Swimming the Catalina Channel, Part Two - Stepping Into Blackness

It really was “go” time. We got going with all of the last minute preparations, between getting into the old familiar Speedo, Susan applying the Channel grease (a mixture of Vaseline and lanolin) around my neck and shoulders to prevent chafing (in addition to the close shave I had done a couple of hours earlier), and clipping the blinker lights to both sides of my goggle strap and pinning one to the back of my swim suit. We had also brought a couple dozen glow sticks, which were being snapped and tied to the kayak, people’s jackets, etc., to improve visibility in the dark of night. They launched the kayak from the stern of the boat, and Mack wiggled into the seat. Standing there in a Speedo, I was getting colder by the minute, so I thanked everyone again, gave Susan a smooch, and unceremoniously jumped off the back of the boat. I was immediately struck with how cold and salty tasting the water was.  Oh, yeah, and it was pitch black.

As with the English Channel, the swims have to start and finish from dry land, so the swimmer jumps off the escort boat, swims to shore, confirms that they are on dry land, and signals the boat to start the clock. It is a tradition and a ritual that all Channel swimmers embrace. This swim starts from a place on Catalina Island called Doctor’s Cove. I have now been there twice – both times in the dark of night – but I imagine it to be very pretty. Even in the dark, you can see the outline of some very steep hills that look like they would be fun to explore.

We weren’t there to explore, though, so I wiggled through the kelp, climbed up on the gravel beach and gathered my thoughts. So many bits of hard work and good fortune had brought us to that place at that time, and I was thankful even to be at the starting line. I was pretty sure that the people on the boat couldn’t see me very well, so I stuck my fingers into my mouth and pealed off my loudest whistle-a-taxi-in-Midtown whistle. Everyone on the boat hooted and hollered, and we were off under a three-quarter moon. It was about 12:45 a.m. on Thursday, September 27th.

The Start of a Really Long Day

After I wiggled back through the kelp and into unobstructed water, I revisited the tradition we started with the English Channel swim by taking three strokes of butterfly. When I was a pool swimmer, I was a butterflyer, and as much as it would be honorable to say that I take three strokes of butterfly to pay respect to all of my old competitors, it really is just an extraordinary trash-talking opportunity. I can always say that, in both the English Channel and the Catalina Channel, I swam butterfly. So, to guys who will always be known to me as Weasel, Davey, Stryker, Port, Riz, BC, Bis, Wally and Zella, go ahead and top that.

As we swam away from Catalina, and for as long as we were in the lee of the island, the water was very smooth. The cold that I had felt when I had first jumped in was gone by the time I had worked through 300 strokes, though at 68 degrees, it felt cool the whole way. As we made it out to more open water, there was some light but rhythmic chop for the next few thousand strokes. It is about that time in a Channel swim that the buildup and anticipation is behind you, the nervousness is gone, and you realize that you’re in for a really long day, er, night, in the water.

Through 6,000 strokes, I was feeling great. I had found my cadence, I could feel the swells but I was not being bumped around by the confused chop that we had had in England.

One thing that I had really looked forward to seeing was that glowing phosphorescent stuff that gets churned up when you swim in this Channel. People talk about being almost mesmerized by the stuff, but for some reason I never really saw it. The water itself was just inky black; I had remembered from England that it was like staring into oblivion. It isn’t scary, really, but you get this weird sense of isolation. I realized later that, since there wasn’t much to look at underwater, I swam with my eyes closed much of the time in the middle of the night. Unlike looking into the water, looking up at the Bottom Scratcher was a whole different experience, as it was lit up like a Christmas tree. Some of the lights were almost too bright from my perspective, but I certainly wasn’t going to misplace the boat in the dark. With the blinking red lights on both sides of my head, and one blinker pinned to my butt, it was easy for the Team to see me, too.

I swam on the left side of the escort boat, and had to stay a minimum of 25 or 30 feet away from it so the boat pilots could easily keep an eye on me. Ever since I had spinal surgery, now two years ago, my left arm just isn’t as strong as my right, so I don’t swim very straight and am constantly making corrections in my course. Having the kayak there, further to my left, was a real benefit. It made it like swimming down a lane on a highway, and I felt that I could never get too far out of line.

Kayaking Challenges

Mack did his time in the kayak first, and after a couple of hours, he’d had about enough. Changing over the kayak paddlers was a bit harrowing, because the changeover had to happen (1) in the pitch black, (2) from a moving swim platform on the stern of the boat, and (3) all in the time of a 60-second feeding. Susan was next up (as she said, “I am married to you, so I should probably take the crappiest kayak shift”) and it sounds like that changeover went pretty smoothly. Once Susan was in the kayak and forty or fifty feet from the Bottom Scratcher, her perspective changed a bit. She reports that she was “scared to death. If a shark was going to get me, it had better take me in one bite.” Ultimately, she used words like “beautiful and peaceful,” but “scary” still comes up a lot. She was in for a long pull. I wasn’t in a position to talk to her much, so she did a number of things to keep her mind occupied, including the singing (“The Things We Do For Love”) and simulating exercises with the kayak paddle over her head. She also noticed that her reaction to her fear was to tend to paddle toward the Bottom Scratcher, which made the lane in which I was swimming get narrower and narrower, to the point that the Team on the boat had to remind her not to choke off the lane altogether.

