Well…I have a lot of L.A. stories however this story I will remember for a long time to come! In fact, it will be hard not to think about this story every time I fly in and out of LAX as I will be looking down at the Catalina Channel knowing I swam across it in the middle of the night.
I guess this story is a bit full circle for me in many regards as my swimming journey started in Southern California as a young kid. I was taught how to swim by Danish swimming legend Greta Andersen at her swimming school in Los Alamitos. Greta was an early pioneer in marathon open water swimming and the first person to do a double crossing of the Catalina Channel in 1958. Family lore has it that my mom could hear me crying in the parking lot as Greta chucked me into the pool for my swimming lessons. I relived some of that emotion in my crossing-ugh!
The Catalina Channel is the last swim of my Triple Crown attempt; the English Channel (21 miles), 20 Bridges (swimming around Manhattan-28.5 miles) and the Catalina Channel (21 miles). I had boxed myself in and had done two of the three big swims and it was time to finish it off. I was slated to swim Catalina in 2020 however the damn covid pandemic put a wrinkle in that plan. As fate would have it we moved to Bend, Oregon in the pandemic and I was training in the Juniper Park pool (#95 & #96 Long, long, ago…) the place where I joined my first swim team the Bend Swim Club in the mid-70’s.
I put in A LOT of meters in at Juniper Park Pool, an ok amount of open water swimming in Elk Lake on the Cascades Lakes Highway and a long weekend in San Francisco at the South End Rowing Club. My swim was set to start around 10:30pm on August 31st and finishing mid-morning on September 1st.
We flew to Los Angeles the day before the swim and stayed at the Terranea Resort. It’s a nice resort set on the Palos Verdes peninsula with great views of the channel and Catalina to get me psyched up before the swim. Well…great views if there wasn’t a fog bank that shrouded the island for basically our whole stay.
We met our boat the Pacific Star at the 22nd Street Landing in San Pedro Harbor at 7pm. On the boat was a stalwart and experienced team; Captain Dave and his crew, two official observers from the Catalina Channel Swimming Federation, kayakers extraordinaire Dan and Barb, and Shannon and Ryan to provide support and morale boost. After briefings by Captain Dave, the official observers and last minute prep work we shoved off for our 2.5 hour boat ride where I planned to get some sleep before reaching Catalina.
In the pitch black of night the Pacific Star pulled into Doctors Cove about 100 meters from shore. All I could see on shore was the twinkling of some lights of the island’s Boy Scout camp (I went to as a young boy-how weird is that?) from where I was to start the swim.
After 15 minutes or so of slathering on some channel grease and last minute prep work it was time to get this party started.
I jumped off the boat bracing myself for some cool water (never say cold water) and was rewarded with a very refreshing 70 degrees. I thought to myself this is a great temp!
I swam to shore over some kelp beds (yuck) and some rocks and raised my hand when I cleared the water line (dry land). I said few words of encouragement to myself, dropped my hand, and walked to the water to start this adventure. It was around 10:30 and if all went as planned I would land at Smugglers Cove in Palos Verdes by mid-morning.
With a majority of the swim at night and the repetitiveness of swimming stroke after stroke there isn’t a whole lot to report except for a handful instances that really stick out. About five minutes into the swim kayaker Barb was motioning and telling me to stop. I couldn’t figure out what was going on. No one had noticed that I had jumped into the water without a glow stick attached to my speedo for safety. You don’t want to be a lost swimmer in the Pacific Ocean at night without some type of illumination. I swam over to the boat carefully to avoid touching it and getting DQ’ed. The crew dropped a glow stick with safety pin to me to attach to my suit. All I could thinks of was don’t poke yourself and draw blood for fear of sharks-ha!
After that I just stroked away singing the 1950’s tune Santa Catalina by the Four Preps, enjoying the night sky, the bioluminescence and the occasional pyrosomes-(look that one up). I would feed every 30 minutes recite the poem Invictus and start all over again. Around 4+ hours there was a kayaker change to Dan. I began to feel really bad a bit before that and got in a really negative head space. Ryan jumped in and swam to boost morale which was great. It helped some…not enough.
I got to the mindset of “maybe I should just quit and tell people it wasn’t my day”. My thinking even got dark enough to think that if I just got bumped by a shark at least I would be able to tell a good story. I had never felt that way before. At the next feed Dan said, just take it easy for a bit. I said, ok. I put my head in the water and swam a few strokes and then I stopped and puked. Not once, not twice but three times. It was loud enough that I startled people on the boat. Again I put my head back down and slowly began to count my strokes up to 2000. I would stop for a feed of water and sure enough I got stronger and stronger and came back to life.
Eventually, the sun came up as it always does~a fresh start and a new day. My head was screwed on right and all was basically well in the world and we had made meaningful progress.
Ryan got back in for another swim just as we hit the upwelling.
The upwelling is where there is a sharp drop in the ocean floor and the colder water from the bottom “upwells”. The water temp dropped to about 61 degrees. That was good news as that meant we were only about 3-4 miles from shore. On and on we went and it was evident that we were all feeling positive about ultimate success. That was confirmed when a pod of dolphins encircled me and the kayakers. It was really cool to seem them out of my peripheral vision and ultimately right under me. Very memorable!
We entered Smugglers Cove and I saw the sandy beach and the cliffs above~almost there.
I stumbled up beach past the water line. I touched the cliff, the Pacific Star blew its horn and it was done~we had swum the Catalina Channel!
There was some cheering on the beach from two random women and they approached me with a box of donuts. I wanted the maple bar but chose the donut hole. They were there to cheer on the woman that was finishing just behind me. The woman who gave me the donut crossed the channel two weeks before.
This swim will be memorable for many reasons; swimming mostly at night, puking, the sun finally rising, swimming with dolphin and coming ashore to donuts. Teamwork is what will stick most in my mind. I have known open water swimming is a team sport however it rang true more than ever in this swim. I had a boat captain that took me on an arrow straight route, two observers that were engaged the entire journey, two very experienced kayakers that talked me through some dark moments, Ryan that swam with me and of course Shannon that has been part of all my big swims and endures the brunt of my training. For all that and much more I am grateful for the success and journey of this Catalina Channel swim.
This swim marks the end of a four year journey of completing the Triple Crown of open water swimming. A journey that I am not sure I ever planned to embark on however I stumbled into it and successfully completed it with the support of many people. Aside from family there is a large cast of people and groups that have been there along the way; Coach Jen, Coach Bill, Chloe, Dan, the MIT gang, Wayland Community Masters, the Pond people (omg~what would I do without them), L Street Bath House, Swim Across America people, folks from the South End Rowing Club, my new community of swimmers in Bend and lastly Elaine H who likely got me going down this crazy path. They all inspire me and are part of this successful journey.
I am the 254 person in history to complete these three open water swims with a total time of 29 hours, 17 minutes, 37 seconds. What’s next? 😉
👑 English Channel: September 15, 2017~10:51–English Channel 2017…Captain of My Soul
👑👑 20 Bridges: July 1, 2019~7:37:54–I want to be a part of it…
👑👑👑 Catalina Channel: August 31-September 1, 2021~10:49
PS-I also hit pool #129 at the Terranea Resort Spa pool. A bougey pool with nice views of Catalina and the channel (when its not foggy). It was perfect for post Catalina warm down swims. All it needed was a hot tub.
Proud to know you, Bob! Greta isn’t the only icon out there any longer!
Keep kickin’ ass.
Super job Bob! and hat’s off to an awesome team! You’re swims are so inspirational! Congrats! Coach Bill
Amazing, Robby! Number 254 in history!!! I’m so proud and inspired by your achievement! Truly incredible!