SBCSA and CCSF Annual Banquets, 2013

This past weekend I attended the annual banquets of the Catalina Channel Swimming Federation (CCSF) and Santa Barbara Channel Swimming Association (SBCSA). For the past few years the two events have been scheduled for the same day, in the same city (San Pedro), with CCSF providing brunch at the Doubletree and the SBCSA providing dinner at a restaurant downtown. This arrangement seems to maximize cross-pollination between the two events – reminding everyone of the patch of ocean we share, and giving us just a little more time together.

This is my third year attending “Banquet Day” in San Pedro.

In 2011, I was a swimmer-honoree at the CCSF event, having just crossed the Catalina Channel (8:55 on August 25, and I didn’t even have to look it up). Later that day, I attended my first board meeting with the SBCSA. Rob D. and I then moved on to the Crowne Plaza bar and talked of big dreams into the wee hours.

In 2012, I returned to celebrate the new class of CCSF swimmers including my dear friend Gracie, the new record holder. Later that night at the SBCSA banquet I celebrated my own Santa Cruz Island swim and record. We watched a trailer for DRIVEN, and welcomed new board members Rob, Cherie, and Theo.

This year’s Banquet Day featured a screening of DRIVEN, now a stunning 72-minute finished product going into the 2014 film festival season. My record may have been broken, but the swim lives on. (A review is forthcoming.)

With the co-stars of DRIVEN, Cherie and Fiona. Photo by Paula Selby
Q&A with DRIVEN co-stars Cherie and Fiona. Photo by Paula Selby

Like academic conferences, these events’ value for returning attendees is mostly for the reunions and networking rather than the speeches. I was reminded that I catch up with certain people not nearly often enough (Gracie, Forrest, Mallory). I’ll remember meeting interesting new friends, Claudia R. and Kim C.

And most of all I’ll remember an unexpected and profoundly meaningful honor from my colleague Scott Zornig, whose loyalty and conviction I’ve valued these past couple months more than ever before.

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.

Water temperature in the Catalina Channel

There are 14 years of publicly available data on the surface water temperature in the Catalina (a.k.a. San Pedro) Channel – via NOAA and CDIP. Unfortunately, that’s all it is – data. No summary statistics, no long-term charts – nothing particularly useful if you’re just looking for a simple, big-picture view of trends and cycles in sea temperature (perhaps to inform your upcoming swim across the channel).

So I decided to make one myself:

Catalina Channel water temperature, 1998-2012

NOAA buoys take readings every 30 minutes. Over 14 years, that works out to almost 239,000 observations. Don’t try this on an old computer! For a smoother line, I calculated a weekly average. Same data – just prettier.

If you really need more detail, I also made an interactive chart with daily-level resolution (5,044 observations). Keep in mind, Javascript is required to view the chart, and it probably won’t look good on mobile devices. If you’ve ever used Google Finance to view stock prices, the chart format will look familiar.

Summary Statistics by Day of Year

Sea temperature varies by season, but there are also year-to-year variations. In 2010, for example, the Catalina Channel was unusually cool (even in summer). In 2006 it was unusually warm. Perhaps you’ve wondered: What is the typical water temperature on a given day of the year? If your swim is scheduled for August 15, what is the average water temperature on August 15, averaged across all years?

To answer that question, I made this chart (click to enlarge):

Most Catalina swims take place in summer and early fall (not winter or spring), so here’s a zoomed version of the same data, for the swim season only:

So, water temps in the Catalina Channel tend to peak around August 1, and remain more or less steady through the first week of September. But even in early June and late October, the water is still “warm” by English Channel standards.

Note: It’s important to remember that surface water temps in Southern California tend to drop a few degrees as one approaches the coast, due to upwelling from the steeply sloping ocean bottom. My understanding is that this tends to happen about 3 miles from shore. So, if the buoy reading (6.5 miles offshore) is 63 degrees, the actual surface temp might actually be sub-60 during the last part of your swim.

Catalina Channel swim (final report)

My Catalina swim has been marinating for more than three months now, so I figured it was time to put this one to bed. Previous posts have covered my star-studded crew, a video, my GPS tracks, and my fear of deep water. Now to the swim itself.

You may have already read Rob’s account, but here it is again for those who missed it.

A Long Swim: View of San Pedro Channel and Catalina Island from Pt. Vicente. The island is barely visible in the distance. The white speck shows my location at 8:06am (an hour before I finished). Photo Credit: Mom

Continue reading “Catalina Channel swim (final report)”

Banquet day in San Pedro: Celebrating a big season of California channel swimming

And now, a few words about the CCSF and SBCSA annual banquets (before the memories are too far from mind). Rob already wrote a fairly authoritative recap – to which I don’t have much to add.

(L-R) Anne Cleveland, Marcia Cleveland, and Cindy Cleveland. Photo credit: Paula Selby

Despite the recent surge of interest and participation in open-water swimming, marathon swimmers are still a rare breed – and our efforts are distributed across the globe. It would be unusual for more than a few of them to be in a room at the same time. How often, for example, would you be able to get a picture of the three great Clevelands together? (No relation – see picture at left.)

