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Catalina Channel swim

Night Swim, scary “fish” and magical bioluminescence – The Crazy Canucks take on Catalina

The sun! Pretty stoked to see it. You would be too.

The Crazy Canucks, a relay team of six Canadian swimmers, followed a successful English Channel crossing in 2016, with a bid to swim North America’s equivalent. Thirty one kilometres from Catalina Island to mainland California’s San Pedro just north of LA, the swim has its own unique set of challenges, in particular the pitch black sea and sky lit only by the moon. The area is the most popular dive spot in the U.S. so it’s well known for its large variety of marine life. So, inky black ocean teaming with life and a swimmer with only a regular bathing suit, cap and goggles swimming away hoping to blend in.

It’s been 40 years since I’ve stayed up all night, watched a friend puke, shed most of my clothes and had an absolute blast. Won’t wait another 40 to do it again.

Jump in…Looks inviting right?

Our swim began at 10:56 p.m. Friday, September 13 under a full moon. What could go wrong?

Pretty dark eh? That’s me.

Within minutes of the start, after I had rendezvoused with my kayak paddler, my brother Dean, and our support boat, The Bottom Scratcher I saw something.

Heading into shore so I could stand on dry land and begin our Channel crossing.

Something big and grey and slow moving was visible in the water beneath me because of the cluster of lights from the Bottom Scratcher. It glided away and while I was telling myself that I hadn’t really seen it, it made a second pass going in the other direction. Big enough to displace the water under me and big enough to be terrifying.

During our rules debriefing aboard the Bottom Scratcher by our two Catalina Channel Swimming Federation observers, we were told to call out for advice if we saw anything disturbing rather than head for the kayak or the boat and touch either which would disqualify our entire endeavour, two years of training, hours of logistics, thousand of kilometres of air travel, three kayakers and five family and friends who came to help and cheer us on… A team earlier in the season had suffered this fate the observers told us.

I chose not to phone a friend and put one arm in front of me and then the next and next until the grey phantoms receded from my thoughts. A few moments later I clearly heard dolphin squeaks underwater. Kayaker Dean later reported he had seen two dolphins and a big seal at the beginning of my leg. Dolphins! I had wanted to swim with dolphins, so wish comes true, even though I didn’t see them.

The next bit of magic was bioluminescence. The bubbles from your hand entry and exit were a vibrant blue and green. We were all enchanted by it.

Before I knew it, a whistle blew and it was time to tag off to John Ostrom and it was time for Dean to paddle faster as John is speedy.

Does this light make my butt look bigger eh?

“Jumping into the ocean in the dark was made a lot easier in the moonlight,” says John. “The water was way warmer than I expected, there were no jellyfish like in the English Channel, although I occasionally brushed into bits of seaweed. The first one in the dark and the biggest chunk were disconcerting at first but then became routine.”

Peter Sinclair, my Canadian cousin who now lives in Brisbane, Australia, getting psyched.

“It was different swimming at night,” says Peter. “This is well out of what I normally do as I am almost always asleep at 1 a.m. and definitely not swimming in the Catalina Channel so that aspect really made it a grand adventure. “

“Dean getting in the kayak and then you in the water swimming to shore at Catalina to start our swim made a very strong impression on me. As for swimming at night, it was pretty comforting to have cousin Dean in the kayak right beside me.

“It was a really fun experience having all of the 20 people on the boat including my sister Gail and her husband Doug and the boat captain Kevin and Chef Ro.”

Peter and his sister Gail, who came from Toronto to be a part of our adventure.
Some of us and friends and family along for the ride on the wonderful Bottom Scratcher. See our flag flying next to the American flag? That was cool to spot from the water.

“The mighty night swim was very much anticipated,” says Janice Johnston who tagged off from Peter in the relay. “It was like the nervous excitement of a small child on Christmas Eve. I talked about doing this for the last two years and everyone said, ‘Wow, that’s really crazy.’ I really questioned what I had signed up for and was encouraged by you saying, ‘You are going to love this!’ (I was right eh?)

“After almost losing my goggles by diving in (not a great choice) I was very scared to start but I had to with the team needing my leg of the relay. It took about five minutes to settle in to a nice pace and I couldn’t believe how beautiful the bioluminescence was. Green and blue lights with every stroke! The water was giving me a nice warm hug and the waves seemed to have flattened out. I felt like I was swimming strong and fast only to find out later that we were in a very strong current and no-one was swimming their usual distances. When I heard the whistle, I couldn’t believe it and felt I could have kept going and going.”

