Catalina Channel (Catalina Island to California Mainland)
34 kilometres (21 miles)
22 September 2015
12 hours 54 minutes 55 seconds
My Catalina Channel swim was first booked for September 2014. Sadly, I had to cancel this booking with Captain Greg and the boat Bottom Scratcher due to a tear in my bicep tendon – an injury I picked up during my successful English Channel swim on 1 September 2013. Undeterred and still out of full marathon swim training and very unfit – I rebooked my swim for 21/22 September 2015, feeling confident that all would be well by then! This decision was not based on medical advice, purely my drive to finally plan my next swim and start building up towards it.
There’s always a story and a journey leading up to any of these big ocean, channel/strait swims. Mine of course started with my English Channel swim. I LOVED it and I wanted more!! However, injury did slow this down! During my stay at Varne Ridge English Channel Accommodation, I had a chance meeting with ocean legend Roger Finch. Roger and I clicked immediately and a wonderful friendship grew. The following year, Roger asked me to help crew for Otto Thaning’s English Channel swim and attempt to be the oldest person to succeed. I look upon my injury and subsequent cancellation as a ‘meant to be’ moment in life. Had I not been injured, I would not have been available to crew for this great man’s swim and help my friend Roger out. Everything for a reason indeed! Crewing alongside Roger for Otto’s incredible world record swim and then, the next day, for Charlotte Samuels’ successful English Channel swim and world record as the youngest Triple Crown recipient (at the tender age of 16) inspired me to get training and prepare myself for Catalina the following year. How could I not be inspired when I was in the company of such ocean greats! Everything, of course, relied on my injury continuing to progress and allow me to train and swim for hours on end.
I booked a swim training camp with Adam Walker in Malta for the following March. I decided my stroke needed a complete overhaul and I liked Adam’s practical and relaxed approach to this. I was still getting pain in my left shoulder during any lengthy swims – which of course I wasn’t telling anyone about! With Adam’s technique I managed a six hour swim in Malta PAIN FREE. Three months after the swim camp, I got to complete my next crossing which was the Gibraltar Strait on 9 June alongside Roger Finch.
With regular pool sessions and ocean swims, I also completed Ned Denison’s Cork Distance Week – which is actually 9 days long!!! The reasoning behind this is because you never know how long these ocean swims are going to take, so a week becomes 9 days! I met the most wonderful and inspiring friends in Kinsale, Ireland. We swam in 10-14 degrees water and bolstered each other on in the rough water and cold temperatures. We got the shakes and the giggles together!!! Truly wonderful experiences with fabulous people! This training added to my mental confidence to be Catalina ready.
A few challenges were thrown into the mix! My family and I were living in the Netherlands and had been for over 10 years. Just six weeks before my Catalina Channel swim, we would be moving country to Norwich in the UK!
Training for these challenges is so time consuming. Throwing in a move to a new country, searching for a house and high schools for my two boys Connor and Alexander and everything else that goes with it, meant a lot of pressure!
Once the move had taken place in August, and we had settled into our home in Norwich for the grand total of two weeks, I was off to Dover again! Roger had asked me earlier in the year, if I could crew once again alongside him for the inspiring Jim Clifford’s English Channel swim and attempt to become the world’s oldest recipient of the Triple Crown. Of course I leapt at the chance. The deal was that Roger would also coach/mentor me for my last training push before leaving for California whilst we were waiting for Jim’s swim.
I swam each day in Dover Harbour under Roger’s watchful eye and would throughout the day soak up the camaraderie and advice of my peers. To be mentally prepared for any of these challenges is more important than being physically ready.
The morning of Jim’s English Channel swim, Roger and I met him outside his accommodation at Varne Ridge at 4am. As we were walking to our cars, Roger pulled Jim and I over to the top of the White Cliffs to look at the stars. He said “look at that, that is Orion’s Belt. Each time you breathe to the right in Catalina, you will see Orion’s Belt and I want you to think of this moment right now and know that Jim and I are with you and you will be safe”. We stood there for several moments, these two great men with their arms protectively around me, looking up at these stars. This brought tears to my eyes as I knew I would store this moment away for when I would need it in a few weeks’ time.
