Classic stories from the toughest ever Catalina Classic paddleboard race
by Kevin Cody
After viewing the Channel Island weather buoy reports Saturday afternoon, Catalina Classic Paddleboard Race director Gene Rink prepared what he’d tell paddlers to expect Sunday morning.
“I decided to say the conditions will improve through the morning, after you reach the R10,” he said.
He would avoid mention of the first 24 miles approaching the R10, from Two Harbors on Catalina Island, where the race would start at 6 a.m. The R10 buoy is two miles off Palos Verdes, and eight miles south of the finish line, at the Manhattan Beach pier.
Rink is the only person in the Catalina Classic’s 46-year race history to have simultaneously held the unlimited and stock (12-foot) records. He knows paddlers worry about the weather, almost as much as if they’re physically prepared, even when the forecast is favorable. He saw no reason to add to their pre race jitters. His particular concern was for the 32 first time paddlers.
The veterans, he trusted, had their own coping mechanisms. Kurt Fry, director of the Oceans Prone race series, was competing in his 6th Classic. He told his escort crew not to worry about the weather report because it only measures wind down to 10 feet above the water.
Saturday’s Channel Island buoys showed 20 to 30 mph winds out of the north, dropping to 10 mph by the time they reached Catalina Island Sunday morning. The Classic rhumb line is 353 degrees, or almost directly into a north wind.
Worst still, were the mixed up seas the wind’s 70 mile fetch would leave in its track.
Paddlers like to split their time between prone and knee paddling. Knee paddling is faster, but in washing machine conditions even veteran paddlers get the yips transitioning to their knees for fear of falling.
Disappearance skipper Dave
Disappearance skipper Dave Schaefer’s concerns about the wind began late Saturday night when he was awakened by the flapping of the 62-foot yacht’s bimini. Disappearance is the Classic’s lead boat. After getting up to check on the bimini he saw Disappearance’s 20-foot Mexicat tender swinging on its bowline. The wind had caused the tender’s new, half-inch stern line to shear.
Disappearance’s job is to follow the rhumb line to the Manhattan pier, giving paddlers a visual during the 15 miles when land is out of sight. Most paddlers have GPSs on their boards. But Disappearance offers reassurance to the paddlers that they are on course, and a back up if their GPSs fail.
Schaeffer would have to “crab” (angle) northwest to hold to the rhumb line, and to hold onto a railing to stay on his feet. Despite precautions, his ham and eggs spilled to the floor, and his coffee spilled onto his navigation console. At the R10, the veteran captain made the rookie mistake of looking down at his charts and got seasick. Despite feeling starved, he said he couldn’t eat until the awards banquet that evening at the R10 Social House.
Clausen chases number 2
Former USC swimmer Scott Clausen, 27, of Seal Beach was favored to win after having won the Classic in 2021, and finishing third last year. Clausen lined up at the sunrise start a few boards away from Los Angeles County Lifeguard Jake Miller, 30, who finished second last year.
Paddleboarding is one of the few sports in which competitors sprint at the start, in hopes of establishing a psychological advantage.
Clausen chose not to take the bait.
“There’s always a lot of jockeying off the beach. Jake took off like a rocket. I chose to take it easy,” Clausen said.
He said he lost sight of Miller as the paddlers weaved through the rows of moored boats.
Miller was two board lengths ahead when Clausen next saw him as they approached Ship Rock.
Ship Rock is two miles off the island. It’s where escort boats wait to pick up their paddlers, and where the north wind blows past the protection of the island. White caps were forming. White caps form in 10 to 12 mph wind.
A swell knocked down a sailboat with a bare mast, nearly dumping its crew. Boston Whalers, the escort boat of choice because their low gunwales make it easy to pass paddlers their food, became barf buckets for their crews
Despite tracking chips on each board, it took some escorts hours to find their paddlers, who rose and disappeared between the crests and troughs. Rook Campbell, 20, a first time paddler, on a stock board, was approaching the R10 before his escort found him. By then he was out of water and bonking. Still, he finished eight minutes under the nine hour cutoff time.
Coronado paddler Chris Russell, 47, recorded how rough it was on his GPS watch. The watch measures elevation. In good years, he said, the elevation change over the Classic’s 32 miles is about 2,400 feet. In bad years it’s about 4,300 feet. During the 2023 Catalina Classic, Russell’s watch recorded 6,400 feet in elevation change. A mile is 5,280 feet.
Russell, who finished 8th, may have been the only paddler able to divide his time evenly between prone and knee paddling. He attributed his board’s stability to its novel fin setup. He was paddling a 17-foot Dan Mann board, with twin fins, a centerboard fin with its center cut out, and no tiller. Every other unlimited board in the race had a tiller and a single tail fin. But that may change in the coming years. Mann won the 2015 Classic without a tiller, despite it also being a windy year. But Mann is considered a freak of nature and rarely competes. Russell frequently competes and is the rare paddler open to experimentation. His three fin setup was designed by self described “finologist,” Larry Allison. The San Pedro native began making surfboard fins five decades ago. His stand up paddle board fins dominated that market when stand up was at its peak. Now he hopes to repeat that success in the prone paddleboard market by convincing prone paddlers to ditch the traditional single fin in favor of his twin fins, and centerboard fin.
Clausen said he was able to knee paddle, but only for short stretches. Miller built a 400 yard lead before Clausen started reeling him in nearing the eight mile mark.
After another 10 miles, the two were even.
Clausen looked at his watch and saw his last mile split was 13 minutes, 30 seconds, or 4.5 miles per hour. His usual pace is 6 mph.
