Digging deep: The 38th annual Catalina Classic
It’s 9 a.m. and eerily calm in the middle of the Catalina Channel.
The sea is 67 degrees, a gently undulating canvas of gray. Fog – “Thick as pea soup up here,” announces channel 68 – presses against the bow of the 71-foot Disappearance.
It’s cold and misty. Visibility is just 150 yards. We can’t see the tanker ahead, but the ripples of its wake are travelling toward us.
Disappearance is relying on radar to blaze a trail for a pack of 90 paddleboarders and their escort boats. They are two and a half hours into a race that for some won’t end until after 2 p.m.
Right now, even the guys leading are 15 long miles from the beach, a blanket, a break, and possibly a beer.
This is the Catalina Classic, a 32-mile race from the isthmus of Santa Catalina Island to the Manhattan Beach Pier, revered since the fifties as a South Bay waterman’s rite of passage. It’s a grueling test of strength and stamina, a paddler’s marathon of sorts, but with a few marked departures: you’re at the mercy of a capricious ocean, you can’t bundle up when it’s cold, and you can’t idle when you’re tired – if you do, you’ll lose hard-earned momentum.
The Classic was born in 1955, when lifeguard Bob Hogan rallied 10 of his buddies to race a course that only a handful of paddlers had ever completed. It persisted annually until 1961, when harsh weather forced a cancellation. After that, the event drifted into lore.
It lay dormant until two lifeguards – Karl “Buddy” Bohn and Weldon “Gibby” Gibson, two of the original Classic competitors – resurrected it over two decades later. Gradually it regained energy.
By the mid 1990s, the roster had swelled to about 50 paddlers. Today it’s approaching 100.
Year after year, paddlers from California, Australia, Hawai’i, and even Europe come to Catalina to race in the Classic. They are tempted by the formidable physical challenge and drawn to the close camaraderie of the paddling community. They are also seeking to earn their stripes as true watermen and women.
“For us in the South Bay, if you were a surfer growing up you knew of the race,” says 13-time finisher Jay Russell of the Classic’s local significance. “You knew these legendary people had done it and it was always in the back of your mind. You were like, ‘ I’ve got to do it. This is part of my heritage.’”
Battle of champions
From the rear of Disappearance, the Classic’s lead vessel and the Body Glove flagship, we can barely distinguish two kneeling silhouettes. They belong to Adam Buckley, a Mira Costa graduate and UCSB alum, and Dr. Brad Thomas, a Manhattan Beach-based orthopedic sports medicine specialist who has repaired many a paddler’s shoulder.
Both Buckley and Thomas are fast. Both have won this race in past years – Buckley in 2010 and 2012, Thomas in 2011. Both figured into playful pre-race day bets, ventured over glasses of Buffalo Milk – the signature isthmus cocktail of milk, liqueur, vodka, and nutmeg – at Doug’s Harbor Reef Restaurant on Saturday afternoon.
“It’s going to be a pretty interesting race,” 11-time competitor Matt Walls says Saturday. “I mean, there are five or six guys that have a legitimate chance to win.”
With a grin he confesses he’s rooting for Buckley, a South Bay native, Hermosa Beach resident and, he says, a “stud.”
“He’s so fast that typically he can’t train with us because none of us can keep up with him,” Walls says. “He tied bungee cords around his board to make him less hydrodynamic and he was still so fast we couldn’t keep up.”
So this year, he explains, Buckley trained on a stock board six feet shorter than the boards his buddies were using just so he could stick with the pack. He didn’t start training on his 18-foot race board until two weeks prior.
Before the race, Buckley knows a win won’t come easy. He knows he’s going to have to fight to come out on top.
“I knew competition was going to be really tough,” he says later. “I didn’t think I was going to have a big gap like I’ve had in past years. I knew it was going to be down to the wire.”
Approaching the R-10 buoy off the Palos Verdes peninsula – paddlers are required to round the buoy before heading north to Manhattan Beach – Buckley is fatiguing. His muscles are aching. He’s been paddling hard for more than four hours. But he still has eight miles to go before he reaches the Manhattan Beach Pier.
“Usually by the time I get to R-10 I’m about a mile [ahead of] anybody else,” Buckley says. “But this year I did a little wrong turn right before, and when I corrected I looked over to my left. And there was somebody even with me.”
Through the fog he saw Thomas, who had been hot on his heels from the start of the race.
“At that point, I kind of knew I either had to get ready to congratulate somebody else on winning or give it everything I had for another hour and a half.”
