On Tuesday, September 10, 2013 I swam across the Catalina Channel – completing the Triple Crown of Open Water Swimming. The Catalina Channel swim took me 11 hours 50 minutes and 36 seconds. All in, to complete the Triple Crown, I swum just under 34 hours, took approximately 125,000 strokes and covered about 75 miles. The water temperature ranged from roughly 59-69. Most importantly, I had a fabulous time, met a ton of great people and learned a lot about myself.
So…the Catalina Channel! My swimmer friends told me it was magical and they were right. However, it took me jumping in the water at midnight with flying fish and a hungry sea lion to understand exactly what they meant.
Matt and I headed to California the Friday before the swim. Our friends Nate and Amy arrived over the weekend and would be crewing on the boat. Allison, the fourth crew member, would be coming directly to the boat on Monday night from San Diego. Nate, Amy, Matt and I spent the days leading up to the swim preparing, packing, shopping, repacking and eating. On Sunday, I was able to connect with Ron Collins from Tampa (but originally from Virginia) who would be swimming with a different boat the same night I would be swimming. We had a leisurely swim in Long Beach and it was great to spend some time with him and his crew. I knew I would think about Ron a lot during my swim – as we would be going through a similar experience at the same time.
Monday morning came and, as with every day leading up to a swim, there was nervous tension in the air. We headed to a restaurant up the street called Uncle Bill’s Pancake House. It had been highly recommended and we were not disappointed. We figured this would be our last big meal before heading to the boat, so, we ordered more food than was prudent or necessary. Perfect…warm, squishy breakfast food – as Matt would say “easy to shovel in!” After breakfast we put the last minute touches on the packing and tried to rest.
I got in the bed to try to sleep around 1:30 p.m. and proceeded to lay there staring at the ceiling. I took my phone with me and every time it pinged with a text or e-mail, I picked it up. That went on for a while and then I convinced myself to turn the sound off on my phone. But, I continued to lay there not sleeping. I figured rest was better than nothing and tried my best to do that. Matt decided he would try to nap. We were both so geared up that we ended up chatting every few minutes. I texted Ron to see what he was doing…and, he said – exactly what we were. I got up about 4:30 and had a snack (breakfast had finally digested by then). Then I thought I would try to sleep again and got back in bed about 5:30. Again, no sleep – just ceiling.
At 6:30 p.m. I got up, got in the shower to loosen the muscles and try to perk myself up. I had another snack and visited with my cousin Sally and her friend Ed. We packed-up the car and headed out around 7:30 p.m. to meet the boat.
We made it to the marina in San Pedro, located Tina (one of the observers) and she led us to the boat. Interestingly, I felt relatively calm. Usually, as jump time approaches, I get increasingly nervous. Perhaps it was the nighttime, the sleepiness, the comfort that I have some pretty good swims under my belt…but, whatever it was, I was thankful for the calmness.
We boarded the boat and met our captain and crew. They had been out with another swimmer the night before – this being channel swimming season. Matt was thoroughly impressed with the boat and the crew. The Outrider is an outstanding boat for a channel swim…50’, lots of practical space and very clean. Ron’s boat was just down the dock and they headed out about 30 minutes before we did. Allison arrived and we began unpacking and organizing gear.
We left the dock a little after 9:00 p.m.. While we were motoring out of the marina – we started the safety/rules meeting. First, the boat captain explained the rules/safety for the boat. He also explained that it was going to be pretty rough on the way over to Catalina and what to do (or not do) if you had to puke. Then, Kent (the other observer) explained the rules for the swim. After a short visit – Nate and I headed to the bunk room to try to get a little rest. Matt, Amy and Allison decided not to lay down as it was very rough and they were feeling a little green. The air temperature was cool and I think the breeze helped them a bit with the seasickness.
I came out of the bunk room at one point to use the facilities and Amy, Allison and Matt were holding on for dear life on the back of the boat as it bounced along across the channel. The lights of Los Angeles were fading away into the distance and when I looked out towards the front of the boat all I could see was blackness. Hmmm…so I went back to the bunk room. While I was able to relax and rest a little, I still wasn’t able to sleep. The boat was bouncing up and down and I could hear the water sloshing around just outside the boat to my right. At one point I thought what a difference a little bit of fiberglass makes – one thin piece keeps out the water, cold, critters, etc. Pretty soon, I wouldn’t have the benefit of the fiberglass.
So, I laid there thinking about what it was going to be like to swim through the kelp to shore, what the bioluminescence was going to look like, what sea creatures I was going to see…not good resting thoughts, but good all the same.
We reached a cove just off of Catalina Island around 11:30 and people started to stir. I got up, still not having slept but groggy. I put my bathing suit on and got into swim mode – and the adrenaline started to pump through my veins. I ate a peanut butter sandwich, had a little Gatorade and tried to stay relaxed. Everyone was milling about – addressing their various duties.
