Water, darkness and cold, three of our deepest primordial fears, come bundled with every Catalina Channel swim. Channel swims begin at night because the ocean is calmest at night. During the day the prevailing Westerlies whip around the west end of Catalina Island, creating chop that makes it difficult for swimmers in the channel to breathe. Cold because water temperatures in the two-mile deep channel range from the high 60s to the low 50s.
Beth Lee wasn’t afraid of the water or the darkness on the night of her Catalina Channel attempt three weeks ago. The 48-year-old Manhattan Beach mother of two began competitive swimming at age seven. She began night training in the ocean in front of her home a year and a half ago and now preferred to swim at night.
“I’d walk down to the beach thinking what am I doing, and then get this incredibly peaceful feeling when I got in the water. It’d be super quiet. Sometimes I’d see shooting stars,” she said
She also trained for the cold.
“Last winter the water was really so cold that I’d just go two miles, trying to create a memory. If it got cold in the Channel, I wanted to be able to remind myself I’d survived cold water before. I did the cold water swims with my youngest daughter’s best friend, Kim Shales, who had passed the lifeguard test and was preparing for the lifeguard rookie academy.”
But no amount of training can fully prepare a swimmer for the effects of cold.
Dr. Penny Dean’s “History of the Catalina Channel Swims” is filled with horror stories about swimmers stopped by the cold. Cold blood causes the brain to blur and the heart to misfire. Catalina Channel Swimming Federation rules do not allow wet suits. The swimmer’s only defense against the cold water is to generate heat faster than the ocean sucks it out. Water conducts heat away from the body at 25 times the rate of air.
Cold stopped Lynn Cox, author of the 2004 bestseller Swimming to Antarctica, from completing her attempt to swim the Catalina Channel in 1974, one year after she swam the English Channel. At its narrowest point, the Catalina Channel is 19.6 nautical miles, one mile less than the English Channel at its narrowest point.
Cox told her hometown newspaper, the Santa Ana Register, that swimming the Catalina Channel is more difficult than the English Channel swims because, “our water is colder; there are sharks, even whales.” Clark might have added block-long freighters moving at 40 m.p.h. to the list. On Lee’s swim a freighter would have to change course to avoid hitting her.
Lee’s fellow Surfside Swim Team coach John York has completed a record six Catalina Channel swims. The number would be eight if he hadn’t stopped breathing on the second leg of his 1977 two-way attempt. His core temperature had dropped to 88 degrees.
One week before Lee’s attempt, an East Coast swimmer had to be pulled from the water just two miles short off the mainland. His core body temperature was 80 degrees. He suffered cardiac arrest.
At 5-foot-5, 130 pounds, Lee did not have body insulation typical of channel swimmers.
“The cold was the only thing I was really afraid of. I knew I could swim in the cold, but not for how long. You never know how it’s going to be out there, or how the body will react. You just hope your body can take it,” she said.
On Jan. 15, 1927, 102 swimmers, including three woman wearing nothing but axle grease to keep them warm, competed for the honor of being the first to swim the Catalina Channel. An estimated 3,500 spectators cheered the swimmers at the Isthmus starting line on the west end of Catalina Island. Hundreds more on boats followed the swimmers across the channel. An estimated 15,000 spectators lined the cliff at Pt. Vicente, honking car horns and flashing headlights to encourage swimmers nearing the finish. KNX radio broadcast live coverage of the swim.
A naked, 17-year-old Canadian named George Young was the first and only swimmer to reach the mainland. He ditched his trunks early in the race because of chafing. His time of 15 hours, 44 minutes and 30 seconds earned him the $25,000 winner-take-all prize put up by chewing gum magnate and Catalina Island owner William Wrigley Jr.
The prize remains the largest ever for a marathon swim, according to the Dr. Penny Dean’s “History of the Catalina Channel Swims.”
But it’s doubtful anyone who has swum the Catalina Channel believes such an amount could be the record, not even Dean, who holds the channel crossing record for her 1976 time of 7:15:55.
Lee certainly wouldn’t put a paltry $25,000 price on the prize for swimming the Catalina Channel.
The right time
Swimming the Catalina Channel was not a longtime goal of Lee’s. She began swimming competitively when she was seven and was so burned out by the end of high school that she turned down an invitation to swim at Yale. Instead, she went to UC Santa Barbara, where she studied art.
