I couldn’t spot Catalina Island upon arrival in San Pedro, CA. The island lay shrouded in a mysterious haze beyond my prying eyes. How can one possibly swim back to the mainland from an island one cannot see?
I was to start on my attempt at a Catalina Island crossing on a Sunday evening in early June. My crew, Lizzy and Corey, my kayakers, Dan and Barb with their respective crafts, the CCSF observers, Don, Patricio, and Qing, and I boarded the Pacific Star. She was a very comfortable 65-ft by 22-ft diving vessel. We all made ourselves comfortable and the boat crew provided a safety briefing. It was followed by a rules briefing from our lead observer, Don.
The Pacific Star soon slipped out of her berth at the 22nd Street Landing and motored out to the San Pedro Harbor. Out the starboard cabin window, the lighthouse at the end of the San Pedro breakwater shone a green light. I counted the seconds between blinks. Past the lighthouse, in the faint light, the great Pacific Ocean, gunmetal blue, simmered in contained anger. I doubted my ability to get across the channel. Our observers and Dan, my lead kayaker, expected a calm night, however. In the cabin, the boat crew cut fruit and laid out snacks. My crew found good spots for my gear. The observers studied a chart on Don’s computer. The ocean didn’t want me and no one really needed me. I felt lonely and contemplated a nap. Afraid of getting dizzy down below in the bunks, I opted to lie down on the bench by the galley and promptly fell asleep.
The cutting of the boat’s engine woke me from my deep slumber. Voices coming from the boat deck commented on the calmness of the water. I exited the cabin and gazed into a dark sky pockmarked with stars. I couldn’t see any from the mainland the previous night due to the haze, so I was grateful for them even though they were less than the ones one can see in the Sierra. I bordered the cabin on the starboard deck toward the bow, where crew and observers stood. A mountain rose out of the still, silky water. I gasped. Patricio pointed out Doctor’s Cove, the starting point of the swim. Pebbles shone in the boat’s spotlight. It was undoubtedly a magical place. I felt I’d intruded in an enchanted realm I had no reason to trespass.
The rocking of the boat and the smell of diesel fuel made my stomach queasy. I felt the onset of motion sickness. I was asked if I wanted to wait to start the swim so as to shorten the time swimming in darkness, or if I wanted to start in order to take advantage of the calm conditions. I opted for the latter. I’ve only swum at night once before in Arizona and found it exhilarating. It’s a rare treat to swim in utter darkness.
Lizzy and I stumbled into the cabin to get me ready. I stripped down to my two-piece. I put my hand on the head’s door jamb to steady myself. The boat rocked and the head’s door closed on my thumb. In an instant, blood ran down my hand. Lizzy frantically searched for something to staunch the bleeding with. She located napkins. While I pressed on my thumb with them and struggled to give directions, she and Corey managed to get my gear on: cap, goggles, earplugs, two blinking green lights on my goggle straps, and two green glow sticks on the back of my bikini top. I was now sweating profusely. Afraid of getting sick, I asked my crew to move out onto the dive deck.
Out the cabin’s door, Dan stood in full kayaking gear, ready to launch his craft. I wished the motion sickness had allowed me to focus on his wardrobe. I recall black neoprene, a hat, headlights, no exposed skin other than his face. He was ready and I wasn’t. I trudged toward the door. Upon reaching it, the cold air hit me as it hadn’t before. Always keeping a hand on the boat, I managed to stand on the dive deck as Lizzy covered my body in zinc oxide. I started to feel better out in the open air while Lizzy slapped the white paste with gusto on my skin. Once ready, Lizzy relinquished me to the crew of the Pacific Star. Time became elastic. In my mind, thoughts knocked about inside my skull, not quite realizing themselves. Am I ready? Was this a good idea? Navy SEALs must feel this rush. Dan is waiting. People want me off this boat. Am I going to make it? Did I say goodbye to my crew? All the while, the world outside my skin moved vertiginously. Max took my hand and walked me toward the diving platform at the stern. Dan’s kayak, decked with lights, bobbed in the darkness between the boat and the beach. Max instructed me to step onto the platform. I realized I had my Crocs on so I took them off and placed them on the deck while a voice, perhaps Lizzy’s, beckoned me to forget about the shoes. The metal grating seemed cold and rough but when I stepped onto it didn’t hurt my bare feet. Immediately cold water covered my ankles. I was an offering about to be thrown in the water to appease the mountain’s wrath. Max said I had to go. I dove in. The time was close to 2300.
