Thursday, August 15, 2013

My Catalina Channel Crossing - 11:50

Late last night I met up with Josh, Goody, Sue, Jim, my kayaker, Tom Reilly, and my two observers, Lynn Kubasek and Lisa Nordholm at the marina to board The Outrider, a charter boat and one of the two certified pilots by the CCSF.  Josh and Goody got together and planned a funny thing.  They were sporting chops just like mine.  I was cracking up.  It really is a unique look.  I'll post a pic once it becomes available.

Crew: Cathi - head crew member, Me, Tom - Kayaker,
Goody - safety officer, Lynn - CCSF Observer, Sue - Pace swimmer
and stroke technique observer, Lisa - CCSF second observer,
Jacob - Feed prep, delivery and backup kayaker, Josh - Coach and
pace swimmer,  Jim - photographer and videographer
We enjoyed talking and getting all the details of the logistics discussed.  Earlier in the day I put a seasickness patch on Cathi, Jacob and myself.  Which was a good thing, it was the typical bumpy ride to Emerald Bay on the Catalina Island.  When we got 30 minutes out they notified me as I was down under in the bunk area in the dark trying to relax my mind and body.  I had some really bad knots in my lower back from driving from Utah.  It was pretty painful, I could barely bend over.  I really needed a spinal adjustment from my chiropractor, but swimming is pretty good for taking the strain off the spine, so I wasn't terribly worried about it affecting my swim.

I got all greased up and ready to go.  It really reminded me of how I approached my swim in England.  Totally focused and without fear.  I had trained hard and knew that if the weather was relatively kind, that I would do it.  They got us all lined up with the area in the cove I needed to swim to.  The moon set at 11:30pm so it was a moonless night.

The pilot shared with us a little of what Joelle had to go through.  She dealt with a seal that was checking her out and also flying fish and it was a bit unnerving for her to say the least.  But for me, there was nothing there to meet me, it was quiet and calm.  The "kelp crawl" was only about 20 yards long from what I recall, it wasn't as problematic as I had anticipated.  This was my first time doing this and it went really smoothly.  I got out of the water completely and raised my hand as they had a spotlight on me from the boat.  They all cheered and whistled as I walked back into the water and dropped my hand as soon as my foot touched the water.  The time had started!

Taking some ibuprofen from the feed box.  Gotta keep the
muscles happy.
The first mile was pretty nice.  But at the second mile my stomach was really unsettled and the waves and chop were starting to build.  It was rough going.  I took the first three feeds less than willingly as I would have preferred.  Mile 2 - 4 it was so rough that I was having less than uplifting thoughts:  "Gordon, what have you got yourself into!"  I honestly thought if the swim would been like this the whole time, that I might not actually make it.  I said a prayer in my head asking that it smooth out and that I would be able to get through all the way to California.

I envisioned Paul Newsome, founder of swim smooth swimming just ahead of me and I was drafting off him. I yelled out to the crew during one of my breaths that I wanted coke on the next feed.  They did, and that was just what I needed. I felt the current that I had faced headlong turn and felt the influence of the current coming from behind.  Mentally I was swimming in Paul's current and my arms were turning at a high rate!  There is a rule against having a pace swimmer to draft off, but not mentally!  I saw him ahead of me in my head really creating a nice little channel for me to get pulled along.  Loved it!

Each stroke was very similar to seeing this under water.  It
was very dramatic and surprising how bright it was.  This is
due to a glow that the plankton emit when they are disturbed
in the water.  During one stroke near the boat I looked
underwater at the boat props off to the side, and it was
a major light show!
From that very first stroke in the night I really enjoyed seeing the fireworks display that I saw during every single stroke under water.  I read Bob Needham's report of his swim and was really looking forward to the night swim to see this light show.  It did not disappoint!

After that "Paul Newsome" feed I heard dolphins close by underwater squeaking to each other.  I yelled out to Tom in the kayak during a breath:  "Dolphins!"

During the night swim, I would occasionally get hit by a jelly sting.  Some more intense than others.  I was keeping count of the two categories of stings into:

  1. No big deal stings: a 1 or 2 on the pain scale that quickly go away.
  2. "Son of a " stings:  a 3 to 6 on the pain scale that too go away within about 10 seconds.  These don't really feel like shocks, but like someone takes a small stick, sets it in a campfire until the end of the stick is on fire, and then carefully places it on a random part of your body.  I got several on my forearms, back, and elbow.  They caused me to cuss in shock when they hit, but again don't last very long at all and I just swim through it.  Nobody even notices on the crew when these happen, perhaps the fish do when they hear the profanity bubbles.

Tom and I getting down to business.
The night swim was also difficult to really bond with anyone, I could see shadows and silhouettes of my crew, but could not identify them individually.  Tom was a shadow and I swam between him and the Outrider.  I thought of Joelle doing her swim with no kayaker.  Man she is tough as nails!  Having Tom there to watch over me during the entire swim was VERY calming to me mentally.  He has the experience to handle many different scenarios and I couldn't have had a more qualified person in the water paddling with me.

