Swimming the Catalina Channel, Part Three - The Sun Really Does Come Up Tomorrow

We welcomed sunrise around 6:30 a.m.  After a long night of swimming in the ink-black water, seeing some light was a big lift.  The bigger lift, though, was a “serenade” I had been looking forward to for more than a year.  The Bottom Scratcher’s boat pilot, Greg Elliott, is a veteran of scores of these swims, and he has a bit of a crazy reputation.  Marcia Cleveland had told me that, if the swimmer was swimming well, Greg would bust out his bagpipes and welcome the morning with some tunes.  During one of the feeding stops, I could hear him filling the bag and starting to blow.

Now, I understand that not everyone likes bagpipe music.  Even with my Scottish name, it isn’t like we grew up with it or anything; where I was really introduced to bagpipe music was our high school’s marching band, called the Dundee Scots.  My high school was not known for football, basketball or baseball (and didn’t even have a swim team).  But the Scots were national caliber, and the pipers (many of whom were friends of mine) were really what made it special.  Every time onto the field, the Scots would play Scotland the Brave, and it was positively stirring.  I get tingles thinking of it all these years later.

As Greg was tuning up his pipes, we had a conversation:

Me:        Do you take requests?

Greg:     I don’t know – what do you like?

Me:        Can you play Scotland the Brave?

Greg:     I was born knowing how to play Scotland the Brave.  Listen to this.

And so, in the middle of Catalina Channel, at 6:30 in the morning, I got to hear Scotland the Brave once again.  Greg Elliott got the melody just right, and it was beautiful enough that it brought tears to my eyes.


People often refer to the Catalina Channel swim as two separate swims; the first 18 miles, where the water is a manageable 68 degrees, and the last three miles, where it gets really cold.  The reason for the change is the ocean floor, which is very deep (there are places where it is 5,000 feet deep) until it reaches a vertical wall, three miles before the shore.  The prevailing weather pushes the water from the west, and when it hits that wall, there is little for the water from the cold depths to do but rush to the surface.  So, I knew the cold water was coming, but I didn’t realize that it would come quite so abruptly.  In the space of about 200 strokes, the water went from cool-but-manageable to really-unbelievably-cold.  The word from the Bottom Scratcher was that the temperature had fallen to 64, and then to 62, but I swear that it was the coldest 62 degree water I have ever been in.  Brrr.

A little later in the morning, I was tired, I was discouraged about the whole stroke count miscalculation, and while we could see Palos Verdes Peninsula, it sure didn’t seem like it was getting any closer.  On the boat, there was a good deal of discussion about how to perk me up.  John York suggested that someone get in to swim with me as a pace swimmer.

Mack and Don Save the Day

Enter, Mack.  Now, Mack is a terrific swimmer; he was the captain for his high school squad.  He even looks like a swimmer, with his 6’4” frame that is shaped like a broad-shouldered pencil.  He was, however, neither a distance swimmer nor one who is used to cold water.  Cold water has an impact on everyone; it takes your breath away for a time and, without cold water acclimation training, it immediately tightens up your muscles.  Mack jumped into the water during a feeding stop, and the shock on his face was immediate, scary and hilarious.  Gasping for air, using a quick, heads-up stroke, he was doing his best to remain calm.  “Wow, Dad, this is pretty cold.  You’ve been in this water for how long?”  I figured we had better get moving, or he was going to turn into an icicle.

Mack swam with me for an hour, which is a lot to ask from a natural sprinter.  I think he was pretty glad to get back on the boat to warm up a little.  It was such a lift for me to have him there, but I was seriously concerned about his potential hypothermia.


For the morning shift, Don Macdonald was in the kayak.  It meant that, as I became more fatigued and annoyed (not doubtful, just annoyed) as the time that seemed like it was passing at a glacial pace, he was right in my face and never let me flag.  Don truly was the coach in my pocket, and his observations, advice and candor were exactly what I needed.  He even put a banana peel on his head and got me to laugh.  Imperceptibly, the Palos Verdes Peninsula was getting bigger and more distinct.


I cannot overstress the importance of having Don there.  He went so far above and beyond, his was the ultimate act of friendship.  We have trained together for so long and in such a focused way that, in addition to becoming very close friends, his successes are mine and mine are his, just as we keenly share disappointments.  In Catalina, it was almost like he was “channeling” all of the other people who couldn’t be with us.  Through him, I heard coaches old and new, like Don Sammons saying, “Stay long, stay strong, and have fun,” and Marcia Cleveland, “This is definitely something you can do.”  Through him, I heard old teammates who are dear friends, like David Bishop saying, “Mary Sunshine is waiting for you on the beach,” and Greg Scott, “Sometimes it isn’t your day; it hurts like crazy, and you don’t have a choice but to just muscle through it.”  Through him, I heard my father and Cousin Bruce who, while laughing their heads off, would say, “What on earth are you doing this for?”  Don was all of those people and all of those things.  His being named as the MVP of the Catalina Channel swim was a no-brainer.

He also kept the mood light:

Don – I can see individual houses through the haze now.  We are so close.  I can see girls on the beach.

Me – Are they topless?

Don – Jeez, we’re not THAT close.

Me – OK, let me know when you have a real report.

The crew must’ve had a discussion about keeping me upbeat, and the next few feeding stops were all pep talk.  My shoulders were a certified wreck at this point, and I was not making headway like I should have been.  Frustration aside, it never occurred to me that I wouldn’t finish the swim, and it never occurred to me to get in the boat.  It is weird, but it just didn’t enter my mind at all.

