Mel’s Catalina Channel Swim + Alcatraz Escape

Monday 16 September 2019

Mel’s Catalina Channel Swim and Escape from Alcatraz

This year I’ve been lucky enough to take some time off work and chase my swimming dreams. This summer was no exception and saw me spending a couple of weeks in sunny California to complete my Triple Crown in marathon swimming. The Triple Crown consists of completing the English Channel (34km), Round Manhattan (46km) and the Catalina Channel (33km). Having completed the first two, I flew out to attempt the Catalina swim starting on the 11th August.

Out of all of my swims, I can’t lie, this one scared me the most. Not only because I didn’t train as much as I did for the English Channel, but also because of the wildlife that I could encounter on the way. The Catalina Channel is south of Monterey Bay and is one of the paths marine life take to travel there. Lots of other swims have encountered whales, seals, dolphins, jelly fish, and the waters are also known for sharks, particularly the mako shark which is the fastest of all! One previous swimmer had actually been bitten by a cookie cutter during her swim!

The swim is also seen as being easier than the English Channel due to lack of tides and warmer water. Everyone who has swum it will tell you this is FAKE NEWS as unlike the English Channel this swim gets colder the closer to the finish you get, and you’re pitted against the elements like surface tides, swell, waves, chop etc to get a straight line to the mainland. Friends of mine who swam it a week before me had also experienced water temps down to 14 degrees, unheard of at this time of year, and at an initial meeting with my pilot, he concurred that the water temps were late to rise this year.

I arrived about 5 days before the swim and stayed close to the marina where the boat was kept and to get over jetlag before the big day. It was an “interesting” place to stay and a house up the road had a 6ft marijuana tree under lights on display in a corner window. Smoking marijuana is legal in California and there are ads on tv and billboards that have straplines like “your dealer will hate us as we can deliver quicker than them”.

Anyway, getting to the big day, my crew and I prepped all of our stuff, ate a huge spaghetti bolognaise and went to meet everyone at the boat called “The Bottom Scratcher”. It was HUGE with a crew of about 9 people and 20+ berths. Once all of our stuff was packed, we set off to the start at Catalina Island (you swim back to the mainland and overnight to avoid afternoon winds), about 3 hours boat ride away. I settled into a double berth and rested waiting for our arrival.

Upon arrival at Catalina, we gave one of my kayakers a practice at kayaking before I jumped into the water at approx. 10:30pm, hurrah it was about 20 degrees, swam to the island, climbed out at the beach, signalled I was ready and set off on the swim back to the mainland. Conditions were a teeny bit sloppy at the start but the weird thing was I kept having to chase my kayakers to the right. I don’t swim straight, I usually go off to the right, but the surface currents were pushing us left and so we cribbed sideways for about 6 hours until the currents changed. Thankfully, they changed to my advantage but were weak and by then the wind had kicked up strongly from the right against the swell coming in from the left and I was being tossed about like a broken twig and lost sight of my kayaker fairly often through the chop.

The forecast for the morning was bright sunshine so I was really looking forward to a lovely sunrise. Unfortunately cloud and fog turned up instead after approx. 8 hours of night swimming, with the sun only coming out as I was arriving at the rocky beach at Terranea. But arrive I did after experiencing the colder water about 2 miles out (it was a welcome relief) and once at the finish, slowly climbed out over very slippery rocks trying not to fall over and cut myself to cries of “Aussie! Aussie! Aussie! Oi! Oi! Oi!” on the beach, and my crew all support swimming behind me. It was so amazing to have support meet you at the finish. Once I finished trying to cry my eyes out (it was dry crying as we’d skipped my last feed for the sprint finish!) I got back into the sea to start celebrations and achieving my Triple Crown, the 219th swimmer (and 29th Australian) to have ever done so. Official time was 11:44.03! And no wildlife bar some insignificant jellies, some white plastic debris and a sunfish at the start that I didn’t see!

And then it was holiday time with my hubby arriving the next day. Thankfully he was all good with me organising a late swim in San Francisco to escape from Alcatraz, something I’ve wanted to do for ages! It was only 2km but a dream swim looking back at Alcatraz, to the Golden Gate Bridge, to the city of San Fran in front of me, to running up a small beach yelling “I’ve escaped!!!!” to a local fisherman!

What’s next I hear you ask? Well it’s a little EC relay where I’ll be swimming backstroke in the first ever all ladies Individual Medley Relay. And then besides lots of crazy winter swimming (and weirdly nationals in October), my next big challenge is a 2 way EC crossing attempt in August next year. My goal this winter is to speed up for it so please feel free to yell at me to swim faster. I apologise now for when I swear back at you.


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