Lessons Learned from a Long Swim – and Some ‘Thank You’s’

I learned quite a lot from the 2-Way Catalina experience.

  • 2-Ways are physically hard. Really hard, and harder than I had prepared for. While I was not a ‘spent force’ at the end of the first leg, I had just completed a 20-mile channel swim, so my body was at the very least ‘compromised’. I was actually physically OK till about 24 hours in, once I had got over the massive wobble at 15-16 hours, but then things got very hard indeed. I had never before been in the situation where my body actually refused to do what I wanted it to do. The pain from my left shoulder just ordered my brain to stop. Could I have gone longer and harder ‘if my life had depended on it’? Probably, but that isn’t the answer. If I were ever to contemplate a swim of this magnitude again, I would need to go and get my stroke corrected. Apparently the guys on the boat had some fun looking at my stroke (let’s face it – they had plenty of time to do so), and found it ‘not without opportunity for improvement’. Am I too old a dog to learn new tricks? Let us see…….
  • If you get common injuries and sore bits in training, they might show up when you do a 2-way, or they might not. My common places for trouble are triceps, lats, left ribcage, hip flexors, deltoids, lower back. The ribcage hurt between 20-24 hours then went away. The deltoids (tops of shoulders down the upper arm) were what slowed me in the end. Everything else was fine.  Didn’t even hurt the in the days following. All very surprising.
  • Salt mouth is an absolute pain in the a**e. it got steadily worse as the swim went on, and it took a week for me to be able to spit properly or eat without pain. It was the most troublesome thing by far in my recovery.
Asleep on deck going back to LA

Asleep on deck going back to LA

  • 2-Ways are mentally hard. My mind went way before my body did, possibly tipped over the edge by hitting a wall when my available glycogen ran out. It took me a good hour to get through it, and only with some tough words and messages from the boat. I thought I had the computer programmed properly before I started. I had prepared myself for a swim of 28 hours. That was my ‘par score’ and that was precisely what I ended up with. I think I got downhearted by the slow progress I was making back through the cross currents on the Catalina side. I allowed that to mess with my mind. Inappropriate extrapolations screwed me up. Which leads me neatly on to…..
  • Knowing where I was – probably a bad thing. My decision to be told how far I had gone after every hour was, in retrospect, not a great one. I had focused only on the good part of this knowledge, being able to do mental maths and tick off the swim, kilometre by kilometre, and to revel in the progress. I had not planned enough mentally on how to deal with the effect of ‘bad news’ on swim progression. I had concentrated on the positive effect knowledge about how far I had gone in the 12-hour Dover swim. This was temporal knowledge though, and very defined. 8 Hours was 2/3rds of the way to the finish, whatever changes remained in conditions, swim speed, state of mind etc. In a swim like this, time is elastic, and it was elastic (and unknowable) time that got me into trouble.
  • Catalina is a harder swim in some ways than I had given it credit for. The cross currents rubbed off a lot of my speed, and some of the least helpful currents came right at the end in the last 3-4 miles. It was also an easier swim in some ways than it might have been. The water was warm, conditions were on average much less challenging than my English Channel, and there was nothing too scary or painful.
  • I was not a very pleasant person to be around for large parts of the swim. I would have preferred to have been even-tempered, sunny and a joy to be around for the duration. This was sadly not the case. I was grumpy, sarcastic and moany for most of the second half, which I know wasn’t easy for those on the boat. While I know that this sort of behaviour is by no means uncommon, please accept my apologies.
  • I have a champion stomach. I chugged away on approximately 20 litres of feed, containing somewhere in the region of 1.5 kg of maltodextrin powder. Add in a few milkshakes, a couple of tins of peach slices, some jelly babies, and a couple of bananas, plus painkillers, and that was my diet. I wasn’t sick once, nor was I bloated apart from a little in the first few hours, while my nerves were settling down.
  • Taking myself to the point where I was ready to break, and to keep going, was a valuable life experience. Triumphing over some adversity was a useful affirmation of what I am capable of, physically and mentally. I am proud of finishing.
  • I can only imagine how hard an English Channel 2-Way would be, especially for swimmers who are not especially fast like me. I think it would be even harder than the Catalina 2-way, simply because you are likely to be in the water for even longer. Wendy Trehiou landed a 40 hour English Channel 2-way a couple of years back. Words almost fail me. And remember there are people out there who contemplate and take on 3-ways. Chloe McArdel became only the 4th person in history to achieve the EC 3-way, earlier this summer.
  • This is a reminder that there are always ‘greater and lesser persons than yourself’ – in everything in life. And guess what? It doesn’t matter. Do your best, and revel in your achievements. I am happy that I have learned quite well the limits of what I can do swimming-wise. If that swim had been much further, or colder, or windier – I would have been in deep trouble.
  • One pint plastic milk cartons make great feed containers.

And now to some thank you’s.

Firstly to my crew.  I have written before about how important it is to ‘feel the love’ from the boat. I certainly did feel that. Helen was there for damn near the whole swim, watching over me. It must have been super hard for her to see me struggling, her pulling out all the stops, turning all the dials, to improve things, but still helpless at the end of the day. A massive ask in retrospect, for which I owe you a huge debt of gratitude. Thank you Helen.

