Helen started swimming. 10.56 PM. Doctor’s Cove was moonlit and magical. The water a pleasant 72F.
Helen stroked strongly into the dark, 20 or so miles ahead of her, and a good 8 hours still the sun was due to come up.
For Catalina swims, most people opt to have a kayaker in the water with them at all times. Helen had decided to continue with that tradition, with Tom Hecker joining her for the first 3 hours of the swim. Doug was to take the next 3 hours, and then the 2 would alternate.
Mood on the deck was happy. There were warm comments about how fast and strong Helen looked in the water. While they might not voice it explicitly, most people probably favour a shorter swim to crew for rather than a long one. Also, while we could not see Helen that well in the moonlight, it was clear what we were dealing with. Helen looked classy in her stroke, purposeful and efficient, striking out at a sedate-looking, but fast 52 strokes per minute. Stroke rate is a very individual thing. When combined with the speed of swimming produced, it gives an indication of the efficiency of swimming. Helen manages to take relatively few strokes per minute, yet still manages to swim quickly, indicating an efficient stroke ingrained in her by some excellent coaching and hard work in childhood. Green lights attached to her goggles and backside made sure we were never in any doubt as to where she was. Smiles all round.
What we were not necessarily aware of was that Helen was not having a fantastic time in the water. While the water didn’t look too choppy from the boat, in the water she was struggling, as an awkward swell/chop combination was making swimming somewhat of a struggle for her, especially when corraled between the boat and the kayaker, an experience she was not used to. Afterwards, she commented on feeling confined, losing eye-line between her and the kayak, and generally feeling ill at ease.
For the first 3 hours, Helen was feeding on the hour, on Superstarch. Each portion of the high molecular weight solid carb was suspended in a half volume of water/fruit concentrate, ready to add hot water to, to resuspend and pass over to Helen. She fed well, though I struggled a bit with the throwing, so the bottle was not landing perfectly for Helen to swim into, and Helen was getting a little cross. Her feeds, however, were fast and efficient. There was very little communication with the swimmer, other than a few words of general encouragement from me, and this resulted in sub 30 second feeds. All was going well……..
It was a long night. A combination of an October swim date, starting slightly earlier (10.56 PM) than expected, and overcast skies, resulted in the first 8 hours of the swim being under the cover of darkness. While overcast much of the time, the air temperature was warm, and after a couple of hours, the sea flattened out very nicely indeed. This coincided with faster progress being made. The first 2 hours she averaged 1.6 knots (2.95 km/h), which is slower than her usual pace. The next few hours the average went up to close to 2 knots (3.7 km/h). Helen was starting to fly.
The San Pedro Channel is deep, way deeper than the English Channel. At its deepest it is about 1000 m deep, and there is a large circular area shown on the map where ‘stuff’ was dumped years ago. Don’s rule of thumb is that if a swimmer is passing the far edge of the dump by 5 hours, there is a chance of hitting sub 10 hours for the whole swim. Helen hit that point at 5 hours dead on. There was a chance of going sub 10 hours for a major channel swim! I started to keep an even closer eye on progress as Helen, who continued to look serene and strong, carried on her swim towards the mainland.
There was not much opportunity to take good video during this time, but the one above was taken within the cabin of Outrider. This was just after the 7 hour point. At 6.5 hours, after consulting with John, I had asked Helen to up the pace a little, to try and hit sub 10 hours (I didn’t tell her why). As described in the video, she hit it pretty hard, having been working pretty hard for the previous 6.5 hours. After 7 hours she decided that there was too much risk of blowing herself out if she pushed for longer, so went back to her previous level of effort.
Finally it got light, and there was the chance to take some decent video of Helen swimming. She carried on looking strong and confident, though the feeds were starting to take a little longer. Helen also complained of fumes from the boat, so we switched feeding to the front of the boat, and Tom took her further away with the kayak.
A key moment was when at 9 hours, the kayak shift changed again. I had been very encouraging to Helen during feeds, and had possibly been too enthusiastic about telling her how well she was doing. I had also let it slip at one point that the current was helping her at that time. All this runs through the mind of the swimmer, who has an awful lot of time to think, calculate, surmise as to how they are doing, and Helen had been hoping that she was going to be finishing soon. The kayaker change made her think that she had a long way to go, even though she was barely 3 miles from the coast. I had to be quite robust with her at that point, but in fairness to her, this was really the only truly stroppy moment of the entire swim.
She swam on.
