Catalina Channel: Part 3


As the overcast sky brightened, and so did my spirits. My metabolism picked up and I started to feel better. I swam slowly through the night so I wasn't physically tired. I just need to wake up and reset my internal clock. However, the one bad thing about the sun coming up was that I had lost the bioluminescence which had been my companion through the night. But that was a small price to pay. 

The boat did its share of rocking through the night and into the morning

Photograph by Leslie Thomas

I settled into my all-day swimming pace. Thankfully the water was a relatively warm 65°, warm enough to allow me to continue swimming slowly without getting cold.  Leslie had heated up each of my feedings which also helped as well. People had told me that swimming the Catalina Channel is really 2 separate swims, and it was starting to feel like they were right. I was now feeding every 15 minutes, and I'm sure that help pick up my energy as well. However, stopping more frequently extends the duration of the swim, and it didn't help that each of my stops had been taking longer throughout the night.  

The morning brought more overcast skies (Leslie and Barbara)

Having settled into my pace, my mind focused on each stroke, one after another. As it did, I found my way back into a quiet place in my mind. From time to time I would become more aware of my surroundings, and invariably the first thing that came to mind was how incredibly boring it must be for the crew. They were just sitting on that boat going nowhere, or at least barely going somewhere. Thank god for the crew. 

I was beginning to regret my decision to bring food on board instead of having the boat's mates cook up a hot breakfast for my support team and the observers. I particularly felt bad for Barbara, who at the dock had expressed disappointment that the smell of fresh cooked bacon would not be there to greet her in the morning. Frankly, I had been concerned that the alluring smell might cause me to abandon the swim quicker than any diesel fumes. But, having beat the fumes through the night, I'm confident I could have handled the bacon cooking.

Photograph by Paula Selby

In the early part of the day I was focused and perfectly in tune with the rhythm of my stroke when I made a slight navigational error. Over the years of swimming I have developed a tendency to close my eyes as I breathe. I'm not sure if I began doing this because when swimming in open water the sun can be very bright, or because in a pool you are always looking at the black line on the bottom. So as morning progressed and the sky became brighter, I swam and kept forgetting to leave my eyes open as took a breathe. I clearly remember happily stroking along and then beginning to notice that the sun shining through the cloud cover had moved across the sky. I became fascinated with the changing position of the sun and marked it for a couple of minutes. All of a sudden I realized that there was something not right. The sun could not be moving that quick across the sky. I stopped, and to my surprise I found I was a good 50 yards away from the boat. I laughed. As best as I could tell, the boat had been rocking a bit side to side, and the last time I looked toward it, it's bow had swung in my direction. I probably saw this in the corner of my eye, and made a correction. Feeling confident that I had made the proper course correction to avoid the bow of the boat, I swam off on my happy way. 

Photograph by Leslie Thomas

Unlike swimming at night when swimming that far from the boat would have been off the spooky gauge, during the day I had not such reaction. I loved being out in the ocean. I turned and swam back to the boat. I was greeted by the curious looks of my team and the boat's pilot. I'm sure they had serious doubts about my abilities when they watched me head off in the direction of San Diego.

 A container ship crossing the bow of the boat

Photograph by Leslie Thomas

So there I was swimming out in the middle of the ocean. The depth of the channel reaches approximately 3,000 feet. While one can't see any difference in the depth, there was a distinctly different feeling from simply swimming a mile from shore. Frankly, it was a lot more exhilarating. One of the exciting things that occurs on the crossing is that you get to cross a major shipping lane. There was no need to guess when you got there, the large cargo ships traveling along it could be seen from miles away. As we approached the lane, a large container ship crossed in front of us, it's bow wake powerful enough to have a little fun. As it arrived I picked up speed and pierced through a wave. Nothing very dramatic, but fun nevertheless. After the wake had passed I thanked my good luck that my compromised shoulder held up, and promised myself not to press my luck again.

The wave arriving from the container ship with another ship in the distance

Photograph by Paula Selby

Before I began my swim I had made a decision that I was going to swim very conservatively, as I had successfully done earlier in the year at Tampa Bay. I had spent nearly 2 years preparing for this swim, and first and foremost I wanted to finish it. I decided it was better to hold back a lot in reserve in case a current near the coast slows me down. If that were to happen it could add hours to my swim. Walk in, swim across, walk out. That was the game plan.

Barbara helping out with the feedings (Thanks Barbara)

Photograph by Paula Selby

One of the directions I gave my crew was that I did not wanted to be alerted to the presence of sea life unless it was a whale close enough to be seen, or a shark coming directly at me at full speed. Honestly, I don't know how I would react to seeing a Great White shark bearing down on me like a teenage boy on a pizza. The protocol was that it would be up to Leslie to decide to pull me for safety purposes. Leslie is the owner of Swim Art of San Francisco and has taken hundreds of people out into the marine life rich environment of the San Francisco Bay. I was confident that whether she left me in or took me out, it would be the right call. Ultimately, the only marine life that approached was a small pod of dolphin. I never saw them, but I did hear their underwater clicking and squealing so I knew they were nearby.

