked across the road in a newly paved lot. It is unlikely that we, as a group, will ever find ourselves in the same place at the same time again, though John, Ian and Roz will be in Dover with me shortly.

I know that I’ll be back to Catalina sometime soon to swim or crew with some friends……

Catalina Part II

The clock started at 10 minutes past midnight, July 20th. The water temperature was a comfortable cool 64 degrees. There was no evidence of the ¾ moon as the cloud cover presented us with a low ceiling…. I thought it was always sunny in LA. To my right was kayaker Peter Phillips. His kayak lit up with a few green glow sticks. To my left was Tobey Ann Saracino… to her left was the mighty Outrider; a 50’ fishing charter boat and one of 2 certified escorts for the Catalina Channel Swimming Federation (CCSF). The cabin was well lit up, and they had a light shining on us also. It was hard to identify the people watching us from the side, as they were back-lit by the boat’s lighting but silhouettes were always visible. I could see Tobey better through the water than above, likewise the kayak to my right. I felt good; breathing every 3 strokes and though I was looking for sea life, there was little to be seen except for a few jellyfish and some chains of phytoplankton. Tobey and I were getting stung frequently, but I assumed that there were lots of renegade tentacles floating around… nothing like the lion’s-mane-wrap-around stings like we’ve been hit with back east, and the discomfort of these little “hits” would fade quickly.

Twenty minutes passes and its time for the first feed. The strobe that I hoped would be a clear signal proved to be useless with the bright lights behind, and a chorus of “FEED!… FEED!… FEED! “ would become the standard communication between all aboard the Outrider and yours truly for the foreseeable future.

Tobey dropped back; I made my way to the boat; bottles dropped; glug…glug… glug; swim onward. Repeat. The only variation being that on every hour, the flavor of my feed would change from EFS fruit punch to ginger tea sweetened with agave nectar. Tobey exited the water on my 5th feed… 1hour 40minutes of swimming. Any night time anxiety I may have had was gone, I was feeling good, and told myself that I was almost 20% through with my swim. Soon the sun would be rising.

Some time went by and John Humenik took the plunge to join me for a bit. John is a super-lean swimming machine and I was a bit concerned that he would catch a chill swimming at my pace. If he did, he kept it well hidden from me, and also kept his exposure to 20 minutes.

Somewhere between 4 and 6 hours, we had a kayak switch. The outrider pulled ahead to let Beth Barnes enter the water and as we made our way toward the boat, the change over was made. Daybreak was upon us now. The lights came on so gradually that it was hard to notice, and the heavy overcast added to this effect. The air was heavy with the smell of bacon and it made me happy to know that the crew would soon be enjoying breakfast. This was Beth’s first crossing and I have to say she was extremely focused and held a straight line and consistent distance the whole time…. Still, on the one occasion when I had to hurl, I was careful to do it while facing the other way.

I had warned everyone that I would not be conversing much during the swim, and indeed the only communications I had with the boat were to confirm that I was eliminating the surplus of my feeds regularly… a learned skill, and I think I am somewhat of an expert.
A quick thumbs up in response to “are you peeing?” …. No need for words.
There were a few other quick communications: once when my feed came to me too hot, and once when Jim requested that I consume some water as he thought the electrolyte content of my feeds was extremely high. He may be right. I cut my hourly intake by 1/3 for this swim and will probably cut it further for the English Channel.

About half way, there was a noticeable drop in temperature… down to 62 degree. With a long way still to go, I thought this would be a problem as I fully expected the temperature to keep dropping as we approached the mainland. This I believe is the norm, but not today. 62 would be the low, and it only lasted for a couple of hours.

Though I wasn’t keeping track of time, I knew that my hopeful goal between 9 and 10 hours had come and gone and still the mainland was nowhere in site, but I felt like I could keep on going so I never asked “how much longer?”, “where are we?”, or any other questions that I really didn’t want to know the answer to. Harris was keeping my FB page updated and told me later that he thought I should be a bit more conversational….. nonsense. There really isn’t much I want to say.

There were several wildlife viewing opportunities for those aboard the Outrider that included dozens of dolphins, a handful of sea lions, and a 10’ blue shark. I saw none of these, but knew of their presence. The dolphins were swimming close to me and I could hear their chattering squeaks and whistles. I saw Beth turn quickly to her right; it startled me and she said there was a sea lion, but the kayak was between it and me. The entire gang rushed to the back of the boat and there was pointing and they were looking with binoculars… Tobey was in the water with me on her second shift; and she noticed this as well though there were no words exchanged between us. My pre-swim address to my crew included a few “please, do nots”…. Please, do not let me see you eating/drinking/puking/shivering/praying/fishing/sleeping/crying/etc, but I failed to mention: Please do not all run to the back of the boat at once like there is a big shark following us. Though seriously, I was never worried and in the dark moment of self doubt I even thought that a nosey shark might be just the thing I need to be able to resign from this seemingly endless swim with dignity.