The heroes of our venture were our paddlers including my brother Dean. He even went for a few dips himself as the kayak exchanges were tricky.
Isobel did some paddle shifts and got to paddle for her husband John.
Mel, my sister, overcame seasickness to do her two shifts including the last that took us into land. She is self-dubbed our kay – yak – er.
Jill, Chris’ wife was our alternate, whom we didn’t have to employ but she was an invaluable, calm presence on our deck crew and she looks pretty fabulous in hats.
Husband Al, pictured with brother Dean, was also a key deck hand helping with the kayak exchanges and sampling the caterer’s brownies.

Chris Lough, next swimmer up, said the dark made an impression on him too. “Swimming in the dark, the full moon shining on the bubbles, the sunrise when it finally came and the whole crew having such a good time (except for the seasickness episodes) made the biggest impression. The warmth and calmness of the water surprised me. Once I got my head straight, which took about 10 minutes, I really enjoyed it. As for sharks, so many folks had been swimming previous to me and had no issues so it was not really a concern.”

Chris rocking our team colours.

Our anchor swimmer Janet Robertson, had selected the last leg as she had incorrectly anticipated it would be dawn by then. “The hardest part for me is always getting in the water. Sitting down on the platform and looking into the dark water at night and the blue water of the day made me wonder what might be out there,” she says. “My head going under water after the push off was not a happy place.”

Janet says, “Its wonderful how we all worked toward the success of the swim. Everyone was so supportive of each other and seemed to enjoy each other’s company. Dean’s determination to get us through our swims, his supportive comments from time to time were very much appreciated. He had to work harder than any of us. The beauty of the surroundings was something else I won’t ever forget. The full moon, calm ocean, the quiet… I also loved it that we all got to swim into the beach to join John, who like in England, got to touch land at the end of our channel swim.”

Chris and Catalina Channel Swimming Federation observer Steve who noted our wind and water conditions and ensured we followed the channel swimming rules such as not touching the boat, keeping our swim order throughout the swim, handling the exchanges properly and so on.
We were all happy to see the dawn.
“It’s the bacon.”

With the dawn the kayak exchanges became easier and for me the shark fear shrank. For John they amped up. “It was cool to be swimming at dawn when the sun came up. The downside was I could start to see shadows further down in the water. I had a few anxious moments with my imagination starting to go wild on me. I kept seeing a shark, whale, submarine, shadows? I focused on the kayak and settled down.”

Peter in Jan’s belly dancing skirt? taking in the sunrise.
Isabel and John at dawn.

How cool is this note from the Queen of open water swimming Lynne Cox! “Congratulations you Crazy Canucks: Elaine, Chris, John, Janet, Peter, and Janice on your Courageous Catalina Crossing! I Loved seeing your photos, reading about your swims, seeing how much support you had from: Dean, Jill, Isobel, Al, Gail, Mel, Chris and Doug on your swim. So happy you had such a grand adventure, a wonderful time, and made some unforgettable memories. You must feel so proud of yourself and your team! Congratulations!”

The channel, officially the San Pedro Channel, is a busy shipping lane.
Pretty darn magical swimming next to my sister. She was thinking of me and at that moment I chose to give her a little wave. Yup, makes me tear up. Dean and Mel (cousins Peter and Gail and husband Al on the boat), family that paddles and swims together stays together.
We plastered the Bottom Scratcher with Canadian flags
Dean on a rare coffee break
Chris checking his distance, Jill and Janet’s husband Chris
Mel and my cousin Gail’s husband Doug in the galley. Looks like Mel is all good to go now.
Peter, Janet, Janice, me, Chris…John is swimming the last leg. We jumped into join him. Janice looks a bit “enhanced” as she has a giant Canadian flag in her upper suit.
That’s us doing victory handstands and Mel in the kayak having a weep.
Fun to be the first Canadian team!

Pretty proud of us. As we were having breakfast at our hotel in our swag a woman came up to us to ask what we were up to. Upon hearing our story she said, “Don’t know if it is proper to point this out but you guys aren’t spring chickens.”

