by David Barra
The clock started at 10 minutes past midnight, July 20th. The water temperature was a comfortable cool 64 degrees. There was no evidence of the ¾ moon as the cloud cover presented us with a low ceiling…. I thought it was always sunny in LA. To my right was kayaker Peter Phillips. His kayak lit up with a few green glow sticks. To my left was Tobey Ann Saracino… to her left was the mighty Outrider; a 50’ fishing charter boat and one of 2 certified escorts for the Catalina Channel Swimming Federation (CCSF). The cabin was well lit up, and they had a light shining on us also. It was hard to identify the people watching us from the side, as they were back-lit by the boat’s lighting but silhouettes were always visible. I could see Tobey better through the water than above, likewise the kayak to my right. I felt good; breathing every 3 strokes and though I was looking for sea life, there was little to be seen except for a few jellyfish and some chains of phytoplankton. Tobey and I were getting stung frequently, but I assumed that there were lots of renegade tentacles floating around… nothing like the lion’s-mane-wrap-around stings like we’ve been hit with back east, and the discomfort of these little “hits” would fade quickly.
Twenty minutes passes and its time for the first feed. The strobe that I hoped would be a clear signal proved to be useless with the bright lights behind, and a chorus of “FEED!... FEED!... FEED! “ would become the standard communication between all aboard the Outrider and yours truly for the foreseeable future.
Tobey dropped back; I made my way to the boat; bottles dropped; glug…glug… glug; swim onward. Repeat. The only variation being that on every hour, the flavor of my feed would change from EFS fruit punch to ginger tea sweetened with agave nectar. Tobey exited the water on my 5th feed… 1hour 40minutes of swimming. Any night time anxiety I may have had was gone, I was feeling good, and told myself that I was almost 20% through with my swim. Soon the sun would be rising.
Some time went by and John Humenik took the plunge to join me for a bit. John is a super-lean swimming machine and I was a bit concerned that he would catch a chill swimming at my pace. If he did, he kept it well hidden from me, and also kept his exposure to 20 minutes.
Somewhere between 4 and 6 hours, we had a kayak switch. The outrider pulled ahead to let Beth Barnes enter the water and as we made our way toward the boat, the change over was made. Daybreak was upon us now. The lights came on so gradually that it was hard to notice, and the heavy overcast added to this effect. The air was heavy with the smell of bacon and it made me happy to know that the crew would soon be enjoying breakfast. This was Beth’s first crossing and I have to say she was extremely focused and held a straight line and consistent distance the whole time…. Still, on the one occasion when I had to hurl, I was careful to do it while facing the other way.
I had warned everyone that I would not be conversing much during the swim, and indeed the only communications I had with the boat were to confirm that I was eliminating the surplus of my feeds regularly… a learned skill, and I think I am somewhat of an expert.
A quick thumbs up in response to “are you peeing?” …. No need for words.
There were a few other quick communications: once when my feed came to me too hot, and once when Jim requested that I consume some water as he thought the electrolyte content of my feeds was extremely high. He may be right. I cut my hourly intake by 1/3 for this swim and will probably cut it further for the English Channel.
About half way, there was a noticeable drop in temperature… down to 62 degree. With a long way still to go, I thought this would be a problem as I fully expected the temperature to keep dropping as we approached the mainland. This I believe is the norm, but not today. 62 would be the low, and it only lasted for a couple of hours.
Though I wasn’t keeping track of time, I knew that my hopeful goal between 9 and 10 hours had come and gone and still the mainland was nowhere in site, but I felt like I could keep on going so I never asked “how much longer?”, “where are we?”, or any other questions that I really didn’t want to know the answer to. Harris was keeping my FB page updated and told me later that he thought I should be a bit more conversational….. nonsense. There really isn’t much I want to say.
There were several wildlife viewing opportunities for those aboard the Outrider that included dozens of dolphins, a handful of sea lions, and a 10’ blue shark. I saw none of these, but knew of their presence. The dolphins were swimming close to me and I could hear their chattering squeaks and whistles. I saw Beth turn quickly to her right; it startled me and she said there was a sea lion, but the kayak was between it and me. The entire gang rushed to the back of the boat and there was pointing and they were looking with binoculars… Tobey was in the water with me on her second shift; and she noticed this as well though there were no words exchanged between us. My pre-swim address to my crew included a few “please, do nots”…. Please, do not let me see you eating/drinking/puking/shivering/praying/fishing/sleeping/crying/etc, but I failed to mention: Please do not all run to the back of the boat at once like there is a big shark following us. Though seriously, I was never worried and in the dark moment of self doubt I even thought that a nosey shark might be just the thing I need to be able to resign from this seemingly endless swim with dignity.
I was certainly feeling the burn in my mouth, sinus and throat now but was otherwise pain free. I had stopped trying to keep track of the time in my head, but knew I was somewhere between 11 and 13 hours. The currents were quite strong, I was covering less than a quarter mile between feeds, and when I stopped to feed, I was being swept to the back of the boat in those few seconds. As John retrieved my bottles, I asked (looking for some affirmation) “I’m not really going forward… am I?” John’s response was over the top and hysterical… “DON’T BE A PUSSY!” …. I nearly puked from laughing… 20 minutes to the next feed became my mantra.
------- to be continued---------