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Basic Swim Information

STEPS TOWARD A CATALINA CHANNEL ATTEMPT

Swimmers considering a crossing must take several steps with the Catalina Channel Swimming Federation before jumping in the water.

It is important that you take an honest account of your abilities, the support crew you can recruit, and the time commitment a Channel swim requires.

YOUR FIRST STEPS

  1. Contact a boat pilot.
  2. Secure your swim date and contract with the pilot.
  3. The CCSF works closely with the recommended boat pilots, but they are independent of the CCSF and determine their own schedule and charges.
  4. Confirm with your boat pilot the date you are to meet at the docks. Catalina attempts typically start the evening of one date, and are completed the next day.
  5. Questions concerning the channel swim should be directed toward the CCSF info@SwimCatalina.org  . This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
  6. Questions concerning your escort boat should be directed toward the captain.
  7. Download theCCSF Swim Application for SOLO swimmers or RELAY teams.
  8. Become familiar with what the CCSF requires of swimmers: Please read the CCSF Rules and note the application deadlines.

STARTING IN JANUARY

  1. Visit your doctor and complete the medical form in the swim application. We suggest you schedule an appointment as early as you can in the year of your attempt. Our health can rapidly change; last year’s physical is unacceptable.
  2. Complete theCCSF Swim Application for SOLO swimmers or RELAY teams.
  3. Sign the waivers – An incomplete application will not be considered nor accepted. There is a checklist included with the application to help swimmers confirm they have a complete package.
  4. Address questions concerning your application process to info@SwimCatalina.org. This e-mail address is protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
  5. Deliver your application, medical form, and fees to the CCSF at the same time.
  6. Make a copy of your application for your personal records.
  7. The CCSF offers a discount in the sanction fee for delivery of your complete application before May 1. An incomplete application will not be accepted.
  8. Application must arrive a minimum of 60 days in advance of your attempt.
  9. The CCSF will contact you and confirm the receipt of your application.

DURING THE YEAR OF YOUR ATTEMPT

  1. Train for a cold open water 20 mile Channel crossing, which is influenced by unpredictable currents, strong wind, large Pacific swells, and is made more challenging with a midnight start.
  2. Consider bilateral breathing. Swimming adjacent to a boat and a kayak at night requires that the swimmer has full awareness on both their left and right.
  3. Recruit a support team that will be supportive. There is an age restriction for children on an escort vessel. Those who are susceptible to seasickness must take precautions or consider supporting you on land.
  4. One support member ought to be named Crew Chief and take the lead role of coordinating the support team and fully understand the swimmer’s feeding protocols. This is often the coach, but must always be an individual who is not susceptible to seasickness or has reliable precautions against it.
  5. An experienced cold water swimmer, kayaker, and support member blogged about the demands placed on the swimmer’s crew and how the swimmer and team members can best prepare in advance.
  6. The CCSF can assist in connecting you with paddle support.
  7. It is the swimmer’s responsibility to recruit kayak or paddle support. Paddlers are recommended. Most swimmers feel more comfortable with a kayak adjacent to them while swimming in the darkness.
  8. Make travel plans for you and your support team. We recommend a couple of days advance arrival to adjust to a time zone change. In particular, international swimmers may want more time to adjust.

WEEKS BEFORE YOUR SWIM

  1. Review the CCSF Rules.
  2. The CCSF will assign two official observers for your attempt. An introduction will be made in advance.
  3. The CCSF Observers conduct a safety meeting on board the boat. The captains will also require a pre-swim briefing of vessel rules and instructions.
  4. Swimmers are required to arrive at the boat with at least 12 glow sticks.
  5. Paddlers provide a thick safety line and attach it to the bow of the Kayak. Your observer and boat captain can answer questions or assist in tying the line.
  6. Swimmers are required to bring a copy of their “Plan Your Swim/ Swim Your Plan” form which is a portion of the CCSF application.
  7. Swimmers are strongly encouraged to have the lead support member carry on board a copy of their medical form, insurance cards, and ID cards, as well as emergency contacts on shore.

