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Sports : One Swell Time : Water Ski Race to Catalina Provides Plenty of Thrills--and Spills--for Competitors

August 18, 1994|KIRBY LEE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

There's a $220 entry fee, no prize money and the winner doesn't even get to keep the perpetual trophy.

But that hasn't deterred competitors throughout the world from from flocking to the annual Catalina Ski Race, a 62-mile round-trip water ski race from Long Beach Harbor to Catalina Island and back.

The 46th running of the event Sunday drew a record 140 teams from the United States, Australia, England, Canada, South Africa, New Zealand, Belgium and Italy. The number of competitors, which range in age from 8 to 69, at this year's race forced organizers to start the race in two groups for the first time.

About 110 teams started at the firing of a flare gun in a 1 1/2-mile stretch between Island White and Island Grisham in Long Beach Harbor, fighting for position to exit the channel at the narrow Queen's Gate breakwater less than a mile away. A second stampede start followed 15 minutes later.

Choppy waters prevented Mason Thompson's 1987 record of 54 minutes 56 seconds from being challenged, but Sunday's race marked the first time foreign competitors won the men's and women's races in the same year.

Darren Kirkland, a 27-year-old carpenter from London who had finished second in three previous Catalina races, held on for a 22-second victory over Kurt Schoen of Huntington Beach in 59:20.

Australian Leanne Braun, 21, the 1993 world champion, racing for the first time in open waters, won the women's division in 1:10.03. Defending men's champion Lee Squier, 40, of Long Beach was the top local finisher, placing fourth in 1:03.55.

"Everyone in the skiing fraternity around the world knows the big races to go to and Catalina is one of them," said Braun, a law student from Perth.

The race is also one of the toughest.

The top skiers, using only a single, specially designed ski, can exceed 80 miles per hour. Braun aggravated tendinitis in her right knee during the race but was not the only one limping to the awards ceremony. Swells, which reached 15 to 20 feet Sunday, caused skiers to lose sight of their boats some 200 feet ahead. Gauging distance in open water is another unique challenge of the Catalina race.

"In Sydney, we race on lakes and rivers, but the closest thing we get to this is a bay," Braun said. "On the way back, I didn't know where anyone was, I didn't know whether I was winning or losing or what was going on. All I wanted to see was the big white (Spruce Goose) dome."

Skiers are aided by a support team, which includes a driver, navigator and observer, but plotting a direct course to Catalina and back is not an easy task either. It was sunny and visibility was good Sunday, but that didn't keep boats from veering several miles off course.

"If there is a real heavy cloud bank and a thick marine layer, I've been way back and seen the leaders get lost," said Kirk Book, 30, of Carlsbad. "They're so busy heading side by side, the guy who is leading heads off to San Pedro and everybody follows him. All of a sudden, you're by yourself heading to the right opening."

Book has led the Catalina race at some point since he first competed in the event at age 14. But the 1993 world champion and four-time U.S. champion has yet to cross the finish line first.

He was challenging for the lead at the turnaround boat about a quarter mile off Avalon, but finished third in 1:02:30 after taking a spill with about 19 miles to go. Book, who has been first to the island three times and finished second three times in 10 previous Catalina races, was leading last year when he took a spill and was knocked unconscious about halfway back to Long Beach.

"This is the biggest ocean race in the U.S. and I've won everything but this race," said Book, who competed with a brace to protect a hyper-extended knee suffered two weeks ago when he was thrown about 150 feet out of a boat traveling at 100 miles per hour. "The top skiers don't refer to the things they won, they refer to the things they haven't won and this is the one I haven't."

Finishing is a goal for others. One-hundred-one of the 140 teams completed the race in the allotted three hours. Mark Kachigan, a 38-year-old real estate broker from Long Beach, dropped out five miles after the turnaround because of the "worst leg cramps" of his life.

Kachigan, a marathon runner who has been a recreational water skier for 18 years, decided to try the race after watching the event every year for nearly a decade.

"If I could run for 3 1/2 hours and run 26 miles, I didn't think it would be a problem being on a ski for 1 1/2 to two hours," Kachigan said. "You can see the island about a third of the way on the way out, but it seemed like an eternity before you're there. I guess I thought I was a legend in my own mind."

Any illusions of grandeur were quickly extinguished after Kachigan fell three times on the way to Catalina, the last of which he attributes to simply fatigue.

"I just wanted to make it to the island," Kachigan said. "My thighs were on fire. I was in tears when I knew wasn't going to finish and swore I would never do the Catalina race again. But the next day, I'll be mad about not finishing. And the day after that, I'll be thinking of ways to do better in next year's race."

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