After Jim’s amazing and successful swim, it was time to pack and leave for California! I left knowing I had done everything possible, both physically and mentally, to be ready for this swim.
Upon arrival in LA, I headed straight down the highway to San Diego to stay with Liz Schlicher and Brian Tabor – friends of Roger’s. Driving along the highway, the song ‘California Dreaming’ came on the radio – I took this as a very good omen. I hadn’t met these people before. I was greeted with welcome signs and warm and friendly hugs – and a crazy gorgeous cat who’s more like a dog! Thank you Liz and Brian for making me so welcome! Oh, I was also asked for ID twice during my stay – this definitely helped with my mental preparations! I headed to La Jolla on my first morning in California. My first swim in the Pacific Ocean for some years and I was greeted with a 23 degrees Celsius HOT water temperature. On my swim out I met an adventurous 70+ year old lady Inge. She tries to swim here every day. It’s amazing how this sport is ageless – Inge and I became instant friends and exchanged email addresses (on dry land of course).
The next day I swam with Channel legend Anne Cleveland. Anne and I went for a swim behind the wave break line. I’ll be really honest here! I have to say I was nervous. Sharks are my biggest fear. Just as we were coming to the end of our swim, legs dangling in the water – I asked Anne “what about sharks?”. Anne smiled and so calmly replied “sharks are like stars, just because you can’t see them, it doesn’t mean they’re not there”! Oddly enough, this gave me loads of comfort. Anne has been swimming here all her life and has succeeded many various channel swims! We had a great lunch with even better conversation and then went in for another swim. Anne – this meant the world to me. I don’t think you realise just how this time with you put me in a great mental and spiritual place! Thank you.
Staying with these wonderful new friends Liz and Brian, for four days, I then drove back up the coast to collect my glamorous assistant and crew girl Jopie van Hameren. I met Jopie when we lived in the Netherlands. Jopie and her family were transferred to Portland, Oregon and when Jopie learnt of this challenge, she put up her hand immediately to crew for me. She came armed with EVERY seasick prevention and remedy…and I mean EVERYTHING!!!
We headed to our ‘home’ for the next days, generously leant to us by Julie Bender and her family. They were actually in the UK staying in ‘my’ caravan at Varne Ridge English Channel Accommodation with their daughter Monica who went on to successfully swim the English Channel. I had never met the Bender family! Again, such a generous spirit surrounds this amazing sport we are in. It was wonderful to be in a home leading up to such a challenge – thank you so much Julie and family!!
The day before the swim Jopie and I decided to visit what is typically the end point of the Catalina Channel swim – Palos Verdes – a rocky cove carved out of this steep peninsula. I found it calming and daunting at the same time, staring out to sea. Not even being able to see the starting point of Catalina Island was a reminder of the huge challenge ahead.
Jopie and I went into the Tourist Centre at Palos Verdes and met Isabel Herrbrich who was working there that day. There was also a local TV Station interviewing locals and asked if they could interview me when they heard what I was in town for! Isabel and I exchanged email addresses. She so kindly volunteered to come and crew for my swim and assist Jopie. Again, everything for a reason. It was great to meet such a positive and wonderful person.
We spent the next two days resting and making preparations. We did have dinner one night at 22nd Street Landing Seafood Grill & Bar where some helpful fellow diners told me there was a record number of Great Whites in the area because of the warm water!
5pm on 21 September, Jopie and I made our way down to the marina to meet up with Captain Gregg and the support crew and meet up with Isobel too.
Well! All we could hear was a lot of clanking going on! Captain Gregg was fixing the engine. He popped his head up and said ‘I’ve been here since lunchtime trying to fix the boat – I’m not sure at this stage if we will be going anywhere’. I took this news very calmly! In this sport you cannot worry about what you can’t change! I took myself off and went for a walk down the marina. After an hour or so – thankfully all was fine and we could start loading up the boat. My two observers arrived – Nathan Muldoon and the fabulous Jodi DiLascio. Then my incredibly supportive kayakers – Barbara Schumacher and Patricio Libenson.
Once informed of the Catalina Channel swim rules – I lay down listening to music for the 3 hour boat ride to the start of my swim.
I fell into a fitful sleep to music dear to my heart, to be woken up with 5 MINUTES to go! Quickly greasing up and shaking off sleep, I was ready to start this challenge just after 11pm.