Five Challenges

THE FIVE CHALLENGES OF THE CATALINA CHANNEL

While training for a Catalina Channel attempt, swimmers must consider how they intend to approach the 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.

CHALLENGE ONE: DISTANCE

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?

CHALLENGE TWO: TEMPERATURES

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.

CHALLENGE 3: NAUSEA

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.

CHALLENGE 4: MIDNIGHT START

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.

CHALLENGE 5: CURRENTS

The Channel surface is influenced by ocean currents which impact every swimmer but particularly the slower athletes. Currents are unpredictable and can be swift.

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.

How will you train for these FIVE CHALLENGES?— Distance, Hypothermia, Currents, Seasickness, and Night Swimming.

  1. Our recommendation is to work with an experienced open water coach and train as much as possible under Channel conditions.
  2. This means cold open water swims, adjacent to a kayak or escort vessel, for long distances, hydrating with endurance fuels.
  3. Endurance fuels are a personal choice. Never rely solely on another person’s recommendation. You need to discover which fluids you like and what your body will tolerate. You will want a fuel that tastes good to you – especially deep into a swim after your tongue is swollen and your mouth feels raw.
  4. Hydration is typically more important than calories during a Channel swim so reach first for liquid endurance fuels— skip the gels and chewy bars. Or make them your secondary choice. Water must always be consumed.
  5. You feed every 15 to 30 minutes while training and in the Channel.
  6. Many swimmers have spent years building up to the endurance level necessary for a Catalina Channel crossing. They started with open water swims, graduated to 10k races, and eventually tested their limits on longer & longer events in cold water that mimics the Channel conditions.
  7. The corollary is that every season the Catalina Channel Swimming Federation sees swimmers who dream of making an attempt without the necessary experience. But very early in the training process, they cancel their swim application and boat contract after a jolt of knowledge that they lack the skills to make a crossing. Or sudden injury due to overuse.
  8. Night training swims, under the guidance of a safety navigator such as a kayak, are essential to success. We would recommend more than one, well after sunset, and during the same moon phase of your attempt.
  9. Consider training swims based on time spent in the water as compared to the distance traveled. Your successful 20 mile crossing may take significantly longer than you predict.
  10. Successful swimmers arrive with a plan and an experienced team of supporters, who are familiar with the swimmer’s fuels & feeding process, their moods swings, and personality. Some swimmers become quiet, others easily agitated, while other swimmers are chatty during the feeds.
  11. Hypothermia is a serious risk during any cold water swim. A Channel swimmer must practice as much as possible in water that approaches the expected temps. Acclimation requires prolonged exposure to Catalina Channel temps which range between 58 and 72 degrees (14 and 22 Celsius).
  12. Swimmers can help delay the onset of hypothermia using a few tested techniques which are allowed by the Catalina Channel Swimming Federation. Earplugs are helpful, though they hamper the swimmer’s ability to communicate with the support team.
    A silicone cap, as compared to latex, provides additional insulation. So does adding an extra layer of body fat while you’re cold water acclimatizing. Many cold water swimmers exhale the warm air from their lungs through the nose to apply constant heat to their face and head. Finally, some swimmers opt for their fuels to be warmed on the boat.

Part of the mission of the Catalina Channel Swimming Federation is to advise swimmers in advance of your attempt. Please address your questions to info@swimcatalina.org . This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Please consider consulting the Marathon Swimmers Forum to learn more from open water swimmers.

About

History of the Catalina Channel

In 2007, the long-standing club  known as the Catalina Channel Swimming Federation (CCSF) evolved into a non-profit 501(c)(3). 

The CCSF began providing CPR and safety training for the organization’s Observers and any crew interested in supporting channel swimmers. By 2008, the CCSF was in a position to staff swims with a minimum of two Observers, created training manuals, and established training criteria.