I walked out to the back of the boat to get a sense of the air temperature and…then…as if right on cue…there they were – FLYING FISH! And, all I could think was – HOLY CRAP – you have got to be kidding me!!!!!! This is exactly what my friend Elaine warned me about. Now…never having seen a flying fish, I had assumed that they were really just “leaping” fish with a lot of gusto. Well…silly me…they actually have fin wings and can fly up to 50 feet. As I was looking out towards Catalina – I heard one fly right into the side of the boat – thud! A few minutes later another – thud! Unlike my thoughts about the fiberglass barrier between the inside of the boat and the outside – I’m guessing the fish weren’t as pleased with its existence as I was.
To distract myself from the flying fish, I went into the cabin for Matt to put some zinc oxide on my backside and some Vaseline on my chafing spots. While we were in there I heard a few more thuds. I just reminded myself that – they are only fish!
It was just about jump time. I got my head in gear and headed to the back of the boat. The flying fish were still there. David (the boat captain) was giving me instructions on how to maneuver into Catalina. We launched the kayak and Tom (the kayaker). Then, it was time for me to jump (or slide) off the back of the boat. As a started to walk out onto the platform, a very large, hungry sea lion looking for a midnight snack decided to make a spectacle of himself off the back of the boat. He leapt up and captured a flying fish in his mouth about 5-10 feet behind the boat, chomped it down, did a little celebration dance, and then proceed to do laps around the boat and the cove. Seriously…seriously. This, too, was similar to Elaine’s experience. And, she told me that all she could think was…the sea lion is chasing the flying fish, but…who is chasing the sea lion….hmmm? So, that thought entered my mind. As I watched the sea lion doing laps around the cove – all I could think was “that guy is faster than a cheetah…!” Not sure where that came from – but there it was. Over and over in my head… “he’s faster than a cheetah!” Then, I said to David, “seriously – you want me to jump in there with that guy!”
By this point, the boat had drifted a bit, so we moved a little closer to Catalina. I hoped the boat movement would shoo away the sea lion. And, in a few minutes, he was no longer in sight – but I was certain he was still there, along with the flying fish and whatever might have been chasing the sea lion. But, I said my goodbyes to everyone on the boat, gave Matt a kiss, he told me (as he always does) to enjoy the journey and off I went into the dark, black yonder.
There is something a bit unnatural about jumping off of a perfectly good boat at midnight surrounded by darkness, flying fish, cold water, kelp and a sea lion who is faster than a cheetah. But, oddly, I was okay with it. Once I was in the water, next to Tom in the kayak, the sense of calm returned. I had not done a good job of taking-in the beginning of my English Channel swim and I didn’t want to make that mistake this time. I focused on the feel of the water, the bioluminescence that appeared like fireworks coming off of my fingertips and being in the moment. As I reached Catalina to clear the water for my start, I hit the kelp. Given everything that had led up to that moment – frankly, the kelp didn’t seem so bad. It is slimy and a bit disconcerting – but, not nearly as bad as I had imagined.
I reached the shore and began my climb out of the water and… promptly fell on my butt. The beach was rocky and it was hard to get my bearings in the pitch black night. I got myself up, grabbed a starting rock as a memento, held my hands over my head, took it all in, and plunged back into the kelp and water. I was hit by a flying fish and giggled and thought about how lucky I was to be here – swimming the Catalina Channel.
What I didn’t know, was that “Cheetah” the Sea Lion had actually stuck around to see me jump off the boat. The crew saw him next to the boat right after I jumped. I like to think he was looking for a swim buddy to hunt flying fish with him that night!
I had asked Tom to keep the kayak between me and the boat for the first 30 minutes – rather than to my right. I am primarily a left-side breather and I wanted to be able to sight off of Tom and have some comfort from his presence in the water over the first 30 minutes. Thankfully, I felt good – both in my body and my head. I wasn’t at all concerned with what might have been lurking around me. Instead – I was fascinated by the bioluminescence. Fish would dart underneath me and light up. Some things would light up without explanation and then go out. And, with every hand-entry into the water, the bubbles lit up in this blue/green glow. It was truly amazing and one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen.
After my first feed, Tom moved to the outside and I was between the boat and the kayak. I felt comforted knowing that Tom was out there with me and I couldn’t have asked for better kayak support.
I took my feeds off the boat and the second feed came and went. Between the second feed and the third feed I had settled-in and the adrenaline was starting to subside. By my third feed it was a little after 1:30 a.m. and the nighttime fatigue was catching up with me. Having not been able to nap that day – my body clock wasn’t cooperating and was wondering why I wasn’t asleep. So, I asked for some tea with honey during my third feed and asked that I get some tea with each feed. I was hoping the caffeine would help give me a boost to get through the night – and, thankfully, it did.
