Saturday, October 10, 2009

Are we there yet?

I could hardly believe that the night of my swim had finally arrived. As we headed toward Catalina, I went below to try to rest up. The humming of the engine and the gentle thumping of the boat should have been soothing, but thoughts kept invading my mind. I was saddened that the swimmer out the previous night out had not been successful in his attempt. I was really worried that the west wind a few days before had dropped the ocean temperature five degrees from 70-72F to 65-67F. I had done some tapering swims in the newly cooled water and thought I could swim through it. As we got closer, I settled into the rhythm of the boat but never entered into a full sleep.

Having assisted on 4 other solo swims this year, I was acutely aware of the sound of the Outrider’s engine dropping down from full throttle to the gentle hum that signified that we had arrived at the island. I wanted to be excited and happy, but felt my heart sink a bit. I heard the rattle of the anchor chain being dropped, so I came up and looked around and found out that we had arrived at about 11:15pm. I didn’t want to leave at 11:30pm because the previous night’s swimmer had started around that time. It felt like bad luck to start then, so I asked to leave closer to midnight. I went back down below to “rest” but I kept wondering if the “real swimmer” was going to show up.

I finally got up and started preparing. I was going to wear a black bubble cap that my main observer David Clark had brought along but it seemed to constrict my forehead so I switched to a white bubble cap that I had briefly trained in. My assistant observer Beth Weber helped me grease up with A&D ointment (15.5% lanolin) and my first escort swimmer Patsee Ober got ready. I had decided to swim in Szuszi-Stephanie’s “Sportkini” at the last minute too. I had trained in it and thought it would keep me from getting strap rash. David Clark warned me that they had seen a sea lion but that did not worry me too much. I am not sure what time we jumped off the boat, but the 67F water was definitely not the warm embrace of 70F. I did not feel the “love”, but knew if I kept swimming I could get through the discomfort.

Patsee and I swam to the island. I have seen this so many times before from different perspectives: as an observer and as a kayaker. It was completely surreal to be the swimmer. I felt outside my body at that point. The water was beautiful and clear and I saw a few shadow fish dart past. I walked up onto the beach to make sure I was way past the waterline, raised my hand up to signal the start and then moved back into the water to swim.

I knew I was never going to get any time record, so my main objective was just finishing. Patsee and I swam up to our kayaker, Ralph Lufkin and then to the Outrider.

It was a beautiful, clear night just past the full moon. I could see Ralph, clearly outlined against the night sky on my right and Patsee and the Outrider over to my left. The starboard side of the Outrider was festively lit with multi-colored glow sticks that hung over the side attached by long strings. The water was clear and I saw strange figurative vertical lines of kelp that dropped below the water. I swam over bits of seaweed but they did not scare me because I was used to that from my training. As we got further out, the phosphorescent bubbles danced off my fingertips like the stars in the sky. I remembered reading Lynne Cox’s description of her disorientation during her first Catalina swim in Swimming to Antarctica. It was such an amazing magical view of the sea and the sky. I was trying to imagine how I could translate that into my artwork.

I smelled coffee fragrance coming off the boat and remembered that Outrider’s pilot, John Pittman called me the previous evening and said he would do “Galley” (food) for my crew.

My first feed (and all the rest) was warmed Perpetuem and Heed. It has a creamy neutral taste and it felt good. My feeds were scheduled every half hour so I was able to gauge the time at that point. Patsee paced along side me nicely and I felt good but a little chilled. I am not sure what time she got out though.

My second escort swimmer, Ray Meltvedt got in after Patsee. He wore some little fins to keep up with me. He had a glow necklace and bracelets and I was able to see him easily. He swam a little closer than Patsee and I felt like I had to swerve a bit to avoid him sometimes.

I looked over at one point and realized Ralph was missing. I flipped up to do backstroke and saw that that he had capsized. I knew it would be hard for him to flip the kayak because there was an ice chest with my feed bottles strapped on. I kept swimming and Ralph soon appeared back on my right. The feeds were getting cooler and cooler and I was feeling colder and colder. Patsee came back on deck and asked if I could “pick it up”. I felt really bad because at that point I noticed an unfamiliar pain in my left arm and couldn’t push too much past that.

Ray got out and Patsee got back in. I think of that point as my “pre-dawn crisis” because I had been so cold and my arm hurt I wondered if I could pull this off??? Patsee told me to go to the big boat for my next feed. I was handed a cup on a rope and the feed was delightfully scalding. I could feel the warmth enter my core and emanate outward to my fingers and toes! It was MAGIC! I felt the warmth become a shield that protected me in the last of the dark hours.

My ocean swimming buddy, Roni Hibben had taken on the task of preparing my feeds and that was what kept me going. I was so grateful to my crew that every time they handed me a feed I tried to remember to say “thank you”.

I have heard from many channel swimmers that the sun coming up is a big boost and so it was. I saw the water change from the moonlit blackness to gray and the sky began glowing. Patsee got out and Natalie Merrow got in. I was thinking at that point, I didn’t need escort swimmers, but had asked other Catalina aspirants and friends to come along to share the adventure.

During one feed I made the mistake of looking back and Catalina still looked really big, like I hadn’t gone very far. I never looked back again. At a point I saw my crew pointing off to my right. I breast-stroked and heard them say “Whale!” I never saw the whale but I know from other swims, wildlife is something the crew gets to enjoy, though not the swimmer. I was really happy that they got to see that!