“I didn’t know if I’d hit the wall, or hit bad water,” Clausen said.
Clausen saw Miller was also fading and concluded it was bad water, either a head current or the wind that had pressed against them for the past four hours.
At the R10, as Rink had foreseen, the wind backed down. Clausen said the water was still bumpy but his splits improved, and he began to pull away from Miller.
Clausen finished in 5:46:27, 34 minutes slower than his 2019 winning time. The record, set in 1999 by Tim Gair, is 5:02:12.
Miller finished in 5:54:46, followed by Robert Parucha, a former South Bay paddler, now living in Cardiff, in 6:12:13.
Last year, a relatively slow year, the top 10 paddlers were all under six hours.
Liz “Queen of the Channel” Hunter, 37 of Imperial Beach, won the women’s division for the fourth time in her five Classics.
She said she knee paddled about one-third of the distance, but without a tiller the energy it took to hold to the rhumb line made the benefits of knee paddling questionable. Her time of 8:04:16, was 1.5 hours slower than her last year’s winning time of 6:30:46. Lifeguard and 2023 Pier to Pier swim champion Kelsey O’Donnell holds the woman’s record of 6:18:28, set in 2012.
DJ Wilson, 57, of Redondo Beach was second, in 8:15:39. She won the Classic in 2015, in 6:50:54, and again in 2018 in 6:47:35. Sunday was her 15th classic.
Both Wilson and Hunter said the right sides of their bodies were rubbed raw from leaning right to keep the board headed left, into the wind. Unlike unlimiteds, stock boards don’t have tillers
Emma Bark, 24, of Rancho Palos Verdes was third, in 8:33:46.
Los Angeles County Lifeguard Shane Gallas, 38, of El Segundo won the stock division in his first Classic, in a time of 6:58:49. Holmes Lockwood, 40, of Malibu, followed by 11 seconds, in 6:58:57. Loghlin Gavin, 21, of Blue Bell, Pennsylvania, was third in 7:06:58.
Last year, all 92 entries finished the race in under eight hours. On Sunday, just 79 of the 101 paddlers finished under the nine hour cut off.
Christian Stutzman, 27, finished in 9:00:01. The race’s notoriously rigid rules keepers, uncharacteristically relented, and rounded down his time to qualify him as a finisher. Last year, a first time, female finisher broke down in tears at the finish, a not uncommon occurrence. Spectators thought she was crying out of relief. She was crying out of disappointment after learning she was disqualified for missing the cutoff by six minutes.
Stutzman had only been training for two months. He decided to enter the race in late June, following the memorial for Kevin Sousa, a Hermosa musician, and therapist. Sousa married Stutzman and fellow longboard competitor Morgan Sliff last year. Stutzman paddled the board Sousa paddled in the 2011 Classic, when he was fighting to regain sobriety.
John Carroll, 69, of Long Beach, was Sunday’s oldest competitor. He finished 51st overall in 8:10:09, in his 20th Classic.
Carroll missed being presented with the Bob Hogan perpetual trophy for oldest finisher because the awards dinner conflicted with a grandchild’s birthday.
Toa Pere, 14, of Hawaii, became the Classic’s youngest ever Classic paddler on Sunday.
Pere was introduced at the awards dinner by Tim Gair, whose 25 year old record is a rarity in sports where the only judge is the clock. Gair beat Rink’s 1987 record of 5:21:38, which had eclipsed Tom Zahn’s 1958 record of 5:29:37.
Gair has been friends with Pere’s parents, Katie and Guy, since the three competed against one another two decades ago in the Hawaiian Ocean Fest lifeguard competitions.
Gair said Guy called him in July, a day after Toa competed in the 32-mile Molokai 2 Oahu Paddleboard Race to ask if Toa could sign up for the Classic.
“I told told him, Yes, but I want Toa to think about it for a week before deciding. Toa called the next morning and said ‘I’m coming.’” Gair recalled.
Gair presented Toa with a trophy in the shape of a paddleboard carved by retired Catalina Island Baywatch Captain Rob Pelke from redwood he salvaged from a deck that had belonged to retired lifeguard Mitch Khan.
Rink expressed hope that Toa’s example would inspire other young paddlers, just as he had once inspired Gair to paddle. Rink had lifeguarded with Gair’s father.
Intergenerational relationships were everywhere at the awards dinner.
Liz Hunter, in accepting the surfboard, presented to the division winners, credited second place finisher DJ Wilson with welcoming her to compete in the Classic. Hunter, in turn, welcomed third place finisher Emma Bark to the podium, though Bark was already known to almost everyone in the room. Her father, Joe Bark, shaped the awards surfboards, and almost all the paddleboards raced that day. He also holds the record for most Classics competed. Emma’s brother Jack, 29, completed in his 11th Classic that morning.
No records, and no personal bests were set during Sunday’s 46th Catalina Classic. But as race director Buddy Bohn mentioned, “There are only two places in the Catalina Classic, first place, and finisher.”
He credited the quote to paddleboard pioneer Mike Eaton, who last paddled the classic when he was 70.
Bohn resurrected the Catalina Classic in 1982, with help from his lifeguard and paddleboard mentor Weldon “Gibby” Gibson.
Gibson competed in the third Catalina Classic, in 1957, and again in 1958, and 1960. The 1959 Classic was canceled because of rough conditions. After the 1960 race, it didn’t take place again until Bohn and Gibson resurrected it in 1982.
Gibson drove the lead boat, his 42-foot Grand Banks. Bohn paddled a Tom Blake-era, hollow, wooden “kook box” he found under an old Manhattan Beach cottage. He finished in 7:40:21. ER