Thanks to my swim buds for life, our kayakers, friends and family on the boat and back home cheering us on, our Penticton swim coach Diane, The Bottom Scratcher crew and captain Kevin, Caterer extraordinaire Ro, observers Steve and Roxanne, the dolphins, bioluminescent plankton and California.

Up next? Looking like a double crossing of Lake Tahoe in 2021. Can’t wait!

Post script

And then this happened…just three weeks after our swim…

A San Diego resident is fortunate to have emerged unscathed after a massive great white shark chomped his kayak Saturday as he paddled off Santa Catalina Island.

Danny McDaniel and Jon Chambers were enjoying a break from a commercial scuba-diving trip and paddling in separate kayaks toward Ship Rock, near the island’s east end, when the shark bit the back of McDaniel’s vessel.

“My very first thought was that my buddy, who was 25 feet behind me to my left, was messing with me,” McDaniel, 51, told For The Win Outdoors. “But then I looked down and saw this giant snout completely over the kayak, and then I saw its huge body stretching beyond the bow.”

The shark, estimated to measure nearly 20 feet, turned McDaniel’s 9-foot kayak until he was facing a wide-eyed Chambers.

“I remember him saying, ‘Oh crap. Oh crap,’ ” McDaniel recalled. “My primary thought, meanwhile, was to stay on the kayak no matter what.”

Chambers told NBC 7 that the shark “was in attack mode” and “thought we were prey.”

McDaniel and Chambers waited briefly in eerie silence before paddling back to Emerald Bay, where the rest of the dive group had been hanging out.

On the way McDaniel discovered that the shark had left two of its teeth as souvenirs. “One was laying inside the kayak under seat, and the other was in the cargo hold behind the seat,” he said

A week before McDaniel’s encounter, (so two weeks after our swim) photographer Jami Leslie Feldman captured footage of a 13- to 14-foot great white shark swimming 70 feet below the surface at Ship Rock, and posted the clip to the Underwater Paparazzi Facebook page.

Swimmer Chris says, “I am glad I was in the water and NOT in a kayak. 

Mel, Doug & Is – whew!”

Sink or swim – Canadian team prepares to swim North America’s equivalent of the English Channel

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The next act of the English Channel swim relay team, the Crazy Canucks is a swim that is comparable in length , conditions, difficulty and challenge and all a bit closer to home. The Crazy Canucks are taking on the Catalina Island Channel on lucky Friday, September 13, 2019.

First swum in 1927, on the heels of the intense publicity from Gertrude Ederle’s  swim of the English Channel in 1926, Catalina also has a long and storied history in marathon swimming history and brings with it its own set of unique challenges that make it a worthy goal to be respected and tackled with solid preparation. Our swim will be overseen by the Catalina Channel Swimming Federation, our pilot boat the Bottomscratcher  could not have a better name and our main kayak guide is my brother Dean Dogherty, who competes internationally in outrigger canoes.

We are going for a record that we are keeping on the down low at the moment but it could add to the fun of the achievement.

 

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Four English Channel team veterans will be joined by two new swimmers to make up the team of six.

The challenges of cold water, high winds and waves we faced in the English Channel, the seasickness that struck down half our team to varying degrees from violent to mild and stings from jellyfish are all Catalina possibilities. In addition we face two more. The Pacific Ocean swim starts at near midnight to avoid the winds that kick up in the afternoons. Pitch black conditions can bring on vertigo as the black sea and sky merge together to cause confusion and add to the stress of swimming in a large ocean. On the plus side, many swimmers report swimming through magical bioluminescence. The other factor involving sea life with many sharp teeth is not to be mentioned by name….Voldemort, Voldemort, Voldermort. The positive side of this equation are dolphins which will all be on the look-out for.

Here are thoughts from the team as we prepare.

John Ostrom

“I’ve swum my whole life and I enjoy it most when I’m in shape and feel powerful in the water…Open water is interesting to me because I grew up on the ocean (Prince Rupert) and always feel it’s a bit mysterious. I don’t really fear the ocean but am always curious about it. Swimming in some ways allows me to become closer to nature.”

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John, in the dingy, heading back to the Viking Princess after touching France.

“The epic nature of the swim and doing it as a team appeal the most. I am not super keen about swimming at night (me neither) and I’m going to have to put images of sharks and squid lurking below out of my mind!” (Guess he didn’t get the memo re that which shall not be named.)

