Swimming the Catalina Channel, Part One - Getting to the Starting Line

Swimming the Catalina Channel.  In California, they call it the San Pedro Channel (pronounced “PEE-dro” for some reason) but it is the same body of water.  21 miles of open ocean, swimming from Santa Catalina Island almost straight north to Palos Verdes Peninsula, which is west of Long Beach Harbor.

Catalina is considered to be one of the most rigorous open water swims in the world, because it is a unique blend of distance, weather and ocean conditions, wildlife and other unpredictable variables.  After our English Channel swim last year, it sounded like a good challenge, and one that was considerably closer to home.  We scheduled the swim (and had to reschedule it twice because of some calendar issues we had this summer) that put us at the end of the Catalina season, September 27, 2012.

The goal of this is not to do a “compare and contrast” essay (the kind of assignment that everyone hated receiving from their high school English teacher) but some similarities and differences inevitably emerge.  Most of all, though, the swims of Catalina Channel and the English Channel share a single component; A Long Swim cannot happen without the Team.

The Team

Of the Team, Susan was really the only person who had done this before.  Fortunately, she had done it so many times that everyone was quite comfortable taking direction and hearing the “what it is going to be like” stories that dominate the conversation before the swim actually starts.  That being said, all of the Teammates were there as a favor to me, and it is humbling to realize that people would make such a sacrifice for a friend.  Think about it; a request like, “pull a boring all-nighter on a pitching boat for an uncertain outcome” is not the typical way to endear you to people.  And yet, they came.

Meet the Team:

  • Mack – Our oldest son, Mack, was not to be denied the chance to be on the Team for the Catalina Channel.  He had been terribly disappointed that he missed being on the Team for the English Channel last year, as he spent most of that swim riding planes, subways and trains to make it to Dover, only to arrive a few hours after the swim was over.  This time, he immersed himself in every duty and every opportunity of the Catalina swim.  Even though it was pitch black, he insisted in starting off the swim as the kayaker.  As we got into the morning, he was willing to hop in the water as a pace swimmer for an hour when I really needed the lift.  I am sure that he got some sleep at some point during the swim, but Mack was fresh enough to hop into the water for a second time to finish with me at the beach.


  • Don – Don Macdonald and I have trained together for three years.  Much of the focus of that training was the English Channel swim last year, at which time I was lucky with the weather and he was not.  Both of us felt the heartbreak that his swim never took place, the only setoff to which is that we both know that he will tear it up during his rescheduled English Channel slot in 2014.  As we began talking about Catalina, he asked if he could be on the Team, and I jumped at the chance to have him there.  Don knows open water swimming as well as anyone, and he knows me so well as a swimmer that I knew he would be the best possible coach-on-the-boat. He didn’t disappoint.  In addition to being all of those things, Don was the irrepressible cheerleader, kayak paddler and information gatherer.  It was really special to have Don in the water with me swimming onto the beach at the end, as sharing that experience with him really brought us full circle.  Don Macdonald was the unanimous choice for Most Valuable Player on the A Long Swim – Catalina.
  • Clif – Clif Wilson and I went to Camp Edwards together starting in 1967.  Life got in the way for a while, but we have really enjoyed getting back in touch in recent years.  In addition to being interested and interesting regarding so many things, Clif had a once-in-a-lifetime experience many years ago.  He was a member of the LaSalle Expedition II in 1976, in which a couple dozen young men recreated the expedition of LaSalle, the French explorer, who found the route from Montreal to the Gulf of Mexico via the Great Lakes and rivers in the 1500s.  The Expeditions were 3,000 miles long and took eight months, including a very cold winter.  As you would imagine, Clif has some stories to tell, and he tells them very well.  So, when he asked if he could sign on as part of the A Long Swim Team for Catalina, I knew he would be resourceful a teammate no matter what came up.  Clif ably managed the kayak duties from the wee hours of darkness through sunrise, and we only learned later that he had been suffering from a bout of motion sickness.  Clif was great to have aboard, and kept everyone in good humor throughout.


  • Billy – Bill von Goeben is Susan’s brother, who lives 30 miles east of Los Angeles.  Billy had never done anything like this before, but starting last year in England he insisted that his interest in being on the Team was genuine.  I met Billy when Susan and I started dating more than 30 years ago when he was 19, and he is a guy who can always figure out a solution to a problem with good sense, the logical thinking of the engineer he is, and a good set of tools.  One of the most illustrative stories about Billy happened on the Catalina swim.  The kayak we were going to use arrived at the last minute at the harbor, and we needed to schlep it from the top of a car, through a nearby parking lot, across a road, and down the pier at the marina.  Somehow, in the time between when we left the pier, to when we returned with the kayak from the parking lot, an access gate to the pier had been locked tight.  I was a little on edge about getting everything and everyone organized so we could depart, so an unexpected locked gate was not something I was prepared to deal with.  In the few seconds it took for me to get about half-panicked, Clif turned to me and said, “Hey, chill out, we’re in.  Billy just picked the lock to the gate.”  We marched through, closed the gate behind us, and were able to leave the pier on time.  Other than a crafty smile, Billy never mentioned it, and I wonder if he knows that in those few short seconds he really saved the day.  During the swim, Billy settled in as the primary nutrition mixer and bottle tosser; judging by the handwriting in the swimming log, he must’ve been the scribe, too.