In 2009, Observer training was expanded to multiple locations, Automatic External Defibrillators (AED) were provided to the two primary escort vessels, and starting in 2010 the Dottie York Scholarship Fund began granting scholarships to qualifying swimmers.

The CCSF continues to strive to improve safety in open water swimming.

Feeding The Marathon Swimmer

 

Feeding the Marathon Swimmer

Weather conditions during the summer months in the Catalina Channel allow for kayak and paddleboard support. However, in case of unusual weather or a kayaker’s illness, every open water swimmer should be prepared to feed from the escort vessel. This page focuses on feeding from the boat, its advantages and disadvantages.

Which endurance fuel to use is an individual choice. The expectation is that any serious marathon swimmer, before arriving to Catalina, will have experimented with several brands before choosing their favorites. Most swimmers bring on board their primary fuel, as well a couple of back-up options.


Cold water marathon swimmers are encouraged to feed quickly. The fastest open water swimmers will spend only a few seconds per hour in their feeding routine (less than 60 seconds per 60 minutes of swimming). Feeding from a kayak is the fastest method, which takes minimal effort on the part of the swimmer. Yet, this takes hours of training between swimmer and kayaker. A quick and effortless feed is a skill.

The alternative is to deliver feeds off the escort boat. It’s easier for an inexperienced team with more options to the feeding program: Warm liquids, solid foods, sudden requests for medications, or new swimming gear.

However, a word of caution: feeding from the boat tends to be significantly slower. It can be especially difficult at night for the swimmer to locate fuel bottles. Plus, the swimmer must alter their path several times an hour. Feeding from the boat requires the swimmer to approach the hull. To many people this feels like an unnatural act. It takes courage. A novice marathon swimmer rarely gets the opportunity to swim along a large escort vessel and practice feeding.

Necessary equipment for many feeding styles from the escort vessel

  • Wide-mouth Nalgene, or screw top plastic bottles, or sports squirt bottles

  • 50 feet of rope that floats on water
  • Clips to attach rope to any of the feed bottles. Even two or more bottles at once
  • Many swimmers use duct tape to secure bottles to ropes
  • Strong and wide rubber bands around the feed bottle
  • Glow sticks to attach to ropes & baskets

The easiest way to feed — for the support team — is one of the slowest and possibly hardest methods for the swimmer. Attach sports bottles to a rope and toss them into the water just a few feet in front of the swimmer. It’s then up to the swimmer to locate these bottles, which are slightly submerged. At night, this can be remarkably difficult. Even in daylight, with a wind chop or swell, swimmers can struggle to find their feed bottles.

You can make this process easier by always tossing the rope directly across the path of the swimmer. They will naturally swim over the rope and can pull the bottles toward them. Alternatively, floats may be attached to the rope. Floats with flags and glow sticks can visually assist the swimmer.

However, feeding from a squeeze sports bottle is the slowest and most difficult method. With the pop-top down, they’re tossed into the sea water. The swimmer must pop it open, grip & squeeze the bottle to force liquid out. It takes several squeezes to get a complete drink. This becomes more difficult as the swim prolongs. The swimmer’s hand strength and dexterity often fails in colder water, which will slow each feeding. Remember, speedy feeds help keep the swimmer’s forward momentum and delays the onset of hypothermia.

Instead of squeeze bottles, a wide-mouth plastic bottle can be tossed to the swimmer. This still requires them to unscrew the lid. But the wide bottle top allows the swimmer to chug it in large gulps. It’s the difference between sipping through a straw (sports squeeze bottle) and drinking from a glass.

An advanced method of feeding at the hull takes team work: The swimmer must feel comfortable swimming very close to the escort boat. The support team dangles an open bottle over the side-rail and down to the water level. In the darkness, it’s especially difficult for the support team to dangle the open bottle close enough to the water so the swimmer’s not reaching up. At the same time, it can’t be too close to the water. All it takes is one swell to dunk the open bottle into the ocean, and spoil the feed.

