|Thursday August 21 - Friday August 22, 2008
Some consider it very macho to do "crossings" between offshore islands and the California mainland in little kayaks, even when accompanied by ladies like CKF members Jeandrew, Barb and Kathy. This last trip was just one of over 40 that I've done, but it paled in comparison to the accomplishment of Erica Moffett (Mermaid #1), the woman we accompanied, who SWAM the distance by herself, at NIGHT, across the Catalina Channel, shipping lanes, creatures lurking beneath the waves, in the moist chill, in only a rather skimpy bathing suit, goggles, cap, earplugs and light stick tied to her.
This event was sponsored by the Catalina Channel Swimming Federation http://www.swimcatalina.org . They do quite a few of these and I have helped out before. The Federation sent Robert Philipson, a steely-eyed independent corporate litigation expert from Santa Monica, to officiate the event, which he did well, without the usual backup people.
I arrived at the pier and crew member Vladmir waved me aboard the "Bottomscratcher " http://bottomscratcher.com , a dive boat run by the highly experienced Gregg, who has been doing this for years to absorb the overhead of usually idle weekdays. This craft is well-outfitted for self-contained, multi-day island dive trips. I stowed a borrowed (from Pyropeter O'Sullivan) Scupper Pro sit-on-top kayak and my other gear, before checking out the boat.
I saw part of a rather slender woman sticking out of a bunk below. Later, I learned that she was Erica Moffett and to my surprise, not chunky like most long distance swimmers. Erica is a Research Director of a large team of equity analysts for one of the more competent, scandal-free big Wall St. firms. Somehow, she finds time to pursue her long-distance swimming passion, although her latest promotion has cut into that time significantly. As a warm-up for this event, she also swam the English Channel, Straits of Gilbraltar and circumnavigated the choppy waters around Manhattan Island.
She brought along John Acton, her boyfriend/coach/swimmer and Rachel Golub, a professional violinist and cold weather swimmer-- think Coney Island, NY --in January! Those remarkable people were to provide very strong support for Erica's little project of the evening. Erica is a volunteer coach and John an Assistant Coach for Agua Masters at Asphalt Green in New York (www.asphaltgreen.org). All three swim for Agua Masters and are also members of CIBBOWS (www.cibbows.com) which stands for Coney Island Brighton Beach Open Water Swimmers. On the weekends in the summer, they're out there swimming.
We listened to Gregg's briefing before we departed, got our gear in order and discussed the swimming support game plan. Erica had special cold and hot drinks (in thermos type bottles) prepared.
The wind started coming up before sunset and had me a bit worried. The plan was to leave LA Harbor at 8:30 PM and reach Doctor's Cove on the West End of Catalina, Erica's departure point, at 11:00 PM, for her to start her swim at 11:30 -- and that's pretty much what happened. The ride out of LA Harbor at night was a treat. No other kayakers showed up, leaving me as the entire kayak support team, so I should have been down below catching up on my rest for the long paddle across the channel. But, I'm a sucker for working harbor sights and sounds, so I drank it all in. Finally got to sleep. Erica, who had to do the really heavy lifting, didn't get much sleep. I arose about 10:40 PM and got suited up and gear ready for departure. The sea was glassy calm, with the half moon light glowing, the waters glistening and stars twinkling above. We could clearly see the beacon's staccato flash at our Point Vincente lighthouse destination, many miles away on the Palo Verde Peninsula. LA Harbor and Redondo Beach were in a partial, descending cloud cover.
Gregg got the BottomScratcher into Doctor's Cove a little early. Erica wanted to start as late as possible, so that she would spend more time swimming in the warming rays of the sun and was quite worried about getting too cold. That had to be balanced against the risk of running into more weather and sea traffic typical in the daytime. Since she had already done the chilly English Channel, I didn't see what the big problem was, until I thought about a couple of times I had immersions for longer than desirable. I launched my kayak, with Vladmir's very able assistance and accompanied Erica swimming toward her starting point, where she waded ashore and allowed Robert to verify this before starting her swim to mainland California, about 20, hard statute miles north.
We ran into some minor problems fairly quickly. John and I had discussed how we would travel and I recommended that we initially stay to the starboard side of Bottomscratcher, to avoid the prevailing winds, with Erica outboard of that. I guess I should have diagrammed it, because when we got going, I learned that they actually wanted Erica inboard of me, so that they could better see her, although I was worried about her getting too close to Bottomscratcher while all three parties were weaving back and forth in the wind and currents. So, we changed that. Erica's crew had tied on lightsticks to Erica and my kayak, to facilitate night location. Although our knots held, the pre-tied knots on the lightsticks all came off quickly, leaving lightsticks trailing back in the waters behind us. Assuming we did something wrong, I stopped and fastened more on, which also fell off. Finally, I used tie wraps and my own knots on the lightstick side and had no further problems.
Everything else went according to plan, with Erica moving swiftly and efficiently, actually ahead of her swim plan. The weather stayed quite calm for a long while. The monotony of the evening wore on. Swimmer's liquid feedings were every hour, for two hours, then every half-hour thereafter, with occasional solid food banana feedings. John was keeping track of Erica's stroke count and overall situation, which looked quite good.
