This week I had the honor of assisting my friend Cliff from Colorado in his second swim from Catalina to the Mainland. We did a 10 mile training swim together a few months back and he added me to his crew as a pace swimmer once he had his crossing situation all figured out. The goal was to get out there and charge it full speed to see how fast he could make it across.

My portion of the adventure started Wednesday morning at my house up in Pismo. I had to pack for the trip and get all my swim gear in order for a boat trip. From there I drove to Santa Barbara to pick up Evan who joined us last minute as a pace swimmer as well. Evan swims Catalina next week and this was a totally perfect opportunity to preview what a Catalina swim is all about and figure out how he wants to run his swim. We grabbed lunch in town and then drove all the way down to my friend (and Cliff’s observer) Lynn’s house in Laguna Beach. Traffic added an extra hour to the drive but we did manage to have a spare hour to play in the waves at Oak Street Beach… we had bodyboards in the truck just in case :) The waves were beautiful, great shapes, fun to surf and the water was warm. We only caught a few waves, it was crowded out there, but easily could have spent all day floating off the Laguna coast!

After leaving the beach we went back to Lynn’s and got to work on picking up a kayak on the other side of town. We got it secured to my truck rack and then Evan and I made our way towards San Pedro in my truck and Lynn in her car. The drive there was a lot harder than it needed to be. We got sidetracked into some kind of epic detour that took us all kinds of places in Long Beach we probably didn’t want to be. Eventually though we landed at the 22nd Street Landing where the Outrider was docked. We were almost certain that we were going to be way behind everyone else, but we were actually some of the first ones there. Niel, our other observer, found me in the parking lot and helped me unload the kayak and get it down to the boat. As other crew members started to trickle in Evan and I both went upstairs to get some dinner to go since we hadn’t eaten since lunch. I was on the fence as to whether I should eat or not given my history of puking on boats, but I figured I needed to at least try to ingest the calories.

Somewhere around 9pm the boat shoved off and started to motor out towards the open ocean. The captain gave us a briefing on some coast guard stuff, Lynn briefed us on the rules of the Catalina Channel Swimming Federation, and then Cliff walked us through his swim plan with fancy laminated guides. The base plan for pacers was for one of us to jump in every other hour. So he’d swim the first hour solo, then Evan, then solo, then me, etc. Once everyone knew what they were supposed to do he went down below to rack out for a little bit and I hung out in the galley until I started feeling a little sick… dammit… I had a scopalamine patch on but I think I waited too long to put it on and it hadn’t had a chance to fully kick in yet.

I stood out back and watched the lights of LA disappear off into the distance as a red moon rose over it. Besides the puking that was just about to ensue it was a pretty magical moment :) I spent time talking with Neil, Evan and Cliff’s sister Andrea out there and intermittently leaned over the boat to donate my dinner back to the ocean. Good bye teriyaki chicken breast and baked potato, it was good while it lasted.

Around 11pm we got to the island and woke Cliff up so he could start gearing up to go for a swim. Bottles were mixed, pits were lubed, new goggles unwrapped, glowsticks attached and swim caps borrowed. He forgot his usual cap so I supplied an extra silicone cap I had in my bag that I tossed in at the last minute earlier that morning. Turns out that was a good idea! As the time got nearer we moved to the stern of the boat to look around at what we could see in the dark. Plenty of little silver fish were hanging out in the spot light looking for a snack and you could hear seals exhaling off in the dark as they chased the fish. There was plenty of kelp right there as well. Initial water temp readings were at 68-69 degrees which is pretty amazing.

Just shy of midnight we got Cliff’s kayaker Kevin in the water and soon after we tossed him in as well. Cliff swam under the spot light of the boat to the beach in the cove. Through the kelp, under a buoy line, and up on to the shore. He put his hands up to let us know he was clear and the observers had the captain give his horn a little blast to get him going. Cliff took off like a shot. Evan and I were both impressed with how much distance he was putting between himself and the island early on, especially since there was an unfriendly current working against him that he didn’t really know about just yet.

I watched him swim for about 30-45 minutes and then decided it would be best if I caught a nap. I still wasn’t feeling so good and had a few hours before I’d be needed to I went down below to snooze. I was still worried about my seasickness and the fact that there was nowhere to puke in the bunk room. I ended up taking a big ziplock bag that was in my backpack, emptying it out and putting it under my pillow just in case… luckily I didn’t need it!

