Two days and two nights on a boat: Observing Catalina and Santa Barbara Channel swims

In the past couple weeks I’ve had the honor and pleasure of observing four swims between the Channel Islands and the California mainland: two 12.4-mile crossings from Anacapa Island to Oxnard (sanctioned by the SBCSA), and two 20.1-mile crossings from Catalina Island to Palos Verdes (sanctioned by the CCSF).

Two Channels: Anacapa Island to Oxnard; Catalina Island to Palos Verdes.

Each swim was a remarkable achievement in its own way. From Anacapa, there was a 4:58 crossing (a new record and the first ever under 5 hours) and an 8:58 crossing under conditions which thwarted two 6-person relays on the same day. From Catalina, there was a 13.5-hour crossing and a sub-9 hour crossing (the first ever by a 50+ year old).

Eyes on the swimmer. Photo by Phil White

I’m quite serious about it being an honor to observe these swims. Having swum across each of these channels myself, I know they’re experiences one doesn’t forget – experiences that change a person. I know what it feels like to stand on a beach in the middle of the night, look out across that black expanse of water and wonder, “How will I possibly get to the other side?” I know what it feels like to give oneself up to the Channel – and hope it looks upon you favorably.

Big ship, small swimmer. Jim N. in the Santa Barbara Channel.

Each swim is totally unique. The starts and finishes are approximately similar, but everything in between is, basically, unpredictable. I find it interesting and personally fulfilling to watch people negotiate this journey, each in their own way. As an observer, I’m there both as witness and as chaperone – to verify and to ensure safe passage.

Nick V. and Darryl in the Santa Barbara Channel

Each swimmer used distinctly different approaches in achieving their goal. Indeed, each swimmer’s style seemed to, in some way, reflect their personality.

Jim N.’s stroke is workmanlike, seemingly impervious to wind, waves, and chop. It didn’t matter what the ocean threw at him. Jim – a veteran of both the English & Catalina Channels – was getting across, no matter how long it took. Anacapa to mainland, 8:58.

Nick V. – a star high-school distance pool swimmer – is lithe and powerful. The kid pulls a lot of water. He’s not old enough to vote, but he approached the the channel swim with a seriousness and tenacity that belied his age. With an hour left, he was right on record pace, and we told him. He picked his stroke rate up from 68 to 75 – just like that – and smashed the record. I pity the kids who have to race him in dual meets. Anacapa to mainland, 4:58.

Get thee gone, witches! Jaimie M. in the Catalina Channel

Jaimie M. is precise and deliberate. Each hand placed gently in the water – no bubbles. 44 strokes per minute, precise as a metronome. 44 SPM would be helicopter-evacuation time for me, but for Jaimie it’s a moving meditation. One… stroke… at… a… time. All the way across the Channel. Catalina to mainland, 13:28.

Ned D. – gregarious and full of energy – makes lots of bubbles. A former water polo player, he churns up the water with a tempo almost inconceivable for someone his size and age. A force of nature – as a man and as a swimmer. Catalina to mainland, 8:50.

Ned D., up for air in the Catalina Channel. Photo by Phil White.

I’ll conclude with some few brief nuggets:

  • Feeding from a kayak is generally more efficient; but always have a contingency plan to feed from the boat in case of snafus.
  • Narrow, “tippy” kayaks may have problems in these channels, where swells are often coming from your side.
  • There’s often (but not always) a “downhill” cross current about a mile offshore from Oxnard. Aim for the middle of Silver Strand to hit the southern edge. The current will affect slower swimmers more than faster swimmers.
  • At the finish – whether sandy or rocky – stay horizontal (hands & knees) longer than you think you need to. Just trust me.

6 thoughts on “Two days and two nights on a boat: Observing Catalina and Santa Barbara Channel swims”

  1. Great writeup.

    Being on a boat is always a responsibility and an honour, I concur absolutely with you. One plays an important part in someone achieving a dream, that is no small matter.

    I hope Ned gave you a Sandycove cap. If not let me know & I’ll make sure you get one!

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