Illuminating the bottle at night will help the swimmer locate their feeding bottle. This could be a glow stick attached to the rope near the mouth of the bottle. Or a flashlight can be placed directly on the bottle to illuminate it. But a word of caution: a flashlight in the eyes of the swimmer is temporarily blinding. The flashlight should always be aimed at the bottle. As soon as the swimmer grabs it, turn off the flashlight.

It’s relatively simple to attach solid fuel and treats to a bottle with thick rubber bands. Gel packs can slide under the rubber band. You can deliver pre-opened packages of chocolate treats, bites of sandwiches, even gel caps of Ibuprofen. The rubber bands double as an “easy grip” for the bottles. As the swimmer fatigues, it becomes more difficult to handle big bottles. So it’s best to use the smallest and thinnest bottles for your feedings.

Feeding from the boat takes clear communications with your pilot. Not just the swimmer needs to feel comfortable, but the boat captain must have confidence the swimmer & support team are acting in a safe manner. It’s necessary to coordinate a few minutes before each feeding. This way the captain can place the boat in a position which will be easiest for the swimmer and support team to interact.

A word about water dynamics: the boat never fully stops during a feeding. The boat has much more momentum than the swimmer. It will continue to drift forward. So a feeding, which starts near the bow of the boat, may finish with the swimmer beyond the stern. The slower the feed, the further the drift. Therefore, it’s suggested to have at least 50 feet of rope attached to your bottles. If a swimmer drifts any further, it’s worth having a float at the opposite end of your rope. The support crew drops all the rope overboard. A kayaker will retrieve it, or the support boat could circle back around. Remember, to use a rope which floats so it can’t get caught up in the escort boat’s propeller.

What’s especially beneficial to the swimmer feeding from the boat is they’re always in direct communication with their support team. Plus, while the swimmer faces the boat during each feeding, an official observer is better able to gauge the swimmer’s fatigue and stress

A swimmer may ask for special treats and get them immediately delivered from the support boat. The variability is immense. A swimmer can request heated fuels, solid food, for new goggles, extra Vaseline, or an unplanned dose of medication. A swift-acting support team, prepared for these eventualities, can receive instructions from the swimmer and deliver the goods within the same feeding.

The downside is feeds from the boat will almost always take longer than those from a paddler. This increases the likelihood of hypothermia setting in. There’s additional effort on the swimmer’s part to get to the hull of the boat and then to locate the bottles. At night, swimmers are particularly cautious around the boat. It takes time before they gain comfort and confidence. There’s always the fear of being harmed by the boat. Unless the swimmer has made several Channel crossings, the support team is inexperienced with feeding from a support boat. Any swimmer can expect the first few feedings of a Channel swim to be “learning experiences” for them — and their supporters.

Most photographers put down their cameras in difficult swimming conditions. Therefore, you won’t find many pictures of swimmers feeding in the middle of the night. Nor in rough seas. But you’ll find plenty of beautiful swimming photos in idyllic conditions. Don’t let that fool you. It can get rough out there, but the swim goes on.

THOUGHTS ON HOW TO APPROACH FEEDING FROM THE BOAT

  • If the swimmer is comfortable feeding on one fuel product at a time, rope feeding is a relatively simple method. Additionally, multiple bottles can be attached to one rope
  • Construct all your feeding equipment from easily-found items at large nationwide stores. When traveling, you may have to construct your fueling gear from scratch only after you arrive
  • Assume any supplies handed over the railing of the boat could get lost at sea — Kayakers must tie down supplies and place gear into bags, which are strapped to the kayak. One capsize is all it takes for supplies to be lost at sea
  • Arrive at the boat with plenty of backup supplies of food, feeding equipment, bottles, and swimming gear such as caps & goggles. Pictured below, a sampling of the gear Dave Van Mouwerik packed for his successful crossing