I woke up close to 3am which was perfect timing for my swim shift. I suited up, had a deckhand tie a glowstick to my suit’s tag, got on my cap & goggles, then had Neil duct tape a glowstick to my head since my goggle straps were under my cap. Once I was ready to go they gave me a choice of jumping off the side of the boat or out the back. I opted for the side since I’d get to Cliff sooner that way.

I jumped out into the darkness and the cool Pacific waters woke me right up. So much better to be in the water than on the boat. The water was rolling pretty well and it had some chop working as well. I swam heads up free to Cliff and got myself in position. At this time we had the boat on the far left, then the kayak, and then me. Cliff breathes left so this way he could see everything. I was impressed from the get go with Cliff’s pace at this point in the swim. He was really pushing the pace and I had to work hard to keep up. I forgot to hit the start button on my GPS, but I did after he took a feed and we were pacing for 25 minute miles. Once I got settled in with everything I did everything I could to hold on and not run into Cliff. While all this was happening I was losing all my glowsticks. I couldn’t believe it. The taped one flopped off in a wave and the one on my suit came loose at some point. Whoops.

As we swam on I got stung a few times. I caught two fine feeling tentacles with my left arm about 5 minutes apart. They didn’t hurt too bad, just a little zap. I also got tagged on the back of my legs but I didn’t even feel those until I got out of the water. About 40 minutes into my shift I started losing Cliff. I’d try to sprint up to him but I was slipping. I had thrown up so much on the way to the island that there just wasn’t anything left in my tank. Once I realized I was going to become a problem I told Kevin to tell the boat I’d be coming in early because I couldn’t hang anymore, I was gassing out. I swung left towards the boat and had to chase it down as it drifted out of gear away from me. Luckily the lights on the back made sighting for me really easy although they may not have been able to see me so well since I wasn’t lit up with anything anymore. I climbed on board a little disappointed in myself. I dried off and went to lay down again to conserve my energy.

Not too long later Neil came and woke me up. Kevin needed to get off the kayak for a little bit and they wanted to use me as a relief kayaker for an hour or so. That sounded fine to me, I’m ok in a kayak and the sky was greying up so it would be light out. Well, this plan didn’t go so well. Kevin paddled up to the stern of the boat and a deckhand held the bowline on the kayak while Neil grabbed the tethered kayak paddle. Kevin scooted across to the metal landing and we got him on the boat. Now the tricky part… dumping a large man into a small kayak with flowers on it off the back of a boat while the ocean undulates with 6 foot swells. It went as well as you would imagine. I got dumped 3 times. Each more dramatic than the last. I was getting progressively more pissed off and embarrassed. Each time I went over I made saving the feed bottles my first priority and then me and the boat. I cut myself up in a few spots, nothing too bad, more just bruised ego. Before attempt number 4 occurred the captain nixed it. The sea was too rough, it wasn’t going to happen and Evan and Cliff were starting to swim off course without the boat to guide them. I climbed back on defeated as the engines roared back to life. I felt pretty shitty about that. I was assured that the odds of getting anyone launched in those conditions were pretty poor, but I hate letting the team down. Kevin told me that he’d actually been dumped out of the kayak once earlier while trying to resupply from the boat, so at least I wasn’t alone in taking these unplanned mini swims. He also said later that seeing me get my ass kicked helped him figure out how to get back in the kayak later once the captain allowed it again. At least Rob’s Kayak Debacle of Twenty Eleven served a purpose.

I changed back into dry clothes and watched the guys swim for a while and started thinking about my own next swim. I started to try and take in some calories so I’d have something in the tank this time. I got down some Gatorade and a bottle of water. Nothing solid yet, didn’t want to push it.

When my next shift was coming and I was getting suited up Neil asked if I wanted to toss my fins on this time in case I bonked again. I figured that would be best just in case so I found my duckfeet and strapped them on after duct taping my feet to cover the holes I had put in them trying to get in the kayak. When the deckhand came down to let me off the boat I only had choice of the stern since I was all Scuba Steve-ed out. I stepped on to the platform to a breath and jumped back out into the channel. I swam up to Cliff real fast with my fins and found that the order of things had changed. The boat was still extreme left, then me, then Cliff and Kevin was on the outside in the kayak. I felt much better on this round and could have gone without the fins, they were a bit too much but better to be too fast and slow down then to be to slow and unable to catch up. I drug my feet and did my best to hold as even as I could to Cliff’s pace without pulling ahead of him. In talking with him at feeds he was hurting pretty good at this point and worried his stroke was falling apart but that was all in his head. His stroke was strong and steady, he was swimming really well and showing no signs of breaking down. His stroke count did vary throughout the evening, but it largely stayed between 50-55 the whole way.