“I am very happy about the English Channel swim and how everything worked for us so well. Of course I am very proud to have been the “finisher” that touched France.  Having done that channel I know we will also do Catalina the same way with a very competent group.”

Chris Lough

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Chris mid-Channel

“I swim three to four times a week year-round,” says Chris. “I spent all my summers in Quebec and played in the water for hours a day. Open water is just a return to the joys of those childhood times for me.”

As for the challenge ahead, Chris says, “Swimming in the dark and the unknown potential for larger “fish” ups the excitement.” (See, he got the memo…)

As for the English Channel, Chris says he has nothing but fond memories. The only thing he would change is his approach to dealing with the nausea.

Chris is preparing by swimming four times a week and working up to cold water swims in the spring as well as some night swims and increasing his distances as our swim draws near.

Janet Robertson

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Janet watching as the sun rose on the Channel before her turn in the drink.

“I like the feeling of moving through the water both in the pool and in the lake. I believe in balance in life – swimming is part of that balance. Open water swimming is freeing and meditative – I can find my zen. I lose all that life throws at me when I’m in the water…so freeing.”

Janet’s approach is to try to minimize the build up talk as this makes her nervous.
“Night swimming will be very important to the success of the swim so I think we should plan a swim camp with that as a focus.

“I am proud to have done the English Channel. I had to dig deep quite a few times to reach the group goal. I wasn’t going to let the group down. I will take everything from the English Channel to Catalina, except, hopefully, the sea sickness. Who knew I would consider doing either the Channel or Catalina. Butterflies reign supreme as well as deep breaths.”

Elaine Davidson

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On the way back to England after our team swam more than 50 kilometres to reach France in some gnarly conditions. The grin says it all.

As idea originator and the team captain of both swims I am fully in. For me it’s all about something I love doing more than anything else, talking five and now seven people into joining in on the adventure and working toward a crazy goal that will change our lives or at the very least give us some pretty unique experiences.

In water, all is possible. As T.H. White says, “There is practically no difference between flying in the water and flying in the air…It is like the dreams people have.” When you swim, you feel your body for what it mostly is – water. When you enter the water you dive through the surface into a new world. You are in nature, part of it, in a far more complete and intense way than on dry land. To get that feeling utterly and completely you need to be in a river, lake or the ocean.

The swimming training is important, sure. The mental training of swimming in cold water, in the waves and wind and at night are the most important. My training goals are to be prepared physically and mentally tough.

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Dean, doing his thing in Kelowna this summer.

I am also beyond proud to swim with this team which comprises four long-time friends, my cousin Peter who is a Canuck( but lives most of the year in Australia) and embodies for me my dad’s spirit and a new enthusiastic swim pal Janice who is up for anything. Making the team even more special is my brother Dean who will be beside us in that big ocean in a kayak making it feel a little less big. We will swim between the Bottomscratcher and the kayak which will both be lighted to keep us on track in the pitch black.

Janice Johnston

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Jan horsing around after a lake session this summer in Skaha.

“I love to swim in open water because I find it both relaxing and challenging. Swimming to me is like walking, you don’t have to think about it. The challenge comes to get faster and add some distance. There is such a great freedom and being close to nature when you swim in open water plus I REALLY DON’T LIKE FLIP TURNS! I didn’t swim competitively as a young person but I have embraced swimming as an adult. I even became a lifeguard at age 51.”

Jan says she is looking forward to meeting her new team mates. “I think it’s going to be amazing to swim in the ocean at night (maybe even scary) but that is part of the challenge. I am really hoping not to get sea sick during my leg of the race.”

She is a firm proponent of our post-swim tradition of doing in-water handstands and sharing liquorice on shore.

Peter Sinclair

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My cousin Peter, far left, pictured with a relay team that swam 16 kilometres across Lake Rosseau.

Peter, who swims every day,  has spent this past summer taking dips in Elk Lake in Victoria, Lake Ontario in Toronto and Lake Rosseau in Muskoka. “In Australia, I get to swim in the ocean a lot which is really fantastic, conditions are different every day. Variety is fantastic.

“I am looking forward to meeting all the team members and their families, taking the boat to Catalina, where I’ve never been before and of course the swim itself. I’m maybe a little nervous about the temperature of the water.”