Photograph by Paula Selby

As the morning grew later I noticed the coast off in the distance. I didn't want to get fixated on it, so I ignored it. I know from experience living in Santa Barbara that distance across the water were deceiving. On a clear day you can see the Channel Islands which are about the same distances that Catalina Island is to the mainland, but on a hazy day they were nowhere in sight. So I knew while I could see land, any estimate of the distance would only be guest. The captain would know, but my plan was to swim until I hit land. so it didn't really matter how close it was. However, try as I might at each successive feeding I took a peek. Ultimately I could tell we were getting closer. Given the good conditions of the water's surface, I felt I could pick up my pace and easily maintain it for that distance. All I could think of was a friend that ran into a current as he approached land and ended up in the water an extra 2 or 3 hours. I decided it was not a risk I was willing to take. I had come so far to get where I was. Time to swallow the ego and just swim it in at an easy pace. Easier said than done.

Leslie signaling it is time for a feeding as we approach the coast

Photograph by Paula Selby

But, at one of my feed stops, I finally got caught up in the excitement when Barbara told me I should go for it. "You have nothing to lose". It seemed we were only about 2 miles out (just a guess on my part), so I couldn't argue with her. I picked up my pace. I felt great. I felt rested and invigorated. I would glance ahead from time to time and it just didn't seem like we were getting any closer to the point we were aimed at, and then it hit. The water temperature dropped 5° suddenly to about 60°. This is the upwelling that I had heard about. Because of currents in that area, water from deep in the channel rises up to the surface drastically and abruptly lowers the water temperature. More than one swimmer has had to abandon at this point due the colder water.

This browser cannot play the embedded video file.

Video by Leslie Thomas

Having done an over 11 mile swim in the San Francisco at similar temperatures a month ago, I was not bothered by the temperature. What I was bothered by was that it looked like the captain continued to head toward the same point on land even though we still weren't getting closer. Sensing something was impeding us, I returned to the slower pace I had maintained through most of the swim. However, I then began to notice that we appeared to be getting closer to a beach off to my right. For the life of me I could not understand why the captain kept aiming at the still distant point. What I wouldn't find out until later was that there was a strong current moving roughly parallel to shore. At one point the captain had turned the boat into the current as much as 45°. What this did was to counter the current while still moving us closer to the beach off to the right: the exact same place I kept seeing getting closer. I suppose I should have anticipated the presence of the current, but was surprised to run into it a mile off shore.

Aiming at Point Vincente (above), but the finish is to the much closer beach off the starboard side of the boat.

Photographs by Paula Selby

Someone finally told me that the boat had gone as far as it could. I was still confused because it appeared that we were not making progress toward the point. So I  asked: "Is this it?" I was told yes and then someone pointed to the beach off to the right only a few hundred yards away. I was thrilled, and relieved I was not going to have to swim to the point. By then Jennifer was back into the kayak to lead me through more kelp close to shore. Frankly I don't remember much of those last few hundred yards except feeling a lot of energy and swimming effortlessly. Swimming a conservative pace resulted in being in the water longer than if I had pushed the pace, but it also guaranteed my success.

As I got to the shore I was able to stand on sand in about 4' of water. In all the videos I've seen of people finishing their swim, they are always stumbling and crawling on the cobblestones strewn along the beach. Having walked on cobblestone beaches a lot when surfing Rincon Point, I thought I would have no problem. What I didn't gamble on is that the beach turns from sand to a pile of loose small cobblestones once you get to about 3' of water. At that point I had no choice but do exactly what I had seen everyone else do: unceremoniously crawl on all fours so as to clear the water line and stop the clock on my swim. Once the clock had stopped recording my time, I still wanted to stand and raise my hands over my head and give a hoot. Unfortunately the larger cobbles I was then standing on at that point were loose and I proceeded to fall flat on my back, surviving without injury but for feeling a bit foolish. Since I was back on the ground, I figured what the heck I might as well sit and take it all in.

 Sitting on the beach with Forrest Nelson and Jennifer in the kayak

Photograph by Paula Selby

No sooner had I done that but I saw a swimmer approaching me. He swam into the shore and slid effortlessly up the cobbles. He reaches out his hand and introduces himself. It was Forest Nelson, and he congratulates me on my swim. This was not just a casual swimmer. Forest is the President of the Catalina Channel Swimming Federation and had just this year completed one of the toughest swims of the year: the 48 mile circumnavigation of Catalina Island. An amazing accomplishment.

So as Forest and I sit side by side at the water's edge he turned to me and asked if I had picked up my rock yet. For those who don't know, it is customary to pick up a rock to take home after completing a channel swim. I half jokingly said that they were all too small. So he reaches out and picks up a rock the size of a small loaf of bread and asks me if this would do. "Of course" I told him. How could I not accept a rock hand picked for me by Forest Nelson? I take it from him and then he offers to swim it out to the boat. That worked for me, so I handed it to him and we headed into the water. I was ready to get back into the boat and get dried off, and knowing my rock was in good hands I headed off, leaving Forest to try and stay afloat caring a 5 pound rock. Forest later told me that he nearly had to let go of the rock at one point, but frankly, I didn't believe him. 

Forrest with the rock he hand-picked for me

Photograph by Paula Selby

Once my rock was on board, Forest headed back up-current to the beach where he started. Hopefully, by staying close to the beach he was able to avoid full thrust of the current. But even if he did have a fight on his hands, I'm sure he was glad he wasn't still carrying my rock.

It doesn't get any better than this

Photograph by Paula Selby

In the end I was thrilled to complete my first channel swim after 1 ½ years of preparation. So you may wonder how long did it take. While the clock said 13 hours and 10 minutes, a very pedestrian time, in truth it was a 28 year journey. Maybe I shouldn't wait another 28 years to do it again.

Leslie, me, Jennifer and Barbara

Photograph by Paula Selby

Special thanks to Paula for all the great pictures. Unfortunately, the photographer rarely gets in any of them.

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