I woke up feeling sticky on the floor of the boat. The outside of my sleeping bag was covered in dew, but I was hot and sweaty on the inside. I felt like a soggy ham sandwich in a Ziploc bag.
I sat up and looked over the boat’s railing at the water in the harbor. It was perfectly still and dark and the air was cool on my arms and back. The sun had already signaled its arrival, but was not yet visible above the horizon behind me. It was off season in Avalon so many of the slips were empty in the harbor, and there was very little activity on shore.
While I was looking at the casino, a fish jumped clear of the surface near the rocks, turned on its side, and belly-flopped. It was a big fish, and I wondered how big the other one was.
Kenny was in the boat’s tiny cabin curled into a ball, out of necessity. The Captain and Hoov were on the bow, also soaked with dew but not stirring. My board, a 14′ Naish downwinder, was snugly tied to the back of the boat and bobbing gently. It looked like it was ready and anxious to go.
I was not so sure I was ready though. I had never paddled anywhere near 26 miles before. The longest paddle I had ever completed before that day was a 20K race around Big Bear Lake, which was about 13 miles. This channel crossing idea meant I would be paddling twice that distance, and not on a lake. I was very comfortable in the open ocean on SUP but, at the time, I had never tried anything like this.
I really had no idea if I had it in me to make it all the way back to the mainland, but I honestly did not think that much about it. I mean, we had a boat. I knew if there was a problem, I could just hop in the boat. Problem solved. If I was doing this alone, my preparation and thinking about it would have been completely different.
So my unplanned plan was just to paddle 13 miles, which I knew I could do, then paddle five more (for another hour or so), and if I made it that far, I’d be at 18 miles, so why not see if I can get to 20, and if I’m at 20, heck, why not see if I can go a few more miles, and if I make it to 22 or 23 miles, why it’s just a few more miles, another half hour or so, right? I thought about this challenge like I think about tackling any big project. Break it down into chunks and devour the chunk in front of me. Don’t overthink it.
One mistake I made was that I did not even know for sure that the crossing was 26 miles. Looking back, this mistake was pretty ridiculous. I figured the crossing was roughly 26 miles because there was an old song by the Four Preps that said so. It went like this:
26 Miles across the sea/Santa Catalina is awaitin’ for me/Santa Catalina, the island of romance.
Sing it if you know it. The song is actually called 26 miles! So instead of using google maps or consulting nautical maps to obtain the correct and exact distance across the channel, I resorted to a song lyric from 1958. Sounds reasonable.
I also failed to think about race nutrition, i.e., how to take in calories while working out for six or seven hours. I figured I would be paddling 4-5 mph, so it would take me six to seven hours to get back to the mainland. But I did not factor in the caloric burn each of those hours would represent, nor did I try to figure out how to replace those calories so my body would actually keep working.
Nor did I consult the wind forecast, swell forecast, or even think about currents. I did not insist on leaving at first light (or before first light) to make sure I got the most of the calm morning. I did not think about how the wind would pick up in the afternoon, when I was exhausted at the end of the paddle. And I did not think about charting a course to deal with all of this. You live and learn.
I stood up and looked back toward the mainland. I could see nothing out in the channel except a horizontal line starting to come into view as the sun colored one half of the sky.
Welp, here goes.
I put on my board shorts, a rash guard, and a hat. I started making some tea and wolfed down a banana and bagel with peanut butter. The guys were up not long after I started milling around the boat . We were in no hurry and we hung out for an hour or so, eating breakfast and chatting it up.
By the time we were ready to hit the water, the sun was well up and the harbor was bright. It was a cloudless day and calm. Picture perfect.
The Captain said he’d join me for a while and see how it goes, but if he was slowing me down, he would hop back on the boat. And with that, we set off. Hoov and Kenny started the boat and idled behind us while the Captain and I paddled out of the harbor. We looked back and got a beautiful view of the perfect harbor framed by mountains, and the casino on the right.
After about an hour of paddling, we were out of the lee of the island, and the swells, coming from our left (from the west) were getting a bit larger. We stopped for a minute and I sucked down a boysenberry energy gel pack. It had the texture of drywall caulk. I washed it down with water.
I was feeling good and enjoying myself. Kenny and Hoov had their feet up and were relaxing in the back of the boat with not even a hand on the steering wheel. They were idling essentially nowhere, going slow, and there was nothing to hit. They occasionally shouted out encouragement, things like “You guys should really just get on the boat and have some beers with us” or “Hey guys, one hour down, 68 hours to go,” but mostly they kept their distance and chatted amongst themselves.
After a couple hours of paddling into the channel, the Captain got in the boat. He did not want to slow me down. This was my chosen adventure, so he decided to become part of the encouragement team. Seizing the opportunity, Kenny grabbed Ian’s board and gave it a go for a little bit, quickly finding out that a first time standup paddler would be better off learning on flat water, not in open ocean swells. I thought to myself that it was pretty cool that Kenny’s first SUP attempt was in mile-deep water in the middle of the ocean. Not many can say that.
Every 45 minutes or so, I grabbed an energy gel packet and forced down the sugary paste, washing it down with water from my camelbak. The goo was not ideal for your gastrointestinal system if it is all you have during long periods of exertion, as I was soon to learn.