Bojan had never crewed on a Channel Boat before but was, by all reports, an absolute champ.

Dan and Kevin kayaked beautifully, and provided great words of encouragement at all times. They were also there with me throughout training in the last year, whenever I visited La Jolla.

I was incredibly lucky to have such an amazing and empathic crew, each with at least one Channel Crossing to their names, to help me over and back.

The Observers. Don, Bob, Sakina. Thank you for volunteering for the sport, and being there for me. Please accept my apologies for being so slow, especially when the end seemed so close.

The crew, especially John and Scott who piloted so expertly. They were also incredibly patient. It was hard enough in the water being a slowcoach at the end of the swim, without being made to feel like one, by feeling impatience from the boat. I really was doing my best 🙂

To Dylan, Emmeli and the boys who put Helen and I up in their rental apartment overlooking the ocean.  This was great in itself, but their warmth and interest in what we were doing was quite touching. Sitting in the hot tub drinking champagne the evening after the swim was really living the dream!

To everyone else back in the UK who has supported me in training. The beach crew, other swimmers with their words of encouragement and belief that I could do it.

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Jason Betley: Catalina 2-Way – Part III – The Return to LA

The main thought going through my mind as I set off back to LA was some advice given to me by Phil Hodges. ‘Most 2-ways that fail, fail in the first couple of hours after the turn.’ This was ringing in my ears. 2 Hours after the turn would take me out of this perceived danger zone, where the finish is still a long way away, but you are already tired. 2 Hours would also take me past me longest swim to that point, the English Channel the previous year.

Starting the Return Journey

Starting the Return Journey

In truth though, I wasn’t feeling that great. I settled back into the same sort of rythmn as before the turn. The records show a steady 50 spm for the first 2.5 hours. At 14 hours I complained of light headedness, and was given electrolytes at the next feed. At this point we also had a near miss with a sailing boat: normally power gives way to sail, but clearly the sailing boat had not noticed me in the water, or the kayaker, so a loud hailer message from John was required to get them to move over.

Also in the first hour or so, I was accompanied by a friendly sea-lion, who swam behind me and under me for a while (see photo). That was nice, and a welcome distraction.

Playmate (may need to zoom in to see properly!)

Playmate (may need to zoom in to see properly!)

I had been hoping that I might make better progress back towards LA, after having battled the current for a while to get in to Catalina. This wasn’t the case, though, as the current was a cross current. and was slowing me down just as much heading back as heading in. The data show about the same speed either side of the turn, at about 1 km per 30 minutes.

I also had a strange feeling that we weren’t going back the same way as we had come, which didn’t make sense.  I had thought that John always went in a straight line, so why did it feel like we were crabbing across the coast?

Either Side of 'The Turn'

Either Side of ‘The Turn’

As it turned out, John had headed us off slightly to the east, better to set us up to take advantage of  the wind behind us later on in the day. Helen informed me of this, and that John was soon going to be turning me back towards home, but it was during this 16th hour that the wheels started to fall off my wagon. I started feeling wretched. Very tired, the onset of a headache, feeling shivery and cold. And with 13.3 nm to go to the finish, and 16 hours down, moving at only 1.2 knots, the finish seemed impossibly far away.

At about 15 h 45 mins, I threw my toys out of the pram. I stopped swimming, and shouted to Helen that I was calling the swim. I told her that I wasn’t asking for permission, but just wanted to get out. I stated that I didn’t feel like I had even 5 hours left in me, let alone the 10 or more that might be required. I was pretty strong about it. I don’t know what I was expecting to hear from Helen, but what I didn’t get was any form of agreement. Instead I was told to just swim to the next feed, and that we would talk then. This is what I had written in the swim plan: ‘If Jason asks to get out, tell him to get his finger out and get on with it….’

Soldiering On

Soldiering On

I grudgingly carried on, while Helen looked busy on board. I could see her fiddling around a lot, writing stuff down on the lids of the storage boxes. And then the lids got put up for me to read. A message each from my boys Tom and Finn, wiling me on to finish. And then, for the second time in 4 hours, I cried. Different tears this time, tears of frustrated rage, as I knew Helen had me. I knew that I couldn’t throw in the towel then. I knew I had to get over this bad patch and continue.

Photo 19-09-2015 17 13 04

In retrospect, I think I had just ‘hit the wall’ at around 15 hours. I had previously thought that through good training I was able to go through the conversion point between burning mostly carbs to mostly fat with ease. In retrospect, I am not sure I had ever been there before. This was the first time, and I was experiencing it 16 hours in to the longest swim of my life.

Another symptom of hitting the wall is typically a loss of mental ability. This rings true with what happened. I pretty much lost the plot. Certainly asking to get out was not my plan at all. I felt like a toddler, a petulant, horrid version of me. At the 16 hour feed, Helen threw Dan in to support swim for an hour. Another master stroke from Helen. This almost immediately perked me up. My mind was taken off feeling miserable and sorry for myself, to having a swimmer with me. I didn’t want Dan to have to swim extra slow just to match my pace, so I perceptibly upped my pace again (it had been down at 47 for the previous hour), and stroked at 50 spm once more.