Feeds came and went and I was feeling a little sick to my stomach. The water was pretty bumpy for the first 3-4 hours. I tend to “feed the fish” about 3 hours into a swim. But – the one thing about swimming in the Pacific Ocean in the dark is, if you puke, critters are going to come along to see what tasty treats have been expelled. I contemplated what was worse – continuing to feel sick or wondering who might show-up to eat my half-digested feeds. Unlike other swims, the sickness came and went without explanation and I was able to work through it without any feeding of the fish for the entire swim – that was a first!
September 10th was Nate’s birthday – and around my 5th or 6th feed I remembered and said “Happy Birthday!” Everyone on the boat started singing Happy Birthday to Nate during my feed. And, as I started to swim again – I thought what a funny birthday story Nate will have for the rest of his life… “So one time I was on the boat in the middle of the Catalina Channel and around 3:00 a.m. a bunch of people sang Happy Birthday to me while my friend swam in the dark!”
My right elbow started giving me some problems – and I asked for some Advil and that helped for a while. I had a few jellyfish stings inside my bathing suit that I was able to mentally block out. My goggles appeared to be foggy. As I sighted off of the boat I was having a really hard time seeing it and assumed that I had gotten some Vaseline on them. There were glow sticks tied on the side of the boat hanging down a little above water level – but, they were very blurry. I changed out my goggles and that helped a little. But there was haze in the air and I think between the darkness and the haze it was just a little difficult to see. It was also pretty disorienting and I think that may have been a factor in my stomach being upset.
As morning was approaching, it seemed like it took an eternity for the sun to come up. For an hour and a half or so, as I stopped for each feed, I kept thinking the sun would be up by the next feed but it wasn’t. I was pretty weary and I was very much looking forward to the sun coming up. Tom had gotten out of the water and, I suppose I assumed that when he got out the sun would be up soon. Finally, the light went from dark, to grey, to blue-grey to clear. The bioluminescence became lighter and lighter. And, then…ahhhhhh…sun! There was cloud cover so I couldn’t actually see the sun – but I knew it was there and it was fabulous. It lifted my spirits and gave me a mental boost. I changed my goggles and thought – okay, mentally, I’m halfway there. I had made it through the night…now for phase 2 – daylight.
As the light became stronger, the clearness of the water was stunning. I could see things very far away – and figured I would see any approaching sea creatures for a long time if they were coming my way. I had an incredibly large school of mackerel – literally thousands – swim with me for quite a while. They kept looking up at me as they swam beneath me and I wondered if they were looking to me to protect them from something. I also wondered if whales eat mackerel…hmmm? Then I had a large school of anchovies swim with me. It was nice to have some entertainment – watching the fish do their fishy thing!
The crew spotted a pod of dolphins with some baby dolphins in the middle. They were feeding and apparently, the baby dolphins didn’t quite understand what they were supposed to do. Perhaps they should have come over to see me and I could have explained that the food comes from a rope off the side of the boat!
Allison got in the water to swim with me for thirty minutes after the sun came up. It was so nice to have some company. I could see her clearly from very far away and it made me realize just how clear the water really was. Allison got out and Nate got in for the next thirty minute stint. I thought about how Nate had trained with me in England leading up to my swim last summer and it was great to have him out there with me. The water temperature dropped some while Allison was swimming. It was 69 when I started and had dropped a little through the night. By the time Nate got out it was about 60 and I was thankful the clouds were burning off.
I could tell the coast was getting closer – but I promised myself the one thing I wouldn’t do was look or try to figure out how far I had to go. I made that mistake in England and I wasn’t going to make it again. It didn’t matter how much longer I had. I was going to swim until I could pull myself up onto land and clear the water. My right elbow was really hurting by this point. I think I was compensating in my stroke which was causing my right wrist and the left side of my neck to hurt. I tried not think about the pain or how much further I had to go.
Tom got back in the kayak and, while I tried not to think about it, I had to assume that meant we were close. I was starting to see the outline of buildings on shore. About 10:30 Matt told me that I would have two feeds after that one. Whew! An hour to an hour and half left – done!
As we got closer to shore – another pod of dolphins appeared and the crew stopped me to let me know. I could see them clearly in the water in front of me and I wished that they would come swim along side of me for a bit.
I did my last feed and a few minutes later Amy, Allison and Nate got in the water to swim to shore with me. As they were getting in Matt told me I had another wedding couple at the finish. After crashing a wedding in France – it was only fitting!! I got my final instructions about how to approach the finish. The shore is very rocky – big rocks, little rocks. Pretty soon I could see the sandy bottom, then some kelp and then rocks. We had a discussion about whether to exit on big rocks or little rocks. I picked big rocks and Tom headed out of the water so he could get pictures of the finish. I wondered if my cousin Sally and Ed had made it.