I was certainly feeling the burn in my mouth, sinus and throat now but was otherwise pain free. I had stopped trying to keep track of the time in my head, but knew I was somewhere between 11 and 13 hours. The currents were quite strong, I was covering less than a quarter mile between feeds, and when I stopped to feed, I was being swept to the back of the boat in those few seconds. As John retrieved my bottles, I asked (looking for some affirmation) “I’m not really going forward… am I?” John’s response was over the top and hysterical… “DON’T BE A PUSSY!” …. I nearly puked from laughing… 20 minutes to the next feed became my mantra.

——- to be continued———

Catalina 15:37:11

Part 1: the start


I really don’t know where to start, so forgive me if it takes a few entries to put it all together. I will invite Tobey and John and any other crew members to add their thoughts as my perspective is only one of many, and I never felt the presence of so many others as being THE most important factor in having a successful swim before.

I’ll start at the beginning:

This is going to be a popular year for Catalina Swimming. According to pilot John Pittman, he has never had so many bookings, the 3 swimmers in 3 days of which I had the final booking was unprecedented. I had been following reports for weeks and knew that the weather and sea temps and currents were not behaving as they usually do, so I was expecting a bit of adversity…. no big deal, so I thought…. but when Morgan, the first in our trio of attempts had her swim reversed for the start and would be swimming from the mainland to Catalina Island, I began to get a little nervous. There is a drop in temperature of a few degrees near the mainland and I always thought it would be easier to acclimate in the sunlight at the end of a swim than at midnight at the start. Since Morgan is from Berkely and I assume trains in the SF bay, I didn’t think the temps would bother her, but I have been training in NY where the recent heat wave has every body of water at or approaching 80 degrees. I don’t know if I could have handled this shock. Fortunately, I didn’t have to find out. Morgan’s attempt was cut short, but still over 4 hours of cold water and a chop that put her at odds with her feeds. The next evening (sunday, July 18th), The Outrider, with Capt John Pittman and crew would be accompanying swimmer Suzie Dods. The currents were still erratic and it it was decided that Suzie would also swim from the Mainland to Catalina though the water had warmed a couple of degrees. At this point, I fully expected that I too would be starting on the mainland as well, and was grasping at little optimistic, glass-half-full kind of affirmations: Craig Lenning suggested this one: “sounds good… get the cold water out of the way early”. Some others: Catalina is teeming with aquatic life…. better to see it in the day time. You will get to sleep on the boat for 2 hours on the way back…. etc. Eventually, I accepted that either way there were pros and cons, and I would just go with the flow.

I followed Suzie’s swim as best I could and spoke to John Pittman a couple of times during her swim. He said the currents were reversing and that it was still impossible to say which direction we would be starting in. He also said that the water had warmed up a bunch since Morgan’s swim the day before and that Suzie was still swimming strong (GO SUZIE!)

On our end, Tobey’s flight had issues in Chicago and would be delayed a few hours we packed our gear, tried to get some rest, picked up Tobey at Santa Ana airport and headed for the 22nd st landing. We actually had a bit of time to grab a bite and I called John Pittman one last time to make sure things were still on track. John was still out with Suzie and expected to docking around 7 PM… the same time that my whole gang was meeting there. At the landing, everyone showed up right on time including John Pittman and the Outrider with Suzie and crew aboard. As they filed off, we made introductions and shared our congratulations. Everyone looked exhausted but Suzie had the smile of victory…. 18 hrs 36 mins 28 secs. Clearly the conditions were difficult and the currents tricky, but they would be returning to normal now, or between now and my splash time in 5 hours… so I hoped.

The boat’s crew was busy scrubbing away and loading provisions for the next trip. Capt John had gone home to check forecasts and would be returning in a couple of hours. He would then decide which direction I would swim…. C-M or M-C. We were able to start loading up our gear and went below and started choosing bunks. I left my feed bags above so that I might give one final presentation to everyone as to how I would like to see this all work.

I laid out my bottles and explained that I would be taking my feeds hot. This meant from the boat with bottles on a string. I identified the bottles marked with blue tape as the “main feed”…. concentrated 1st Endurance EFS that would be diluted by 50% with hot water before being tossed to me. I would receive this tethered to another bottle with just plain H2O on 20 minute intervals. Every 3rd feed, for a little variety and to reduce the amount of electrolyte I would be consuming, my “mix bottle” would contain ginger tea with agave nectar, again served up hot. Both calculated to give me 90 – 95 calories per feed, or 270 – 285 cals/hr. On each 2 hour interval, I would have a Hammer Nutrition Tissue Rejuvenator added to the mix. I broke out two bundles of glow sticks…. one red and one green and a couple of small strobes that I thought would attach to the kayaks… my presentation was done.