Having the support swimmer in with me was enough to snap me out of my low. I was still being quiet, unsmiling and uncommunicative at feeds, but much better. At this point, I also got out of the worst of the cross current, and started making better forward progress again. At 17 hours, my pace, while maintaining a constant 48-50 spm, was back up at around 2.8 kph, with a freshening wind at my feet. And that is how it stayed for the next 5 hours, throughout the afternoon.

I started to feel much better, physically and mentally, as we headed towards sunset, and my second night in the water.

20.5 Hour Feed

There were still weird things going on in the water though. It was a complicated story, and my brain was a bit bemused by it all. I knew there was a wind coming over my left shoulder, some swell going in a slightly different direction, and current in yet another. It still felt like the boat was ‘pointing in the wrong direction’ due to some crabbing across current, and against the wind.

At around 23 hours, there was another wonderful display from the sun, this time as it set into the ocean.

Nearly 24 Hours In - Helen Holds Vigil

Nearly 24 Hours In – Helen Holds Vigil

Between 22 and 24 hours, I entered another phase of the swim. My stroke rate remained steady at 48-50 spm, and I was feeling fine, but my forward progress fell away markedly. The wind which had been helping me started to subside, and the current which had been in my favour during the first few hours of the swim now came back to slow me down. I was down to 2 kph once again, and because I was getting updates from the crew, I knew it. At 23.5 hours my disappointment showed, as I had only managed 0.4 of a nautical mile in the previous 30 minutes, and still had several nm to go.

I could feel my hopes of getting home around 26 hours being dashed by the adverse current, and I got angry. I thought that with only a few nm to go, this was where I was going to ‘own’ the swim. I cast my mind back to the last 90 minutes in the English Channel. After 12.5 hours I was asked to swim hard and fast to try and hit the Cap. That was what I did. I upped my stroke rate and landed it right on the nose. It had felt awesome.

But this situation was different. Instead of being swept along to the Cap on a 3 knot spring tide after only 12.5 hours, I was heading against a coastal current off Los Angeles, with 23.5 hours in the shoulders. I went for it though. Up went the stroke rate from 48 to 58. I pushed hard for 30 minutes, and really felt like I was making a difference. I was gutted then, when at the 24 hour feed, I was told I I had only covered only a further 0.4 of a nautical mile (about 750 m) in 30 minutes!

Helen was worried I was going to burn myself out, so encouraged me to ‘see if you can enjoy the rest of the swim’. ‘Easy for you to say’, I replied sardonically, and swam on, at a more sensible rate this time.

It was clear that I was battling a good current at this point though, and the effects of foolishly throwing in a ‘half hour of power’ after 23.5 hours in the water were starting to show themselves. Over the course of the next hour battling the current, I only swam 1.2 km. And my shoulders started to really hurt, especially the left one.

At 25 hours I was in so much pain with the left shoulder that I resorted to breaststroke (I have a very poor breaststroke), and one-armed front crawl. It was fully dark, and I could see the destination of Terranea Cove clearly, but I could sense how slowly we were going, and how the nose of the boat was pointing way up the coast, into the current.

Dan was in the kayak next to me, and encouraged me on. ‘You are making progress Jason. It’s not fast but if you can stay in the water long enough, you will get in’. But the guys on the boat knew just how slow it actually was, and continually encouraged me (much to my annoyance – I was doing my best!) to try front crawl again, as my breaststroke really wasn’t cutting it.

So at that point I tried to swim front crawl again, starting with 10 strokes, gritting my teeth against the horrible pain from my left shoulder. Then breaststroke. Then 15 of front crawl. Then breaststroke. And so on I laddered all the way up to 100 strokes.  Every time I swam front crawl, the crew shouted encouragement. Every time I stopped, they urged me to start again. I knew why they wanted me to carry on, because it was so much faster, but just couldn’t keep going endlessly through the pain.

Bojan got in and swam with me for a while, which was both nice, and frustrating, as it was a reminder, seeing him coast alongside me, of how slowly I was moving now.

At about 26 hours, the current lessened, and I could see the nose of  the boat turn in towards Terranea.  But at this point I still had more than 2 km to go.  It took me more than 2 further hours to get in from there. Towards the end, even the very little proper front front crawl I had been doing was finished. I made it in to the shore with a mixture of breaststroke, and one-armed Old-English backstroke.

Outrider - from the Water - Taken by Bojan

Outrider – from the Water – Taken by Bojan

In the end, after 28 hours 12 minutes 10 seconds, I crawled up the rocks where on the evening of the day before yesterday I had started the swim, and made it hesitantly to my feet. My shoulders were in agony, especially the left one.  It was all I could do to try to raise the lest arm past shoulder level and salute my wonderful crew who had all come in to the beach with me.  I could barely speak my mouth and tongue were so swollen.

One-Armed Salute. Elation and Exhaustion.

One-Armed Salute. Elation and Exhaustion.

Helen joined me briefly for a photo. Thank you Helen. I know how hard it was for you to watch me struggle for so long, and how powerless you felt to help me. But help me you did, every stroke of the way. Thank you.