“I wanted so bad to be a surfer girl,” she explained. Toward that end, she began dating a fellow student and surfer from Manhattan Beach, Mike Lee. The couple married shortly after college and moved to Manhattan Beach, his hometown, so he could attend graduate school at the Sci/Art (Southern California Institute of Architecture) and surf.
“We had two babies right away, Beca and Kara, so I had more important things to do than swim,” Lee said.
After the birth of her second child she resumed swimming recreationally. Each year, for the past 16 years, Lee has competed in the Dwight Crum Pier to Pier Two Mile Swim. This past August, she finished second in her age group and 97th overall out of nearly 900 swimmers with a time of 45:37:37. Her sister Kathy Binks, who handled logistics for the channel swim, finished third in their age group.
Lee attributes her interest in swimming the Catalina Channel to her husband’s participation in the Catalina Classic Paddleboard Race, and to her friendship with York.
“My husband and his friends were always talking about the paddleboard race. John never talked about his swims,” she said.
York set a men’s record of 8:49:50 in 1976 when he was a 15-year-old Mira Costa High student. His 41 mile two-way crossing in 1978, from the mainland to Catalina and back in a time of 16:42, is still a record and nearly four hours faster than the next fastest two-way crossing. York’s completion of six channel swims is also a record.
Two years ago, with her children readying for college, Lee casually mentioned to York she might want to swim the channel on her 50th birthday. York neither encouraged nor discouraged her.
“Then I started thinking, maybe I shouldn’t wait until I was 50. I did a six mile test swim, from 33rd Street in Manhattan, where we live, to the Hermosa Pier and back. I did it with fins, but didn’t tell anyone I wore fins. Then I tried it without fins and it was too far. I got dehydrated.”
In the spring of 2006, she began training without telling anyone why.
“I started doing laps from 33rd to the Manhattan Pier and back. I’d go into the beach after each lap for vitamin water and a banana that I left on the lifeguard tower, and then do another lap. I swam about five days a week trying to build up the miles. It took a long time to get from eight to 12 miles. The first time I did 10 miles, I was so exhausted I cried walking up the hill to my house.”
Time runs out
Lee became so anxious on the nights before long practice swims she couldn’t sleep. One morning at 4:30 a.m., while walking down to the beach with her husband who was going to paddle with her, she said, “Honey, I think all this nervousness is good practice for holding it together mentally.”
She realized it wasn’t enough to practice swimming. She also needed to practice not being afraid of the dark, the cold, cramping, getting seasick and whatever might be swimming beneath her.
This past spring she let her intentions be known to York by asking him how far she needed to swim in practice to be confident she could cross the channel. He answered 18 miles.
On Sept. 3, just one month before she hoped to swim the channel, she attempted her first 18 mile swim. She had picked early October as the crossing date to give herself as much time as possible to train before the water got too cold. She swam 16 miles -- eight two-mile laps between 33rd and the Manhattan Pier -- and then felt so exhausted she quit. When she returned home her husband contemplated taking her to the emergency room. Instead they called Debbie Levy, a nurse friend.
Levy told her to down several glasses of Emergen-C to restore her electrolytes. Lee’s bonking symptoms went away.
“I lived so close to the beach for so many years and had been swimming for so many years that I was a little naïve in my approach to nutrition,” Lee said.
The following week she went to Lindberg Nutrition in Manhattan, where she met Gordon Sante. Sante is a five-foot-five, 61-year-old, seniors’ world dead-lift record holder with an encyclopedic knowledge of sports nutrition that is matched by his enthusiasm for helping extreme athletes. Asked once to explain the attraction of weight lifting, he answered, “It’s just you and gravity.”
Sante recommended Endurox, a water soluble concoction of carbs, protein and electrolytes.
Lee hoped to test the drink with another 18 mile practice swim but York told her she didn’t have time.
Veteran channel escort skipper John Pittman had recommended moving the channel swim date up to mid September, when the tidal swings would be minimal. Lee knew better than to argue. Pittman began escorting swimmers with his father in 1972. He spent the last two years refurbishing Outrider, a 50-foot Delta sport fisher with 10 bunks and a navigational system that enabled swimmers’ support crews to monitor their swimmers’ position, speed and ETA on a large screen in the cabin. His expertise was in picking the best day and the shortest course.
Water, darkness and cold
On Sept. 18, three Tuesdays ago, at 10:51 p.m. Lee entered the water at Doc’s Cove on Catalina Island’s west end. The only people to see her off were the 10 members of her escort crew.