At some point in the late morning, Susan was back in the kayak.  The sun had burned off the haze, and was bright enough that she got pretty sunburned.  The bright morning was a big psychological lift for me.  She had her waterproof camera lashed to her life vest, and was able to get some great images.



Grinding to the Finish

Mallory had warned us that the finish would be a little treacherous.  I hadn’t realized, however, that the Bottom Scratcher would not escort us all the way in.  As I breathed to the right, and for what seemed like the longest time, Greg Elliott was getting a small runabout motorboat down from its davits on the stern of the Bottom Scratcher.  That is always a good sign to the swimmer, because it means that it is time to continue the escort into shallower water.  I have read other swimmers’ reports that that talk about the frustration to see the crew futzing with the runabout and not moving along very quickly, as though their activity is somehow going to make the swim go faster.  I know that frustration now.

They finally got the runabout down, and Greg and Mallory hopped into it to escort me the rest of the way.  Everyone else on the Bottom Scratcher even changed clothes, as though something important was about to happen.  We had just a few hundred yards to go.  As we headed toward the finishing beach, Don had put on his suit and cap, and hopped into the water to pace me in.  Mack got in, too, despite his still-fresh experience with cold water.  Poor guy went through the gasping, panic and short strokes all over again.  Together, we wiggled through another kelp bed, which is made up of zillions of these beautiful plants growing from the shallower bottom.  It was like swimming through the branches of an oak tree.


As we approached the shore, a number of people had gathered.  I saw my college teammate, Carole Chiappe Krohn, who made good on her promise to be there at the finish.  I saw Mack’s perfectly beautiful girlfriend, Sarah, as she quick-stepped down the steep hillside to join us.  There were a number of others, too, all of whom had been told what was happening and had assumed that unmistakable, “Swimming from where?  How far?  What, are you joking me?” body language.

The finish itself was not pretty.  The waves were rolling in, and were the size that would knock you over even if you hadn’t been swimming for half a day.  The bottom was covered with rocks ranging in size from bowling balls to trash can lids, and they were alternately terribly slippery or covered with shellfish with really sharp shells or barnacles.  Our legs and feet were badly cut.

Mallory had jumped off the runabout to help coach us just on the landing.  CCSF honcho Forrest Nelson was there in the water, too – these CCSF folks want to make really sure that no one gets hurt.  I stayed on hands and knees until I was nearly onto dry ground, when I managed to stand up and promptly fell on my ass.  Carole caught it all on video before I could even give her a hug.

Susan had piloted the kayak all the way to the shore, only to get rolled over on the rocky beach by some of the incoming waves.  She managed to retrieve her (waterproof) camera, but she was drenched.  She, Mack, Sarah and Don joined me for a couple of quick photos, and then the priority was to get me back to the Bottom Scratcher before I got too cold.

So, just like in the English Channel, the swimmer’s final task is to crawl back out over the sharp rocks and swim to the runabout, into which I had to hoist myself – with help again from Don and Forrest – from deep water.  Greg zipped me back out to the Bottom Scratcher, which is when I learned of the most important feature of the boat; it has a hot shower.

That was, perhaps, the most satisfying shower I have ever taken.  I stood in the warm stream and, pretty soon, I actually felt pretty warm.  I stepped from the shower to dry off and get some layers of clothes on, and sat in the 75-degree sunshine.  For the first time ever, I experienced a symptom of being “core cold,” which is what happens when you feel warm on the outside but become chilled as the cooled blood from your core circulates to your extremities.  Even under layers of sweatshirts and jackets, I shivered uncontrollably for several minutes.

The shivering was over by the time we made it back to the Bottom Scratcher’s marina, and there were congratulations and good wishes from all quarters.  We talked about the aspects of the swim, we compared notes about what we had experienced, and it was a wonderful thing to share with everyone on board.  It was a special time to quietly celebrate something that we had all experienced from slightly different perspectives.

Awash with Humility and Gratitude

This is an All-World Team, including Don and Mack, Billy and Clif and, of course, Susan.  Carole joined us, as did Billy’s family, including his wife Alicia and kids Vanessa and (Little) Billy.  With Sarah there, it was complete.  I was reminded once again how, if you are the teammate in the Speedo, the A Long Swim Team is a pretty terrific team to be on.  I relished every second of it.

The Team gathered at a restaurant next to the marina, right by the gate whose lock Billy had picked the night before, and enjoyed some food and drink.  For me, it was a bottomless glass of water, as my several hours in the salt water had left me both bloated and dehydrated.  My system is a little screwy after one of these swims, and it takes a couple of days to really get back to equilibrium.

The Catalina Channel swim deserves its reputation as a world-class challenge.  It is every bit the challenge of the English Channel and, while I was initially disappointed in how I swam, Susan pointed out, “You weren’t there to set any records.  You were there to get to the opposite shore.  Walk in, swim across, walk out.”  As always, she is right.  Mission accomplished.  For that, I am awash with humility and gratitude.

There will be other swims, and we will use the lessons we learned in California to complete them.  No matter what Channel, ocean, river or lake, we are also reminded that these bodies of water are never conquered, but sometimes will let someone who is prepared – both physically and mentally – to make it across.  On that Thursday, I got to be that guy.

I got to be that guy because I am the Teammate in the Speedo.

See you at the beach.  I will report back.