26 Miles Across the Sea

Catalina Island is a-waitin’ for me” was the lyric from a song recorded by a group called the Four Preps in 1957 which, coincidentally, was the year that I was born.  At least according to the song, it is an island of romance, tropical trees, salty air and beautiful girls.

In more recent years, Catalina Island is known as a luxurious destination, the place where Natalie Wood met her untimely demise and, oddly, where buffalo roam free (apparently, they were left there by a movie production company in the 1920s).

The Catalina Channel swim dates back to 1927, when the Wrigley family (that owned the island) sponsored a swimming race to prove that it really wasn’t far from the mainland and should be considered for vacations and get-aways.  Only one swimmer, a Canadian named George Young, finished the race that year, but proved that it was a challenge worth pursuing.  Since then, some 227 people have successfully completed the swim.

Catalina Channel, also known as the San Pedro Channel, is considered one of the most challenging swims in the world, though it has less sex appeal than an English Channel swim to people outside the open water swimming community.

  • The swim starts on Catalina Island, and ideally ends at Palos Verdes Peninsula on the mainland, a little northwest of Long Beach
  • The swim direction is almost due north, and currents flow west to east
  • It is about 21 statute miles (not 26, as sung by the Four Preps) which is approximately the same as the straight line across the English Channel
  • Currents should make the swim about 24 miles, instead of the 32 miles we swam in England
  • The swim begins at 11:00 p.m., so most of it will be in the dark; the water is more calm and there is less container ship traffic to dodge during those hours
  • The start of the swim is in 68 – 70 degree water (warm compared to the English Channel); the water temperatures drop more than 10 degrees in the last three miles of the swim due to an upwelling of cold water from depths of 3,000 feet
  • The warmer water means that jellyfish (to which I am very allergic) will be an issue the whole swim
  • Catalina swimmers report that they often swim with dolphins for part of the way, and their arm strokes create that phosphorescent glow at night
  • Sharks should not be an issue, as I promised Susan that we scheduled the swim during the sharks’ vacation time
  • A fraction of the people who have swum the English Channel have successfully swum the Catalina Channel; 1,200 and 227, respectively
  • By contrast, more than 5,000 people have summited Mt. Everest, including numbers of 150 and 200 in single days recently

Compared with having to wait for a good weather day to swim the English Channel, a Catalina swim is scheduled like a doctor’s appointment.  The boat pilots don’t have to check tide charts and they know the weather will be great, so it takes a big variable out of the equation.

Our Catalina swim is scheduled for July 25th, swimming into the 26th.  We leave Long Beach at 8:00 in the evening, we motor out to the Island, and hop in the water around 11:00 p.m., and (as the boat pilot said) “we should be on the beach in time for lunch.”

Our boat pilot, Greg Elliott, is one of the two pilots who are certified to escort swimmers, and he has done it for more than 20 years.  His boat is 60 feet long, and we will have one or two kayaks in the water at all times with me.  As we learned in England, open water swimming is a team sport, and the A Long Swim Team is second to none.  I will definitely be in good hands.

Our date is six weeks away.  A lot of preparation has been done, but there is a lot more that needs to be done between now and then.  I should probably go update some lists or something.

See you at the beach.  I will report back.