Me and Helen

Me and Helen

I collapsed back into the water at the shoreline, before Dan towed me off the back of his kayak back to Outrider. I was done. Now I could sleep. I never had to do that sort of swim again. In truth I probably never will……

There will be one more part to this blog, in which I will thank everyone on my team properly, for getting me across, and back again. I will also reflect on what we did well, and things we might do differently if we had the time again, with the benefit of retrospect. But for now I will stop, and continue to rest, and enjoy a glass of wine.  Cheers!

The Full Swim. Mapping Courtesy of Evan Morrison at Marathon Swimmers' Federation.

The Full Swim. Mapping Courtesy of Evan Morrison at Marathon Swimmers’ Federation.

Jason Betley: Catalina 2-Way – Part II

I stroked off into the night, sighting off Outrider, with Dan in the kayak at my side.  I spent maybe 5-10 minutes trying to regain my composure after the rougher than expected start to my swim.

The San Pedro Channel is 20.2 miles between the 2 closest points on Catalina and the mainland.  I had double that distance ahead of me.  40.4 Statute miles.  35.1 Nautical miles. 65.0 km.  Lots of numbers to conjure with there.

By now it was completely dark, and the thin sliver of a moon was setting fast into the ocean.  An excellent night for stargazing, especially for those on the boat!  I felt completely safe and ‘looked after’ though; Outrider is a big boat, well decorated with coloured glow sticks by the crew, and Dan in the kayak was well lit up too.

Swimming didn’t feel easy going at first.  There was some fairly persistent head-on swelly chop that I felt like I was continually having to climb over.  It seemed I was making fairly heavy weather of it too.  I continually told myself just to relax, not fight the water, just slip through it, preserve the shoulders for even tougher times that might lay ahead.

I had an hour before my first feed, which passed surprisingly quickly.  I saw the flashing glow-in-the-dark Viking helmet go on one of the crew (it was difficult to tell who from the water), which signaled 5 minutes till feed.  I knew that it would be switched off with 1 minute to go, which would be my signal to come in to the boat, to have my plastic milk carton of feed thrown to me on a long line.  Problem was I lost track of the horns at the back of the boat, where there were quite a few other lights.  I think also my goggles must have misted up a bit.  At the feed I didn’t say much, just chugged down my 350 mL of Summer Fruits-flavoured Maltodextrin, and asked for the horns to go up front in future.  Helen reassured me I was doing fine, with a stroke rate of 52 spm, and on I went.

10 Hours of Darkness to Start the Swim

10 Hours of Darkness to Start the Swim

Feeds from then until the end of the swim were to be every 1/2 an hour, mostly just the same liquid feed, with occasional solids thrown in as the choice of the crew, or requested by me if I had a particular yearning.  The second feed went better.  I could see the horns, and again I was told I was doing fine, with the stroke rate settled down to an even 50 spm.

Two hours promised something to look forward to. I had agreed with Helen that she would be telling me how far I had gone, on the hour, so I could mentally map my progress through the swim.  This was a marked departure from any previous swim I had done, where the approach was just to ‘swim from feed to feed, trust your crew, turn your arms over until you get there’.  While I knew this approach was slightly risky to be attempting on such a major swim, I was confident it would help me mentally, give me something to think about, do lots of mental maths, tick off the distance mile by mile, percentage point by percentage point.  This is how my mind works.  This is how I got through the Solstice overnighter in Dover, when I was chilled to the bone and miserable, by chunking the swim up into milestones.

While chugging on my drink and enjoying some banana at the 2 hour feed, Helen informed me that I had gone 1.75 nautical miles.  I think I asked her to repeat it as I was sure I had misheard.  ‘Oh that’s slow’ was all I said, before swimming on.  Seriously?  1.75 Nautical miles in 2 hours?  This was awful news.  I had felt that I had been making heavy weather of the swim with the conditions still annoyingly choppy, but I had still been hoping for something around 3 nautical miles.  At this rate my first crossing was going to take way longer than I had hoped.

At the 2.5 hour feed, Helen tried to clarify that she was using nautical miles, that the whole first leg was only 17.5 nautical miles, and that 1.75 nautical miles was not slow.  I was still confused as I swam towards the 3 hour feed.  I was frustrated wits the thought that maybe Helen was ‘just being nice’ and dressing a pace of less than 1 knot up as good to keep my spirits up, when I knew it was rubbish.  I was seriously unhappy.

At the third hour, Helen told me that I had covered 1.8 nautical miles.  What?!  ‘You mean I have only covered 0.05 of a nautical mile in the last hour?’ I pleaded. And that was when the penny dropped.  We had been talking at completely crossed purposes.  Helen had been giving me the distance covered in the previous hour, while I had been expecting information on total distance covered.  I can’t believe in retrospect that we didn’t nail this one.  I consulted my swim plan afterwards which stated simply, ‘I will be receiving information on my progress during the swim, at hourly intervals.’  I am supposed to be a scientist, yet had written something so gloriously open to interpretation.  I had probably even confused myself, as Helen was only doing what she had been told to by me.