I went on. I paddled on the left side seven or eight strokes, then on the right for seven or eight strokes. Then I did it again, and again, and again. I pointed the nose of my board at three buildings that I could just make out on the mainland, the three office buildings jutting out from Fashion Island in Newport Beach. I tried to focus on paddling straight so that I did not zig zag my way back home, and add unnecessary time to the trip back. I also tried hard to focus on pulling with my abdomen, trunk, and legs, not with my arms and shoulders. Use the big muscles, not the little ones.
After about three hours or so, I hit the halfway point, 13 miles, and I was starting to feel nauseous. I stopped paddling and sat down on the board. The guys sidled up next to me and bobbed on the swells.
Hoov asked with a sinister smile, “You okay, buddy?”
“I need to get something down. I need the energy, but my stomach feels all out of whack.”
Captain said, “That’s because you’re only eating energy gels. That stuff will wreck you. Have a banana and a cliff bar.” He threw me a banana and I ate it in a couple bites.
I followed it up with the energy bar and then I asked for some grapes. Hoov threw me a little bunch of grapes and I started ripping them off the stem in handfuls. As I focused on the grapes, I started to feel a rising wave of nausea. Aw crap, here it comes!
Without much warning, I leaned over to puke so I wouldn’t ruin the grapes. I vomited on my right leg and chummed the water around me. As I hurled, several of the loose grapes in my hand fell and bounced like little toy super balls all over the board. On the third lurch, as I hunched over in a spasmodic crunch, I suddenly had a muscle pull in my abdomen, which caused me to stiffen up and lay on my back. But I was still puking, so I had to lean over on my side and unleash the funk into the water, with my head just an inch from the water. Not a pretty picture. [And as I write this, I realize a lot of these blog posts involve me hurling. Sorry about that. Just telling it like it happened].
I wiped my mouth, rolled back on my back, and looked back at the guys in the boat. They were holding each other, hunched over and trying not to laugh out loud. They failed. They were dying. I wasn’t mad at them for laughing. I must have looked hilarious, sadly hilarious, for doing this to myself for no reason at all.
Hoov said, “Feeling better now?”
Kenny said, “You got this dude.”
After splashing my face with water and cleaned up my shorts, I stood up and said, “Actually, yeah, I do feel better. The guys all laughed again.
“Ok, let’s go.” I paddled on.
After about four hours of paddling, it was after noon, and the wind started to pick up. The swells started to get larger and a little more unwieldy. I kept trying to knock back little morsels of food but I figured the jig was up at that point. My stomach was jacked, there was no fixing it now. It was about survival now. Just keep going.
I chunked away the time, setting tiny goals and knocking them off, by saying things to myself like, Okay, just paddle for 10 more minutes. Then when I did that, I asked myself for ten more. In this way, I made my across the miles. When I got to 20 miles, I knew I could make it to 26 because it would be an hour and a half or less. I launched into affirmations.
I am strong. I can do this all day. My arms will keep moving. My torso will keep twisting. My trunk will keep bending. My legs will hold me up.
I am robot.
I tried to remove myself from the abdominal and muscular pain, and general fatigue by thinking of myself as a third person, as a machine that I was watching from above. The machine can do this forever. The machine is well oiled. The machine feels no pain but only moves forward.
In my trance, I did not notice the boat pull up right next to me. A loud splash startled me, and below me, I saw a pasty white body, torpedoing underneath my board. A tattooed albino porpoise? No, it was a smiling Hoov, teeth and all, grinning back at me from under the water, a full ten feet under my board in the pure blue abyss. He pirouetted from one side of my board to the other through descending never ending rays of sunlight, and popped up out of the water spitting and laughing. The boat continued on ahead of us.
I said, “You scared me!”
“Just giving you some distraction.”
“You know Hoov. It’s probably a mile deep out here. And I think I saw something down there just before you jumped in.”
Hoov swam like Michael Phelps back to the boat.
As he toweled off, Hoov said, “Dude, the deep blue is scary. I could not get out of there fast enough.”
Somewhere around 22 or 23 miles in, I had a mild freakout. I suddenly felt very hot and that my shirt was somehow strangling me. I took off my camelbak, ripped off the shirt, and put the hydration pack back on, which immediately felt better.
Just gut it out for another half hour or hour, I told myself.
And, in time, the robot’s watch said 26.0 miles. I had made it, and completed the marathon on water.
Unfortunately, the channel crossing from Avalon to the mouth of Newport Harbor is not 26 miles. Mentally, I had prepared myself to paddle 26 and once I hit that mark, I was done. I sat on the board as the guys pulled up in the boat. The Fashion Island towers looked about how they did two hours before. I was closer to them, obviously, but I could hardly tell.
The guys knew what was going on in my head as they watched me look at the mainland.
Captain said, “You did it bro!”
I said, “But I had this image of my head of paddling in and walking onto the sand, but obviously it’s not 26 miles.”
Captain said, laughing, “Yeah, that song is bull shit.”
I said, “I don’t think I have it in me to go however how much farther that is.” I pointed lamely at the shore.
Captain said, “Well, the shortest distance from Catalina to the mainland is 22 miles. So as far as I’m concerned, you did it, and then some!”
“Well, I wish I’d known that yesterday.”
Cap shrugged and said, “I knew.”
We all laughed.
I jumped in the water, swam to the boat (fast), and climbed up gingerly into the boat with a hand from Kenny. Hoov handed me a beer and I settled back for the short ride home. A beer never tasted so good.