February 27, 2020
JULIET COX’S AWESOME TEAM SWIMS
THE CATALINA CHANNEL
Interview and Write-up by Kathleen Kline
On October 10 and 11, 2019, to celebrate the 50th birthday of one of Juliet Cox’s friends, a team of six swimmers swam 20 miles from the California mainland to Catalina Island. When I heard about the swim in the locker room, of course, I wanted to interview Juliet about the experience—both so that our team could take vicarious pleasure in her achievement as well as to inform any crazy Manatees who might be considering adding this swim to their bragging rights (Kate?!). I appreciate Juliet taking the time out of her busy schedule to talk to me about her swim.
Catalina Channel swims—which take place between May and October when the weather is good—are sanctioned by the Catalina Channel Swimming Federation. All swims start at night, usually around 11:00 pm, because there is a minimum of boat traffic, and also, this is when the water is most placid, and the swimmers are able to complete their swims before the wind kicks up in the Channel around mid-morning. For a relay, each swimmer on a six-swimmer team is in the water for one hour, and they switch off two or three times in the same order, depending on the amount of distance the swimmers can cover during their individual swims.
This is what the Federation requires:
● a boat with a crew of four who know the Channel well and have been approved by the Federation
● a kayaker who rows alongside the swimmer and guides the swimmer (the boat determines the course)
● two observers sent by the Federation who document the swim and ensure that the swimmers adhere to the rules—specifically, the swimmers must swim in order, do hourlong swims, and take no longer than five minutes to get one swimmer out of the water and the next swimmer in the water and ready to go. So, if they take more than five minutes to change swimmers, or if a swimmer swims more than one hour or swims out of order, the team will be disqualified.
Also, the swimmers are required to have two lights on during their swim: a battery-powered light that attaches to their goggle strap and second light or glow stick that attaches to the back of their suit. The lights do not illuminate anything for the swimmer, but they permit the kayaker and boat crew to see the swimmer in the dark. The swimmer wears a regular cap, goggles, and swimsuit. That is, no wetsuits, no neoprene caps, or other accessories are allowed to mitigate the cold water or any unwelcome water creatures.
The Federation also asks for the swimmers’ abilities when they submit their permit application to ensure that the swimmers can do the swim safely and also that the swimmers’ abilities are roughly comparable.
When all the expenses of the swim are added up, the total cost is between $3,000 and $4,000. This includes a team permit of $600 that goes to the Federation, $2,000 for the boat and crew, and two kayakers that Juliet estimated cost about $400-$500 per kayaker.
So, lots of people were always in the boat. Juliet estimated 15-20 people. This included the five swimmers who were not swimming; the four boat crew members; the two observers from the Federation; a “pit boss” to make sure the swimmers were ready on time and had all the equipment they needed (goggles, cap, lights) as well as to make sure that the switch went smoothly; a backup or assistant to the “pit boss” to take over when a nap was needed; the second kayaker; and finally, a few partners and friends who wanted to come along for the ride.
THE CHALLENGES OF THE SWIM
The swim is not without its challenges. Some swimmers have gotten so seasick (often just in the boat) that they weren’t able to finish. Other swimmers have been so panicked about getting in the water at night that they were not able to do the swim. Fortunately, Juliet’s group were all competent and strong swimmers, and so they were confident that they would succeed (they also took precautions against seasickness). In fact, one of the swimmers had completed a solo crossing of the Catalina Channel several years earlier.
THE WATER CONDITIONS
What Juliet’s team did worry about, however, were the conditions—not just whether the water would be cold (which is wasn’t), but most concernedly, whether they would run into choppy water as their swim was taking place just one week after the Getty fire, and at the time of their swim, the Grapevine was closed because the wind had been so fierce. Surprisingly, these Santa Ana winds did not extend to the Channel. Although at first the water was a bit wavy, for most of the swim, it was flat and placid. The water temperature was around 65-66 degrees and got warmer by 1 to 2 degrees as they approached Catalina Island. But Juliet found that the water was super salty, much saltier than the Bay, so much so that it burned her mouth.
It is more common to swim back to the mainland from Catalina, and so the swimmers usually motor from San Pedro Marina to Catalina, and then start back. However, Juliet’s group chose to do this in reverse as they had plans to spend the weekend at Catalina Island.
To get started, Juliet’s team loaded everything onto the boat at San Pedro Marina and put the kayak in the water. As Juliet was the fastest swimmer of this group, she took the lead position. So, to start out, Juliet swam from the boat to Cabrillo Beach because the swimmer has to start on land. When she entered the water, she gave a sign, which marked the official start of the swim at 9:00 pm.
Because she had never done a nighttime swim, Juliet had prepared for this by swimming in the Bay at night with her husband Bruce accompanying her in a kayak. So she was amazed that rather than swimming in darkness as she had imagined, the water was bathed in moonlight from a full moon—which was in addition to the swimmers’ two lights, the lights on the boat, and the glow sticks they hung around the kayak. Juliet could see her hand in the water and the bubbles from her breathing. The moonlight continued to illuminate the water for most of the swim until about 5:00 am, when the moon had gone down and the sun had not yet risen. So, the unfortunate person who got in the water at that time actually swam in utter darkness. At that point, they were three-quarters through their swim, having swum 15 miles with 5 miles remaining. But by 6:00 am, light started to appear on the horizon, and the sun then came up between 6:45 and 7:00. What a difference that made!
During her two swims, Juliet was able to cover 2.2-2.4 miles during each hour; the other swimmers covered about 1.2-1.5 miles. They just barely managed to complete the swim with two swims each, although it was close, and so Juliet had gotten ready just in case to do a third swim. They arrived at Catalina Island just after 9:00 am, for a total time of 12 hours and 7 minutes.
Juliet did not see any of the often-talked about bioluminescent phytoplankton. During her second swim, however, and all around Catalina Island, the water was full of pyrosomes. These single-cell colonial organisms are about 3-6 inches long, and feel like hard plastic with smooth, rounded bumps, and they glow pink and green in response to pressure—whether it’s your hand or turbulence in the water. Juliet said there were “clouds of these things—it was crazy.” They were fun to look at, didn’t sting and weren’t sharp, so they are not a danger for the swimmer.
In addition to these little organisms, there were lots of dolphins … and other larger marine life. One of the kayakers saw two whales (likely a gray or a humpback whale), one pretty close to the kayak. But the swimmers did not know about this!
“So, how was the swim?” I asked Juliet “It was super fun, and I would do it again but not solo.”