  • Susan – Susan is the CEO of A Long Swim.  She is in charge, she gently directs the other Teammates on what to do, and it all comes together seamlessly and beautifully.  While the open water swimming bug has bitten me pretty hard, it is now clear to me that there is very little about these swims that she actually likes.  She dreads them, and she is a knot of nervousness, fear and concern the whole time we are out there.  She abides these swims because she loves me, and I am reminded of that every time we are on the water.  This time, Susan did two, three-hour shifts on the kayak, including one in the pitch black of night.  As she said later, “If I looked to my right, I could see the escort boat and sometimes some lights on cruise ships and freighters.  To my left, though, there was nothing out there but scary and invisible waves.  So, I twisted to my right a lot, and eventually my whole body got sore.”  I remember hearing Susan singing to herself to try to stay calm.  One song was the perfectly appropriate “The Things We Do For Love.”  Afterward, she said the same thing that she did after the English Channel, “I’m glad you made it, because that means we don’t have to do that again.”  Susan is always enthusiastic, constantly worried, and totally focused on achieving the goal.  Without her, we don’t make it to the starting gate; with her, the A Long Swim Team is unstoppable.  Susan is the reason that I am the luckiest guy in the world.


After a Long Year, A Long Swim Comes Together

After our experience in England last year, when we started the English Channel swim less than 24 hours after we arrived, we decided to be a little smarter this time around.  Knowing that the actual Catalina Channel swim would start in the early morning hours of Thursday the 27th, we decided to head to Long Beach on Tuesday morning to get acclimated to the two-hour time change (again, compared with a six-hour time difference between here and England).  We also decided to avoid last year’s pre-swim dinner of greasy fish and chips.

We flew to LAX on Virgin America, and holed up at the Queen Mary in Long Beach.  We had looked at other hotels, but the Queen Mary (permanently docked in Long Beach as a tourist attraction/hotel) was less expensive than almost any alternative in town.  Susan thought that it would be a kick to stay there, and she was right.  We settled in, made some to-do lists for Wednesday, had a quiet dinner on board (pretending we were on the Titanic) and made it early to bed.

 Wednesday the 26th ended up being a busy day.  Most of it was spent gathering the incoming Team members and last minute supplies, for which there was a fair amount of chasing around.  First up was our son Mack, who arrived at LAX from San Francisco around 9:00 a.m.  He travels very light, so we were able to grab him and head to a late breakfast at some cute outdoor place in Manhattan Beach.  We don’t get to see him much anymore, and it was fun to have him all to ourselves for a little while.

Next was Don Macdonald, who was wrapping up some business meetings in Orange County.  We popped down to Irvine to the meet-up point, and we were feeling quite efficient.  Once we had Don, we were able to swing by a grocery store for overnight on-board snacks and drinks, as well as stopping by a specialty sporting goods store to buy a super light kayak paddle.  We were checking boxes all the way.

We knew that other Teammates, Clif Wilson and Bill von Goeben, would be along in the late afternoon, so we headed back to the Queen Mary to see if we could rest for a bit.  I don’t know about the rest of the gang, but my mind was filled with so much excitement that I couldn’t focus on a single thought or purge them long enough to take a nap.  Finally, I gave up and found the rest of the Team on the Promenade Deck of the Queen Mary and really enjoyed watching them get to know one another.  Everyone was getting along just fine.

We loaded the people and the gear in the cars to head to the harbor, and were introduced to Greg Elliott, captain of the 60-foot Bottom Scratcher, around 7:30 p.m.  The Bottom Scratcher is one of only two vessels that escort swimmers across the Catalina Channel, and is perfectly suited as it spends the rest of its time as a weekend Scuba dive escort boat.  It is 60 feet long, vintage 1960-something, and is double-planked mahogany that weighs in at 71 tons.  After we were settled in, Greg went through his on-board briefing, starting with the fact that there was to be no alcohol consumption on the boat.  Otherwise, his briefing was very useful in that included information about everything from the procedures we would follow for mid-swim feedings to information about the local shark population.  We all listened quite intently, especially the warnings about Great Whitey.

 Our CCSF (Catalina Channel Swimming Federation) observers were Mallory Mead and John York, both of whom are extraordinarily well known in open water swimming circles.  Mallory is a professional swimmer and has crossings of the English Channel, Catalina Channel, Manhattan and lots of others to her credit, all before the age of 27.  She is an Indiana native and we had met at a few swims here in the Midwest.  John is an open water legend, with a record six Catalina Channel crossings, two of which were done back-to-back, an English Channel crossing and a membership in the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame; in the open water swimming world, this guy is heat.  The CCSF is a relatively new organization, and makes an effort to keep costs of the Catalina swim manageable, so it tries to dedicate two observers to every Channel swim attempt.  These folks are volunteers, and what they do is simply remarkable; during the season it means that they might be looking at two or three all-nighters – every week!


Once Mallory and John arrived, Greg was eager to motor out to Catalina.  Steaming along, the ride was a little over two hours.  Since Mallory was nominally the primary observer, she walked us through another briefing, this time courtesy of the CCSF.  There are lots of rules to follow, including the reminder that most of the rules were borrowed from the authorities governing English Channel swims:

  • No wetsuits.
  • No contact with the escort boat or anyone on it.
  • Start and finish on dry land.
  • The CCSF observer reserves the right to pull a swimmer if conditions are unsafe.

It was good that the people who had never been on an open water swimming crew heard this sobering litany.  After Mallory was done, we were all dismissed to find a bunk (there are 23 bunks on the Bottom Scratcher) to rest a bit.  I sent a couple of emails and then, unlike my frustration that afternoon, slept like a baby.

The next thing I knew, Susan was holding my shoulders, saying, “We’re a mile away from the Island.  We’d better get ready.”

I will report back with “Swimming the Catalina Channel, Part 2:  Stepping into Blackness.”