I was keeping track roughly of my progress based on the number of feeds.  I had set it up that even feeds included solids, so it was much easier to keep track of the number.  I figured that I was going about 2 miles an hour in average including time spent during feeds and peeing.  However, near the end this assumption was not quite accurate.

It took until feed 11 or so before the swim went from pitch black with blinding lights from the boat to grays and faces.  I loved it.  I could see smiles and clapping.  The swim had now really come to life at this point.  The sun was out, but it was completely overcast and foggy.  The suns rays never touched my back the entire swim.

Jacob paddled for me while Tom took a break.
I had the crew give me a 5 minute warning before a feed so that I could pick up my pace.  That was a great move as it gave me a chance to double time it and get that stroke rate up there.  Each feed was well placed and went by smoothly.  The first 3 hours I was a little concerned because I hadn't peed yet.  But about 3 hours into it, my body was processing all this liquid like clockwork.  My bladder was painfully full and every single feed from that point on and included anywhere from 10-30 seconds of enjoying the moment relieving myself.  For me, it is very difficult to be efficient at swimming and peeing at the same time.  I can do it, but not comfortably.  Near the end of the swim it was starting to get really annoying how often and how desperately I had to urinate.  Over the course of the swim, I wasted probably 5 minutes holding still and doing this.  Just one of those things.

I enjoyed several specific moments during the daylight swim:


I could have sworn I chose Aug 14th, cause it was a half
moon, not full!  And since when did we get two?
Thanks Goody and Josh for keeping things light.
  • When the darkness merged to a grey hue and I could see the crew, at one point I was breathing to my left to the Outrider and saw a couple of white exposed buttocks.  Goody and Josh were mooning me!  I growled out firmly, "Hey!" while getting saltwater in my mouth from laughing and smiling.  They all got a kick out of that on the boat.  
  • Watching Cathi stand there smiling at me during my swim.  It was the same look she was giving me in the English Channel.  A look of sincere love and that she was proud of me.  
  • Lynn and Lisa when they were watching me and occasionally taking my stroke count and smiling.  I desperately wanted to make each and every member of my crew proud of my efforts and satisfied that they're calling to be on the crew would produce fruit.
  • Tom was great.  Whenever I felt alone, it didn't last long as he was right there at my side and was in the right position during the swim.  I would HIGHLY recommend anyone interested in doing a channel crossing use him, because he is one of the most experienced and trained paddler you could possibly get!  It's a huge piece of mind having him there, and totally worth it.  
  • At sunrise Tom took a 30 minute break while Jacob paddled for me.  He was such a great support during the training swims paddling for me.  He looked too serious probably because of the lack of sleep and earliness of the hour.  I yelled out during one of my breaths to the right, "Jake!.... Smile Bro!"  Those of the crew who were watching smiled and took his picture.  
  • Goody was the crew jester, made me remember
    that this experience is just for fun!  
  • Goody made the five minute warning during the day really fun.  He used a towel to give the warning.  The serious Goody would just wave it around and around over his head, but most of the time he would do something interesting and totally entertaining like wrapping his hair up in the towel like a woman and dance around.  Or use the towel as a thong straddling the towel and doing a very funny dance.  I could help but laugh underwater.  It was a scene that took the moment and lightened it greatly.  He did one of these just dances as the darkness of the night made way to the foggy daylight and I yelled out during a breath:  "Better than bagpipes!"  referring to the Bottom Scratcher's tradition of playing bagpipes at sunrise.  He laughed and shared that joke with the crew.
At feed 19 and 20 I caught myself sighting forward only once or twice.  It was so foggy that visibility was about 1 mile or so.  But nothing.  My feeds apparently weren't a complete mile.  I was starting to get tired.  I honestly swam 80 percent effort the entire swim, except during those 5 minute sprints where I was more like 90%.  That pace was catching up to me.  Goody's jokes weren't as funny to me at the time, and he noticed and started to look and point at my stroke with Sue and Josh.  He informed me that my stroke was breaking down just a bit and that I needed to focus on my catch and pull on my left arm.  I took his guidance and made sure that my stroke form was solid and strong.  But I was getting tired and worn out.  
Sue really pushed me to swim a fast pace. 

Sue and Josh both took turns swimming for 30 minutes along side me.  They both swam at a pace that pushed me to go the fastest I could.  It was nice to get that push to really swim strong in order to keep up with them. 

