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Back in the Paddle Again : Bob Hogan Is Returning for More at 63 After Starting Grueling Race 40 Years Ago From Catalina to Shoreline

August 23, 1995|PETE THOMAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Bob Hogan steps into the ocean early Sunday morning to begin the journey from Catalina Island to the mainland, he will, in a sense, be stepping back in time.

It was 36 years ago that Hogan last attempted the 32-mile crossing from the isthmus at the island to the Manhattan Beach pier, on an overgrown surfboard powered by the strong arms of the young lifeguard.

And it was 40 years ago that Hogan, to test the endurance of fellow lifeguards, started the International Paddleboard Championship, which is still, for good reason, considered the longest and most grueling race of its kind.

"Most guys who grow up on the water, this is one thing they really want to do," says Weldon (Gibby) Gibson, a former competitor and current race chairman.

The event, known these days simply as the Catalina Paddleboard Race, begins Sunday at 6 a.m. when 44 competitors--Hogan, at 63, will be the oldest to ever compete--start the long and tiresome trip, under plenty of sunlight but practically no limelight.

The race has no sponsor, no big payoff. The only spectators will be friends and families of the participants.

So why do they do it?

"Why do people climb mountains?" said Karl (Buddy) Bohn, a Zuma Beach lifeguard and member of the race committee. "If you're a waterman, a surfer or whatever, this is just something you want to do."

The leaders will reach the pier about noon. Hogan, though his years in the sea and sun show on his weathered face and body, hopes to be among them.

"His goal is just to finish," says his wife Carol, who used to accompany Hogan on training runs off the South Bay coast. "He's not out to beat everyone. Of course, when you get out there, you can always change your mind."

When Hogan gets out there, he might wish he had changed his.

Hogan's competitors will be half his age, if that. The water will be much colder than he is used to, he having left the South Bay for a tropical lifestyle in Hawaii nearly 30 years ago.

The record is just under 5 1/2 hours but that was under ideal conditions in 1987.

When the wind blows and the swells are up, as is often the case, the times are much slower. Paddlers must scratch their way across a choppy channel with constant spray in their faces, and deal with the Sunday boat traffic as well.

Torrance lifeguard Joe Bark, before competing in his 11th race in 1993, said the ocean under such conditions "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 and it's like being in a little kids' pool with about 10 kids splashing."

For six-plus hours?

One paddler in 1983 needed 11 1/2 hours to cross. After reaching the coastal waters near his Torrance home, long after the others had paddled ashore, he told his escort crew--all competitors must have an escort boat for safety's sake--that he was quitting and paddling ashore to walk home.

When the escort left, he got a second wind and decided to paddle on.

He made it to the pier just before dark, stashed his board and stumbled up to the tavern where the awards banquet was getting under way. Shivering and pale, his body covered with sand, he made his not-so-grand entry.

"He looked like a ghost," Bohn said a few years back. "He finished, retched himself silly down there on the beach, then walked up the street, walked in and said, 'I made it.'

"We figure he'd been paddling for 11 1/2 hours. That's a long time to stand up. Try doing anything for 11 hours. I don't think I could sleep for 11 1/2 hours."

Another competitor, during a race several years ago, was swamped by the wake of a freighter as it passed within a few feet of him. But he went on to finish.

Hogan himself, during the inaugural race in 1955, got lost in the fog, but kept paddling until he reached the coast--eight miles north of the pier in Marina del Rey.

"My escort boat took a little bit of a left turn when he saw floating kelp, rather than a right turn required to take us to the bell buoy [which competitors must round before heading for the pier]," Hogan said the other day, from the Manhattan Beach home of his friend and escort captain, Don McPherson.

A surf fisherman saw a weary paddler emerge through the mist. Hogan asked him where he was. The fisherman answered, then asked Hogan where he had come from. Hogan said, "Catalina."

The fisherman laughed and replied, skeptically, "Yeah, right."

Hogan finished second in 1957 and '58. He last competed in 1959.

"I'm not naive," he says of his chances this year. "I know 36 years is a lot of water under the bridge."

But Hogan, a lifelong surfer, sailor and scuba diver, can't get enough of the stuff. He and his wife have been addicted to saltwater since they were kids growing up in the South Bay.

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