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Making Vows Hold Water : Pamela Pole kept her promise to jump off Balboa Pier in an attempt to swim to Catalina and made another promise to the man who searched the water for her.

September 08, 1993|JIM WASHBURN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

NEWPORT BEACH — Remember a few weeks ago when we talked to Pamela Pole, the unemployed, divorced 37-year-old mother of two who was determined to swim to Catalina? What had begun as a grand plan to have a relay with dozens of swimmers--raising money for a day care center--had collapsed bit by bit until it was only going to be her and a friend swimming--for the principle of it since there were scarcely any donations--with a boat to pace them. Then that fell apart, and it was just going to be her and a support boat taking off from Newport's Balboa Pier on Aug. 21.

"No matter what, I'm jumping off that pier at 5 a.m. and some boat better follow me," she declared then. One might have taken that to just be a plucky figure of speech until seeing the headline on a local paper a couple of days later: "Woman rescued during mysterious attempt to swim to Catalina."

According to the account, Pole had shown up on the pier near midnight on Aug. 20. She was observed giving away what little money she had, reading some Bible verses and stripping down to her bathing suit and swim cap. She then jumped off the pier and headed alone out to sea. Boats and a helicopter searched for her for two hours before giving up. Pole turned up around 9 a.m., suffering from mild hypothermia, after being plucked out of the sea three miles out by a fisherman.

We tried reaching Pole at her home in San Clemente. "Oh, she's honeymooning on Catalina," said one of her sons, sounding nearly as confused as we. When last we'd spoke with Pole the week before, she didn't even have a boyfriend.

Well, it turns out that jump off the pier wasn't her only leap of faith that weekend. She's got herself a husband, if nautical marriages hold water, and she's starting life anew with him in a boat moored in Newport Harbor.

Always looking for a twist, some of the reporters here had joked that maybe Pole had married the fisherman who rescued her. That actually is not far from the case. Her new mate, Jay Barnes, is the sailor she'd hired to pace her swim in a support boat. The only hitch with that plan was Pole didn't tell him that she was starting early, and she'd been at sea six hours before Barnes even began looking for her.

I went swimming out in the channel at night once, and even with splashing friends, a handy boat and a tequila-fortified will, it was an eerie, isolating and mildly terrifying time. Half the time you're in a trough with nothing to see but water swelling around you. You float better in saltwater, but there's also the ever-present knowledge that if your feet touch something, it won't be the bottom, but, rather, something with a proclivity to bite you in two.

Pole was out there alone, with almost no moon, for more than eight hours with nothing but her tired muscles and her thoughts, and it had to be strange.

"It was a trip," she confirmed when she got back to us last week. "There was a red tide, so the water was phosphorescent. Every time my hand hit the water it would spark , and the water underneath me was a sheet of white. I was doing the breaststroke, singing, talking to God, begging him near the end."

Lest one get the impression that Pole married her Newport husband for money: She had to borrow the quarter she used to call The Times offices. She, Barnes and I met and talked in front of the American Legion hall on the peninsula's 15th Street. His 26-foot sailboat, where they are living, is moored off the dock there.

Pole was still a bit sunburned from her eventful weekend, but otherwise was looking her usual robust self. Her blond hair was tied with bits of ribbon she'd found on the sidewalk.

Tan and mustached, Barnes has the weathered, relaxed look of a lifelong bachelor, which the 42-year-old was until now. The San Diego native has spent 24 of his years living on the water in Newport Harbor. He repairs and sells boats, and takes work as a delivery skipper and rigger when he can.

The couple sat next to each other on a bench, and often hugged, as Pole related her story.

She had told us previously that her resolve to do the swim had only been strengthened when her plans for a relay swim fell apart and when her swimming partner bailed. She wanted to prove by attempting the swim that unemployed mothers such as she were worthy of work.

So, on the night before her announced swim date, she was down on the peninsula as the boat was being readied. She carbed-out on clam-sauce spaghetti, then left Barnes and a friend (who had planned to go in the boat to pray for Pole and hand her water) to walk and think.

One of the things she thought about was that the Coast Guard had refused to issue her a permit for the swim, understandably claiming that the venture was inadequately prepared. She knew that if she left at 5 a.m. as she'd planned she would be caught, and was worried that Barnes might get in trouble if his boat was with her. He was a friend of a friend of a friend she had met a few days earlier when her other plans for a boat fell through.

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