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.

Catalina Channel stats: An epidemiological view

The second in a series of posts taking a statistical look at the history of Catalina Channel swimming. 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.

On January 15, 1927, George Young was the only one of 102 participants to finish the Wrigley Ocean Marathon, and in so doing, became the first person to swim across the Catalina Channel. For his achievement Young earned a $25,000 prize – approximately $325,000 in 2011 dollars, and richer (even in nominal dollars) than any current cash prize in professional marathon swimming.

Seven of the DNF’s in the Wrigley Ocean Marathon – four men and three women – returned later that year to try again; four finished. But Catalina Channel swimming didn’t catch on after this rousing first year. Over the next 25 years only two more swimmers added their names to the list. Despite a brief resurgence in the late 1970’s (including double-crossings by Penny Lee Dean, Cindy Cleveland, Dan Slosberg, and John York), the typical number of calendar-year crossings was still 5 or fewer into the mid-2000’s.

Catalina Channel solo crossings per year, 1927-2011

Then it took off. In 2005, 12 swimmers crossed the Channel. Followed in subsequent years by 13, 8, 25, 16, and 29 crossings. So far in 2011, there have been 22. What happened? My guess would be the marketing of the “Triple Crown.”

Catalina Channel solo crossings - Cumulative


Catalina Channel: A history in numbers

The first in a series of posts taking a statistical look at the history of Catalina Channel swimming. 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.

I should note that Penny Lee Dean did some similar statistical work in her authoritative History of the Catalina Channel Swims Since 1927. However, the book has not been updated in 1996, and in any case, the stats chapter seems to have been removed from the online version.

The Catalina Channel was first conquered in 1927 by George Young of Canada, in 15 hours, 44 minutes, 30 seconds. Since then (through September 2011) there have been 259 successful solo crossings by 220 individuals, including 7 double-crossings.

The short list of double-crossers includes some of the greatest marathon swimmers in history.

From the mainland (M-C-M):

  • John York – 16:42 in 1978
  • Dan Slosberg – 19:32 in 1978
  • Tina Neill – 22:02 in 2008
  • Cindy Cleveland – 24:30 in 1977

From Catalina (C-M-C):

  • Penny Lee Dean – 20:03 in 1977
  • Forrest Nelson – 23:01 in 2010
  • Greta Anderson – 26:53 in 1958

Of the 252 one-way crossings, only 19 went from the mainland to Catalina (M-C). Penny Lee Dean still holds the overall record for this direction: 7:15 in 1976. With the exception of the Swim 22 relay last year, there hasn’t been a one-way M-C crossing since 1977. The most recent M-C crossing was achieved by Suzie Dods in 2010.

The remaining 233 one-way crossings started at Catalina and finished on the mainland (C-M). The 10 fastest C-M crossings are as follows:

  • Karen Burton – 7:43 in 1994
  • Todd Robinson – 8:05 in 2009
  • Hank Wise – 8:07 in 2010
  • Chad Hundeby – 8:14 in 1993
  • Blair Cannon – 8:18 in 2011
  • Gemma Jensen – 8:20 in 2006
  • Jim McConica – 8:27 in 1983
  • Rendy Lynn Opdycke – 8:28 in 2008
  • John York – 8:32 in 2000
  • Penny Lee Dean – 8:33 in 1977 (first leg of a C-M-C double)

My 8:55:59 ranks as the 24th-fastest swim, a mere 11 seconds ahead of David Blanke, Elizabeth Fry, and Marcia Cleveland’s tandem crossing in 2005.

The slowest C-M crossing was achieved by Paul Chotteau of France in 1936 – a herculean 33 hours, 50 minutes! The median C-M crossing is 11 hours, 10 minutes.

Of the 240 C-M crossings (including legs en route to a double):

  • One was faster than 8 hours (Karen Burton);
  • 26 were between 8 and 9 hours;
  • 38 were between 9 and 10 hours;
  • 51 were between 10 and 11 hours;
  • 32 were between 11 and 12 hours;
  • 26 were between 12 and 13 hours;
  • 23 were between 13 and 14 hours;
  • 8 were between 14 and 15 hours;
  • 17 were between 15 and 16 hours;
  • 10 were between 16 and 20 hours;
  • and 8 were longer than 20 hours – the most recent being Jamshid Khajavi of Iran in 1995 (20:47).

Four swimmers have crossed the channel using a stroke other than what we now call “freestyle”:

  • Henry Sullivan – 22:45 breaststroke in 1927
  • Vicki Keith – 14:53 butterfly in 1989
  • Tina Neill – 10:37 backstroke in 2008
  • Jason Lassen – 15:59 breaststroke in 2010

To be continued…