Because of what we had been comfortable doing in the English Channel, and knowing that the kayak paddlers would have different levels of comfort with paddling, we decided to manage my feedings from the Bottom Scratcher, not the kayak. The feeding stops were every 30 minutes, and we tried to keep them to less than 60 seconds. I had borrowed a design for a feeding system from another open water swimmer, consisting of a rope tied with a Y at the end, where a feeding bottle could be put on either leg of the Y. In addition, we put a pull buoy float at the intersection of the Y so the whole contraption wouldn’t sink if it wasn’t tossed in exactly the right place.

There is a lot that happens during a 60-second feeding stop. For about ten minutes prior to the stop, the Team has to mix the Infinit drink (with just the right amount of heated water) and attach the drinker bottle to the feeding rope. Often, there is a second bottle with some other liquid, like liquid Advil for shoulder pain, plain water or tea. When the stop is actually ready to occur, someone has to notify the boat pilot to put the engine in neutral and the 71-ton motorboat like the Bottom Scratcher has to drift to a stop. Then, the feeding line (with bottles attached) is tossed and I try to drink down as much as I can as quickly as I can. In between gulps, I trade information with the Team, including the aggregate stroke count, and we discuss other relevant information (like water temperatures, wildlife sightings, time to daylight, etc.) to make sure that I am still making sense when I talk. If my speech is slurred, or if I can’t carry on a coherent conversation, it is evidence of hypothermia and the swim would have to be aborted.

At around 8,000 strokes, my right shoulder really started hurting. I asked for some Advil on the next feeding stop, which was delivered in easy-to-swallow liquid form, like you would give a toddler. All substances, including Advil, are carefully monitored by the CCSF folks, just like it was by the CS&PF in England. The Advil was slow to kick in, and I had to consciously prevent myself from adjusting my stroke to make my shoulders feel better. In longer swims, those little “convenience tweaks” always screw something up, and it is usually manifested in some pain that starts in the other shoulder. So, I decided to muscle through as I waited for the Advil to do its magic.

Learning that You Are Not at the Top of the Food Chain

The Catalina Channel is known for its wildlife, some of which can be pretty dangerous. We had heard stories of sharks (out there, they like to call them “sightings” and “encounters” rather than “incidents”) but saw none, which was fine with me. Experience tells us that sharks are attracted by seals and repelled by dolphins, so the Team was keeping a good eye out for both. As I told Susan, all the sharks were SUPPOSED to be on vacation that week, and apparently they all got the memo. We had seals for a while, but no dolphins until after the finish. Once again, we got lucky.

The jellyfish, on the other hand, were less accommodating. Happily, I didn’t encounter any jellies with the long legs that have a tendency to wrap around arms and necks, but I got a ton of the little stingers on my hands and chest. For the first time ever, I also felt them on my face, both in the little strip of skin on my forehead between the cap and goggles, as well as on my nose! You never really see the jellyfish that sting you because they are translucent and the size of silver dollars, but when one of those little guys wraps around the nose piece of your goggles and drapes across your nose, it is worth stopping to pull him off. As we would go through shoals of jellyfish, I would be stung once every eight or ten strokes for 300 strokes or so, then I wouldn’t feel one for a couple of miles. Then, we would pass through another shoal and I would have to watch out for my nose all over again.

After three hours in the kayak, Susan did a changeover with Clif. As if she wasn’t frightened enough, she was a little unsteady getting out of the kayak and onto the swim platform of the Bottom Scratcher. As she said, “Everyone was focused on getting Clif back out there with you. No one noticed that I was teetering on the edge of that platform, right above the boat’s propellers.” Finally, Mack gave her a hand to the safety of the deck.

Here is the first picture that Susan took as we headed out of the darkness.  Clif Wilson is in the kayak.

Around 11,000 strokes, I had a feeding that was followed by a tremendous burst of energy, and I felt just great for at least the next 1,000 strokes or more. Maybe it was the Advil finally kicking in, but I was feeling strong and very efficient. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was the last time I would feel really good for the rest of the swim. This stroke counting stuff can really cut both ways. On the one hand, it keeps me focused and “in the game,” and I know generally how much time and distance has been covered. On the other hand, when your stroke count expectations are off – in this case, by a lot – it can be pretty discouraging.

Counting Strokes

Before the swim, I had spent a lot of time working through the “budget” for time and strokes that would be required for Catalina. It is a 21 mile straight shot, and I swim a little over two miles per hour, so I figured that (with perfect conditions) it would be about 10 hours.  With horrible conditions, it could go as long as 13 hours. In addition, I had come up with the expectation of about 30,000 strokes based on:

  • Tampa Bay Marathon Swim was 24 miles and required about 32,000 strokes
  • English Channel was 32 miles (actually swum) and required about 40,000 strokes

What I didn’t take into account were the currents, those stealthy thieves of open water swimming speed. Even though my per-minute stroke counts stayed within 58 and 62 for the whole 12 hours, my predictable pace of 2.2 miles per hour fell to a disappointing 1.6 miles per hour at times in the morning, as though I was swimming upstream. In addition, the boats were having trouble keeping the correct heading during feeding stops, so they were getting pushed around by something, too. As a result, my calculations were for naught, and the psychological impact of seeing how much farther we had to go once I hit 30,000 strokes was pretty difficult to handle. 30,000 strokes turned into a disappointingly meaningless benchmark.

I will report back with “Swimming the Catalina Channel, Part 3: The Sun Really Does Come Up Tomorrow.”