The long haul
Most competitors start training for the Classic in early spring, though some are already putting in the hard yards before then.
Most of them follow a regimen similar to the one runners use to prepare for marathons: long hauls some days and short distances others. Very rarely will paddlers do 32 miles until race day.
Chris Sheehan, a first-time Classic paddler, says he had been on a paddleboard twice before Memorial Day.
“I’d threatened to do [the Classic] many, many times,” Sheehan says. “This year my wife was like, ‘Okay, you’re 40. You have to do it.’”
So he linked up with the Donkeys, an unofficial crew of paddlers who meet at 16th Street in Hermosa Beach several days a week to log some mileage. The Donkeys – they connect via mass emails and have T-shirts, hats, and a logo – comprise more than 30 local guys. One year, Donkeys made up a third of the Classic’s race roster.
“We’re serious paddlers but we don’t take ourselves too seriously,” says Walls, the Donkeys’ unofficial coach and leader. “We get together and enjoy paddling and enjoy each other’s camaraderie. And a lot of it’s just local pride. The race finishes in our backyard and we want to have a good showing, let everyone know paddling is alive and well in the South Bay community.”
Several times a week, D.J. O’Brien of Redondo Beach rallies her South Bay Mermaids, a comparable, loosely organized group of female paddlers who tackle long-distance paddles together. There’s another paddling group in the area that calls itself the Sting Rays, and another based out of Marina del Rey called the D Basin Bombers.
Membership in all paddling fraternities overlaps. There is just one criterion for joining any of them: a love for the sport of paddleboarding.
A Classic weekend
Each year, paddlers head to Catalina a day or two before the Classic. Saturday is for registering and prepping gear and hydrating and weather forecasting.
“Looks like Mother Nature’s going to be nice to us this year,” says Walls, staring with relief at a calm sea.
“Many a night we’re up here nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs just watching those flags whip back and forth and listening to the [halyards] in the wind and we’re like, ‘Oh, no.’ But this year I think we might be alright.”
Russell, a personal trainer, spends his Saturday putting “fuel in the tank” – pasta with chicken, a protein shake, bananas with peanut butter, one Corona Light – and keeping “the battery charged” – napping, reading, posting race details on Facebook. Part of his day is devoted to preparing race provisions – Hammer Perpetuem protein powder mixed with liquid goes in the blue bottles, electrolyte replacing drinks go in the orange bottles, and Gatorade gel packs go in the squeezable bottles.
He’ll strap three bottles to his board and give the extras to his boat crew, who will supply them mid-race on his cue. These will keep him from bonking. Ten-time Classic competitor and past women’s division winner Jo Ambrosi says she paddles with water and gel foods, but also with salt tablets and caffeine pills (“Because I can’t miss out on my coffee even if I’m out on the water!”).
For paddlers, Saturday is a day of rest. For race director Francziska Steagall, Catalina Island ranger Theresa McDowell, and dozens of volunteers and escort boat drivers, it’s anything but.
Steagall is busy delegating, staving off concerns about the impending fog, and monitoring on-island volunteers – they are registering paddlers, assigning back-up escort boats to paddlers whose vessels are malfunctioning, preparing enormous platters of chicken and salad – and helpers back in Manhattan Beach – board caddies, lifeguards, spotters, and timers. This is Steagall’s second year directing the race and her ninth year as a volunteer.
Huge effort goes into a major race like the Classic. Steagall and her husband, the head timer on the mainland, do it because they love being part of the paddling community. And while she talks, she’s interrupted several times by the ring of her cell phone and once by a paddler who thanks her for her dedication. She smiles warmly at him. Then she reminds him to hydrate.
Sunday morning, competitors rise before the sun. Lights flicker on in cottages overlooking the bay, tents are packed up on the sand, generators rumble to life in boats scattered throughout the harbor, and a bonfire burns on the dark, mist-shrouded beach.
Escort boats assemble. Their skippers do an under-glorified job – for them, the race is a heavy, 10-hour responsibility – and their paddlers are, for the most part, enormously grateful to them.
“He tells me what to do and I just put one arm in front of the other,” Ambrosi says of her longtime escort, retired lifeguard Don Souther.
“To me, the paddle is easy; the hardest thing is finding a good escort,” says 10-time Classic finisher Scott Rusher. “When you find one, you want to keep him. I can train and train but it won’t mean anything if I can’t get someone to stick with me at six miles an hour and to come over here and wake up early… Those guys are the real champs.”