November 5th at the San Pedro Doubletree (a place I’ve come to know rather well this year!), the CCSF filled a large conference room with marathon swimmers (past and present) and their families. In a classy, inspiring ceremony emceed by Forrest Nelson, the Federation celebrated the successes of 26 solo swimmers, several relays, as well as Forrest’s own epic circumnavigation of the island.

List of successful 2011 soloists

It was a moving tribute to the courage of channel swimmers: the courage required to jump off a boat in the middle of the night, to leave the safety of land and offer oneself up to deep, dark, unknowable waters; swimming for as long as it takes to reach the other side.

Lynne Cox. Photo credit: Paula Selby

Lynne Cox – perhaps the most courageous among us – gave a keynote speech without notes, holding the room spellbound for a solid 45 minutes.

Cindy Cleveland was finally recognized for her pioneering circumnavigation of Catalina in 1979. Here was this petite, unassuming lady… one of a small handful who might be included in the “greatest marathon swimmer ever” conversation. She got a spontaneous standing ovation – and I think she almost melted on the spot. It was adorable.

And so, with a certificate signed by Forrest Nelson, Paula Selby, and John York, I officially became the 212th person to cross the Catalina Channel. It was the 263rd successful solo swim (accounting for multiple crossings by the same individual) and the 24th-fastest in the C-M direction. The full, updated list of successful solo swims can be viewed here.

Official certificate

When things started winding down at the Doubletree, Rob and I headed across town to Acapulco Restaurant to attend the board meeting of the Santa Barbara Channel Swimming Association. I’m super-excited to serve this organization, and mark my words: There will be some interesting things happening in the Santa Barbara Channel over the next few years.

Following the board meeting was the banquet, celebrating 7 solo successes – 6 from Anacapa and one from Santa Cruz. It was the second-biggest year ever for the SBCSA, behind only 2008. Many of the same faces were in attendance – a benefit of having the banquets on the same day in the same town.

SBCSA board of directors (L-R): Jim F., Jane C., Dean W., Evan M., Dave V.M., Lynn K., Scott Z., Dale M.

Rob and I polished off the day at the Crowne Plaza bar, where we ran into Captain Bob and Three-Ring Mike. We reflected on our experiences and discussed the future. In marathon swimming, the end of the season can mean only one thing: Time to plan for next year!

It was a good day.

More coverage:

Venus, Mars, and Catalina

Previously, we’ve looked at some general stats on Catalina Channel finishing times, and the growth in participation since George Young’s pioneering swim in 1927. What about gender differences? (Taking a page from Katie’s playbook…)

From 1927-2004, there were 90 successful swims by men and 44 successful swims by women (a ratio of 2.05 to 1). From 2005-2011, there were 80 successful swims by men and 49 successful swims by women (a ratio of 1.63 to 1). So, the gap is narrowing…a bit.

Here, again, it would interesting to see the data on failed swims. Is the ratio of men to women the same for failed swims as for successful swims?

Side note: I decided to split the data-set at 2005 because it offered similarly-sized groupings, and because this was the year when there was a surge in popularity of Catalina Channel swimming (possibly due to the advent of the “triple crown”).

And here are the average & median finish times for each group (C-M one-way crossings only):

Average Median
Men 1927-2004 13:14 12:14
Women 1927-2004 12:17 11:03
Men 2005-2011 11:23 10:51
Women 2005-2011 11:00 10:39

In both eras, women are faster – despite lower levels of participation. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised, given that women have the overall records in both directions – Karen Burton from Catalina (7:43) and Penny Lee Dean from the mainland (7:15). Interestingly, in my analysis of MIMS times I also found women were almost uniformly faster.

This raises an obvious question without an obvious answer: Why? (See the comments section for a couple theories.)

The third in a series of posts taking a statistical look at the history of Catalina Channel swimming (see parts 1 and 2). These analyses have not been validated or endorsed by the Catalina Channel Swimming Federation and should be considered “unofficial.” 2011 swims are included, but are unofficial until the ratification banquet on November 5.

CCSF’s official list of successful swims is available here. Penny Lee Dean’s authoritative history is here.

Rules on Catalina tandem swimming

Correcting a bit of misinformation from the comments section of a recent post…

Tandem swimming is allowed on Catalina swims, so long as each member of the tandem is sanctioned by CCSF. This is from a CCSF official:

The CCSF recognizes a difference between a SANCTIONED swimmer and a COMPANION swimmer. Sanctioned tandem swims are allowed.

What’s at issue is the COMPANION swimmer, who typically knows the swimmer but has no relationship with the CCSF (eg application, swim history, insurance). For safety purposes, the CCSF wishes to limit that swimmer’s time in the water to a maximum of 3 hours in shifts no longer than 60-minutes. That’s more in accordance with English Channel standards. Different than Dover, a CCSF swimmer could– if they so desired– recruit 5 companion swimmers. Technically, they could rotate 1-hour legs for a 15-hour crossing (5x 3-hours). I have also pondered having a tandem event from the same boat: One solo swimmer going side-by-side with a 6-person relay. Though, it would take some serious synchronized swimming to make that feasible….

The SBCSA also allows for tandem swimming (with each swimmer being sanctioned), but has not yet followed CCSF in adopting a 3-hour limit on pace swimmers.