Catalina Classic Paddleboard Race presents classic ocean challenge
Headwinds, a wrong way current turn channel into obstacle course
Race photos by JP Cordero
Finish photos by Mike Balzer
by Michael Scott Moore
Scott Clausen walked shivering out of the water next to the Manhattan Beach Pier while an announcer in a tent praised him over a loudspeaker, and a young woman draped him with a kukui-nut lei. Someone else carried off his 18-foot, unlimited paddleboard. Clausen was the first finisher in the 2021 Catalina Classic, the annual 32-mile prone-paddleboard race from Catalina to the mainland, but he was too exhausted to smile.
“How was it out there?” someone yelled. Clausen, 25, just shook his head.
The San Pedro Channel was bumpy from four days of northwest winds that, coupled with a stiff, south running current, would challenge the paddlers from start to finish. A dozen dropped out mid-paddle. More than a few experienced hypothermia.
Clausen, a former distance swimmer for USC, who grew up in Oceanside and now lives in Seal Beach, spent the first hour in a close battle with Max First, 31, from Redondo, who won the Classic in 2014, 2016, 2017 and again last year. They were set up for a grand rivalry on Sunday. First beat Clausen in the 15-mile South Bay Paddle in June. But Clausen put yard after yard of rocking gray water between them until he rounded the R10 buoy near Palos Verdes with almost a nine-minute lead.
“I couldn’t even see him,” Clausen said, shaking his head on the beach. “I had no idea where anybody was.”
He won in 5:38:44. First came in second at 5:53:40. Some racers said the water smoothed out after the R10, which is the reversal of the usual conditions: a paddle across the channel on a morning in August tends to be calm, with late chop closer to shore.
Liz Hunter, 34, of Oceanside, who won the women’s division in 2019 (the race was canceled last year because of the pandemic), came in first again on an unlimited board. She led an unusually large group of female paddlers (11 total, matching a 2007 record). Her time on Sunday was 7:26:50.
“It was terrible,” she said on the beach, referring to the wind chop. “It was bad from the start.”
“She’s a lieutenant commander in the Coast Guard,” noted Liz’s aunt, Jan Kessler from Manhattan Beach, standing at the waterline.
“Reserve now,” said Liz, still shivering.
One reason for a longer female roster this year may be DJ Wilson, a Catalina Classic winner in 2015 and 2018, from Redondo Beach, who runs a training club for women called the South Bay Mermaids.
Easy Reader found her at Buffalo Park on Catalina Island one day before the race. “I started the Mermaids in 2006, and there had never been more than three women paddling [at one time in the Classic], ever,” she said. “In 2007 we had 11. Then we never had that many again until now — we’re back to 11.” She smiled at Tiana Pugliese, 25, a Los Angeles County lifeguard from Ventura who was standing a few feet away. “I think Tiana brought in some of them, so — my baby T’s brought in a few more.”
Tiana learned to paddle from DJ as a girl. “This is my third,” Tiana said. “But DJ’s a legend, and this is her — I don’t know, like her 20th time [at the Classic]?”
“No, no, my goal is to do 20,” said DJ, who’s 55. “This will be my 13th.”
Tom Horton, from Hermosa Beach, won an honorary award for completing his 15th crossing on Sunday.
Weather on Catalina for most of the weekend was calm and warm, but the wind came up Sunday morning, even before the paddlers waded out at dawn in front of the Harbor Reef restaurant. Wilson finished in 8:12:11, a time she described as slow. “Oh, man, it was brutal,” she said. “Some opposing current, side chop, and sometimes I felt like I was in a popcorn machine. There was wind, a lot of splashing, and it was just a very slow paddle. Even when you were pulling hard, you couldn’t get through the current pushing against you. But everyone was in the same situation.”
Along the way she met a giant green turtle, about three feet wide, paddling within arm’s reach of her board. “I was on my knees, so I could look down,” she said, “and my captain [in the escort boat] called out, ‘DJ! There’s a turtle! You’re coming right on it! Look to your right!’ And I looked down and there was a full-on, big sea turtle, right next to my board. It was the first time I ever saw anything like that out in the Channel.”