The expected dolphins, phosphoresence etc were notably absent. Helen saw A LOT of jellyfish, mainly the very small ones that glowed bright neon blue as the daylight crept in. She also encountered a good few larger stingy type ones of unidentified species, and got a good few zaps to keep her interested. We on deck couldn’t see any, so they must have been the annoying transparent kinds! She also saw a lot of what we think were salps, very peculiar floating pale pink condom-like creatures. We think they were harmless. A blue whale breached behind the boat a couple of miles from land, but poor Helen missed that too!
At the 10 hour feed she only had 1 nautical mile to go. I told her that she only had one mile to go (omitting the nautical bit – bad boy), and that this would be her last feed. She looked pretty happy to hear that, but was tiring by then. Nonetheless, she set about her work, stroking onwards towards Terrenea Cove. According to Helen, during the last mile the land never seemed to get any closer. Infact, after about 20 minutes, she actually stopped in the water, and said ‘Am I actually making any progress?’. ‘Of course – now get on with it, I want a swim!’, I replied.
Soon enough, we were close. As the boat moored up a 100 metres of so from the beach, Helen plugged on. Dan, Kevin and I all jumped in, to follow her into shore. After 10 hours, 36 minutes, and 24 seconds, Helen cleared the water, a Channel Swimmer again.
As Outrider motored out from San Pedro, Helen’s support crew and observers gathered in the cabin for the briefings. A marked contrast here from the English Channel, where the observer’s just ask you a few questions about feeding and grease, and Lance Oram’s pilot’s briefing consisted of the following:
‘I assume you are all swimmers, but try not to fall in anyway. Try and keep 3 points of contact with the boat’
For this crossing, we had first a briefing from John about where the toilets (heads) were located, what course we would be taking, and a discussion about which side to be on, plus an explanation of what the current was doing that day. He gave us a computer printout showing some quite strong side currents, and I felt for Helen slightly being given this news on her way out to start the swim on Santa Catalina.
Then there was the CCSF observer’s briefing, given by Don on this occasion, after a short spell of ‘After you, no honestly I insist’ from Dan and Don. The first part was read from a script word for word; the gist was essentially the same as the English Channel CSPF rules: no touching the boat, support swimmers etc etc. This formal part was followed by an amusing monologue from Don, which set everyone very much at their ease!
As we pulled out from the port of LA, massive container ships loomed over the boat, delivering boatloads of consumer goods from China to satisfy America’s voracious appetite. The conditions also became slightly more ‘cheeky’, as the captain opened the throttle and aimed us out over the San Pedro Channel to Catalina. This is where the bonine tablets came into action. While I didn’t feel 100% as the boat skipped over the light Pacific swell, while looking directly off the back of the the boat in the fresh air, I was actually OK for the roughly 2 hour journey.
As we got further out from LA, the overcast sky started to clear, and the moon made its appearance, reflecting very beautifully off the ocean. The surface of the ocean was fairly flat looking, which augured well for what was to come later.
During this time Helen was remarkably composed. You could tell she was a little nervous, but on the whole, well in control of her nerves. It is a long trip out to the start on Catalina, and a long time to work yourself into a state if you were disposed that way. The two bottles of flavoured superstarch set aside for the journey sat largely untouched however.
There was a fair bit to do before Helen got in, but I was in no great mood to do any of it; I was in control of seasickness staring overboard, but did not much fancy carrying out tasks at the same time, these would all wait till we were anchored up near the shore, in ever-nearing Doctor’s Cove.
Once we were there, the excitement built, and we set about methodically carrying out the pre-swim tasks. Helen got out of her warm clothes, already coated in 2 layers of Riemann P20 SPF50. A third layer was applied first of all, very generously, followed by a wiping down of her forehead lest the swimming cap slipped up during the swim. P20 is pretty greasy, but it is top notch sun protection. I found myself inwardly hoping that it wouldn’t be much needed, and that Helen would be done around breakfast time, a fair possibility at her pace.
Next up was the vaseline, liberal gobs being applied the armpits, neck and ‘groin area’, and on the straps of Helen’s swimsuit. Despite taking great care, some of the vaseline ended up going on places it wasn’t wanted, like Helen’s goggle straps. As swimmers will know, a little misplaced grease can be a royal pain in the backside, so we took our time, and made sure all was well before splash time. Lesson learned, put the swim cap on before greasing up!
We switched the Spot Tracker ‘Sizzles’ on, and all too soon, it was splash time. Off she went, asking first ‘is the water deep here?’, the exact same question I remember asking as I jumped in the water off Shakespeare beach in July. The green head and tail lights arrowed off into the dark, traversing the 50 metres or so into the shore, where a spotlight from Outrider picked out the landing place. After clearing the water, two hands went in the air, the hands went down, the official timer started and Helen walked into the water. Over 20 miles to go. 10:56 PM, on the evening of October 11th 2014.
