Catalina Channel: Part 1


As I jumped from the boat into the pitch-black darkness of the 65° water, I couldn't help but thinking about the long journey that brought me here. 


I first laid plans to swim across the Catalina Channel in January of 1983 when I was swimming the best of my life. I went so far as to send off for an application to the Catalina Channel Swimming Foundation. Unfortunately, due to events outside my control I had to set aside my plans, and there they sat for nearly three decades.

To attempt an ocean channel swim the magnitude of Catalina, requires an enormous amount of training and preparation. In my case, I had spent a year and a half getting ready for the swim. Over that time I fought through highs and lows of training, injury and self doubt. I had adapted everything I'd learned about preparing for a channel crossing to my particular strengths and weaknesses. Some of my preparation was by the book, but other parts would be considered unconventional. For example, while most swimmers work hard training in cold water to prepare for the channel conditions, I trained in a pool. My belief was that I could use my training time more effectively by working out in a nearby pool. I saved the time I would have otherwise spent driving, and I could better measure my progress by evaluating each workout in the fixed dimensions of a pool.  For a bit of insurance I did go the traditional route of putting on weight to add some insulation. However, in the end, I knew that it was what I could do on the day of the swim that would be the only true test of my preparation.

Screen Shot 2012-01-23 at 8.14.15 PM

So there I was in San Pedro with my team. Heading up my team when I am in the water was Leslie Thomas of Swim Art. Just a month earlier I swam 11 miles in the San Francisco Bay with Leslie  supporting me on board a Zodiac raft, and I had complete confidence in her. Her job was first and foremost to keep an eye on me, and second to execute the feeding plan I had laid out. She would prepare warmed up carbohydrate drinks, and get them to me while I remained in the water and away from the boat. Jennifer, my daughter, was going to do double duty on the team. Her primary job was to assist Leslie on board the boat, but she was also going to paddle a kayak alongside me in the water for some of the daylight hours. 

My support boat Outrider tied up before our departure

Photograph by Bob Needham

In addition, we would be joined on board by a kayaker who was the final member of my team. Her responsibility was to stick by my side throughout the night, making it easier for me to maintain a straight course, and to assist me if I needed any help. I'll be swimming at least 20 yards from the boat in the darkness, so having someone nearby could be crucial. I also planned on having her carry 2 pairs of goggles, one clear and one tinted, just in case I had to swap them out during the swim; and a few small food items that could easily be handed to me.

IMG 0063


Photograph by Bob Needham

As Jennifer and I arrived at the dock, I could see that Leslie had already stored away our supplies, and that my lead kayaker was loading up the kayaks. The boat I was using was the 50' Outrider, one of 2 boats approved for Catalina Channel swims. Once on board, I met the 2 pilots and 2 crew who would alternate on duty as 2 man teams. Shortly after that the two observers from the Catalina Channel Swimming Federation arrived. The Federation has a number of purposes. One is to promote interest in swimming the channel and to help those desiring to make the swim. Another is to promote the safety and welfare of swimmers, and authenticate successful swims.

Leslie (left) and Paula Selby (right) on board the Outrider.

Photograph by Barbara Held

The head observer was Paula Selby. In addition to her formal duties, she also became the unofficial photographer for the crossing. (The downside to assuming that role is that I have only a couple of pictures of her.) Backing her up, and taking turns on deck through the night, was Barbara Held. I met Barbara, a great marathon swimmer in her own right, at the Tampa Bay Marathon Swim and felt lucky to have her on board. As observers for the Federation they were there to answer any questions I had, but also to ensure that I followed the Federation rules. A successful swim under the rules is certified, and it is logged into the Federation's record book. It seems like a small thing, but having dreamed of doing this swim for so many years, getting my name in the book was important to me.

20110422 164800 0210

Barbara and I at the Tampa Bay Marathon Swim

Photograph by Jim Needham

Once we were all together on board, I brought my team together for a final meeting to go over my directions. As the leader of the team I had laid out a strategy, a feeding plan and a list of dos and don'ts. This was a collection of important information that I gather from friends, through online research, and from my experience in other swims. I had typed it all up on laminated sheets (see below). I gave each crew member a copy hoping that it covered all the contingencies that might come up while I was in the water. I'm not sure how helpful the information was for people, but I do know that the process of creating the lists helped make me better prepared.

Front of laminated sheet below.

Screen Shot 2012-01-26 at 2.16.02 PM

I first went through my feeding routine. Since it had worked well at Tampa I decided to stick with feedings every 20 minutes for the first 6 hours and every 15 minutes after that. I also stayed with both the protein/carbohydrate drink and the electrolyte drink. All of my feedings would be served to me baby-bottle warm. This would help a bit to keep me warmer in the cool water.

People have different preferences for what they are told in a swim. Some want to know it all. How far they've gone; how fast they are swimming; how long is it to the next feeding stop. But I wanted the least bit of information. I wanted to just focus on the task on hand. I also let the crew know that regardless of what I asked them, all I really needed to hear was that I was doing great. The answer to "how far have I swam" is "you're looking great". The answer to "how many hours have I been in the water" is "you're looking great". The answer to "how many more hours do I have" is "you're looking great". You get the idea.