There really is NOTHING blacker than a night start in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. I was so, so disappointed as there was heavy cloud cover and I couldn’t see my beloved Orion’s Belt…my safety line! Pushing that aside, I jumped in and swam to shore, waved my arms in the air and started to swim. It usually takes me about an hour to find my rhythm and this swim was no different. There is bioluminescence in these waters. It’s like finger painting with fluorescent green paint! Others who have completed this swim told me about the magic of this….however, for me, when I saw bioluminescence move beneath me in a ‘whoosh’, I was afraid – this means ‘something’ has passed under you. At hour one I stopped for my first feed of energy drink. As I was drinking this, I saw the cloud cover clearing and the stars appear!! I could see Orion’s Belt! I yelled out “I can see Orion’s Belt”. Jodi yelled back “stop star gazing you star gazer you and get swimming”. I was so happy, I had tears in my eyes! I renamed these three stars ‘Jim, Roger, Tracy’ and I didn’t feel alone! However, with the stars came a bright moon and in my mind, this bright moon was illuminating ‘things’ looking at me below the water! I was already feeling afraid! Now it was escalating! I gave myself a pep talk in my head and told myself it’s okay to be afraid BUT it’s NOT okay to let my fear overtake me and stop me from achieving my goal. The song Watch Closely Now from A Star is Born by Kris Kristofferson came into my head. One of the lyrics ‘When it’s scary, don’t look down’ kept going over and over in my head. I was shouting back in my mind “but I have to look down because I’m swimming the bloody Catalina Channel”! An idea then popped into my head! I can keep swimming with my eyes closed!!! So that is exactly what I did until the sun came up several hours later!! I swam with my eyes shut!!! I opened them each time I turned my head to breathe to check I was still in line with the kayak and the support boat. This worked brilliantly!
There were hundreds of jellyfish in the Catalina Channel. Little annoying ones which felt like a whip. Every now and again when I turned my head to breathe I would shout “jelly”! They weren’t terribly painful…they just hurt and that felt unkind! I did get a tentacle up my nostril at one point which caused my nostrils to close over so I had to start breathing out my mouth! The consequence of this is, when you breathe out your mouth, the salt water causes your tongue to swell to double the size!
Just like the English Channel, I started vomiting at three and a half hours too! I had warned the observers that this was normal for me but I did hide the first few throw ups by doing so underwater – I was quite proud of that actually!!! When my kayaker noticed me throwing up on the third time she did make the boat crew aware as she should. I just shouted back “I feel great now – chum in the water”!!! I also got quite strong stomach cramps at around 4am and dropped off the pace a bit until my kayaker said “who’s Roger, is he you’re coach – he says you need to pick up your pace!”!! I put those cramps to one side and picked it up again and they finally subsided.
Apparently at around 1am, a mama whale and her baby came within two metres to the left of me! She looked at me with one eye whilst her baby did a flip in front of her. I was breathing to the right and saw Barbara’s mouth drop open! Of course I thought the worst and imagined there was a Great White next to me! I kept breathing to the right saying “what, what, what” every time I breathed. By this time the whale had gone down and she just smiled and gave me the thumbs up!
At around 3am after hitting some strong currents there was quite a swell. Each time I rose on the swell I could see a really bright light coming towards me. I thought it was a boat coming directly for me and so did my crew. I then noticed another two behind me to the left and the right. Captain Greg starting asking these vessels to identify themselves over the loud speaker! I kept telling myself, ‘keep swimming and trust your crew – they’ll tell you to get out of harm’s way if necessary’. They got so close, then, as quick as they came, they disappeared! It turned out they were unmanned Navy vessels. In all the years Captain Greg and crew have been on the water – they have never seen anything like it!
One of the bonuses of booking with Captain Greg is, when the sun comes up he plays his bagpipes. I adore the bagpipes and this greatly influenced booking him. When I saw him come out and play I broke the cardinal Channel swimming rule and stopped. I stopped and looked at this huge ocean I was in the middle of. My crew who were so giving and doing everything to get me to my goal. I thought about all those who are dear to me and took a moment to appreciate life and the enormity of what I was doing.
