Catalina Channel: Part 2


To help me prepare for this swim I broke the swim into several discrete elements. Each of these elements could be isolated, and a specific type of preparation could be implemented. Of course, I did a number of long swims in preparation including the 24 mile Tampa Bay Marathon Swim in April, and two 11 mile swims over the summer. But Catalina had it's own challenges. 

One thing was that I had to prepare for swimming a long time in water that would be in the mid 60's. As someone who trains almost exclusively in a pool, this was quite a difference in the temperatures I was accustomed to. However, unlike most people, I did this by only doing a few swims in the San Francisco Bay the month before the swim. The temperature in the bay at the end of August was a balmy 59° - balmy for the bay that is. However, what it did allow me to do in that short time was to recognize the difference between when I am sensing that the water was cold, and when I was sensing that I was cold. This was a critical lesson for me. During my Catalina swim I often sensed the water was cold, but I never sensed that I was cold. Having the ability to tell the difference gave me a great mental advantage.

On a training swim in the San Francisco Bay

Photograph by Leslie Thomas

Another thing I prepared myself to do was to jump into the water in the middle of the night. I watched many a You Tube video of people taking the plunge at Catalina, and it always sent a shiver through my body. To prepare for this I jumped into my outdoor pool at midnight repeatedly in the month leading up to the swim. The pool temperature was only in the low 70°s, but it was enough of a shock to me ready mentally. 

One thing I knew would be a challenge for me would be to get enough sleep before the swim. I'll be starting around midnight and I'll be up all night and into the next day.  Coincidentally, I had committed to driving a truck  on a cross-country trip 6 weeks before the swim. So to help develop the mental toughness needed for the swim, I drove the first 30 hours nonstop. On the first day I drove from Princeton, New Jersey to Rapid City, South Dakota, stopping only for gas and whatever I could grab at a gas station store. Just for kicks, when I got to Rapid City, I went directly to their outdoor 50 meter pool and swam 2,000 meters. It went great and it gave me a lot of confidence that staying up all night would not be a problem. Unfortunately, it was not going to be that easy.

Typically, I don't sleep well the night before a competitive event. To compensate I make sure I sleep a lot the 2 or 3 days prior to that. I have the routine down and have never felt the lack of sleep during an event. Unfortunately, Catalina is a completely different type of beast. Unlike my other swims (or my cross-country drive), my Catalina swim would not start in the morning, but at the end of a very long day.  Unfortunately, I was unable to execute my sleeping plan and slept poorly the few nights before the swim. To make matters worse, instead of laying around the hotel on the day of the swim, I spent much of the day driving around picking up supplies. I would pay a price for this. If I had a chance to do it over this would be one thing that I would change, however, there was nothing I could do about it.

Photograph by Paula Selby

With nothing left to do I jumped into the night and was abruptly met by the cold 65° water, and shockingly clear water. I lived on the California coast for nearly 2 decades, and I never imagined that the water could be this clear. Even more striking was the bioluminescence in the water. As I sank deeper into the water from the plunge, my body appeared lit up by a source of diffused lighting. But, this was no time to go sightseeing, I had to find my way to shore and get about the business of swimming the channel. 

So as I swam to shore comfortably surrounded by the familiar smell of salt water. Putting all of that behind me, I headed to the beach lit by the boat's spotlights. Each Catalina Channel swim is timed by the Federation Observers, and before they start the clock you must get out of the water and on dry sand. However, before I could reach the beach to begin the swim there was still one thing that still stood in my way: kelp beds.

K. Kalani Paterson Kelp

Kelp Forest from below

Photograph Courtesy of K. Kalani Peterson (Copyright 2007)

For those not familiar with this truly wonderful plant, it is a thick vine-like seaweed growing up from the bottom of the ocean where it is anchored by its "holdfast". It's stalk is called a "stipe" and attached to it are long leaves called "blades". In addition, each blade has a small balloon, called an "air bladder", attached at the base of each blade. This structure causes the kelp to float and grow tall. When found clustered together, it is referred to as a kelp forest. They are beautiful to see underwater, and provide a terrific habitat for many marine animals. Unfortunately, encountering a kelp forest while you are swimming is not a particularly pleasant experience, and to do so in the dark is - how shall I say - a real SOB.