Since it was light out for this hour of swimming I could see down into the water. It was a really dramatic blue that I never see at my beach and the visibility went off until it just turned darker blue. We were swimming over jellyfish and a lot of salps. Salps are jelly looking but not jellyfish. They look like transparent jelly balls with a golden center and they either float about solo or in big trains, I saw them in groups upwards of 10-15. It was very cool and a little distracting… had to keep my focus on Cliff’s swim, we weren’t out there for me to check out the local invertebrates :)

Before I knew it I had to go. Cliff took a feed and I was called back to the Outrider. I got on board and was feeling a lot better about my contribution to the whole expedition now after the earlier kayak thing and gassing out 15 minutes early on my first swim shift.

We were nearing shore but we weren’t on pace to hit Cliff’s goal time. The ocean was throwing a pretty mean current at him along with all the roughness on the surface. He was saying that it was probably the toughest conditions he’s ever had to swim in before. He didn’t seem to let that get to him though and he soldiered on towards the coast which was starting to form up from behind the marine layer. Most of the crew was on deck and awake at this point watching Cliff swim and checking out the big pod of dolphins that had made their way past us.

After a while the observers noticed a drop in Cliff’s stroke rate so we got Evan ready to go for another round but only a 30 minute one to get him back up to speed and save some time on the clock for Evan to be able to swim in with Cliff at the finish (you’re only allowed 3 hours in the water per pace swimmer). Upon further review we don’t think Cliff was actually having trouble so much as needing to pee :) But I’m sure swimming with Evan helped anyways. By the time he got out we were within about 1 and half nautical miles from the finish.

Evan and I watched from inside the galley to stay warm and keep track of the distance to mark on the GPS screen. Once there were about 3/10′s of a nautical mile to go the observers told us to get set to jump in again to swim Cliff to the beach since he wanted to be able to finish with us there. I put a wet swim suit on since I was out of fresh ones, tucked my camera in it and tossed on goggles but skipped a cap. I jumped off the stern first and swam fast to catch up, Evan went shortly after me. Evan posted up on Cliff’s left side, I took the right, and we swam that last quarter mile shoulder to shoulder to the California mainland.

The finish was kind of daunting. It was all rocks with a strong surf surge pushing at it. The waves didn’t really break at this spot, but they’d push you way forward and then pull you back out towards the ocean as the next one came your way. We let Cliff pull out ahead and get a foot down. He started to clamber carefully up the rocks while keeping an eye out for incoming surf. Evan and I waited just a few meters away where we could put a foot down and get pushed around by the water but not tossed onto the shore. Cliff slowly but surely worked his way up the stony coast until he was above the water line and lifted his weary arms above his head in victory!

I stayed in the surf zone and watched Cliff delicately scoot back towards the water to swim back to the boat. I wanted to be within easy reach in case the ocean decided to give him a beat down as a going away present. He made it out just fine and we finally shared a channel legal high five. He was one happy boy to be done and I was proud of my friend and excited that I got to share this adventure with him. We swam back to the boat got him showered and dried off and motored back to port happy and successful!

Crossing number two was in the bag, and amazingly it was the same time as his crossing last year! 10:41… amazing. The big difference though was that last year his swim had flat beautiful serene conditions… this year the captain assured him he had probably the worst conditions he’s seen so far in terms of currents and other motions in the ocean.

Now that Cliff’s swim is done I have a couple more to prep for in the next few days. I’ll be pace swimming for our observer Lynn on Sunday from Anacapa back to the mainland (it’s a 12.4ish mile swim), and then Catalina again with my fellow pacer Evan. I’m excited to keep this channel stoke alive!

2 Responses to “Crossing the Catalina Channel with Cliff C.”

  1. Saad says:

    This is fantastic, Rob! What an achievement! Congrats to the whole team!

  2. [...] D. was also aboard as a pace swimmer. Read his blow-by-blow account – with pictures! – here. From me, you’ll have to settle for a few bullet [...]