Good Luck SuperHelen!!
An ideal place for the overseas visitor to spend a few days before a Catalina Swim is San Diego, which is where we were from the Monday before the planned swim date on the Saturday. From our hotel opposite the lifeguard station, the expanse of La Jolla Cove stretched out before us, inviting us in to swim. We had some great swims to see the wildlife, including tracking down the Leopard Sharks near the Marine Room on the Thursday, on our way back from Scripps Pier. On Friday, Helen rested her shoulders for the exertions to come, while Dan and I went to the Shores and back with Tom Hecker, who was going to be one of the kayakers for Helen’s swim. A nice breakfast, and a soak in the La Jolla Cove Suites hot tub was our reward, and our first opportunity to start talking through the swim ahead of time.
We were to drive up to LA the following morning, where we had a bungalow booked in San Pedro, near where we were to meet the boat on Saturday night. It was an easy couple of hours driving up the coast, and we pulled into Long Beach/San Pedro around lunchtime. I am not sure what I was expecting from the biggest commercial port on the Pacific Coast, but it was large, ugly, and confusing as hell to drive around. American road signage is typically rather ambiguous, but this reached new lows in south LA. We managed to find the bungalow Helen had booked, and it turned out to be a great base for the swim. A few folks expressed mild surprise over its location in ‘The Hood’, warning us not to go out on foot at night, but in all honesty, it was pretty quiet at night, and ever so convenient for the 22nd Street Marina just a mile or so away.
After stocking up with food from a local supermarket, and getting a meal inside us, we went to recce the (probable) landing spot on the mainland, and the Marina. First we drove up the coast 1/2 an hour or so to Terranea Beach. The beach is the preferred landing spot for Helen’s pilot, so she wanted to go there and do some visualisation. We tracked the beach down after a little while, walking through a swish resort, well stocked with thick-walleted, and well oiled tourists. A short walk found us on a rocky beach, flanked by cliffs on all sides. Helen sat down for a long hard think about the swim while listening to motivational music on her iPod: thinking about jumping in off the boat in the dark the next night, swimming in to shore, before clearing the water in the dark; looking back at the boat in the darkness, and preparing to swim back towards it; thinking about the monotony of swimming for many hours; imagining the sun rising finally and the day getting lighter; imagining finishing on that very beach; reminding herself that there might be some crappy moments along the way………..
All this took some time, so I went for a swim. Then I fell asleep on a rock in the warm late afternoon sunshine.
On our way back we managed to track down Helen’s Pilot boat Outrider, and got a good look at it ahead of time.
The Catalina Channel ‘Fleet’
The English Channel has a total of 13 boats split between the two ratifying bodies, the CSA and the CS&PF. There are modest differences between the two organisations in terms of rules and operations, which are worthy of a separate post, but essentially if you want a ratified swim, you go through their pilots.
In contrast, there are only two boats in the Catalina fleet, John Pittman’s Outrider, and Greg Elliott’s Bottom Scratcher (yes, really!). Again, there are modest differences between the two boats, most notably that John will tend to try and steer an arrow-straight course from start to finish, cutting the swimmer into any current that might exist, while Greg does it more like an English Channel pilot. I am sure there are pros and cons to each approach, which are way beyond my ability to explain!
Both boats are pretty big also compared to the EC fleet. The boat crew, swim crew and observers have lots of cabin, deck, and berth space.
Interestingly, though, you do not, in theory, have to use either of these pilots/boats, as any crossing under the rules of the CCSF, and with CCSF observers can be ratified, so in theory it is possible to privateer it, so long as you have adequately competent piloting.
The Day of the Swim
Helen is coeliac, which means she is very sensitive to even very trace amounts of gluten in her food. Getting ‘glutened’, as she calls it when she does take gluten in without knowing, can be very debilitating, so all week we had been super careful. We had been cooking all meals in the La Jolla suite room, and so this continued in San Pedro, right up to the hours before the swim when I cooked up a large chili for dinner. We had also arranged to meet the crew, who were converging on our San Pedro bungalow, to join us for dinner, and the pre-swim briefing.
Super swimmer – Helen Gibbs, veteran of many swims, including EC in 2012, Rottnest Island in February 2014.
Crew – Me – Only ever been on one Channel Boat, which was my own earlier in 2014. Rather prone to seasickness.
Crew – Kevin Smith – San Diego resident. Preparing for his own Catalina swim next year, and getting some experience on the boats. This was his second outing, having recently crewed for another swimmer on Bottom Scratcher.
