Wednesday, 8 June 2011
Beth Barnes..Kayaker Extraordinaire
Open water swimming is a sleeping giant, yawning and stretching and ready to awaken with a roar. It won’t be long until athletes of all abilities, keen for the next big challenge, grab cap, goggles and body grease and challenge the open water. Few, however will find the strength of mind and body to brave this cold and foreboding channel. If they do, they’ll need me, or someone like me, in a kayak next to them. These waters can be welcoming and calm, or they can be wild and uninviting with currents that are unpredictable and treacherous, and the cold is an ever-looming demon.
For a small group of committed and elite marathon swimmers the Catalina Channel is also but one swim in a trio of swims that comprises the Triple Crown of marathon swimming. The Triple Crown is earned by swimmers who complete the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim, the English Channel Swim and the Catalina Channel Swim. Less than forty athletes have earned this illustrious accolade to date, and U.S. Masters swimmers Jim Barber, 51, who swims for YMCA Indy SwimFit, holds the record for taking the longest time – 22 years - to complete the swims. Rendy Lynn Opdycke, 27, from Novaquatics Masters, completed the challenge in an impressive thirty four days.
Due to the unpredictable conditions during the daylight hours, swimmers begin their Catalina crossing around midnight from a small, secluded and very dark cove on Catalina Island’s west end. They have to travel there from the California mainland, crossing the very channel they will immediately have to cross again under their own power. In order to complete a sanctioned and official swim, a trained Catalina Channel Swimming Federation observer is on board the support vessel that will transport the swimmer and their team to the island. During the two hour boat ride, the observers are finalizing details and ensuring each team member understands what is expected. The team will usually include family members, friends and pace swimmers, all of whom understand the intensity of the occasion and all of whom are there for one reason … to support their swimmer.
To complete the personal and hand chosen team, there will be two support kayakers who may be strangers to the swimmer and family, but they will be equally committed. The volunteer kayakers will take shifts throughout the night and will be constant companions, stroke-by-stroke during the journey, moving in unison with the swimmer in order to keep them on course. If their course is altered in any way this can add extra strokes to the swim which will mean wasted time and extra distance.
“Without a competent kayaker who knows the challenge of the open channel, including a positive attitude, the swim would be more difficult to navigate. We depend upon kayakers to be our ears, eyes, compass and lane line so we only have to concentrate on every stroke that takes us closer to our goal,” says Barber.
The swimmer is flanked by the pitching support boat on one side and the steadier kayak on the other, and although they dance to the same song, the steps are occasionally altered due to swells, currents and winds. The swimmer will sight from both boats, so they are illuminated with dull yet visible light sticks, purposely kept dim in order to avoid attracting sea life. There is a reverence about swimming under these conditions, and although it is often unspoken, an undercurrent of deep respect for the swimmer prevails.
It is a humbling and grueling endeavor, and these marathon swimmers are athletes of the highest order who understand that mental attitude is just as important as physical prowess. They could so easily confront the channel with the intention of conquering, but instead, they come only to connect, not to conquer. The channel reprimands ego but rewards humility so the swimmer must understand that all bragging rights are earned after enduring great difficulty.
As the trio of swimmer, kayaker and boat move toward the mainland, the swimmer’s support crew finds their own quiet corner of the pitching vessel to claim as their own. They settle down to watch the slow but methodical progress. The swimmer is lost in a private aquatic world as months and possibly years of preparation are put to the test. The kayaker watches the swimmer and probably wonders, why? The crew on the boat watches both swimmer and kayaker and wonders, why?
The swimmer swims while the kayaker paddles. Two slow moving blurs in the middle of a vast and pitch-black ocean; synchronizing their strokes from one shore to another. It is as simple as that.