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.
Our swim began at 10:56 p.m. Friday, September 13 under a full moon. What could go wrong?
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.
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.
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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!”
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 big ass relay the entire length of Okanagan Lake in 2020 and a duo relay of the English Channel with Jan Johnson in 2023. Can’t wait!
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!”