When faced with a kelp forest, you have only one choice and that is to kelp crawl. It would be nice if the kelp didn't rise to the surface, but it does. It would be nice if kelp didn't grow closely together, but it does. What you experience swimming through it, is that every arm motion is met by the stipe. As you pull through your stroke it wraps itself around your arm. The harder you pull through the water the tighter the stipe becomes. You begin to feel as if you are quickly being tied up by a bundle blades and stipe. So what can a swimmer do? The secret is not to swim, but crawl over the top of the kelp. Sounds simple enough, but unfortunately it's not. No matter how hard you try your arms will find their way through the kelp and below you. You must pull your hand under your body to gain forward motion. You also have to quickly lift your arm out (elbow first) as soon as your hand reaches your waist so that it doesn't get further entangled. All the while trying not to swallow too much salt water in the process. Sounds like fun doesn't it? Oh, I forgot one more thing: try doing it in the dark. Now that is a very special kind of fun.

Kristina Soriano's Kelp Crawl

A group of swimmers crawling their way through a kelp bed. It is even worse in the foreground.

Photograph Courtesy of Kristina Soriano (All Rights Reserved)

I pity a person who comes to Catalina without any kelp crawling experience. An experienced open water swimmer can find their way through the kelp in the daylight even if it is their first time. But a midnight start of a 21 mile channel swim is not the time to learn how to do it. Ultimately, I think it is just one more thing added to the mental challenge of swimming  the Catalina Channel and it  throws it's first test at you even before the swim starts.

I headed into Doctor's Cove and crawled over the kelp on the way. Even though I had done my share of daytime kelp crawling, and paddling a surfboard through it at night, it still brought it's share of surprises and a laugh or two. I couldn't help but imagined what it would look like to a stranger. Here is a person trying to swim through a kelp field at night, barely making progress and looking completely uncoordinated. "And he thinks he can swim to the mainland?" they would wonder. From the cliffs above it probably looked like I was never going to make those 200 yards to shore, but I did.

When I reached the beach I walked to up to the dry sand and turned around waiting for a signal. I didn't see or hear anything. I waited and still nothing, just the still of the night and the gentle lapping of the waves on the beach. I then realized that they must have already given the signal. If not I thought, I'll just turn around and swim back in again. I could use a little more night kelp-crawling practice. Once I reached the boat, my daughter Jennifer had pulled up along side of me in the kayak. Apparently she hadn't gotten lost in the night as I had feared. I acknowledged the crew and swung over to the right side of the boat. Originally I suggested to Jennifer that she start off with the kayak between me and the boat until she got comfortable, however, once I began she immediately went to the outside. That is a perfect position for me. I breathe bilaterally (both sides) so when I look to one side I saw the boat, and when I breathe to the other side I saw Jennifer in the kayak.

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Jennifer in the kayak

Photograph by Paula Selby

As I quickly fell into my rhythm of 60 strokes a minute, my focus turned to the bioluminescence in the water created by millions of microscopic plankton in the water. These are single celled organisms, the most common being Dinoflagellates. The light they emit is the result of a biochemical reaction created by the disturbance in the water. The light it creates lasts only a fraction of a second, but it is believed to startle predators. Luckily, I was the one creating the disturbance and not some larger-than-I predator.

The bioluminescence was amazing. Looking down at my hand it looked like a ball of fire with flames shooting up my arm. As I moved my arms through the water, I disturbed more and more organisms creating a continual light show. I have seen bioluminescence in the ocean at night before but this was so much more intense. It showed brilliantly through the crystal clear water. It was mesmerizing. I slowly withdrew into the simplicity of focusing on one stroke after another, and was only vaguely aware of the boat about 20 yards away or Jennifer nearby. We were surrounded by the darkness  of the night, the not unpleasant smell of salt water and  the muffled sound of the idling boat engine.

From time to time I noticed that Jennifer would drop back from her otherwise perfect positioning along side me.  This was the first time she had kayaked for a swimmer, but she appeared to understand exactly where she should be. But when she fell back for the third time I knew something was wrong. I then realized that the seasickness she fought on the way over to Catalina had returned. I stopped and took one look at her, and told her she should head back to the boat. She did an amazing job in getting me off to a great start through the first couple of hours, and I was lucky to have her there with me. I had found my rhythm, and I knew I could take it from there.

This browser cannot play the embedded video file.

VIDEO: Both Jennifer and I had snap light sticks and small battery powered lights attached to us visible to people in the boat. I am on the right with a red light on my head and a green snap light attached to the back of my swimsuit. Jennifer can be seen to my left with a number of lights attached to her and the kayak.

 Video by Leslie Thomas

I returned to an empty mind filled only with the rhythm of my stroke, the visions of the light engulfing my arms, and feeling of the invigoratingly cool 65° water. From time to time I would smell the diesel exhaust from the boat. I had been very worried about getting sick from the fumes. In the past I had been on boats where the fumes really turned my stomach, but strangely there in the water, I had no difficulty. I merely moved a bit further from the boat and started breathing solely through my mouth. The smell was barely detectable.