A light cloud cover blacked out the moon and stars. A taunting glow lit the mainland, reminding everyone aboard the Outrider of how far Lee needed to swim.
One of the quirks of the Catalina Channel Swimming Federation rules is that swimmers must enter and exit the water from dry land under their own power. So when Lee stepped off Outrider’s swim step to begin her swim across the channel, she had to first swim 50 yards to the island.
“It’s warm,” she yelled rolling on to her back, to the relief of everyone bundled up along Outrider’s stern. Pitman said the water was 68.
Ten minutes later, Lee and escort swimmer Jeff Horn, a Los Angeles County lifeguard, could be heard splashing into the water.
“10:51,” yelled York, declaring the official start time.
Shepherding Lee between their kayaks were her husband Mike and Mark Levy, a former U.S. Junior Surfing champion. Levy’s wife is Debbie, the nurse who recommended the electrolytes.
Trouble began even before Lee reached the waiting Outrider.
“During the walk up to the beach and getting back in the water, I felt calm and ready and not anxious at all. But as soon as we started swimming it got chaotic,” Lee said.
Lee yelled to the boat that she couldn’t see the kayakers and, in fact, she kept bumping into them. The headlamps her husband and Levy wore blinded her, and the glow sticks strapped to their kayaks were too high out of the water to be of any help.
Lee stopped swimming and demanded more glow sticks for the kayaks. During the confusion the kayaks jumped ahead of the Outrider, prompting Pittman to yell dryly from the pilothouse, “Do you want to lead, or do you want me to lead?”
“It was so dark I couldn’t tell the kayaks from the sea or the sky and I couldn’t see Jeff. I had no idea where anyone was,” Lee said.
Struggling to see which way to swim was worse than the cold, Lee said.
“I wasn’t thinking about swimming at all. I was just focusing on where the kayaks were,” she said. The problem didn’t resolve itself until daylight.
Feedings proved almost as problematic.
The plan was for Levy to signal with a whistle every 15 minutes that it was time to eat and drink. She had asked Levy to handle feedings, rather than her husband, to minimize the risk of emotional conflicts.
Lee had been injury and sickness free throughout her year-and-a-half training, except for sinus infections that she suffered after long practice swims. She solved the problem by wearing a nose clip. But on the channel swim, she discovered the nose clip made it nearly impossible for her to eat solid foods in the water, something she hadn’t practiced.
“I planned to eat prunes, because they’re soft and high in carbs, and Fig Newtons, Balance bars and Reese’s peanut butter cups. But if I closed my mouth to chew, I couldn’t breath. And if I chewed with my mouth open I swallowed water. I ended up spitting out most of the food and just drinking the Endurox,” she said.
None of these problems appeared to hinder Lee’s swimming. The glassy water at the island turned sloshy after the first hour when she reached the open channel. But her exaggerated body rotation raised her arms well clear of the swells. A boat-like wake leapt up nearly a foot in the air over her swim cap. Her pace never varied.
York, who with Lee’s father Smith Anderson, remained on the port rail throughout the entire night, recorded her stroke count every 15 minutes. York’s log entries show 63 stokes per minute at 12:08, 61 strokes per minute at 6:14 a.m. and 58 strokes per minute at 8 a.m.
For the first four or five hours she kept her mind occupied by praying for the Oceanside Christian Fellowship prayer group that she knew was praying through the night for her.
But halfway through the swim she had to stop praying. “I had to focus on the job at hand,” she said.
“I was so happy when the sun came out. I could see the kayaks and I could see the Palos Verdes cliffs. I knew I wasn’t supposed to be looking but I couldn’t help myself. I was breathing at an angle the way you do on the pier to pier swims when you want to see how far away the pier is. I was doing it all the time. I was waiting for John to start yelling at me, ‘Stop looking.’”
Lee said the only time she felt discouraged was about 45 minutes after sunrise when she asked a question of Ryan Berry, who with Bill Daley had relieved Mike Lee and Levy as kayak escorts. Berry is a fellow Surfside swim coach. Daley is a neighbor and experienced kayaker.
“I said to Berry, ‘I just want to be home now.’ He told me, ‘You are almost home.’ ‘An hour?’ I asked. He said, ‘No.’”
“I started calculating in my mind how long it had been from the start to sunrise, and I realized I had three more hours.”