Kayaker – Tom Hecker – very experienced citizen of the Catalina Channel, having kayaked for many swimmers, observed, and even swum it himself, as well as swimming many other ‘Big Swims’ such as the EC, Cook Strait, MIMS. Also a San Diego resident, and Cove swimmer.
Kayaker – Doug Schmitz – LA resident, not a marathon swimmer himself, but a keen kayaker. This was actually his first Catalina kayaking trip!
Dan Simonelli – CCSF official Observer – Dan has been mentioned many times on this blog. As well as observing on this swim, Dan was also invaluable in arranging crew for us, and dispensing advice. Thanks again Dan!
Don van Cleve – CCSF official Observer – very experienced observer, and all round really nice guy!
Helen is a minor control freak, so naturally had written a full crew briefing, and printed it out and ring-bound it prior to leaving the UK. Once everyone had eaten, we all sat down, and I took everyone through it. It was fairly comprehensive, but here are a few choice abstracts;
- Helen is often sick during a swim. This is no cause for concern.
- Do not draw attention to the fact that the air temperature might be cold.
- Do not tell Helen if there is a potentially dangerous animal in the vicinity.
- Do point out if friendly wildlife are in the vicinity.
- Do smile and be relaxed.
- Do not throw up or eat in front of Helen.
- Do not tell Helen how far or how long she has swum, or how far she has to go.
This last one was important, and would become ‘interesting’ later on in the swim!
Soon enough we were all off to the Marina. We pulled the car up next to the 22nd Street Landing (basically, a restaurant), and unloaded all the gear into a barrow to take down the slip to a waiting Outrider. Handily there was free overnight parking opposite the Marina (good info to know), so after dumping the car off at the car park, I joined the others at the boat, at the pre-arranged time of 7 PM.
Now this was real. Now we were on the boat. After introductions all round, including to our Observer Don, we prepared to leave on the 2 hour or so journey to Catalina, where Helen would start her swim………..
Helen and I arrived safe and sound in sunny SoCal. We are basing ourselves in La Jolla Cove, hotbed of long distance swimming, and all round jolly nice place to be. We have also met up with Dan Simonelli, a long time (well – 2 years) training partner and good friend of mine. Dan is also going to be an Observer on Helen’s Catalina boat, and has done a great job of organising crew for us, and dispensing advice freely on what we need to be doing. Thank you Dan – we really appreciate it!!
We met up at 7 and went for a swim out in to the Cove, with only 1 main aim, to visit the Cave Dan took me to 18 months ago. Helen is resting up before her big swim at the weekend, so is not up for multi-hour heroics right now.
The last cave we swam in was on Donal’s Copper Coast safari as part of Distance Week, which included on the itinerary, ‘The Cave of Screaming Terror’. La Jolla Cove’s version I have dubbed ‘The Cave of Only Very Mild Peril’.
It was fun though, and a great way to start the day!
On Monday, Helen and I fly out to California for her Catalina Channel Crossing! This is her first major swim since the Rottnest Channel Swim in February. In the meantime she has been training hard since March, including The Cork Distance Camp, and a long season in Dover Harbour. Regular readers will also know that she was there as my crew chief for my English Channel crossing in July. Relentlessly organised and efficient, an ever smiling presence on Sea Satin as I loped my way towards France.
Now it is her turn! And my turn to be crew chief!!
Helen is booked on Outrider, one of only two boats escorting swimmers on this swim, between Santa Catalina and the mainland near Los Angeles. We are expecting to start swimming around midnight on Saturday 11th October. ‘All very precise’, I hear you cry!! Indeed. Unlike the English Channel which is the epitome of uncertainty due to the flaky weather, you nearly always go at the day and time you book for Catalina, as the weather is much more predictable. Typically the conditions are relatively flat when you set off from the Island, and stay that way until you land, typically around lunchtime the next day. And then, almost regular as clockwork, the wind gets up in the late afternoon.
Typically the wildlife is more amusing as well. A swimmer might expect mad phosphorescence for the first few hours, a visit from dolphins along the way, and kelp to swim through on the way in. Whales, sharks, turtles, rays, and various fish also abound in these waters. In the English Channel, however, you are almost certain to get jellyfish, and that’s probably your lot, unless you are very lucky and get dolphins!
I have expressly booked dolphins for Helen. She will be very cross with me if they don’t show……..
Here is her tracker link to follow her swim:
Here also is the link to her fundraising site:
Good luck Helen, not that you will need it. You’re not just super, you’re awesome.