While training for a Catalina Channel attempt, swimmers must consider how they intend to approach FIVE CHALLENGES that test an athlete’s stamina and courage.
Each year, we witness swimmers make an unsuccessful attempt because they have not properly prepared. Some of these athletes overestimated their skills but underestimated these five challenges:
The Catalina Channel is a little more than 20-miles at its shortest distance. A training program must be tailored so that the swimmer can travel that distance in open water, and possibly a few more miles due to currents. Swimmers are encouraged to complete a non-stop swim that exceeds 15-miles. (Every practice swim is training for the first mile, the second mile, and so forth. The question to ask yourself, if you’ve never swum this distance, is how will you train for miles 18, 19, 20, and beyond?)
Temperatures fluctuate in the Channel from one day to the next. Surface temperatures will change throughout the day – colder in the morning and warm under the afternoon sun. Also, we regularly see warmer water near the island.
Often, the temperature will drop dramatically, as much as 10 degrees Fahrenheit (or 5 degrees Celsius) in the 3 miles nearest the California mainland.
We’ve watched strong and experienced swimmers enter this portion of the crossing and simply crumble, physically as well as mentally, as the temperature tumbled. Hypothermia is a serious issue, and a common cause for swimmers to stop short of their goal.
Therefore, a swimmer must become acclimated to cold water immersion for long periods of time. Fatigue, hydration, stress and lack of sleep can all contribute to the onset of hypothermia.
The CCSF Official Observers always place safety first and pull swimmers who demonstrate signs of advancing hypothermia.
Before the swim begins, it is a two-hour boat ride to reach Catalina Island. Seasickness must be avoided during this trip. Nausea often incapacitates an athlete.
Any crew member, and in particular the swimmer and companion swimmers, must take precautions against seasickness.
The sailors say there are two stages to seasickness: First, you feel so ill that you fear you will die. Then, you feel so sick that you fear you might not.
A midnight start – to avoid the blustery afternoon winds — requires several hours of nighttime swimming. For the fastest swimmers, the majority of their crossing may occur in complete darkness, when vision is impaired and depth perception is compromised.
Successful swimmers will have practiced several times at night for many miles, learning how to navigate with glow sticks as your only guide. Few places are as dark as swimming in the open ocean at night and a dozen miles from any shoreline.
Some athletes become disoriented while enveloped in this blackness where the horizon disappears and both sea and sky merge. Vertigo and nausea are common complaints from swimmers and will compromise any attempt.
Currents are unpredictable and can be swift. The vast majority of Catalina crossings occur during neap tides, when it is believed the tidal currents will be minimal. Still, the Channel surface is influenced by ocean currents which impact every speed of swimmer but particularly the slower athletes.
There’s no predicting when or where these surface currents will appear. Experienced swimmers have been stymied and slowed by currents to the point that they endured 50% longer in the water than their predicted time. Every Channel swimmer will tell you that swimming along the shoreline in no way approaches the difficulty you can find out in the Channel.
Please consider consulting the Marathon Swimmers Forum to learn more from open water swimmers.
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