The spotlight’s rays filtered through gin-clear, cold water. At the foot of the mountain, under the surface of the ocean, I discovered a magic realm of rocky formations covered in beautiful sealife. They give way to a bed of gem-like pebbles. I swam fast and reached the shore. I rose from the water into the cold air, stunned by what I had seen. Dan suggested I take a rock. I bent over and my heels sank in the pebbles. I lost my balance, falling on my behind. Mortified, I quickly stood up and picked up two rocks, one for each of my kids, and handed them to Dan. As Don had instructed me, I cleared the water. I never looked up at the mountain, intimidated by its presence and afraid it would notice mine. I turned and lifted my head toward the ocean and raised my arm. When my feet touched the water that lapped the pebbles, I lowered my arm and waded in. My swim had begun.
Without the spotlight trained on me, bioluminescence lit up in the cold, dark, silky water every time I took a stroke. Was that the secret the mountain strove to hide? Water that turned to gold dust? My furtive escape had started and my mind, fueled with adrenaline and oxygen, reeked with doubt. The night was quiet and dark; only a quarter moon and the stars shone. On my left, Dan’s green kayak lights and his headlight shone brightly. The Pacific Princess droned on Dan’s port side. She had the presence of a Coast Guard cutter. As my breath slowed down, my skin felt the water temperature and my arms and lungs the air temperature. I reveled in the surface of the water, smooth as silk sheets, and the specs of gold dust I created with my hands. In the darkness, with no reference point, I had no sense of speed or position, but somehow I felt the mountain was pulling me and I couldn’t get away fast enough. Suddenly, the swim seemed insurmountable.
During the first feeds I noticed my breath was faster than what it should’ve been. I continued swimming and after a while, I started veering off to my right, unable to focus on Dan’s craft. I informed Dan of my issue and he said I was still doing fine for him, but after the next feed he had me switch sides with him. Now I swam flanked by Dan on my right and the Pacific Princess on my left. That helped me stay the course. By my estimation, about two hours into the swim my legs felt stiff. I couldn’t kick. This had never happened to me and I informed Dan so. He instructed my crew to prepare warm feeds. I gulped the first one in its entirety when I was only supposed to drink half the bottle. My legs kick started, but after a while, they became stiff once again. They didn’t hurt: they were just numb, as if circulation had been cut off. Feeds now seemed to fly. Unbeknownst to me, Dan had switched me to feeds every twenty minutes instead of every thirty. I felt I was making progress despite my legs’ inability to kick. Every time I took a feed, my legs worked for a little while and then returned to their stiff state. Dan and Barb were to switch at the four-hour mark. It seemed that it took longer for them to do so and I thought I had perhaps miscounted the feeds, my only way to tell time as I don’t like to ask.
By the time Barb took over, the warm feeds were not making a difference for my legs. At some point during Barb’s shift, I fell into a groove. My stroke, even without any kicking, felt good. I even managed to urinate while swimming, something I’ve struggled for years to learn. It was a fleeting joyful moment during the anguishing battle that was raging in my brain. Was I going to make it to shore? Did I even have a chance?
My newly found groove had a short life. My groin now hurt if I tried to kick. The warm feeds were no longer making a difference. I accepted my kicking was finally gone and concentrated on over-rotating my hips to get some measure of leg lift and relieve my shoulders. Barb encouraged me to continue swimming until sunrise and reassess then. She commented on how good my stroke looked. I did hope that with the sun rising at 0540 the air would warm up; however, I felt sad about leaving the cover of the night. In the sunlight, the mountain might see me.