Erica started complaining of cold in the later wee hours. An east wind blew in and kicked up a chop from the starboard that reflected off Bottomscratcher's hull and disturbed the tranquil calm around her. I noticed that she had to stroke a bit higher to clear the chop. After a while, she started complaining about shoulder pain. John told her to just keep on trucking and it would go away and that seemed to work. Also, we moved to portside of Bottomscratcher to help avoid the reflected chop.
About 4:30 or 5:00 AM, a large seal or sea lion crossed our path about 50 ft ahead and dived. We could see large ships crossing the sea lanes ahead. Gregg was later able to negotiate with the harbor traffic control people to keep ships from running us over, eliminating the need for us to stop/take evasive action.
The cold started to bother Erica more and more. She cried out in anguish or pain more than once, but kept on swimming after encouragements of John and Rachel. Some of the encouragements actually sounded a bit lame, but they were enough for Erica, who was looking for reasons to continue, even though her body was protesting. By 6:30 AM, those protests became more urgent. Erica was shivering and her teeth were chattering uncontrollably. She was almost in tears and now stopping more often, but kept gamely stroking on. Sometime around then, I told her that she was already a winner and that every additional stroke after that was another victory. She later said that was a turning point for her, but I think that John and Rachel's actions were more important.
John and I conferred and I told him that she could be approaching borderline hypothermia, if something wasn't done. She was encouraged to swim harder to generate heat, but was tiring and refusing solid food. I tried to get her to drink more out of the Thermos. It wasn't really hot anymore, so I brought it back to the boat and John refilled it with very hot, highly sugared tea.
Around that time, Rachel joined the fray. She looked spectacular climbing up on the rail, in the mist, in her brown tanga bikini, then plunging into the Pacific, on what would turn out to be the longest swim of her life, to support her friend and teammate's quest. Rachel's athletic presence and energy provided an immediate and needed jolt to Erica's efforts. The two swam together all the way, looking like an impressive pair of mermaids. The combined effects of a warming, but overcast sunrise, hot, sweet tea and Rachel, seemed to turn the tables. Erica was still cold and stayed that way, but thawed enough to keep her parts working toward her obsessive goal.
We also started seeing dolphins along the way. Gregg also spotted a huge sunfish in the water and announced it over the P.A. system.
I could clearly see first the lights and shoreline, then the actual lighthouse and nearby rocks of our destination, but the women were too low in the water to see that morale builder and had to take our word for it. I can remember many tough coastal approaches by kayak that seemed to take forever, so at a swimmer's pace, with little visibility, it had to be much, much worse.
With the slower pace and more frequent stops, it was taking an agonizingly long time to approach our goal. Erica kept asking the distance to go. My expensive handheld GPS failed to maintain a lock on our position after 1 AM, so I estimated remaining distances, or inquired of the boat crew. John seemed a little hesitant to tell Erica how far it really was and may have been fudging a bit for her morale, but she knew better. I suppose that's all part of the game.
As we got closer, Erica's morale improved, but she was also worried that she couldn't make it and in evident pain, so she really deserves credit for having the courage and persistence to push on. Although I have seen athletes endure more hardship, it was usually when they had little or no choice, or were breaking records, or much money was at stake. None of these motivated Erica. She could have easily grabbed onto the kayak and been towed to the Bottomscratcher, hot shower, towels, food, drink and sleep, but she succumbed to none of these.
To further perk up Erica, Gregg got out on the upper deck with his bagpipes and played some jaunty marching and fighting songs, concluding with the U.S. Marine anthem.
About four nautical miles out, we ran into an oil slick that the gals had to swim through. Ugh. I later spent some time removing tar from Pyropeter's kayak. I wonder how Rachel's tanga fared?
When we were less than a mile from Pt. Vincente , the boat crew launched the tender to scout out a landing place, since the rising swells would make the landing tougher for the swimmers. They located a place way back in the cove, which would have lengthened the swim even more. As we started for it, we were seized by a current from starboard to port, pushing us upcoast. I turned back out and headed to portside of the lighthouse. Gregg scouted out a point behind the kelp, just upcoast of the lighthouse, that I had my eye on. We picked our way through the rocks and kelp, then headed our way in where the tender wasn't too anxious to go.
I have landed near there multiple times on "rock gardening" kayak trips with Jack Brisley, Steve Brown and the rest of the gang, but only in full neoprene kayaking armor. The gals had to brave the slippery rocks and surf in bare feet and a few bits of strategically placed cloth, but they made it with no visible injuries. Rob was aboard the tender to record Erica's successful completion at 11:18 A.M., in 11:47- whew! Hoorah!
Now relieved of the imperative to avoid contact while on the official swim, I towed Erica and Rachel out through the surf, rocks and kelp, to the waiting tender offshore, taking care not to scratch Pyropeter's loaner kayak. The tender, in turn, transported them farther out to the larger, deeper draft Bottomscratcher, for the trip home.
I got out of the kayak after over 12 hours in the saddle, my second longest continuous time (but not distance) underway, but it had to be infinitely easier than Erica's 20 statute mile swim across the channel.
Everything after that was anti-climatic, so I'll sign off now.