My left arm hurt a lot the whole swim. I had a couple of Tylenols during the swim and at one point they gave me some big green Advil gelcaps. That seemed to alleviate the pain a bit. I never really got over being cold either. The warm feeds helped though. I had my first-ever jelly fish stings. The first was on my right foot and the second was on the underside of my right arm. It felt like glass had gashed my flesh. I didn’t stop or look. I didn’t mention it to the crew either, because I knew there was nothing they could do about that and the pain would go away soon enough.

I never thought of getting out, but I remembered Penny Palfrey saying that you have two choices in that instance: you can either be miserable in the water or you can get back on the boat and be REALLY miserable!

I remember my lanemate Alex Chueng getting in and swimming with me. He is a much faster sprinter but paced alongside me very nicely. I was happy to see him. My kayaker, Ralph got out and Brad Arshat took over kayaking. I remember him smiling over at me when I breathed to my right and that made me feel happy. I tried to smile back a few times but I was so cold I was not sure my face was working properly. I was afraid that I might look like a snarling dog baring its teeth.

I completely lost track of time. My crew had switched my feeds to every 20 minutes but it felt like every half hour to me.

During one feed, David Clark asked me what color my car was. I was thinking “I know that move…he thinks I am hypothermic!” I said “sage” and they laughed. I was not sure why until afterward; I was told that Patsee told David that my car was green.

At one point we swam past a little kelp patty and I saw a really pretty school of small fish. That was the only sealife I clearly saw.

Kayaker-Ralph got in though I don’t remember exactly when. My nose was kind of stopped up so when I was exhaling in his direction I wondered if he could hear me “honking” toward him. Natalie got in to swim but she swam so far ahead of me I rarely saw her. After a while Ray got in to swim and he swam along side me and sometimes underneath me. That made me start laughing!

I noticed the sun was edging past what I knew was noon and maybe past two. My original time projection was to get in around 12-14 hours. I saw the shore getting closer out of the corner of my eye and during feeds but I knew not to look up and risk discouragement.

We came into a murky opaqueness that was a bit of a red tide. I remembered that Anne Cleveland had commented on that during Penny Palfrey’s swim from Santa Barbara Island the previous week so I knew I was within a few miles!

I was excited when I saw someone in a red cap jump in. “Who is that?” I asked. It was Beth Weber the assistant observer there to see me in. I had seen that beach before but coming up to it as “the swimmer” was an entirely different experience. Someone had constructed about a half a dozen tall stone cairns at the edge of the rocks. Aside from a few people on the beach, the sentinel sculptures looked like my formal "welcoming committee". I wended my way through a bit of kelp and then came up upon the mossy rocks. I got blasted by a wave though managed to crawl back up over the edge and finish.

I heard the Outrider’s horn blast but I was so cold, I didn’t know what to feel. I looked for a pretty rock as a memento which I handed to Beth and then headed back quickly because I was starting to shiver. I remember Forrest Nelson mentioning that you have to crab-walk back out on your butt, except I got blasted by three waves before Ray reached out and hauled me through the surf. They asked if I wanted a “kayak-tow” back to the boat but I just swam it.

When I got back on the boat, they swaddled me in many towels. I felt someone put some cozy Ugg boots on my feet and I just shivered hard for a while. They eventually got me under a hot shower and helped me dress. After that, my crew wrapped me in a sleeping bag bundled like a baby burrito.

I am so grateful to my crew. Most of these people I have known less than two years and have met in the process of training for this swim and just from our swimming world in general. I could say “I did this swim”, but it is more accurate to say “we did it!”

When they said I “broke 16 hours” I was a little shocked and unhappy. This was over two hours more than the slowest time I had anticipated. I guess my sore arm and the cold took its toll that way. My time was 15 hours, 53 minutes and 38 seconds….the slowest time this century! I need to work on my stroke so that the next time I do this I will be less prone to injury and will do it a little faster!


  1. Awesome job, Lynn! And way to gut it out through the cold, banged up arm and jellyfish stings.

  2. Very happy for you Lynn!
    Loved reading your account of the swim... the view is so different from the water than the boat!

  3. During the last several hours, Lynn's warm feeds were moved to every 15 minutes with a reduced volume per serving. Every time she pulled up to the side of the boat, her determination and focus to succeed was quite clear. Lynn's perseverance was inspirational and it was a privilege and honor for me to have been a part of her amazing accomplishment. I am still smiling! CONGRATULATIONS, LYNN!

  4. Loved your post. Congrats again. I knew you'd do it. Though it may not have set speed records (me neither)...I think it says alot about someone who can keep swimming through the pain for 16 hours! Amazing. It is also interesting the different perspectives we each had. I'm going to post my account. I've honestly had it saved on my computer for a year and didn't want post until you bagged yours - on account of the experience we had with the shark bump. Glad you only saw kelp & fish!

  5. Nearly 16 hours in the cold Pacific Ocean... you are amazing. Seriously you just swam the channel... time does not matter... YOU DID IT!!!! Congrats again. I loved being able to follow along on twitter and facebook. It was almost as good as being there. Yay!!!

  6. Lynn, I will never forget your incredible swim. It was a pleasure swimming with you and I am sorry I had to swim ahead. The boat's exhaust was getting to me at the end there. You are my hero!

  7. Dear Lynn, Jennifer kept us all up on your swim and learned alot from your story. What courage ad determination you have. Just a remarkable and inspiring story.
    Nancy Irani

  8. Lynn, amazing. I can't get up the energy to stay awake 16 hours. I would have quit when my toe hit the water! I want everyone to know that I share the WAC locker room with someone who swam from Catalina to the mainland! I've told so many friends that now they're saying, "we know already." I am so proud of you! Can I tell people I'm your mother? You are
    just an amazing person, even before this swim. And now, well you're an inspiration.