The night gave to hazy pink and blue hues. The water became blue-gray and lost its silken quality to a very light chop. I spotted a sleek dark gray figure ahead of the Pacific Princess. A whale? A dolphin? It disappeared in the swell. In the sunlight, the water column revealed it was teeming with translucent organisms with light brown centers, some single, some joined in chains. I felt I should give myself credit for making it to sunrise because otherwise I wouldn’t have discovered the tiny sealife that unbeknownst to me had been accompanying me throughout the night in my escape. I couldn’t do so. During my last feed with Barb, I heard the call of the mountain. She wanted me to turn and look at her, so I did and instantly understood it’d been a trap. She rose majestic from the water, much closer than I had expected her to be. I, silly human, understood she’d never let go of me. I’d trespassed in her magic realm and as punishment she’d never let me go. She’d just fooled me into thinking I could. My heart sank to the depths of that quiet ocean full of secrets. If I was ever going to get away, I’d have to get back on the boat.
Dan and Barb switched shifts. I told Dan I had to stop. He said my stroke looked good and that I was nearly halfway but he also said that I’d been fighting a head-on current all the way and that I had ten more hours to go. I said I wouldn’t last. He suggested to continue swimming for at least four hours more to see if the current turned; however, there were no guarantees. He persuaded me to continue swimming.
Left alone with my thoughts, I analyzed the risk of ten more hours of pulling. My legs were shot. The air would warm up at some point and with it the wind would pick up and the chop would get stronger. Without kicking, I’d destroy my shoulders. And like Dan had said, there were no guarantees of improved conditions. I could get hurt for naught creating a whole new set of problems. The possibility of quitting seemed very real. All the same, I continued swimming. This affront was not taken lightly by the mountain. She dealt her final blow. My teeth started chattering and soon my whole body was shivering. I thought of my kids and how irresponsible it would be of me to continue swimming at that point. I’ve seen people in advanced stages of hypothermia, gray as a cadaver, a thousand-mile stare, their consciousness impaired. I told Dan I was done.
Immediately, the mountain relinquished her hold on me and receded into the haze. I treaded water, defeated, staring at her in tears. Dan called the swim and the boat crew gave him permission to approach. I’d swum for over nine hours. All those aboard the boat broke into applause. I felt embarrassment washing all over me. I wanted to cry all the tears I cold possibly shed before reaching the diving platform. I wanted the ocean to grab me by my useless legs and bring me to his depths, where no one could see me. He didn’t, so I had no choice but to figure out how to get on the diving platform.
Two boat crew members grabbed me by the arms and pulled me onto the platform and then the boat deck. I shivered uncontrollably. Lizzy and Corey brought my dryrobe, a space blanket, and my beenie. I wanted the hat more than anything. After taking my cap and goggles off, someone put it on my head. I tried to take off my two-piece but was so uncoordinated that Lizzy and Qing had to do it after the men considerately turned away. Wrapped in the space blanket and my dryrobe, a cocoon of shame, Lizzy and Qing brought me into the cabin and sat me on a bench. Max brought me a bucket of warm water in which to put my feet. The bucket slipped and with it I fell on the floor. I was lifted onto the bench, like a rag doll. Dan and Patricio discussed how to warm me up. Dan argued that I had to stay on the bench and drink warm fluids. Patricio suggested a warm shower. I saw myself as a helpless heap on the shower floor. I sided with Dan. Max brought me cups of warm water. After a few of those, he started bringing me cups of hot chocolate, which made me happy.
Once I’d regained use of my extremities, Lizzy helped me into the shower and take the zinc oxide off. I dressed warmly and returned to the cabin. I was encouraged to eat. I managed to get a few Famous Amos cookies down. I wasn’t hungry. All I wanted was to sleep to temporarily forget my defeat. As I fell asleep on the bench I heard someone, perhaps Don, command everyone to keep an eye on me. I woke up as we motored back in the harbor. After saying goodbyes to my fabulous kayakers, the boat crew, and my kind observers, I disembarked the Pacific Princess flanked by Lizzy and Corey. On the dock, I thought of the two rocks I’d never give my kids. I looked over my shoulder. The mountain would not bee seen, but I knew she was there, watching me and asking herself whether I’d return.