I cursed myself, while at the same time internally whooped with joy.  I was making good pace after all!  This was confirmed at the 3.5 hour feed when Bojan told me I had done 6 nm (11 km).  This just got better and better.  At this rate I was heading for a first crossing time of somewhere around 11 hours, way faster than the ‘par score’ of 13 hours I had planned on.  At this time, somewhere around midnight, the ocean started to flatten out, and I started enjoying my swimming more and more.  The miles kept on tumbling, as I swam, super-relaxed, settling in to a consistent 48 spm between hours 4 and 8.  I was marveling at the very many small pairs of eyes that appeared out of the gloomy depths, before disappearing as quickly as they came.  I also started to get stung around this time, lots and lots, by small little ‘no-see-um’ jellyfish, that just sprinkled a little mildly-painful poison, which only hurt for a few minutes each time.  I congratulated myself that they were so mild, unlike the mauve stingers in Menorca, which packed a real punch.

At around 10 hours in to the swim, the sky started to lighten in the west, and dawn was on its way.

Dawn, near Catalina Island - Leg 1

Dawn, near Catalina Island – Leg 1

In the 10th hour, as well as getting light, my progress started to slow.  After 9 hours I only had 3.2 nm to go, but each 1/2 an hour only chipped off 0.5-0.6 miles off that.  At 10 hours I shouted ‘Is there a current or something?’  Indeed there was; the first leg which had been going so unexpectedly quickly had a sting in the tail.  A strong cross current was scrubbing chunks off my forward speed, and it took me nearly 3 hours to complete the final 3.2 nm.  But what swimming it was!  The approaches to Doctor’s Cove on the Island were incredibly beautiful, as some of the crew’s pictures show:

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At 11.5 hours, Helen asked me if there was anything else I wanted at the turnaround.  “A new pair of shoulders!’, I replied.  I was starting to feel the effects of a single channel swim.

Finally, after 11 hours and 53 minutes, I made it in to the beach.  Dan had already kayaked in with ‘supplies’ for the turnaround.  Helen jumped in off the boat and swam in after me.  I clambered up the beach, cleared the water, and raised my arms into the air, the first leg complete.

Ist Leg Complete!

Ist Leg Complete!

After raising my arms in the air, I promptly fell over.  Sitting down seemed like a reasonable place to be, so I stayed there, sat on the beach and looked around.  What a beautiful spot!

We then set about getting me ready for the second leg.  Dan had brought in a towel, a large tub of runny zinc cream, and an improvised back-scratcher / lotion-applyer that Helen had rigged up.  Under the rules, neither Dan nor Helen were allowed to touch me at the turnaround, so I dried my back and shoulders down, and daubed them with zinc, ready for a full day in the Californian sun. All this activity took a total of 7 minutes, at which point I stood up, raised my arms once again, and stepped back towards the water.

I could hear the cries of encouragement from Helen and Dan on the beach, and everyone on the boat, and set off once again, diving back into the crystal clear waters of Doctor’s Cove.  In mid dive, I was completely overcome emotionally with what was about to happen, the enormity of the task ahead, and the wonderful belief and support from the people who were supporting me.  For a dozen or so strokes I basically blubbed, crying into my goggles as I began the journey back to LA.

Jason Betley: Catalina 2-Way – Part I

In the autumn of 2014 I first enquired with John Pittman about doing a 2-way crossing to Catalina and back.  He was very supportive from the start, and soon enough I negotiated the CCSF forms, medical, and so on, and had a slot booked for my swim on the 19th/20th September.

But why did I choose to do this swim?

After completing the English Channel in August 2014, I felt (and had been told by those present) that I had plenty more in the tank.  I had not been put in the position where I was really challenged mentally or physically to complete the swim, so thought it would be interesting to go and find a swim that put me in that position.  I almost wanted to ‘stare into the abyss’, and learn something about myself when put in a very difficult place.

A number of possibilities were discussed with Helen and others:

  • North Channel – colder, more and nastier jellyfish, similar distance.  Regarded by many as the ‘Daddy’ of Channel crossings.
  • Double English – same challenges as a single, just more of it (42 miles) – tricky to book for the following year, as pilot’s slots get booked up a couple of years in advance.
  • Wales to Ireland – super hard – see North Channel but much longer (50 miles). Not a surprise this remains an unswum swim.
  • England to Belgium – also unswum (except by relays), an interesting navigation challenge (50 miles) – rather costly and difficult to book for 2015
  • Double Catalina – longer, probably easier conditions, possible to book for the following year.

So, Double Catalina it was.

I set about training over the winter and spring, which went reasonably well.  I tried a few things with my stroke to make it more efficient which was diverting, but didn’t really translate to any meaningful increase in OW pace.  Overall, I did slightly less training between November and April than I had for my English Channel the year before, but figured I had time to pick that up from May onwards.

In April I enjoyed an early season 6-hour with Kevin Smith in La Jolla Cove at about 16C, which felt surprisingly hard.  After the event, Helen pointed out that while I was reasonably pool fit, all of the extra little muscles required for open water swimming were out of shape, resulting in a harder than expected swim.  There was then relatively little in terms of open water swimming until late June, ‘just’ the crossing of the Strait of Gibraltar with Helen in May, which was surprisingly short at 3 h 16 mins, and a 4 hour in Dover harbour outing in early June.  Late June was the 12 hour overnight Solstice Swim in Dover Harbour, at a bracing 14C.  This was a huge confidence builder, as it my first experience of losing a night of sleep on a swim, albeit without the requirement to carry on afterwards.  Despite not enjoying it one little bit, I did complete.

