Catalina, Part 3 – In deep water

San Pedro Channel - bathymetry by Scripps Institution of Oceanography

There’s no “going back” in a channel swim. No parallel shoreline to offer a mental security blanket and visual stimulation. No (predictable) current to artificially speed your progress. No intermediate landmarks for last-minute course adjustments; the stated distance is your best-case scenario. The only escape from a channel swim is getting on the boat – and even then it might be an hour’s ride to the closest shore.

So, starting a channel swim feels a bit like stepping into the abyss. That’s almost literally true in the case of Catalina, where the ocean bottom drops off to nearly 3,000 feet within 4 miles. Everything I said about the MIMS jump shots is true of a channel swim – but moreso.

Some people can swim through deep water without a second thought. I am not one of those people. No amount of rational thought can persuade my lizard brain that 20 feet of water is no different than 20,000 – I’m only swimming in the top 2-3 feet of it anyway.

This, for instance, is horrifying to me:

I know what you’re thinking: Marathon swimming’s a curious hobby for someone scared of deep water, right? But it’s just an obstacle-to-be-overcome, like any other. If you’re a slow swimmer, you can train harder or take stroke lessons. If you get hypothermic easily, you can eat peanut butter and ice cream.

How does one overcome a fear of deep water? I have a couple degrees in psychology, so I should probably know something about this stuff. Perhaps I should:

  • Take up SCUBA diving, as a form of exposure therapy?
  • Train myself to imagine swimming “through a pipe“?
  • Try to address the underlying cause? Which in my case is probably my first swim lessons, when the instructor forced me to swim in the “deep end” of the pool. (When you’re 3 years old, that shit will stick with you.)

Actually, I did none of these things. I still get creeped out by deep water, but I found a way to avoid thinking about it. I close my eyes. Seriously – I just close my eyes. I open them briefly for sighting, or to spot my paddler, but aside from that I keep ’em closed. The lack of visual stimulation allows me to focus on my stroke, my rhythm, the music in my head…. anything other than what the fuck was that down there?!?!

Again, I know what you’re thinking: But then I won’t be able to see the shark when it’s coming up from below to eat me. That’s true. On the other hand, if a shark is coming up from below, determined to eat me, there’s not much I can do about it anyway. And in the meantime, I avoid seeing all the other stuff (real or imaginary) that I might think is a shark coming to eat me.

Anyway, it works. You know the end of the story: I finished my Catalina swim – and managed to maintain a zen-like calm all the way across. Score one for denial.

17 thoughts on “Catalina, Part 3 – In deep water”

  1. I’m afraid of deep water too. When I’m swimming, it feels like a fear of heights. And I get that, Oh…I do NOT want to go down there” feeling. I learned about that fear the first (last) time I tried scuba diving. I would have NEVER expected that to scare me.

    Good job soldiering thru it.

    1. Funny thing about the timing of a Catalina swim: When it’s dark you can’t see anything anyway. When it’s light you’re too tired to care.

  2. I’m afraid of almost everything except the depth of the water. Eye closing definitely helps! Ted Erikson said he closes his eyes too. I really envy those few swimmers who don’t have a fearful bone in their body!

    1. You mean like Penny Palfrey who, upon seeing a Great White swimming below her off Santa Barbara Island thought to herself, “What a beautiful creature” ? Unreal… even if she had a shark shield.

      I love, love, love hearing that Ted closes his eyes. What a guy.

  3. If it’s good enough for him, it’s good enough for me! He asked me why I was nervous about the swim and I said the dark and the critters. He told me just to shut my eyes and said he swam sometimes half asleep with his closed sometimes.

  4. ahhh… the abyss. there have been a few times in my life where i have seen the bottom drop off into infinity. the palancar reef near cozumel and off of eleuthera in the bahamas. both spots have sandy bottoms between 40-60 feet deep and then…. the floor disappears. it is a much different feeling for me than when the sea floor gradually drops to thousands of feet deep. the EC and Maui channels are relatively shallow compared to Catalina and certainly had a different psychological effect…. fewer things staring up at me? i guess so.

      1. Hey Evan,
        I have spent an hour or so bouncing around on your blog and the blog of a “Donal” from Ireland. I”m enjoying the high quality writing and thinking. I sent the link of “Guillaume Nery base jumping at Dean’s Blue Hole” to my 20 year old son, and he said:

        “Production value: high
        Facts: none
        Actual impressiveness: hard to tell”

        I got a kick out of this remark.

        I’m on the SBCSA board, and really enjoyed the threads about wetsuits, wetsuits at dawn, Scott Z.’s remarks about swimming, etc.

        I got on to your blog because a swim friend of mine, Rob Dumouchel, mentioned some of your swimming escapades.

        By the way, I’m the first person to swim the length of Lake Tahoe**–21.67 miles. I did it a la “english channel rules”, and I did it on August 14, 2011.

        **(uhhhh….the first 3rd generation Dutch immigrant to swim the length, that is….)

        1. Dave, thanks for stopping by. Seems Rob is a mutual friend – he’s mentioned you as well. I’m amused but not surprised by your son’s remark. I too had the sense that the video was intended more as an artistic expression rather than evidence of any particular feat of diving.

          Glad to know you’re on the SBCSA board. I’m thinking of doing an SB Channel swim of some sort next year…

  5. That dude in the video has some serious lungs. Wow.

    I have no innate fear of deep water…yet. Guess it helps that all my swims so far have been in relatively shallow water.

  6. I used to be afraid of deep water when swimming. I got over it with the following experience.

    I am an avid scuba diver. A few years ago, I went shark diving off San Diego in 2,000+ feet of water suspended in the cage in 10 feet of water.

    Before the sharks showed up for their feeding, we swam down to 80 feet. You are suspended in this blue water orb. The only indication of which direction is which is your bubbles floating up. You suddenly feel very, very, very small in the environment.

    Your main hope is that your buddy on the boat didn’t smear plankton all over your wetsuit as a joke prior to you jumping into the water!

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