As I continued to swim there was very little to look at. Jennifer was gone, and the boat was illuminated only by the dim lights inside the cabin, and 8 snap-light sticks hanging by strings along the boat's railing. Under ordinary circumstances I would say that the light sticks don't give off very much light, but in the inky darkness of the moonless night they shown clearly, almost overpowering the dim cabin lights. For a while I became entranced by the sticks themselves. The surface of the water was quiet, but the rolling waves were causing the boat to roll and the light sticks to swing left and right, and up against the boat and and then away from it. I could see how a person could get sea sick just looking at them. So I decided it was best to ignore them except to use them as a quick point of reference.

As the night passed the world around me became stranger. There was the still present bioluminescent plankton, the light sticks swaying back and forth, and a growing sense of being surrounded by the otherwise benign darkness. The boat was to my left and while I breathe to both sides, I sometimes have a habit of closing my eyes as I turn my head to breathe. I would momentarily lose a sense of time or place, but I would inevitably open my eyes as I breathed and regain my bearing. This repeated over and over, interrupted only by a couple of jellyfish illuminated by the bioluminescent light. Thankfully, the light allowed me to see them soon enough to quickly move and successfully avoid them.

Photograph by Paula Selby

As I fell deeper into a trance like state, I became less and less aware of my location in relation to the boat. Thankfully, the feedings every 20 minutes prevented me from drifting mentally to far away. Each feeding returned me to the task at hand. I had told my team that I didn't want to know how long I was in the water or how far I had gone. My thinking was that I hoped to avoid any emotional roller coaster from finding I am going too slow or that so little time had passed. Instead I would just keep swimming until I got there. 

Time continued to pass as I swam through the night but now more slowly and I feeling the sleep deficit I had built up over the few days before the swim. I fell deeper and deeper into my thoughts losing all conscious awareness of where I was. Bump! I ran straight into the bow of the boat. Well that surely woke me up. I wasn't going to let that happen again, so I moved a bit further from the boat. I fell back into a hypnotic rhythm reinforced by the ever-present light flowing from from my hands. Once again I emerged from what felt like a semi conscious state and saw that I was more than 20 yards from the boat. I could see Leslie looking over at me from the deck, but to me it seemed that maybe I was out a bit too far. I moved in closer at the next feeding and the cycle repeated. This time I was even a bit further. Once again I questioned myself: is this too far from the boat?

Looking ahead to me near the bow of the boat

Photograph by Paula Selby

I finally became aware that I was not feeling well and that it was causing my mind to be distracted from the job of staying close to the boat. Finally, I drifted away from the boat again, and this time I was at least 30 yards away in the open ocean. It was pitch black out and I could barely hear the idling engines of the boat. This time I knew I was outside my comfort zone. Frankly, it was damn spooky, and this comes from someone who surfed Rincon Point in California under a full moon whenever I could. (Preferably alone so as to avoid any collisions with other surfers.)

I swam back toward the boat and told the crew I was having problems staying close to the boat. The captain came up with the perfect solution: if I venture beyond 20 yards from the boat he would shine the boat's spotlight on me. This would get my attention and bring me out of my semi-hypnotic state. Unfortunately, this did not address a bigger problem I was having, that is, the misery I was in as a result of not enough sleep before the swim. As the night wore on an oppressive heaviness came down upon me. Each feeding did nothing more than provide a brief respite from it. If only I had gotten enough sleep. It was all I could think about. I tried to think of a song to sing in my head. 

In the months leading up to Catalina I would frequently listen to Eminem on the way to the pool. One of his songs "I'm not afraid" was something that gave me inspiration in my preparation. I tried to sing it in my head, but it just wouldn't stick. Instead a refrain from one of his older songs "Stan" began to repeat over and over. The refrain is sung by British star Dido and it kept repeating in my head: "It reminds me, that it's not so bad, it's not so bad". This helped me through some of the darkest periods. People who are familiar with the song will understand how completely ironic that this was the song that carried me through the night.

Photograph by Paula Selby

Finally, I told my crew that I wasn't doing well. At least that is what I intended to say, but I have no idea what came out of my mouth. Barbara told me it was the "witching hour". In an earlier conversation, Barbara had warned me that many swimmers have a hard time an hour or so before sunrise. She had told me to just keep going and that it I would feel better once the sun rose. Recalling that I had swum almost 6 ½ hours last summer feeling terrible during the Portland Bridge Swim, I realized I could swim for 2 more hours no matter how I was feeling. So I told myself: just get through the night and we'll start all over in the morning.

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