On a clear day, Catalina Island looks so close you can touch it.
But looks can be deceiving. And when you're paddling in an outrigger canoe, getting to the island can seem to take an eternity.
"It's not too bad the first couple of hours," said Rich Long, who along with eight crew members will compete in the Catalina Outrigger Canoe Race on Sunday. "It's the third hour, that's when the pain begins."
The 31-mile race was first held in 1959 when a couple of Hawaiian teams joined some California teams for a race from Avalon on Catalina to Newport Dunes. Today it has grown to include women's and coed divisions.
Long's team, which will represent the Dana Outrigger Club, will compete in the men's open division. Teaming with Long will be John Yamasaki, Jack Kraus, George Berliner, Willy Reichenstien, Eric Bialek, Rob Pelkey, Alan Horn and Glen Whitehurst.
"It's the longest open water race on the mainland," said Long, 35, who has been competing in the race since 1985. "Any time you have a race over three hours, it becomes a race of endurance. But that's what makes this race so great. It tests you and your team."
This sentiment was echoed by Mike Eisert, who has competed in the race off and on since 1983. He coaches the men's team for the Newport Aquatics Center in Newport Beach.
"This is a race from an island to the mainland," he said, "and covers open ocean, which always makes a race interesting."
Tony Islas of Long Beach will be competing in the Catalina race for the first time. His coed team is representing the Lokahi Club of Long Beach.
"I got involved in the sport when I was living in Hawaii," Islas said. "I've never done a race over two hours, so I'm looking forward to this, although I've done some open water races in Hawaii. For me, it's an adrenaline rush. You're pushing your body. It's a physical challenge."
Depending on conditions and the skill of the team, the course can be covered in anywhere from just under four hours to six. Last year, Lanakila of Hawaii won the men's division in a record time of 3 hours 50 minutes 43 seconds. Dana, which won the race in 1993, '94 and '95, was third in 3:56:13.
The men's course starts at Lovers' Cove on Catalina and ends at Newport Dunes. The women's and coed races, which are 28 miles and take place Saturday, start adjacent to the Orange County Harbor Department in Newport Beach and end at Casino Point in Avalon.
Crews consist of nine paddlers, but only six paddle during the race. An escort boat follows the canoe and drops off replacement paddlers ahead of the canoe.
Replacements climb into the canoe while those being replaced dive off. Competitors can get beaten up during this portion of the race, Eisert said.
"Depending on the team, the changes can run every 10 to 20 minutes," Eisert said.
Sometimes teams need to call on other resources. Take, for example, the time the Dana team had a boat anchored in position off Avalon.
"It was pretty foggy that day, so when the race started, most of the teams took off toward Oceanside," Long said. "But we had our boat to keep us on course, and we headed that way."
Long said the race was 20 minutes old before the teams paddling toward Oceanside realized they were going the wrong way. "We got a lead they couldn't catch us on," Long said.
Mindy Clark of the Newport Aquatics Center will lead a team of JoJo Toeppner, Sharon Attlesey, Vicki Mills, Julie Wolfe, Druw Van Hengle, Cheryl Villages and Christine Turney, who will be defending their title Saturday. Clark competed in her first Catalina race in 1979.
"I've seen a lot of changes, but the biggest has to be the number of women who compete today," Clark said. "It's a chance for me to see old friends. But it's becoming more competitive with the women. These are athletes who are training hard and taking the sport seriously."
Clark lives in Big Bear and works most of the year at the Snow Summit ski resort. However, for 10 weeks during the summer, she works as an instructor at the Newport Aquatic Center.
Clark said there are times when it's so foggy on the course that you can't see anything in front of you. But when you approach the island, it suddenly clears, and there's Catalina. "It's so cool. Like a dream."
However, there are times when it can get a bit scary.
"Sometimes you have to be careful when you paddle through a shark fishing tournament," said Bud Hohl, a long-time organizer of the race. "You'd hate to change paddlers going through that."
Then there's the potential hazard of passing ships.
"Well, the course does pass through a major shipping lane," Hohl said. "There have been some close calls, but nothing drastic."
Clark said it can be pretty frightening to see a big freighter in the distance coming straight at you.
"I haven't been hit yet," he said with a laugh. "Besides, we're going so slow, and those guys are moving so fast."
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Outrigger Canoe Races
Women's and co-ed crews start at 8 a.m. and 8:20 a.m. respectively near the Harbor Department in Newport Beach on Saturday. Men start 9:30 a.m. Sunday at Lover's Cove, Catalina.