About that time, upwelling off of Palos Verdes sent the water temperature plummeting from the relatively comfortable high 60s to the mid to high 50s.
“That’s when those 50 degree swims with Kim Shales really helped. I knew the difference between fatigue and cold and I knew the cold was manageable.
“I did get really cold the last hour. But by then land looked like it was right there, even though I was still a couple miles out,” she said.
With approximately four miles to go, Mike Lee and Levy resumed paddling the kayaks and Berry and Pierre Weisbein jumped in the water to swim with her. Weisbein is a veteran of the French Navy’s Raid Gauloises team and a next door neighbor. He and Berry swam almost on top of Lee so they could grab her if she sank.
With the Palos Verdes cliffs looming overhead, Mike Lee paddled over to the escort boat and asked York what the closest anyone had gotten and failed. York didn’t answer.
On Oct. 3, 1977, a year after setting the men’s one-way record, the 17-year-old York set out to break the two-way record. On the leg from the mainland to Catalina he set a new one-way men’s record of 8:31:29. He rested three minutes on the island, long enough to eat some cookies, chicken and ERG, then resumed swimming back to the mainland at the same, furious 80 stroke per minute rotation he’d maintained on the way over.
He was just 150 yards from finishing in record time when his coach Siga Albrecht realized her swimmer was in danger. The log for the swim notes, “So very close, but yet so far away… arm stroke 30, 29, 28, no kick. John pulled eight times without turning his head to breath.”
He was unconscious when Albrecht yanked him from the water.
“The last thing I remember was I felt good enough to swim back. I felt really strong. I didn’t quit. I was pulled out unconscious,” the log book records York saying two days later from his hospital bed.
The following September, escorted by John Pittman’s father Mickey, York broke the men’s one-way record again in seven hours 51 minutes and set the double crossing record in 16:41. The double crossing record still stands.
The reason for ending Channel swims at York’s Point is that it is the closest point on the mainland to Catalina. But the steep beach at York Point is guarded by large, sharp rocks.
It was also being pounded by surf, Pittman yelled down to York.
Mike Lee and Levy had landed on York’s point before, during Rock to Rock paddleboard races. They knew there is a small area in the center of the cove, not more than 20 yards wide, that is free of large rocks, though still covered with cobblestones and exposed to the swell. Lee reached the cove in almost exactly 10 hours, but she would need to swim another 10 minutes against the current to reach the cobblestone beach.
Mike Lee and Levy surfed their kayaks up the rocks and signaled for Lee and her escort swimmers to come in.
A surge sucked Mike Lee’s feet out from under him as Berry and Weisbein hovered on either side of his wife. If they helped her, the Catalina Channel Swimming Federation would not recognize her effort. They yelled for her to ride the surge up the beach, then crawl up the rocks on her hands and feet up to dry land.
For several minutes she struggled to steady herself in the impact zone. Then, with agonizing slowness, she began working her way up the rocks on all fours. After finally reaching dry rocks, she stood upright and raised her arms over her head.
Her legs promptly buckled. She began shivering uncontrollably.
Lee was greeted by an unbelieving construction crew working on a new hotel and golf course at the old Marineland site. They offered her a blanket. Several of her Surfside Swim Team students and their parents waved from the cliff above. The parents had pulled the children out of school so they could witness their coach’s rare achievement. Lee is only the 140th person to swim the channel since George Young’s swim 80 years ago.
A warm feeling
“It was 200 yards back to Outrider and Beth didn’t think she could swim back, and we didn’t think it was a good idea either,” recalled Levy. “So we put a lifejacket on her and set her on my kayak.”
The crew on the beach catapulted the kayak back out to sea on the backwash of a large swell.
“It was like launching the Queen Mary. We should have had champagne,” said Levy, who jumped on the back of the kayak. On the paddle back to the waiting Outrider Lee was shivering so violently Levy was afraid they would capsize. But after reaching Outrider and sitting on a hot water bottle for 30 minutes, Lee was excitedly recounting the swim on a cell phone to her two daughters.
“I’ve never felt better on a long swim, even at the end when the water got cold,” she said during an interview two days later. The shivering, she said, didn’t start until after she reached land.
Lee credited her positive mood throughout the swim not to endorphins, but to the love and encouragement she received from her family and friends.
“It was the most overwhelmingly beautiful feeling. I wish everyone could do something like this so they could realize how much they love and are loved by people,” she said. ER