Helen Gibbs. Catalina Channel Swim 2014 – Into the Night

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.

Off into the Night

Off into the Night

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.


One thought on “Helen Gibbs. Catalina Channel Swim 2014 – Into the Night

  1. Pingback: Review of 2015 | swimsequence

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