Next up, Jim Fitzpatrick, Observer. Jim listened with great attention during my presentation and examined my feed, my feed system, glow sticks and strobes. He explained that a blinking light on the kayaks might be disorienting after a while so we decided to use them to signal, 1 minute to feed time. He explained the details of how swimmers would exit and enter the water, how the kayak exchanges would be made, where the boat would be positioned during each of these activities, etc. He went over the rules of the swim: how it starts and finishes, where my companion swimmers should position themselves (between me and the boat), how they would fall back during feeds, etc.

Finally, Capt. Pittman gave the rules of the boat, how the head works, what not to flush, no wet clothes down below, keep the galley clear, life jackets, etc.

We would be starting from Catalina Island and it would be about a 2 hour ride…. last chance, rest up.

I drank a mix of 3 scoops Hammer Sustained Energy and 1 scoop of 1st Endurance Pre-Race.

I chose one of the larger bunks and while I can’t say that I actually slept, I did fall into a well executed “savasana

The ride was smooth and I felt relaxed and refreshed when I heard the engines winding down and I went upstairs to see what was happening. We were at Catalina Island. The boat was shining spotlights all around… rocky cliffs gave way to a small pebble beach, a white floating dock stood between us and that beach. There were lots of fish in the water… attracted by the lights… flying fish, squid, some strange phytoplankton links and a few larger fish below. Suit up, ear plugs, sunscreen (seemed silly at midnight) grease, glow sticks, cap and goggles. Tobey would be starting the swim with me, we would follow kayaker Peter Phillips to the beach, exit the water, turn toward the boat, raise one arm, pause….. lower the arm, shout “SWIMMING!”, enter the water…… ready or not… California here I come.

to be continued…

40 hours to SPLASH TIME

Well……. I’d like to say that I’m excited about my swim (and I am), but I’ve watched the temperature readings from the channel buoy drop steadily since I arrived in LA 2 days ago.

The current reading is 60 degrees, but that only tells a part of the story, as there is an up welling near the CA coast causing drop of a few degrees plus the currents are running strange.

Last night, Morgan from Berkeley made her attempt, and started from the mainland to adjust for the currents. Water temp was 56 degrees for her 11:51 PM start and the chop had almost everyone on board losing their cookies. She resigned half way not able to hold down her feeds. A great effort, I hope I can channel (the pun) the same strength.

I’ve got to try and find that happy place…. get some sleep and ginger.

Suzie swims tonight…. fingers crossed for a change in conditions.

Catalina countdown

Its the big July 4th weekend and the word on everyone’s lips is “SHARKS”. Its perhaps the most common theme of questioning from people not familiar with open water swimming, and I’m not surprised that the NY Post (little more than a right-wingnut tabloid) would feature an article from that quotes a non-expert saying “But I have no doubt that a great white shark that swims into your comfort zone would surely find a splashing paddle or dangling hand inviting. I also expect that same passing shark would spend little time differentiating between boater, paddler and prey.” hmmmm.. some credentials please? were this the case, there would be thousands of shark attacks each year… think about what you’re saying!


on the other side of the country:…f-socal-coast/

yes, the channel islands referred to are those that include Catalina Island.

I am fortunate to have assembled a very enthusiastic crew that includes 2 kayakers (Beth and Peter), 2 CCSF observers (yet to be named), and 4 friends that will handle everything from filming to feeds to swimming along with me. (Tobey, John, Roz, Ian). In 16 days, we will gather at the 22nd st. landing in San Pedro to load up and board the Outrider and depart around 9PM toward Catalina…. splash time 12 midnight. This will be my first long swim without Clare acting as my support. I think I have my feed routine worked out to be easily implemented by any willing party but… there will still be something missing. A few days later, Clare will meet me in SF and we will do a celebratory Alcatraz swim together.

I’ve done a bit of night swimming, but have never swum through kelp in the dark. In daylight, the experience is somewhat mixed… upon first approaching, its impossible not to gaze down the giant stalks as they disappear into the blue depth and feel like someone turned a great forest upside down, but the weeds can also lay heavily on the surface and contact is a bit scratchy. Kelp encounters are likely to occur near the shore at the start and finish of the swim…. I’m a bit nervous about swimming through “night kelp”.

My friend Jordan came up for a long July 4th swim in Lake Minnewaska. We did 12 x 2k with a minute or two between each to feed. I used my familiar 1st Endurance EFS mix but, as I failed to adjust my liquid intake to the hot summer conditions, wound up a bit dehydrated by the end and suffered with a low grade headache all the next day. Jordan will be heading to dover in a few weeks and has a few more long ones scheduled before he departs to Dover. I am taking this week and next light…. <40k and <30k respectively. Every body of water around here has become uncomfortably warm due to the heat wave.

12 days to Catalina………