Back of laminated sheet below.

Screen Shot 2012-01-26 at 2.15.28 PM

I also had a few other "Do Nots" on the list. Because keeping a positive frame of mind is so important, I didn't want any chance of self doubt to creep in. So I instructed everyone not to ask how I was doing, how I was feeling, if I wanted to stop or how my shoulder felt. In a long swim there is so much time and it is best filled with positive thoughts of success. I also shared some of the other traditional rules: don't point or waive, don't everyone rush to one side of the boat or scream out. What may seem to those on deck as a natural response to seeing a pod of dolphin nearby, to a swimmer in the water it will look like all hell is breaking loose and there is something in the water that poses an immediate danger. 

I finished by making sure everyone understood that once I was in the water Leslie was the leader of the team, and that she would have final say on all matters concerning the swim. Of course, the captain of the boat has final say on everything concerning the boat, but all other decisions were ultimately to be Leslie's. If crew members had any concerns, questions or observations they wanted to share, they were to take those to Leslie once I entered the water.

I can't say that all marathon swimming support teams follow my rule of having just one person in charge, but I think the delay resulting from people trying to reach an agreement can lead to tragic results. Just last year there was a swimmer who nearly died from hypothermia despite fair weather, and he had a kayak right along side. In one video taken of the swimmer you could hear a person yelling that he needed to stop for his feeding. The swimmer did not respond and the kayaker did not stop him. His arms were moving in slow motion. Even more erie was the sound of bagpipes being played by the boat's captain in his early morning ritual. It was obvious to an outside observer that there was no one person responsible for the swimmer. The swimmer himself later confirmed this to me. Thankfully a consensus was finally reached, and he was pulled from the water.

Screen Shot 2012-02-21 at 9.04.59 AM

"Head Honcho" Leslie Thomas

Photograph Courtesy of Swim Art

Frankly, I think any great undertaking must have both a strong team and a strong leader. The issues that arise are too important to be tossed to a committee and then wait for their conclusions. Sometimes something has to be done right away, and the leader at the time is the one who should call the shots. On my swim it was Leslie. She knew more about me, my motivations and my ability to tolerate tough conditions and swim on, than anyone else on board.

Just as soon as everything appeared to be set and we were ready to go, my kayaker franticly came into the cabin announcing that she had to leave and would not be able to escort me on my swim. This was a very serious problem, but one completely out of my control. I had envisioned the kayaker playing a very important role in the swim particularly through the night. Trying to swim a straight line based on the position of a 50 ft. boat can be challenging, and even more so when you are swimming in the dark. With a kayaker nearby I could easily maintain a constant heading. It also meant that if I had to keep my distance from the boat because of the nausea producing engine fumes, I would be out there alone. Now I would have to learn to keep the boat a safe distance. Not so close that I would run into it, but not so far as to venture out beyond my comfort level. So with the boat still tied to the dock, I am faced with my first big challenge.

Facing challenges outside of your control is a big part of marathon swimming. It is also part of what draws people to the sport. Knowing this, a swimmer can mentally prepare themselves to adapt, and have a back up plan if necessary. I had such a plan in this case. It was simply to swim without a kayaker, and importantly, feeling comfortable in the water.  I know this may sound funny, but it is the truth. In leading up to my swim I had earlier lost a kayaker that I had lined up for the swim. I looked around, but I was having no success in finding one. Leslie and I talked it over and decided we would go forward. She could handle all the feedings from the boat, so it was up to me to do my job in the water. So when I did lose my kayaker, I just fell back on the mental preparation I had done earlier in the year.

I also had a few other things going in my favor. First, I enjoyed swimming alone under moonlight when I did it years ago, although it was never far from shore. Second, I loved to surf alone at Rincon Point in Santa Barbara under moonlight. It had been years since I last did it, but it is not something you ever forget. A final consideration was that I knew kayakers are not used when swimming the English Channel, so this would be good preparation for my attempt in 2013. So I cleared my head and left the kayaker problem behind.

IMG 3802

Paula Selby (left) and Barbara Held (right) reading the Federation rules 

Photographs by Bob Needham

Once the boat pushed away from the dock, we gathered in the cabin below and Barbara read the Federation rules. As I sat listening to her over the sounds of the boat's diesel engine below, the seriousness of what I was about to to do hit me. My mind wandered from the sound of Barbara's voice to distant  thoughts of swimming alone at night in the channel. A brief whiff of diesel fumes returned my focus to Barbara's words and I was grateful that I had memorized the Federation rules long ago.

One concern I had about the boat ride over to my start at Catalina was getting seasick. I have always enjoyed the ocean where it meets the land, but going out on boats have always been something of a challenge. The rule for me is that so long as I am above deck and can see the horizon then I will be ok. Unfortunately the skies were overcast and the night pitch dark, so it was a good thing that I had planned ahead and picked up a motion sickness patch. It's a small patch that you put behind one ear 4 hours before you are to set sail. People say never do something new when you are participating in any race or endurance event. I was breaking that rule, but I thought the risk of getting sick if I didn't take it was greater.