July and August comprised of two ‘7+6’ weekends in Dover Harbour, and a series of 5 early morning 3 hour swims while in Menorca for Helen’s victorious Menorca Channel Crossing.  A final, and surprisingly tough, 6 hour in Dover at the beginning of September led in to my taper.  Overall, I was underswum compared to the previous year, and had not had Distance Week to toughen me up either.  I was still confident about Catalina though, maybe foolishly so.

All of that said, I enjoyed tapering, and felt stronger and stronger as the 2 week period went by.

As the date of the swim got nearer, more discussions around the detail were had.  After consultation with the CCSF and John the pilot, we zeroed in on a start time of around 7-8 PM on Friday 18th.  The winds in the Catalina are fairly predictable, getting up around lunchtime,  and subsiding in the evening..  According to our plan, I was to leave the mainland around the time the wind was subsiding, and be on my way back, with the prevailing wind direction at my heels, the following day.

On the day of the swim, Helen and I were joined by the rest of my crew for pizza in San Pedro, before repairing back to our apartment to ‘relax’ for a couple of hours.  We all enjoyed the spectacular views over the San Pedro Channel, with Catalina in the distance, while getting the last bits of kit packing done.

View to Catalina from our Clifftop Loft Apartment

View to Catalina from our Clifftop Loft Apartment

Last Nervous Preparations

Last Nervous Preparations

The crew for the swim was as follows:

  • Helen Gibbs, Crew Chief, Girlfriend, all round awesome marathon swimmer (EC, Catalina, Rottnest, Gibraltar, Menorca)
  • Bojan Obradovic, recently emigrated to California, 1 day after landing his own EC (see Here)
  • Dan Simonelli, Lead kayaker, the man who took me out on my first ‘proper’ open water swim in La Jolla Cove in December 2012, and many times since.  Recent conqueror of his own Catalina Channel (August 2015).
  • Kevin Smith, training partner, crew on Helen’s Catalina, and recent swimmer of Catalina (August 2015).

What an awesome crew!

All too soon, the time came to drive down to the 22nd St Landing in San Pedro to meet the boat crew and the observers.

We found the boat easily and loaded up (as is traditional, my shoulders were not allowed to participate in this process), and found the time for a team photo.

Me and My Awesome Crew

Me and My Awesome Crew

We waited a while for the three observers to arrive, as the LA traffic allowed, first the legendary (and very lovely) Don van Cleve, followed by Sakina Zerrel (first time observing, on a 2-way!), and the excellent Bob Cohen.

Soon enough we were off.  We had an hour or so to motor up the coast to Terranea, heading first out of the harbour past the iconic Angel’s Gate (1913) lighthouse at the harbour exit.

San Pedro Harbour

San Pedro Harbour

Between leaving San Pedro and getting to Terranea cove, the sun set in the Pacific, while we were all busy on the boat, organising kit, applying a third and final coat of P20, and having the CCSF rules read to us by Don.

Don Reads Me My Rights

Don Reads Me My Rights

Last Minute Activity

Last Minute Activity

I felt surprisingly calm, now covered in P20, Bronzinc, in just my swimmers, ready to go, eager to go.

At last we arrived at Terranea Cove.  On went the goggles and hat, in went Dan in kayak, ready to escort me in to the start point.  I had instructions to make my way to the beach, exit the water, find dry land, and raise my arms to signal the start of the swim.

I jumped in.  I let myself go as deep as my momentum wanted to take me, savouring the moment.  When I resurfaced, I followed Dan into the beach.  The water was warm, a delicious 74F.  I felt fabulous.

Me and Dan Go In

Me and Dan Go In

After only a couple of minutes, Dan directed me in to the part of Terranea Cove where there was some sand between the stones.  I clambered slowly over the smooth rocks and made it to the dry part of the beach.  I turned around and slowly stood up, raising my arms into the air, signalling the start of the swim.

All I had to do now was retrace my steps over the rocks into the sea and start swimming.  The stones were slippery, so I took it very carefully and slowly.  Maybe too slowly.  As I was only half way back to swimable water, a big swell came in and knocked me off my feet, crashing me in to the rocks.  I tried to get up to move back towards open water, and another swell hit me.  There was a lot of swearing at this time.  This was not what I wanted at all before I had even swum one stroke towards Catalina.  I could hear Dan shouting instructions at me, but they weren’t registering.  All I could focus on was a growing sense of disbelief that I was not able to get started on the swim, and that I was getting increasingly battered on the rocks.  The only plus was that the rocks were smooth.  If they had been like the Cap Gris Nez rocks I would have been lacerated all over.

After what seemed like an eternity, but what I am told later was only about 2 minutes, I finally made it to deeper water and started swimming.

The biggest challenge of my life had begun……

Catalina and Back

Just after midnight on Sunday, I finally landed my Catalina double.  A proper write up and reflection will follow, but for now, here is the announcement from the CCSF.  Huge thanks to my crew led by Helen, the observers and John Pittman’s boat crew.

