Catalina Channel report

After swimming around Manhattan in August 2017 and across the English Channel a month ago, I was just missing Catalina Channel to complete my Triple Crown of Open Water Swimming and I had picked the night of August 16 to tackle it.

Catalina is less known of a swim, that had only been crossed by 93 people by year 2000, and that became more popular only after swimmers started pursuing the Triple Crown. The first time I personally read about it was in Lynne Cox’s book, Swimming to Antarctica. Her account of how she, as a 14-year-old kid, crossed the Channel in 1971, is truly remarkable.

Fast forward a few years, and there is a number of peculiarities in which this swim is organized:
  • Distance is roughly the same as the English Channel but the currents are less pushy sideways, so the line normally comes more straight and completion times are normally lower.
  • Waters in SoCal are pretty constant and not as cold as in Dover. In fact, there have been a few crossings in January, the last one by Dan Simonelli reported at 61F/16C. 
  • There are only 4 pilots that work with CCSF, as compared to the 13 boats available in Dover. This means that you need to book them well in advance especially for popular dates.
  • Popular dates are normally summer and during 1st or 3rd quarter moons (i.e. neap tides). I am not sure either of these conditions makes a big difference but that is the general guideline.
  • Costs are very similar to the English Channel (in a different currency!) – $525 for the CCSF and $3K for the boat – but surprise surprise, you pay $175 more for every hour beyond 9h. Ouch.
  • Unlike EC or NC, there is no need for a 6-hour qualifier swim, but your CV does get scrutinized.
  • Swims happen throughout the night. Reason is still unclear to me. Maybe it is to avoid afternoon winds, or to avoid seeing what is underneath – but splash is normally around 11pm, in Catalina.
  • Direction is normally Catalina to Mainland –i.e. you have a 2-hour ride before you swim.
  • Boats have kayaks but you will need 1/2 kayakers to go all the way in this one. Again, my understanding is because seas are normally less rough, and boats are too big to feed from.
  • Lastly, the reason why some swimmers prefer not to do this one is the urban legend of sharks. Truth is that you are way more likely to encounter dolphins than anything else. And to cite Admiral McRaven, "there are a lot of sharks in the world - if you hope to finish the swim, you'll have to deal with them".

In that context, some people may think that Catalina is shorter or easier (except for the night element) than the other two swims of the Triple Crown, but make no mistake – Channel swims are random and you may have a very good day, or a very bad day at sea.

Anyway, just like a month ago, I came prepared and I was lucky to have the best team with me. My buddy Mark was in charge of kayaking, which he had done 3 or 4 times before, with his girlfriend living the experience onboard and his brother in law James happy to swim next to me for an hour or two. Johana was again in charge of orchestrating everything – and suffering all the way. I think there should be a trophy for Channel Swimmers’ spouses to reward their pain. Just saying.

The ride to Catalina Island was smooth, and I managed to sleep all the way. In fact, when I woke up I was surprised to see the boat docked at Harbor Reef. I woke up Mark, I greased up while he put the lights on the kayak, and off we went: 10.37pm start. The first few hours swimming in complete darkness are not easy; your mind plays tricks and is important that you had done it before (thank you Acapulco!). I could actually see the first quarter moon and the light pollution of California all the way.

I start the swim strong, determined and focused on my stroke and on getting done hours at dark. In hour #2 however, something hits my right leg, which is a bit concerning – was it a seal? A dolphin? A shark? But they should all be sleeping, right? I try to get my mind busy again, and start counting how many races and km I have done in the open waters this year: 159.3, 203.7, 259.5… Until a new visitor distracts me again on hour #3 – my beloved jellyfish. Nothing major though.

We are approaching stop #4 and I am feeling great. I would lie if I say I didn’t have a time in mind. I am a competitive athlete and I always do. A 9-hour swim would have given me a Top 10 Triple Crown by elapsed time, and the best time ever for a Spaniard. So by my calculations, by hour #4 I should be almost in the middle of the Channel and I do the big mistake of asking for the distance, that soon in the swim. The answer: 8 miles covered, 11 to go. I was being much slower than in my English Channel, where I had covered 8 miles in my first 3 hours, and I start questioning myself why.

Anyway, I keep going and try to think of something positive: how great the sunrise it is going to be, since I had checked the weather and it was supposed to be sunny throughout. Guess what? The morning haze shows up and after 8 hours of swimming, no sun is in sight. The sea is flat, and there are no jellyfishes so I cannot really complain but I start feeling a bit tired. My feeds are as planned (gatorade + banana, aka G&Bs) but I am not even in the mood for my reward mid-way snack (peanut butter).

Happy times

The crew (Johana, who has learned so much about swimming!) notices my stroke rate going down and James gets ready to jump in. He is wearing a wetsuit and starts flying in the water but it is a good challenge, and I love the company. Hour #8 to #9 passes quickly and I am back on my own. I ask again about the distance and I get 2.88 nautical miles. Nautical miles? What does that even mean? My 9h target is gone I start getting cranky but I know it is not the crew’s fault and that if I keep a good spirit, I will soon enough be a new fragrant Triple Crowner. 

James jumps in again on hour #10, this time without wetsuit, and the show is on: we see a large pad of dolphins jumping off the water a mile or so away. Super cute, but I need to get back at it. James pulls out and I start encountering big kelps, which can only mean something – we are almost there. Given my experience with rocks in the French coasts a month ago, I start sighting to identify a not-too-hostile landing spot. The captain from Bottom Scratcher, which was exemplary throughout, knows the beach and tells me to stay close to the third bush to the left. Alright. 

After swimming for 11+ hours, touching the sand with your fingers is the best feeling ever. I stand on my feet, and climb some dry rocks until I hear the boat’s horn – I am a Triple Crowner! I am told I covered 33km in 11h15’, very similar time to my END-WET (58km) and to my EC (42km). Perhaps it was the currents underneath, perhaps I was just tired, the truth is that I did cross the body of water between Catalina Island and California, and that I am the first Canary Islander to complete the Triple Crown, and the first Spaniard to do so within a year time. 

I cannot avoid but feel a bit selfish after this sort of swims. You know your crew has kayaked for you, swum with you, fed you, navigated you, stayed awake throughout the night, and yet, you get all the fame. This is why is important we are grateful and recognize their effort forever. I love to think that Marathon Swimming is a selfish sport played by the nicest and most selfless people.

Much love,
Global Swimmer