The current at the shore was stronger than I had anticipated. It wasn’t “wavy” but it was pretty deep just before the rocks creating a bit of a shelf. Tom told me to go as far as I could on my belly. I looked for some ideal rocks to stand-up on – and found four in a square shape. I figured I could put my hands on two and my feet on the other two and make my way up. I grabbed the two rocks and went to push myself up to put my feet on the other two rocks and I felt like I was lifting myself up out of mud. The water was churning a bit, my arms were tired and the rocks were slippery. Nate, Amy, Allison and Tom were all encouraging and cheering me on. And, it took just about every brain cell and all of the coordination I had left to figure out how to get myself out and clear the water line. I began to lose my balance at one point and my goggles were starting to fog up a bit – so I stopped to take them off and nearly fell over. I crabbed my way up some more – cleared the water line and balanced myself on my two feet long enough to get my arms over my head to celebrate! Then – I promptly sat down. There it was – done. Catalina – done…Triple Crown – done. I was proud and very happy!
I hadn’t seen Sally yet – and I said “Is Sally here?” She had been given strict instructions not to touch me – so she had stayed well away from the water. She came running over as soon as I said that, asked if she could touch me and gave me the most fantastic hug! Amy, Nate and Allison got out of the water and we celebrated for a few minutes and took pictures. By comparison – it was much more festive than my English Channel finish.
I started to shiver a bit as I was warming up – so we got in and swam back to the boat. It was the loveliest warm-down ever! The water was beautiful and I was out there with wonderful friends. They wanted me to get up into the boat first and I got some instructions about how to get onto the platform. It was one of the hardest things I had done since midnight! There were lots of giggles from the water and the boat as I tried several times to get myself onto the platform. It was not a pretty sight – but I did it.
We headed back to the marina and, as with most swims, the “after-party” is pretty uneventful. Everyone congratulated me, I warmed up while everyone packed up. I find that it takes a while to enter back into reality. After swimming in relative solitude for nearly 12 hours, and literally depleting your energy stores, it is hard to transition to talking and other vertical activities. In other swims, I had a difficult time accepting that. You tend to anticipate this great rush and excitement at the end – but, at least for me, it takes a while to come. I was okay with it this time and understood it. Content and happy with the swim, grateful to everyone on board for helping me and…ready for a shower and a nap.
Once at the marina, we took some final pictures, said our goodbyes and thanks. Swims like these are a bit surreal that way. When you board the boat, some people are relative strangers. When you disembark, you have become friends and, most importantly, a team, in the span of a few hours. You will always have that special connection with everyone on the boat.
After we got back to the house – I showered and started to shake like I always do. I ate something warm and got under the covers. I was so tired and felt like I was becoming part of the mattress. But, I slept fitfully from the warming-up process. I got up a couple of hours later and we headed to have a proper dinner. About half-way through dinner, after the food started to hit my belly, I became incredibly tired. We finished up and I headed back to bed and slept a happy sleep.
We celebrated the next morning with more Uncle Bill’s pancakes and some Mimosas and Bloody Mary’s. Amy headed back to Richmond and the rest of us spent the day on the beach relaxing.
Matt and I stayed in California for the rest of the week and relaxed and ate lots of wonderful food. When I got back to Richmond, I had an amazing welcome in my office with small crowns, big crowns, tons of balloons and other decorations. And, the outpouring of congratulations has been astonishing.
I spent the months leading up to Catalina becoming “okay” with the fact that at least this part of my swimming journey would be over after Catalina. Unlike some events where there is a huge let down after the fact – that didn’t come and it hasn’t come and I don’t expect it to. I think that is because open water marathon swimming is who I am and what I do. It is part of me and whether I swim across the Catalina Channel, the English Channel, complete the triple crown, or whatever, it is just another part of the journey. I’ve had so many people ask me how I feel about having done it, and, of course, the inevitable question “what next….” It is a funny question to me – I suppose because open water marathon swimming is so ingrained in me – it would sort of be like asking anyone what they are going to do tomorrow. I’m going to pick another swim, plan for it, train for it, do my best to complete it and enjoy the journey. What else would I do….
I’ve learned so much about myself over the last three years thanks to the crazy sport of open water marathon swimming. And, I’ve been inspired, amazed and humbled by the generosity of so many who have supported and guided me. Thanks for joining me for this part of the journey!
Courtney, you are amazing. I have enjoyed reading about your journey – you made me feel like I was there. I’m afraid I would have been out of there between the flying fish & especially the hungry sea lion. My feet would never have hit the water. This is your cousin Jackie & I have seen your interviews on the TV but would you believe I missed the day of the swim. Normally Barbara Ann reminds me but she is quite busy. Just wanted to let you know your family is very proud of your accomplishments & I still think we should all be there to support you on your next one. I could hear Sally yelling for you near the end & that was great. Continue to follow your dreams!