Friday, 9 October 2015

Catalina Channel Solo 2015

I set myself a tall order (from the idyllic comfort of my desk) at work in January 2015: The 41 mile Arizona SCAR swim, a second English Channel solo washed down with a Catalina Channel solo in California only a month later (not to mention Race director of the BLDSA Champion of Champions and BLDSA 21mile 2-Way Windermere!). The planning of these events is serious fun but much easier than the actual execution!

What have I discovered about the Catalina Channel (CC) that I haven't seen written or talked about elsewhere?

Booking - the process is dead simple. E-mailed John Pittman (Skipper of Outrider) for swim dates and wired the $1000 deposit over. Filled out the CCSF paperwork (get in before May and it is around $500 I think) and had GP sign the medical form (along with my EC medical). The balance of $2200 was due on the day of the swim which meant carrying around a wad of cash for 48 hours before the swim makes one slightly paranoid ....

Crew - YOU organise your OWN kayakers (2 of them) who will take it in turns to guide you in parallel with the pilot AND 2 crew who are going to feed you. My initial crew member who lives in California was called away with work so I was left with zero with a month to go from 5000 miles away never having been to California!! Without leveraging the network of legend Dan Simonelli (also SCAR alumnus!) who came to the rescue, I would have been stuffed. The English Channel is easy as on Suva you can just 'rock up' and magnificent Sam Jones will usually look after you. My crew in Barb, Chris, Audrey and Monica were first class and I had never even met them before! (I paid them $200 each to cover their expenses - that is the least I could have done. I also tipped the 3 boat crew $100 each after the swim was over. That is also customary but thought I should mention it  in case you swim this further down the road!)

(Crew - Chris (Kayaker), Shezza, Monica, Audrey, Dan (Observer), Jax (Observer) and Barb (Kayaker))

Temperatures - I decided to go for October as I didn't want it too warm! I was never cold once. The air and water was in the low 70s. Tropical. In fact, you can swim the CC all year round! Make sure you have decent sun screen - I use the blue Coppertone from Wal Mart which is factor 100 but non-greasy so easy to put on without having to rub in for 2 hours - some people use Zinc in addition.

Boat Ride - The team was due to rendez-vous at 7.30pm with departure at 8pm. We then had a 2.5 hour boat ride out to Catalina Island. Glad I took my anti-sickness pills and had my last big meal 4 hours before departure as with all the nerves and everything, could have easily seen how you might have started the swim after a serious bout of sea-sickness as there was a bit of swell & rocking. Some of the crew got their heads down in the bunk room and I heard that most swimmers do too - I elected to focus on the horizon as didn't want to start this swim feeling ill.

The Start - Involves jumping into the water and swimming to the shore at Doctor's Cove on Catalina Island to then clear the water. For me it was like turning up at a staged movie set. As soon as the boat stopped, there were flying fish coming in from all angles attracted by the glowsticks on the side of the boat. They were then being gobbled up by the plethora of sealions enjoying an easy meal within 2 feet of the boat. It was wild. For them it was like shooting fish in a barrell. Once I jumped in I never saw the sealions again but I did enquire whether they might take some interest in me - negative was the response. They may have been there but it was dark. The water was warm-ish and crystal clear being lit up by Outrider's spotlight. We were in the lee of the land and everything seemed to go completely calm for the start which was very welcome indeed.

The Night - I provided the boat crew and team with 10-15 glowsticks that went on Outrider and the kayaks. I put on my LED lights (tube one on trunks and normal goggle one on - the boat crew prefer these put to non-flash - that is done by turning the battery around on both). The swim started off around 10.30pm at night which meant ca. 8 hours of swimming before sunrise in the pacific. If you aren't used to nightswimming, it can be mentally very harrowing - I had done an entire night when swimming Loch Lomond in 2012 and 2WW in 2013 so knew this would be tiring. I found the first 4-5 hours very tough as I was still very jetlagged only getting in 48 hours earlier. The whole process was made easier and more magical by the phosphoresence which lit up in the  water each time I disturbed the water with each arm entry - hadn't seen this since holidaying in Georgia on the east coast of the USA a few years before!  However, annoyingly,  after 1 hour the RSI on my wrist started to hurt like mad which served me right for taking on such a long swim within a month of EC2. Ibuprofen began at hour 2...i git stung badly by 2 no-see-em jellyfish in the middle of the night- one on the right cheek of my face and the other down my right arm - they pulled quite a punch and left a few marks which went a few days later - they also seemed to spark up in the night phosphoresensce!