The English Channel and Catalina Channel are two of the marathon swims that make up the triple crown of swimming. The third is the swim around Manhattan. There are fewer than 200 relay teams that have swum Catalina and even fewer than that 200 number that have swum the English Channel.

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Lynne Cox, Queen of Cold, sends warm wishes for Crazy Canuck Catalina swim

“Congratulations on your English Channel relay last year! ,” says Lynne Cox. That is a tough swim and it must have been fun and challenging to swim the Channel as a team. Your next goal sounds equally challenging.”

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Crazy Canucks are actually a little crazy but Lynne Cox says we can take on our new challenge with confidence. (Jaime was avoiding a jelly fish you can see if you look at about the 1 o’clock position…)

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Our English Channel swim

Even people outside the rather niche open water swimming world recognize the name Lynne Cox. It’s because she is an elite athlete who broke many world records, among them swimming the English Channel at 15, being the first woman to swim across the Cook Strait and working 10 years to get the permission and then swimming across the Bering Strait from Alaska to Russia during the Cold War.

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“When I am swimming I feel like a musician discovering nuances in sound, color, and rhythm. My body is the instrument and the ocean is the symphony. I immerse myself in music and hear and feel the ocean’s movements We create music together. I hear the driving beat of my arms and legs and the song of my breath and bubbles,” Lynne Cox, Swimming in the Sink, An Episode of the Heart.

“The San Pedro Channel – swim from Catalina Island to the California mainland is the place I began my open water swimming career,” she says when I asked her advice on the Crazy Canucks’ next adventure in 2019. “It was as significant as my first kiss. It was where I fell in love with swimming long distances in the open water and the people who make these swims possible.”

That first kiss for Lynne came when she was all of 14 when she made the crossing with three other teenagers. “We felt a small school of fish swimming around us, bumping into our legs and feet. Flying fish the size of mockingbirds were leaping out of the water,” she writes about that historic Catalina swim in her amazing book, Swimming to Antarctica. “They’d emerge from the depths and fly across the air, flapping their fins and sailing across the sky…In the phosphorescent light, they were magically turning iridescent pink, blue, purple, rose and green.”

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Lynne Cox in her element.

Lynne says, “You can expect that your Catalina Channel swim will be exciting. If it isn’t, why do it? You will have an incredible journey, learn lots about yourself and your team, and the Pacific ocean.”

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Charlie, visibly cold after one of her turns in the English Channel.

“The Catalina Channel will be a bit warmer than the English Channel depending on the weather, time of the year and time of day that you swim it,” says Lynne. (See Charlie, it will be OK!) “Weather conditions are usually more stable than the English Channel, so you will have a good chance at getting good conditions.”

 

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Lynne working hard to stay warm.

 

 

 

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Crazy Canucks training fun.

Any advice for us non spring chickens I asked her? “I think you don’t need to be limited in your thinking by your chronological age. People in their 30s can have the bodies and health of 60-year-olds and people in their 60s can have the bodies and health of 30-year-olds. I think it’s great to tackle these swims at any age if you’ve done the preparation and you are in shape.”

 

It was a thrill to be in touch with Lynne and prompted a re-read of her Swimming to Antarctica book and an intense, couldn’t-put-it-down read of her latest book Swimming in the Sink which had some lyrical descriptions of open water swimming.

In the darkness of early morning, my arm strokes jostle millions of plankton. A chemical reaction occurs in their bodies. They turn the black water sparkling phosphorescent blue. I wonder about life, the universe, and my place it it. I feel the warmth in my body, the cold ocean surrounding me, and I watched fish swimming fathoms below me lighting the depths of the universe. I wonder how the stars can burn so bright without losing their heat the frigid heavens.

I watch the rosy sun rise from the dark blue ocean and see it change color and create waving rivers of crimson, orange, yellow, and white light. The onshore breeze wakes the world like a gentle morning kiss. When I train I think about my life, my passions, and what is in my heart. I list the things I do need to do each day and the things I want to do. But I also dream about what I can do, and that makes life rich and exciting. Lynne Cox

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Her books are best read in front of a roaring fire with a hot chocolate. In addition to her mind-blowing swimming firsts she has been the research subject of many scientists trying to make sense of her extraordinary ability to function in water cold enough to actually kill most people.

