SANTA CATALINA ISLAND — John Hill greets his crew with a smile of nervous anticipation and the barest hint of fright in his clear blue eyes.
At 49, the alcoholic-turned-athlete had trained a year and a half for his attempt to become the oldest person to swim 22 miles from Catalina to the mainland.
Hill had turned his admittedly compulsive nature to athletics in 1973 when he quit drinking. He ran in more than 70 marathons, but by 1980 he was seeking a new challenge. He learned to swim. Eventually the idea of swimming the Catalina Channel began to fascinate him, and last March he asked Penny Dean and John York, who have swum the channel several times, to train him.
Taking the past two months off from his Los Angeles law practice, Hill swam up to 10 hours a day, 50 miles a week, enduring workouts so rigorous that "there were days when I was too sore to turn the knob on the car radio."
Now, Sunday night, aboard the escort boat that will accompany him on the estimated 16-hour journey, Hill scans the rapidly darkening sky, the sea as placid as a lake, the lights of the mainland glittering in the distance.
"I'm scared," he says to coach Dean.
"Anxious, John, not scared," Dean says, reassuringly.
"Right, anxious," he says, sounding unconvinced.
A look of determination settles over his deeply lined face. Donning a fluorescent orange swim cap and scarlet nylon trunks, he turns to Dean.
"Let's do it."
Snapping on surgical-style gloves, Dean slathers Hill's body with lanolin, thick yellowy glop that clings like a barnacle to the swimmer's body, keeping heat in and cutting resistance to water.
Strapping waterproof flashlights to surfboards, the pair paddle in darkness from the escort boat Golden Greek to Paradise Cove, where Hill will start.
A high-pitched whistle at 8:34 signals the six-person crew that Hill has started the swim. Two paddlers accompany him on surfboards. They will rotate with other crew members in two-hour shifts, helping feed him and keep him on course.
But the ordeal is not Hill's alone. Trailing at an agonizingly slow 1-mile-per-hour pace, the Golden Greek quickly is engulfed in a noxious cloud of diesel fumes. Combined with the boat's nonstop pitching and rolling, it leaves most of the crew--including the captain--gasping with seasickness.
The crew members are nearly all veteran swimmers, and several have made the Catalina crossing themselves. The one exception is Hill's 17-year-old son, Andy, who volunteered as a paddler to accompany his father on the swim.
"It's not easy," said paddler Andrea Carr, 25, shivering as she emerged from her first two-hour shift, sometime after midnight. "These crossings can really be rough on everybody. But you do it. We all help each other out."
Jelly Sandwiches, Coffee
Throughout the night crew members feed Hill a steady diet of jelly sandwiches, black coffee and warm "erg"--electrolyte replacement with glucose--a raspberry-colored mixture that tastes even worse than it sounds.
Hill swims at a steady 60 strokes a minute throughout the night, while crew members tell jokes, reminisce about other crossings and keep a watchful eye for sharks. But the only sharks spotted are below deck, where several members occupy themselves by viewing a TV documentary on--what else?--sharks.
By morning, coaches and paddlers alike can be found on deck--bundled in thermal blankets, down jackets and insulated boots--where they have spent the night in an effort to allay the nausea.
Tension rises as York turns around and spots a massive tanker looming less than 800 yards away. If the tanker draws closer, waves from its backwash could pull the weakened Hill under. Crew members calm down when the tanker chugs off in the opposite direction.
By 8 a.m., after 12 hours in the water and still seven miles from shore, Hill is discouraged. "I don't know if I can hold out. It seems like I'm getting farther away."
"Don't talk like that," Dean yells sharply. "You'll psyche yourself out." Others cheer loudly. "You can do it, John."
"A swim like this is 90% mental," Dean explains to an observer. "He's got the training to make it. We just have to keep his spirits up. Sometimes that means we have to bully the swimmer a little. They hate us for a few days afterward, then they're glad we made them tough it out."
Among the six-member crew, Dean clearly excels at bullying. While York is given to sing-song encouragement--"Come on, John, swim right, keep your stroke up, you can do it,"--Dean steps in when a firmer hand is needed.
"Quit being a baby and swim," she barks, after Hill stops to complain of a sore chest. "It's all in your head. Now get your ass in gear and let's finish this swim." Reluctantly, Hill lowers his face into the water and takes up his stroke again, slowly, painfully.
Gulped Salt Water
"Why do I always wind up being the bad guy?" Dean mutters, shaking her head and chuckling. Later she explains that Hill's chest is sore from swallowing salt water. "It burns all the way down," she says, grimacing.