Feeding on the way back

Feeding on the way back

Something very special happened on the Channel yesterday…actually started Friday
night…and ended early Sunday morning!
Jason Betley (UK, English Channel 2014) became one of a very select group of
swimmers to do a “lap” of the Channel…swimming from Mainland to Catalina, exiting the water to finish one leg (time: 11:53:15), then reentering and swimming back across
to the Mainland where he started!
This awesome feat had only been done previously by 7 people, and only twice in the
last 37 years!
Jason’s total time of 28:12:10 included almost everything (except water temp; it was a balmy 74F!) the Catalina Channel and Mother Nature can throw at a swimmer to test human limits and spirit, physically and mentally. Surface conditions were choppy, going against the W-SW swell, and currents shifting and swirling both ways across. He fought a current getting in to finish the first leg only to find when starting out on the second leg that the current shifted, and he was then going against an adverse
current again! The choppy surface conditions and afternoon winds on Saturday were continuous and it didn’t lay down until after sunset. And around that time, Jason’s shoulders were spent (“a pair of new shoulders”, he replied to crew after being asked if
there was anything he needed), and especially his left shoulder which was causing him
excruciating pain on every stroke. He was determined to finish and relied upon doing
breast stroke and right arm freestyle drill to keep moving forward. But, because there
was a cross current and doing those two strokes were not making enough forward
progress in a timely manner, he dug deep and started a regimen of painful freestyle,
counting strokes and laddering up by 5’s to 100+ and back down again. Physically
Jason was “broken”, as he said. But, with the help of his crew and everyone on board,
his spirit and motivation were continually buoyed and pushed just enough to keep him
going…painfully for every tick off the nautical mile decimal points to go. Finally…in the Sunday early morning hour, he approached a dark Terranea Cove, where he had started in the dark two calendar dates before, and he negotiated the rocky landing and surf/surge like the champion that he is!
CCSF congratulates Jason Betley for his monumental feat and showing us that with grit, determination and perseverance one can achieve well beyond one’s perceived
limitations.
Rest well, Jason, and enjoy your accomplishment with your family and friends.

CCSF Double Crossings:
Greta Anderson, 1958
Penny Lee Dean, 1977
Cindy Cleveland, 1977
Dan Slosberg, 1978
John York, 1978
Tina Neill, 2008
Forrest Nelson, 2010
Jason Betley, 2015

Jason’s crew:
Helen Gibbs, Crew Chief (exemplary job organizing and executing). (English Channel 2012; Catalina Channel 2014)
Bojan Obradovic, Deck Crew; Support Swimmer. (English Channel, 2015)
Dan Simonelli, Lead Kayaker; support swimmer. (Catalina Channel 2015)
Kevin Smith, Kayaker. (Catalina Channel 2015)

CCSF Observers:
Don Van Cleve
Sakina Zerrel
Bob Cohen

Outrider crew:
John Pittman, Captain
Scott, 2nd pilot
Steve, deck crew
Mike, deck crew
Cami, galley service (keeping everyone well fed!)

Swim track

Swim track

To Catalina and Back – Tracker Link

At some point tomorrow evening, I will strike out from the LA shoreline, and swim to Catalina Island, 20.2 miles across the San Pedro Channel.

Once I get there, and clear the water, I will get back in again and swim to LA again.

I have only the vaguest idea how long it will take, but it will be longer than a day.

So long as it is working, and someone remembers to turn it on, here is where you can track my progress!

http://share.findmespot.com/shared/faces/viewspots.jsp?glId=0ol283Sf0rR0xhzJXqo3lIOvltAlEE82z

Obsessive Weather Watching

A common activity for people awaiting a Channel Swim is obsessive weather watching.  Weather conditions can make or break a swim.  These days, there are many sources of information for the anxious Channel-Swimmer-To-Be to obsess over.

Earlier this year, Helen and I crossed the Strait of Gibraltar (Link) on an excellent day.  The days before the crossing were windy, and from the wrong direction, which would have created a very nasty ‘wind over current’ chop situation.  The day after we got there, the wind was blowing at 43 miles per hour out of the east.  The days after the swim were similarly bad, as the wind once more swung round to come out of the east.

Tarifa Weather the Week of Our Crossing

Tarifa Weather the Week of Our Crossing

But we did get to swim, in the short period of calm as the winds switched from easterly to westerly. We even got a slight push from the north, helping to propel us over to Morocco in an unexpectedly fast time (3 h 16 minutes).

Typically swimmers will try and avoid wind if possible.  Some years in the English Channel there are long periods of settled weather, with light winds, normally associated with an extended period of high pressure.  This year there has been very little of this sort of weather.  Swim ‘windows’ have been short, resulting in an unusually small number of swims, and an unusually large number of unsuccessful crossings.  People look on Windfinder, and yearn for the Beaufort F1/F2 winds which herald ideal conditions for solo crossings.  There have not been many of these this year.  Here is the Windfinder forecast for the next 3 days.

Dover Forecast for the Next 3 Days - A Little Windy

Dover Forecast for the Next 3 Days – A Little Windy

Lots of F3/F4/F5 here.  Not what you want to see.  Also note that the wind and wave directions are also not favouring the crossing direction from England to France, which is NW to SE.

