Mysterious Island: Swimming to Catalina

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Seven years ago, best-selling mystery writer Stuart Woods published an engaging novel called “Swimming to Catalina” (HarperCollins, 1998) a thriller involving underworld shenanigans back-dropped by Hollywood glitz.

I won’t go into any of the details of the plot other than to say the novel really had little to do with Catalina.  

Seven years ago, best-selling mystery writer Stuart Woods published an engaging novel called “Swimming to Catalina” (HarperCollins, 1998) a thriller involving underworld shenanigans back-dropped by Hollywood glitz.

I won’t go into any of the details of the plot other than to say the novel really had little to do with Catalina.  

As you may have surmised, the term “swimming to Catalina” is used herein as a metaphor for, shall we say, a premature death, akin to “swimming with the fishes” or “wearing cement overshoes.”

Therefore, given the ominous implication behind such a phrase, it would seem odd that anyone would literally want to swim from the mainland to Catalina (or vice versa) for sport.

Yet this feat has been accomplished many times over the past century, the first being during that zany decade known as the Roaring Twenties when such feats were commonplace.

The San Pedro Channel’s more famous cousin, the English Channel, had first been crossed in the summer of 1926 when Gertrude Ederle swam a total of 35 miles to claim the title.  

She returned to the USA and a full-fledged ticker-tape parade in her hometown of New York City.

Not to be outdone and ever on the lookout for ways to publicize his new island paradise,  William Wrigley Jr., saw the potential of holding a similar contest across the San Pedro Channel that separates Catalina from the mainland.  

At the urging of a sports writer for the Los Angeles Examiner, Mr. Wrigley threw his hat into the ring and organized the Catalina Ocean Marathon.  

The event was scheduled to take place on Jan. 15, 1927, and the winner was to receive a price of $25,000.

The idea was an ambitious one.  Odds makers were giving 1-in-10 odds of anyone finishing the race.  Even Fred Cady, swim coach of the Los Angeles Athletic Club doubted that the swim could be accomplished.

But despite the dangers, more than 100 participants signed up for the adventure, including 88 men and 14 women.  (One participant was only 14 years old).  

The race would begin at Catalina’s Isthmus with contestants finishing at the Palos Verdes Peninsula.

An auxiliary fleet of 300 boats stood by to accompany the convoy of swimmers.  Each swimmer would be assigned a boat that carried three occupants:  the swimmer’s trainer, an “impartial observer” and an oarsman.  

(The observers were changed out frequently during the race, presumably to prevent any emotional bonding with the swimmer and therefore any potential to allow the swimmer to climb aboard for a rest in the dark of night).

At 11:23 a.m., Fred Cady fired his starting pistol and the race was on.  

But within seven minutes, the first contestant was pulled from the water, not because of exhaustion or cold, but because his outfit of woolen underwear and six pairs of heavily-greased longjohns nearly sank him to the bottom.

Fighting cold and current, the contestants kicked and stroked their way into the foggy, frigid channel, dropping out of this Herculean endeavor one by one.

By nightfall, less than half of the starters were still in the water and by midnight the number had dwindled to no more than a dozen.

Eventually, the race settled to a three-way contest between Canadian George Young, who had a commanding lead, Peter Meyer of Cincinnati and a gentleman named Norman Ross.

Meyer unfortunately gave up at Point Fermin after coming within a mile or so of the beach.  

Ross, having made a tactical error by swimming to the north to take advantage of the current, threw in the towel near Point Vincente. At 3:08 a.m., a freezing, naked George Young, with drooping jaw and bloodshot eyes, trudged out of the kelp beds near Point Vincente.  

He was not only the winner of the race, he was in fact the only person to finish. He was immediately wrapped in towels by bystanders to prevent hypothermia and to protect his modesty and was then whisked off to a hospital for observation.  

No mention if it was a mental hospital.

Although the San Pedro Channel has been conquered by swimmers more than 100 times since, the Catalina Ocean Marathon was never held again.

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