The only contestant who didn’t complain about conditions was Sierra Perry, a 24-year-old graduate student earning her Masters in Religion at Pepperdine. She started to paddle last year, after a serious leg injury ended her enthusiasm for marathons. “It was the same week that COVID happened. The world was shutting down, my university closed, I lost my job, and my aunt passed away from brain cancer,” she said. “Everything in one week, so I took to running just as a coping mechanism, to handle everything that was going on.” She overdid it, and developed a stress fracture across the head of her left femur. A doctor misdiagnosed it as a ligament injury. Four weeks later, hiking near Pepperdine, she was startled by a rattlesnake on the trail, jumped back and broke off the top of her femur. She called some friends to “crutch” her down the trail, and at the hospital she needed emergency surgery “within like a few hours, to save my femur,” she said. “And honestly, just by the grace of God, my femur took the metal.” But her long-distance running career was over.
“It was a huge identity crisis. Until then it was like, ‘This is who I am! Sierra’s a runner.’” So there was a crisis, and a renegotiation: “I’m a surfer as well, and I’m super thankful that wasn’t taken away from me. So one day I took a soft top out and did three-odd miles [of paddling], and was like, ‘Wow, that was kinda fun.’”
Lockwood Holmes, who set the Catalina Classic stock record in 2014, goes to Sierra’s church in Malibu. Holmes noticed her struggling with the kook board and offered to loan her a proper, custom, 12-foot stock paddler in late 2020. “And that was sort of it,” she said. Learning to paddle took her mind off the healing femur, and released the same endorphins as running. Holmes and another veteran Malibu paddler, Tony Hotchkiss, recommended a training and nutrition regimen, and she started to paddle with Pugliese at Zuma Beach. By July of this year she qualified for the Catalina Classic, and on Sunday, with Lockwood Holmes in the escort boat, she finished in 8:25:40. Not fast; but she was also not fazed by what the rest of the racers disparaged as a punishing day on the water. “I’ve pretty much decided that I can’t wait for next year,” she said.
The winner of the stock board category on Sunday was Quincy Lee, a 26-year-old from Redondo Beach. Stock boards are shorter (12-feet) and slower than unlimiteds. Quincy’s winning time was 6:44:25. Commentator Mike Murphy pointed out that rough conditions can narrow the performance gap between the styles of board. “When the wind is up and the conditions are bumpy, the difference between a stock board and an unlimited is marginalized,” said Murphy. “Stock boards typically are easier to fit between bumps, easier to fit in rough water.”
Lee’s reputation as an untethered athlete preceded him to the pier. The audience on the beach learned he’d cycled from Cairo to Capetown — from the top to the bottom of Africa — as well as from Santa Barbara, California, to Colombia. “So clearly the guy’s got some endurance genes as well as some psycho,” Murphy said, before running out of words.
Lee was short and energetic, with a quick smile and a blond mustache. He told Easy Reader that he started to paddle after a brutal injury of his own: he broke his ankle in half in February. “My lower tib-fib,” he said with a grin. “I hit a stump snowboarding in Tahoe. I work ski patrol in the winter time, and lifeguard during the summer.”
He turned to paddling, like Sierra Perry, because it was easier than other sports, at least during his recuperation. “Paddling was the one thing I could do.” When he started, in May, he still couldn’t walk without a cane, so crossing the beach to exercise on a paddleboard proved tricky. “I actually had to, like, crawl down the beach,” he said. “And my buddy would put the board in the water.”
By June, he was able to compete in the South Bay Paddle, but it wasn’t until July that his ankle allowed him to knee paddle. So he rationed his kneeling on Sunday: “I did like 10 minutes on my belly, and one minute on my knees,” he said.
The distance between the front and the rear of the pack tends to be five or six miles, and it took hours on Sunday for all the paddlers to arrive at the Manhattan pier. “I just think whoever’s in the back half of the race deserves twice the recognition,” said announcer Rink, who won the 1987 race in the then record setting time of 5:21:38. “It’s just an ugly, ugly day.” ER
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