Helen Gibbs. Catalina Channel Swim 2014 – Getting Ready

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.

John Pittman's Outrider

John Pittman’s Outrider

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.

The Team

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!

The Briefing

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………..

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