Drivers have to balance setting a course, taking care not to wake other boats, and looking out for sharks and freighters – the Classic passes through a major shipping lane – all the while keeping track of their paddlers, feeding them, and encouraging them.
“You want to get a guy who’s going to be serious about it, who knows the course and the water,” says Russell, who does not paddle with GPS and relies on his escort, Chase Henderson, to direct him toward the finish line. “A good crew is essential. You’re so dependent on these people. And they’re basically just helping you out. They’re doing you a favor.”
It’s approaching 6 o’clock on race day and competitors are breakfasting, hydrating, and psyching themselves up to cross the channel.
Most of them are wrestling with gnawing feelings of dread.
“The morning of the race is one of the worst mornings of my life,” Russell says. “Seriously. Basically you have six, seven hours of agony waiting ahead of you. You know it’s looming up there and no one is holding a gun to your head. You chose to do this. You’re questioning your sanity and why you’re doing it.”
Most people – some paddlers, even – wonder what might motivate a person to willingly subject him or herself to hours on end of physical torture.
Most people also don’t know how it feels to cross the Catalina channel, in so doing joining the ranks of legendary watermen who have gone before and proving their mettle within the paddling community.
“It’s the best feeling in the world, when you get to that finish line and realize what you just did,” says Kelsey O’Donnell, a 25-year-old L.A. County lifeguard who broke an 18-year record by two minutes last year. “[Catalina] is something we look at every single day when we wake up and it’s pretty hard to describe what it feels like to look across and know you’ve crossed that channel.”
O’Donnell, who earned respect for clocking in at 6:18:28 last year, feels a kinship with all women who have crossed the channel because they have all felt that indescribable feeling.
“A lot of the time you’re in the middle of the channel, you’re yelling at yourself, wondering why you’re doing this – didn’t you learn anything the previous year? – but then you get to that finish,” Russell says.
“You think about what you just did and everybody else that’s doing it and has done it. It’s insane. I wish I could bottle that feeling. I’d be a rich man.”
But even beyond the common desire to test limits and gain entry into the paddling fraternity, every paddler has a personal motivation to push through the pain.
Russell’s reason is the memory of his late mother, who passed away in May and whose photograph he has taped securely to his paddleboard.
“She was always up on the pier when I finished,” he says. “My father passed away 13 years ago, and I’d get to the finish and point up to the sky and find my mom on the pier. She won’t be up there this year, but she’ll be paddling with me.”
Ambrosi finds inspiration in three images stuck to her board – a picture of her mother, who died of breast cancer 11 years ago, and two pink ribbons in honor of two friends who also suffered from it.
“Whatever it takes to help you out when you’re four hours into a seven-hour race,” she says of her mini collage. “They’re things that help me get across the line. When I’m hurting I look down and see my mum’s smile.”
For the Wounded Warriors, the Classic marks a step forward in the recovery process. Wounded Warriors is a non-profit organization dedicated to helping injured war veterans heal physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually from their wounds.
During this Classic, the warriors have a team of 11. Six guys rotate, relay-style; one paddles, and the other members of his team hang over the escort boat’s guardrails to cheer him on. Each year, the Wounded Warriors arrive to an especially loud welcome of horns and cheers from the Manhattan Beach Pier.
“It’s so cool how supportive everyone is of the guys,” says surfer and Staff Sergeant Doug Siers. “We’re doing a relay; everybody else is doing solo. But people come up to the Marines and congratulate us. We’re like, ‘No! Congratulations to you!’
“It’s just so good for Marines who are going through life-changing things and overcoming limitations and stuff they’re dealing with. It shows they can overcome.”
And for Joe Bark, a well-known paddleboard shaper, the Classic represents a long and fruitful relationship with the ocean.
Bark will complete his 30th Classic this year. He won twice, in 1988 and 1989.
He first crossed the channel in 1976 when he was 16, and entered his first Classic in 1983 – the race’s sophomore year after its long hiatus. He’s raced every year since.
“I just never remembered to stop,” he says, laughing.
But the weekend of the Classic, he has little time to contemplate the milestone he’s approaching. Through Saturday evening, he is preoccupied, making sure the boards he shaped and shipped over for the Classic have arrived undamaged.
“I haven’t even thought about it,” Bark says of his 30-year anniversary with the race. “I’m just making sure all the boards are over here and all the boats are ready.”
The nerves, he says, have long faded.
“No jitters,” he said. “It’s all about making sure the boards get here in one piece. The race is actually quite easy compared to that. I worry about everything except the race.”