So with the patch behind my ear, and at Leslie's insistence, I headed below to see if I could get a bit of shut eye on the 2 hour trip to the island. There were a number of bunks below but I chose one in the bow with my feet pointed forward. As we powered forward I could feel the boat push against the face of a wave and then feel it drop down the backside. Ordinarily this type of motion would have sent me to the deck above, but with a patch on it had a surprisingly calming effect on me. The wonder of the patch! 

Well before I knew it (did I fall asleep?) we were there at Doctor's Cove on Catalina Island. I stepped up on the deck and looked out. It was dark and the only thing moving was the boat as it slowly rolled back and forth with the swell. The Outrider turned its bright overhead spotlight onto the cove, and I could see a small sandy beach surrounded by rocky cliffs. With no moon or stars in the sky it was hard to really know what I was looking at. All I knew is that the boat had stopped and it was time for me to get ready. I went below deck to peel down to the single Speedo swimsuit I was allowed to wear for the swim. My only other equipment is a pair of goggles and one florescent orange silicone bathing cap. The cap serves 2 purposes. While very thin, it still helps you retain some heat that might otherwise escape through your head. It's not as much as you would hope, but every little thing helps when you are immersed in 65° water for hours on end. And second, it will make you more visible to the people in the boat.

As I am about to head back up on deck someone mentions that Jennifer had a difficult crossing and had been sick. Apparently her patch had not kicked in in time. So with that piece of information I stepped up on deck and was surprised to find Jennifer there all ready to go. She was all geared up in a wetsuit, neoprene booties, gloves, a lifejacket, a hat and a kayak paddle in her hands. This was totally unexpected. Originally I had arranged for a second kayak for her so she could get in the water during the day  just to see what it was like. She had kayaked in whitewater in Oregon during the day, but this swim was starting in the open ocean on an absolutely pitch black night. I was thrilled at the possibility of having her along side me through the night, but I was more than a little concerned about the trouble she had with motion sickness on the way over.

BobNeedhamSwim 10-20-1118516

Jennifer all geared up and ready to jump into the kayak

Photograph by Paula Selby

So I watched the crew lower the kayak carefully into the water. They held it alongside the boat as Jennifer climbed in. She grabbed her paddle firmly in both hands and began to paddle away toward the beach. It wasn't far - maybe 200 yards. The captain then began to reposition the boat for my jump. At that point all I could see was Jennifer paddling into the night to a beach barely lit by the boats growing ever dimmer spotlight; and all I could think of was how much trouble I would be with my wife Diana if I lost Jennifer and didn't bring her back. 

I then began applying a mixture of Vaseline and lanolin, a thick gooey substance derived from lambs wool. It is very viscous and difficult to work with. However, it's true benefit is that it lubricates the skin well to avoid chaffing and does not come off easy. As do many marathon swimmers, I like to mix the lanolin with Vaseline in about 50/50 proportions. The resulting "channel grease" has the easy workability of Vaseline with it's anti-chaffing protection along with lanolin's more durable gel and longer lasting anti-chafing properties. It works perfectly for me. 

Sometimes you will hear about swimmers covering their bodies in grease before swimming the English Channel. This is what they are referring to. While I am on the subject, let me point out that this grease offers no real insulating properties. It may reduce the initial jolt you may feel from jumping into the cold water, but in time the layer will dissolve in the salt water. Nevertheless, this wives tale of greasing up for cold water survives.

So there I stood applying the grease mixture all around my neck, on my shoulders where my neck may rub when I breathe, under my arm pits and up the back of my upraised arms. I liberally applied the grease and continued to spread it across the front of my shoulders. I've seen more than one picture of a marathon swimmer who emerges from the water with the skin rubbed raw across the front of their shoulders.  Sometimes they didn't apply enough, but other times the 32,000 to 40,000 strokes a marathon swimmer may take crossing a channel is just too much friction for even grease to give you 100% protection. 

58808 433813152091 646742091 4973115 21773 n

This is what can happen if your channel grease washes off in the salt water in a long swim

Right before I jumped in I had Leslie also apply liberal amounts of white zinc oxide to my back and the backs of my legs. The purpose for this is that in the event the clouds clear, the Southern California sun might be a bit too much for my skin. I have darker skin and tan quickly, but it would be foolish to let myself get a sunburn. I'll have enough other things hurting at the end of the day. I don't need a sunburn keeping me awake on a night I am trying to catch up on my sleep.

Leslie applying the zinc oxide

Photograph by Paula Selby

In preparation for this swim I watched a number of You Tube videos of other people's swims. It looked like a daunting prospect just to get the swim started. You have to leave the warm cabin and stand there in a skimpy speedo on the stern of the boat. That looked cold. But then you have to step up to the edge of the boat and jump into the dark water of the Pacific Ocean at night? Just watching that made sent a shiver through my bones. But if that is not enough, you have to swim to shore, climb out of the water and onto dry ground before your swim can start. Had enough? Too bad, there's more. You then have to walk back into the cold water and swim alongside the boat. And the good news? This is just the beginning.

The Jump into the cold dark water off Catalina Island

Photograph by Paula Selby

© 2010-2017 Website Designed and Created by Bob Needham - All Rights Reserved