(RSI from EC2 and marathon swimming)

Feeds - I had a very simple feeding plan to feed once per hour every hour on the hour. It was mostly the usual maxim mix but I had black tea for feeds 5 and 6 which were welcome. Monica and Audrey managed to rig up both bottles on one reel (feeding at the bow of Outrider to avoid diesel fumes) - one bottle had fluids and the other solids (either jelly babies, banana or fig rolls!). I never found any fruit sugar at the US supermarkets so had to go without. Should have brought some with me!

Daylight - Sunrise in the pacific turned up at 6.30am and it was one of the most beautiful & life enriching experiences of my life. Everyone seemed moved & uplifted by it which injected some more energy into proceedings!! Realised I was then swimming in the bluest water I have ever seen. The quality of the water was so pure & whenever I got some in my mouth it didn't make me sick like the aggressive dirtier water of the EC. This also helped the recovery afterwards where tasting food was back to normal almost immediately. Still hadn't seen any wildlife although was certainly looking around for it!

(2 nautical miles to go....)

The home straight - I hadn't realised how unpredictable and aggressive counter currents are in the Pacific. I could see the finishing beach and lighthouse at Terranea beach for hours and hours. I went hell-for-leather during the swim and had underestimated how much energy it takes to get in to break the current. It isn't always like this and is unpredicatble.  Dan frequently referred to this as 'crabbing against the current' which really puzzled me as I wasn't expecting it. I could easily see how someone could get 2 miles offshore and never finish. If it were easy, it wouldn't be worth doing and then more than 350 people would have swum it!! A Sealion decided to join me for the last little leg which was nice and made me certainly feel like the swim was pretty much cracked.

(Pacific currents at end of swim and at the start the previous day below)

The Finish - the 'beach' where the swim was due to land is near the Terranea resort which I had visited the day before. Very rocky with big crashing waves. Terrifying if you are a limping gimp!  It took some persistance and holding on to rocks just to exit the water to claim victory. I got a few cuts and scapes for my trouble.

(Tough steep exit with no sand and waves trying to pull me out)

Sharks - I was resonably apprehensive about them before the swim but as usual with shark related news, this is blown out of all proportion by the media who don't have a s0dding clue... I shouldn't have worried so much. We never saw one and I spent most of the swim reminding myself that if Dan S's 14 year old relay team could get in the water then so could I. They have a saying here about the sharks that 'they were there but we just didn't see them'.  It remains to be said that no-one has been attacked by a shark in this  swim in its history. Think about how many solo's and relays have got across?  You have way more chance in getting stung by no-see-em jellyfish that gave me a bit of a kicking twice. I read an article at work that suggested that more people die each year from vending machines and selfies than sharks!  - I really wish people would get perspective!

(Terrenea cove - finishing 'beach' - more of a pile of big rocks)

The Outrider - is a champion Channel Boat that I'm sure every EC boat captain would love. I kept thinking about how much my English Channel pilot, Neil Streeter, would welcome the chance to see this!!  John Pittman had a team of 3 crew who had snacks on board and looked after my crew even cooking them breakfast buritos! They even have a massive bunk room so your  crew can get their heads down to the start of or during the swim. In America, they seem to do certain things just bigger and better. This is prime example thereof. There was even a flat screen TV in the cabin detailing my progress on the map!

Conclusions - Is this a tough swim? Yes - you still have to be able to  swim >20 miles and there is a qualifier to weed out those underestimating the challenge that lies ahead -  the water is lush and warm. It's a magical experience being able to look at land from swimming in the Pacific - an experience I would never thought I would have as a lad. I would certainly recommend this swim to any  of my Nemes Nutter mates or anyone who has the desire to push their boundaries beyond a 10 miler... Is it as tough as the EC? No. I finished this swim in 12 hours 22 mins. My ECs took 14hrs 33 and 13hrs 32 which says it all really. It was an awesome experience and I am really glad I took the trouble to follow through with this swim.

Please get in touch if you need more intel?