Yesterday was an interesting case in point.  On paper, it didn’t look like an auspicious day, other than being on the bottom of a neap tide.  Winds were forecast at F3/F4 all day, yet 12 Channel Boats were out, nearly all of which escorted their swimmers successfully to France.  While it was windy, the wind and swell were both at the swimmers’ feet, helping them to whizz over to France in fantastic times.  One of these was Jim Clifford, who became the Oldest Triple Crown Swimmer (Triple Crown is the English Channel, Catalina Channel, and MIMS), who bolted over in a magnificent 10 hours 3 minutes!

Jim's Track

Jim’s Track

In terms of weather, Helen didn’t have it easy on her recent crossing of the Menorca Channel Swim (Link).  The first half of the swim there was some persistent and annoying chop/swell coming at her over her right shoulder, disrupting her natural rythmn.  Only after 5 hours or so did the wind settle down, and she could relax more in her stroke.

Pressure to Swim

For some swims, the swimmer can find themselves under pressure to go under less than optimal conditions.  If you are a Brit who has a 1 week slot booked for Gibraltar, and arrive to find a week of adverse winds, you either agree to go under adverse weather conditions, or you get weathered out, shrug your shoulders and go home.  Similar dilemnas face non-UK nationals over to swim the English Channel, who can find themselves sitting in Dover looking over at France, as the wind blows day after day.  As your tide ‘ends’, you then lose your position in the pecking order of swimmers, and throw yourself on the mercy of your pilot and the weather.  Under these circumstances you might accept the opportunity to go on a marginal weather day, and take your chances.

I was in that position last year, having lost my pilot due to ill health.  I chose to go on a day when only a few boats out of the possible 12 went out (the sure sign of an iffy day), and on a spring tide, which some people try and avoid.  As it happened, I had a nice day, not flat by any means, but perfectly swimmable with the training I had done.  That’s the maxim, hope for the best, train for the worst!

The Catalina Channel

….or more correctly the San Pedro Channel between LA and Catalina is generally a different story.  The weather patterns are generally predictable.  You book a certain day many months ahead, and you nearly always get to go on that very day. There is generally very little wind during the night and morning, before the Santa Anna wind gets up in the afternoon, nearly always blowing onto the mainland between F3 and F4 for a few hours, before dropping away in the early evening.

Taking account of this, swims generally start around midnight, so most swimmers can get done before lunch the following day.  Here is the forecast for that part of the world for today.  Textbook stuff.

Classic Catalina Wind Pattern

Classic Catalina Wind Pattern

On top of the wind, the other factor that the swimmer has to contend with is the current.  In the English Channel this manifests itself in the form of a periodic tide change.  The swimmer gets washed up and down the Straits of Dover, the direction changing every 6 hours or so.  They will always be facing in the same direction (France), which is where the pilot hopes to land them after a certain number of hours based on an estimate of their swimming speed.  This is why nearly all English Channel swim tracks describe a serpentine path from England to France.  The speed of the swimmer, and the precise timings and magnitudes of the tides can only be estimated at however, which is why most swims don’t land up at Cap Gris Nez, the closest point of France to Dover.

There are tides in Catalina, but they are of smaller magnitude.  On a neap tide, they are so small that they can be effectively ignored; one of the pilots John Pittman, steers an arrow straight path between the Island and the Mainland, asking the swimmer to swim against any side currents or tides that might occur.  In the English Channel this approach just doesn’t work; even the fastest swimmer will have some curve on their path to France.

There is another opportunity for the weather-obsessive Catalina aspirant to scare themselves.  There is another resource at sccoos.org which allows you to observe surface currents in Southern California.  Here is a screenshot taken just now, with the swim path superimposed, showing cross currents of about 1 kph in the middle of the Channel.

San Pedro Channel currents on September 8th

San Pedro Channel currents on September 8th

Some elementary maths tells you that a cross current of 1 kph will reduce an unaffected swim speed of 3 kph (about my pace) down to about 2.8 kph.  As the current get stronger, and/or the swimmer gets slower, it gets worse, much worse.  A tiring swimmer travelling at 2.4 kph with a cross current of 1.5 kph (just under 1 knot), will have their forward progress cut down to a paltry 1.9 kph.

So can currents be actually useful?  Well certainly they can if they are from behind, more precisely in the quadrant centred on the swimmer’s axis, the closer to that axis the better.  The pilots take currents into account, and try to choose a swim direction where the currents are from behind, more often than not Catalina to Mainland.

However, if you are doing a 2-way crossing, there is even more reason to be obsessive about the currents, because there are even fewer ways to be a winner.

Let us imagine a 3 kph swimmer swimming a 33 km channel.  For simplicity of maths, let’s imagine he doesn’t slow down or feed.  It takes 11 hours to complete the crossing in still water, and 22 hours for a 2-way.

With a 1 kph cross current, the 2-way takes 23.3 hours.

With a 1 kph current directly from behind in one direction, and on the nose in the other, the 2-way now takes 24.75 hours.

Our strategy will be to make the first leg the harder one, while I will be relatively fresh.  I will aim to swim against any head current that might exist, making it easier on the way back, because currents become more and more of a hindrance the slower you swim, as many a swimmer trying to get in to France will tell you!