At this point at the next feed Cathi and the crew yelled out, "You only have two more miles left now finish strong!  We can see the cliffs through the fog!"  I poured it on.  I took the energy of that feed and it fueled my muscles efficiently and I went back to 80-90 percent effort.  During this time I looked down underwater and about 10 feet below me was what I at first thought was a dolphin swimming right towards me!  It was huge and within a second realized it wasn't a dolphin but a humongous Mola Mola fish.  It went from swimming towards me to swimming off to the side and it went from a large fish to a HUGE fish and it made my heart skip a beat or two, it was only about 10 feet or so from me.  My pace was going so well that within a few strokes it was now behind me and gone.  That was a wonderful memory and one of the only eventful marine life experiences I had.  
I could see the entire crew on the side of the ship looking at the horizon at my 2 o clock, they broke out the binoculars and cameras and were snapping pictures.  Yesterday I saw tons of dolphins jumping out of the water next to the Outrider when Joelle was coming in.  When she was about a mile out.  I knew this was the same thing they were witnessing.   I was hoping that I'd see or hear this school of dolphins, but I did not see or hear them at all.  I was sad about that.  


During the 22nd feed my left leg completely cramped up.  My quads, hamstrings, and calf muscle.  It was debilitating.  I could not swim like that.  I had to stop float on my back and stretch it out.  It took a good 30 seconds to get to a point where it would release and let me move.  

There was one dramatic moment.  At one point Tom took a quick break and boarded the Outrider and a crew member helped him board and then tied his kayak off for him.  After some cramping during a feed I eventually got it worked out and back to swimming.  Several minutes later I saw lots of scrambling on board and the crew waved at me to stop.  The kayak had come loose and was about 100 yards or more behind the boat floating and drifting further west away from us.  The pilot yelled out asking me to swim back alongside the boat so they could retrieve it.  Goody told him
that he would swim back and get it
Check out the dolphin in the background.  Goody had
to get quite a way out there to retrieve it.  What a
lifesaver!
with some fins and not to make me stop and backtrack to get it.  He agreed and kept going California bound while Goody swam as fast as he could back to the kayak to board it and catch up.  I saw many of the crew with binoculars watching him the entire time.  It felt like he was there a long time.  He later told me that it was drifting with the wind backwards so he had to swim quite a while to get it.  Plus he had to one arm swim since he had to swim with the paddle. When he finally caught up he paddled right up along side me in his speedo and fins and made some funny gestures that made me crack up again under water.  Goody totally saved the day!
 I'm not entirely sure but it looks like a
clove hitch, which personally I HATE.
I have a knot called the Gridley quick
release that is easy to release, but practically
impossible for it to come loose on its own.
I tie my two St. Bernards to poles with this
knot and they break the leash but never the
knot! The Clove hitch is notorious for not
being a very secure knot!

When I got about 100-200 yards out Jacob, Sue, Josh and Goody all got in their swim suits and swam behind me to the shore and watched me get out.  I could see all my kids up on the steps and Joelle and her Dad were there.  The finish was such a blur to me.  It was awkward as I expected getting out.  The
Finish at the beach at the bottom
of Terranea Drive at Cielo Point.  Lucy
was there with her ipod to capture
this moment.
rocks aren't sharp, just placed randomly and it is just awkward to get a stable footing.  Kind of made me feel uncoordinated getting out, but I swam until I was merely inches from the bottom.  I did a push up during one of the backswells of the surf and as quickly as I could take a few steps off those rocks to the completely dry rocks.  Turned around and raised my hands.  They stopped the clock:  11:50:00

If I had to swim back with the boat to get that boat I definitely would not have got under 12 hours which was my goal.  Thank you GOODY!  My goal time would not have been possible without you.  
Best breakfast burrito ever!
I was treated with a plate full of chicken nuggets which Goody heated up before hand.  It was a real treat and oh so good!  But then the cook gave me a plate of a breakfast burrito which was simply amazing.  It was the best breakfast burrito I have ever had.  It was perfect.

Now I'm really sore.  My shoulders, lats, neck are shot.  I remember giving Ned Denison a hefty pat on the shoulder at a conference right after he did his Catalina swim and he firmly told me:  "Don't touch me, I just swam Catalina and my shoulders are in really bad shape."  Now I feel that pain.

I had a crew that were great taking TONS of video and pictures, but at this time am waiting for them to share their spoils with me.  I will add a few later to this post, and a link to the entire collection.

I'm so grateful to my crew for this swim!  They ALL provided so much support that made the swim a success.


SpotGPS trail
I'm sure people will ask me to compare it to the English Channel and my answer will be:

Every swim is different, but for my two swims, the Catalina Channel was tougher.  The conditions were much tougher.  However, the crew for the Catalina swim was much more lively and interactive which made that experience better for me.  However I got a REALLY smooth day in England so to say that the Catalina Channel is tougher would be a major over generalization.  I can only say that for those two distinct days, Catalina was tougher.  It was mile 2 through 4 that made it that case.  Had those two miles not been so rough, I would answer that the two were the same in difficulty for me.  

Some unofficial stats that Cathi noted:

Water temp ranged from 66-67 degrees, and colder at the finish
Stroke rate ranged from 65 to 74 spm.
Start time: 11:15:40 pm, Finish Time: 11:05:40 am;  Elapsed: 11:50:00

Here is the official observers log.
Here is my video/photo album of the trip (upload still in progress):.


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