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These Dudes Hang Zen : Grueling Catalina Classic Tests the Strength--and Psyches--of Top Paddleboarders

August 25, 1993|PETE THOMAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For Andrew Thieme, it must have seemed like a bad dream.

There he was in the middle of the ocean, paddling frantically on a needle-thin board while a towering ship bore down on him at 30 knots. Nowhere to hide. Nothing to do but paddle.

Thieme scratched at the sea until the huge freighter was upon him.

Thieme seemed doomed.

Fortunately for him, though, the ship roared on by, barely missing him but swamping him in its massive wake.

"He made a bad judgment and the wake of the tanker knocked him back and rolled him around," said Weldon (Gibby) Gibson, himself a paddler of needle-like boards on the open sea, recalling Thieme's version of the incident a few years back.

Some would be quick indeed to question Thieme's judgment. What in the name of Neptune was he doing, floundering 1,000 feet above the ocean floor, smack in the middle of the shipping lanes?

The answer is simple: Trying to get to the other side.

Thieme, after all, is not the first to have paddled from Catalina to the Manhattan Beach Pier. Nor will he be the last. In fact, dozens will be making the same voyage Sunday during the annual L.A. Sound Catalina Classic, a race that originated more than 40 years ago.

The paddlers will cover 32 miles, amid sharks and speed boats of all sizes, along with the possibility of fierce winds and blinding fog.

Not that the paddlers mind any of this. Being the "watermen" they are, having spent most of their lives living, breathing and, in Thieme's case, swallowing saltwater, they soak in the brine any chance they get.

"You got to remember who you're dealing with here," said Gibson, 55, one of the organizers of this year's race. "You're dealing mostly with surfers and, you know, they aren't stupid, but they're guys that are a little wilder than your average crowd."

Said Brendan Shea, 26, an Oahu lifeguard who won last year's Catalina Classic: "We surf all winter and then the surf goes flat. And those of us who don't go to Bali to surf all summer stay here and compete in paddleboard races."

In 1990, Hawaii's Buzzy Kerbox and Laird Hamilton paddled from France to England on 12-foot boards. After that, they paddled 43 miles from Corsica to Elba, off Italy.

Having conquered the Hawaiian channel from Molokai to Oahu, in 9 hours 57 minutes, Ray Evans of Hahala, Hawaii, told the Honolulu Star-Bulletin: "I got a little seasick, and my body was welted from Portuguese man-of-war stings, but I felt safe on my board."

Right.

But paddlers are a breed apart, most of them surfers as Gibson says, and most of them following a lifestyle established decades ago by the legendary Tom Blake.

In 1926, Blake became the first person to surf Malibu Point; in 1931 he invented the sailboard; in 1932 he received his first patent for the Blake hollow-board design for a paddleboard, then later invented the paddleboard.

Blake was the winner of the first mainland-to-Catalina paddleboard race in 1932. In 1948, he paddled the length of Golden Gate Bridge to demonstrate the efficiency of his rescue paddleboard, and in 1969 he made The Guinness Book of World Records for the longest surfboard ride on an ocean wave, having shot the curl for 4,500 feet in 1936.

The Catalina Classic is the most demanding paddleboard race of any, an "uphill" paddle against a strong current for more than five hours.

"I've run a few marathons, but this is totally different," said Joe Bark, 33, a Torrance fireman who has competed in 10 consecutive paddleboard races. "At least in a marathon, if you want to walk you can keep walking, but when conditions get bad out there (on the water), you can't even stay on the board, basically. You get into some currents that are running the opposite direction, so you decide to take a rest and you're losing ground, whereas in a marathon, at least you're not losing if you stop or if you walk.

"And it has a bathtub effect because you're getting millions of boats out there giving different wakes, and so you're not getting wakes to push you, you're getting them over the bow (of the board) and it's like being in a little kids' pool with about 10 kids splashing."

Bark will be racing in his 11th consecutive Catalina Classic.

"You get your real highs and your real lows, where one minute you're feeling good and the next minute you're feeling like, 'Man, I'm only halfway, this is no fun at all,' " Bark said.

"But it really is fun. You do get rushes where you're just totally stoked and high, man, but then all of a sudden, Boom! It shuts you down. I don't know what it is, maybe another paddler coming up on you or maybe realizing you're not that close after all."

For the slower paddlers, the highs and lows--more lows as the hours pass--can last 10 hours or more.

Karl (Buddy) Bohn, 44, a former competitor and now a race organizer, recalled the time in 1983 that he got a report from one of the paddlers' escort boats--each racer must have one for safety's sake--that the paddler was going ashore near his home at Torrance Beach because he hadn't the strength go on.

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