It was a thrill to read about her English Channel swims as well now knowing what it is like to be in that chilly water myself. How fun was it to read that her boat pilot was our pilot’s dad, Reg Brickell?

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Reg Brickell, Jr., our pilot for the Crazy Canucks English Channel swim was a teenager at the time of Lynne’s English Channel swims. He was actually on his dad’s boat when Lynne made history by making the fastest crossings. (Her first record came when she was only 15.) Lynne wrote about how important her pilot was in her record-breaking crossing with his knowledge of the currents and tides. His son helped us Crazies battle through gale force four winds to accomplish our goal.

 

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Lynne says it will be warmer team! Maybe we will be sunning ourselves on deck when we cross the San Pedro Channel.

 

Catalina Channel next up … with water-wings and a guitar

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Twenty-six miles, so near yet far
I’d swim with just some water-wings and my guitar
I could leave the wings
But I’ll need the guitar for romance
Romance, romance, romance

Catalina Island may be the island of romance but a relay attempt from the island to the California shore will be anything but. That’s OK. The Crazy Canucks are gearing up for our next adventure in 2019 after successfully crossing the English Channel in 2016. As the first dude to cross the English Channel (Mathew Webb) says, “Nothing great is easy.”

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France can just be spotted. Still gives me shivers…

Less than 300 relay teams have made the 32.5 kilometre crossing which starts at midnight from Catalina Island when winds are calmest. It’s cool that it’s still a relatively small number of crazies that have made the crossing. This open water swim challenge, part of the triple crown of swimming that includes the English Channel and the swim around Manhattan, has some unique elements we will have to wrap our heads around including a lot of night swimming. It’s so dark on a Catalina crossing that some swimmers experience vertigo not knowing which is up or down in the inky black. This channel is also home to a type of fish with a recognizable fin that shall remain very nameless, especially as the team has four members at present and it would be fun to add a full compliment of six.

How hard can it be right? Canadians are a tough lot as we proved to our sceptical English Channel boat pilot Reg. He confessed after our swim, with a pint in front of him, that he wasn’t super confident we would make it as we had done the majority of our training in lakes.

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Canadians are so tough that the first to cross the Catalina Channel solo was a 17-year-old from Toronto, George Young. Young was the only one of 101 starters in a race in January of 1927 and he did most of the swim without his swim trunks. We will likely wear suits…

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Many of our English Channel team mates suffered sea sickness but we will be better prepared on this go and our pilot boat is more of a cruiser vs. a fishing boat so will be much more comfortable and less rocky… I’m sure of it…

Here is my 10 point case for talking more of my team mates into this new adventure…

1. The Catalina Channel is slightly shorter than the English Channel (32.5 km vs 33.7 km, about 0.8 miles shorter which should take an elite swimmer about 16 minutes)
2. The Catalina Channel is slightly to significantly warmer no matter what month is attempt is made.
3. Tides are much less powerful and less lateral than those in the English Channel.
4. The Catalina Channel winds are significantly less strong than in the English Channel on any given day, especially since most Catalina Channel swimmer begin their traverse at night. (We faced Force 4 winds on the English Channel)
5. The Catalina Channel has jellyfish, but while everything can change on any given day, the jellyfish in the Pacific are generally not in the same volumes as they are strewn across the English Channel. (Two of us got stung.)
6. The Catalina Channel allows kayakers, paddlers and pace swimmers to support the swim from shore-to-shore in any formation or duration as desired.
7. The windows of the Catalina Channel are much longer due to the number of swimmers and fickle weather in the English Channel.
8. Both shores and illumination across the Catalina Channel can generally be seen, even at night, but this psychological advantage is not always available in the English Channel.
9. Dolphins, a sign of good luck and protection among channel swimmers, are in significantly greater numbers in the Catalina Channel. (How cool would that be)
10. Boat traffic is significantly less in the Catalina Channel than in the English Channel.

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A couple of additional “selling” features of the Catalina adventure are the name of the boat that we will charter to guide us, our kayak paddlers and the pipes that will mark our successful completion. The Bottom Scratcher  (yup…that’s the name) and its captain and piper Greg Elliot will pilot, our paddlers will include my brother Dean and fellow team member John’s wife Izzie.

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Crazy Canucks Catalina Channel Relay 2019 here we come!

 

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