He’s probably the only one.
The last eight miles are the toughest.
Motivated by the sight of Thomas pushing hard for the lead, Buckley summons the strength to commit to another two minutes.
When two minutes are up, he commits to another two.
“You have to trick your body into pushing that hard when you’re that tired and you’ve been paddling for five hours plus. I set really little goals: go hard for this song or these two minutes, just get to that point,” he says. Like most paddlers, he uses a waterproof iPod during the race.
“It’s hard. Even when you get to Redondo, you have four or five miles left and you know that’s an hour of work. You’re exhausted and you know you’re getting close, but even 10 minutes takes forever.”
At an astonishing speed of 72 strokes per minute, he propels himself forward, widening the gap to more than half a mile. He reaches the pier in 5:20:46, seven minutes ahead of Thomas.
Cheers from his 50-plus supporters fill him with a second wind, and Buckley pulls himself to his feet, stands on his board, throws his arms up, and turns his face to the sky.
Thomas crosses the line next, two minutes ahead of L.A. County lifeguard Max First.
The stock division is a category of paddlers on 12’ boards weighing at least 20 pounds. Depending on ocean conditions, stock boards can be either harder to paddle, or easier. Some people choose to paddle them to increase their chances for a win; others do it for a heightened challenge.
Zeb Walsh of Australia is the first stock paddler to finish in 6:19:15, nearly 10 minutes ahead of second-place stock paddler Steve Shlens of Santa Barbara.
And in the women’s division, O’Donnell surrenders her title to Carter Graves of San Diego County (6:42:04) and places second. Both women are on stock boards.
It is a sunburnt and exuberant group of paddlers that gathers in the parking lot of Captain Kidd’s Sunday night to eat, drink, and reflect on what has just been achieved.
Some are cursing the race, vowing never to do it again. But a seasoned Classic competitor like Russell knows they’ll change their minds.
“A lot of people go into it thinking, ‘I just gotta do it once.’ But for a lot of us, once you do it, it bites you,” he says. “You just keep coming back.”
A Classic legacy
by Rachel Reeves
This was the first year since 1982 that Bob Meistrell missed the Catalina Classic.
The co-founder of Body Glove and consummate waterman passed away in June at 84 years old, leaving a hole in the fabric of the Classic community.
“One of the cool things about this – we started this back in 1982 – is it’s developed into more of a family,” said Karl “Buddy” Bohn, one of the paddlers responsible for resurrecting the Classic. “And we lost one of those family members this year. Bob Meistrell… I just want to pay tribute to this guy and celebrate his life and his dedication to us.”
He made the comment to all paddlers at a race meeting. All nodded in agreement. Applause ensued.
Meistrell never paddled in the Classic, but he was one of its unofficial wardens.
Last year, he issued a tongue-in-cheek welcome to those aboard his boat: “The bad news is you are on a boat weaving back and forth for six hours,” he said. “If you tend to get sea sick, you will get sea sick. The good news is you aren’t on one of those stupid paddleboards.”
Meistrell never missed a race. He came back year after year to drive the lead boat, the 71-foot Disappearance, and to accommodate paddlers, feed them, encourage them, and dispense his signature Croakies amongst spectators. He came to mingle with people, young and old, who shared his love of the ocean.
“He joked that there’s no way he would’ve crossed the channel,” Bob’s great-niece Jenna Meistrell said. “He just wanted to be around hardcore watermen. He wanted to help and protect the people he felt a bond with. He wanted to be able to share this with them and that’s why he did it every year.”
Paddlers offer nothing but awe-inspired praise for Meistrell, a visionary waterman whose name belongs to both the diving and surfing halls of fame. They remember him as an approachable, fun-loving guy who never uttered a negative word about another person.
“The guy was there at a moment’s notice,” Russell said. “His passing saddened the surf world. So yeah, it’s a weird year. A lot of people will be paddling with heavy hearts, with him in the back of their minds.”
“He’s been such a big part of this race for so many years that for him to not be here is pretty gnarly,” Walls added. “I think he’ll be in the hearts of a lot of paddlers. I think the term ‘legend’ gets thrown out so loosely, but he was a human being that will never be replaced… He left some huge shoes, and I don’t think one man can fill them.”
The Meistrell family has taken up Bob’s torch, and Disappearance will continue to lead the Classic for years to come.
“My dad took his job very seriously,” said Bob’s son Ronnie, who captained Disappearance this year. “We will keep the legacy alive. We’ll do anything in our power to keep the legacy alive.”