As we got closer to land we had a cross current to work across. This lasted for about the last four hours of the swim. I really had to dig in, in between throwing up and trying to take on energy. Barb my kayaker and Jopie, Isabel and Jodi on the boat shouted words of encouragement. I never look ahead in a swim – there’s no point. Land always looks so much closer than it is. I just kept my head down and swam as hard as I could. Patricio had asked to swim in with me which was fine by me. Looking at the boat I saw him standing on deck in his swim costume. I allowed myself to look up and…..the cliffs of Palos Verdes were so, so close! I started to well up with tears in my goggles. Keep going! Then I saw rocks and sea weed beneath me! Patricio jumped in and the support boat stopped. Barb kayaked us both in. I couldn’t believe it! I was nearly there. My fingertips started scraping the rocks beneath me. I then tried to stand up which is always difficult after a day’s swimming! I walked out on all fours – not very elegant but who cares at that point! Once I was past the waterline I stood up and raised both arms! Unlike the English Channel, I could actually raise both arms. I felt FANTASTIC! I felt high in energy and my body felt ok! It felt like it had worked of course, but I had no injuries! I sat down on a rock and I laughed and cried! I can’t explain the feeling of completing a Channel swim. So many emotions run through you – there is no other feeling like it.
After a quick video, Patricio and I had to swim back to the support boat. Hugs and congratulations flowed from everyone. I phoned home to simply say “I did it” crying the whole time! I messaged Roger and Jim – my Orion’s Belt lifeline – simply saying “I did it”. My time was 12 hours 54 minutes. Six minutes slower than my English Channel swim but I was very happy with that.
Whilst we were returning back to the marina, Captain Greg and crew saw a Great White Shark eating a seal! I’m so pleased they didn’t point this out to me as they knew of my fear and I wouldn’t want that to be the last memory of such a beautiful swim! When they told me, I did take comfort in this – after all, I had been in that water for 12 hours and 54 minutes and NOTHING had attacked me!
The days after such a swim are a mixture of tears and laughter. I once again had dropped weight – 5 kilos this time! Jopie and I spent a well-earned day at the spa the day after. A couple of drinks and loads of frolics and laughter. A fabulous way to finish off after a hard day’s work.
Thank you so much Jopie, for giving up your life for days and looking after me so well. Channel swimming is not a glamorous sport – but you will always be known as the most glamorous crew girl!! Isobel, we had only known each other 20 minutes! Thank you for crewing! I’m so glad I met you!! Jodi, you’e the best!!
Months later Jopie gave me a bracelet that reads “She Said She Could and She Did”. That was so special and really sums up everything in life to me!
Welcome signs made by Liz Schlicher and Brian Tabor my hosts in San Diego.
Liz and Brian. Watching some American Football.
Swimming with Channel legend Anne Cleveland.
Meeting the amazing Inge at La Jolla. Swimmers are the BEST!! Of course I gave her a New Zealand swim cap.
My glamorous crew girl Jopie van Hameren.
Palos Verdes – the end point of the Catalina Channel swim. Catalina that way!!
Interviewed by the local press.
Waiting for Captain Greg to fix the boat! Roger Finch’s special Catalina tee shirt for good luck!
Listening to music, ready to sleep. Boating over to Catalina for a start around midnight.
Don’t hug me! All greased up by Jopie.
Always proud to be a Kiwi
About to jump! Wow it’s dark out there!
My beloved Orion’s Belt which I renamed – Jim, Roger, Tracy.
Captain Greg playing the bagpipes (Scotland the Brave) as the sun is coming up.
Isobel, Jodi and Nathan – amazing crew and observers!
Having fun in the water! That’s what it’s all about for me! Swimming now for about 8 hours with constant vomiting.
Swimming now for about 11 hours – strong cross currents to get across!
Nearly there! I looked up and had tears in my goggles.
12 hours 54 minutes and 55 seconds….I made it AND I can still lift my arms.
Swimming back to the boat.
Phoning home. Could my smile be any bigger!
My amazing crew left to right – Patricio (kayaker), Jopie (crew), Jodi (observer), me, Nathan (observer), Barbara (kayaker), Isobel taking the photo.
Celebrations the next day at the Spa.
Catalina Channel Certificate.