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It's 32 Miles Across the Sea for Paddleboarders

The Catalina Classic is a rite of passage for the sport, a test of skill, will, strength and endurance.

August 23, 2003|Dave McKibben | Times Staff Writer

Tommy Duryea had been paddling atop his 12-foot board for five hours, through the San Pedro Channel, past the buoy off the Palos Verdes Peninsula, past the Redondo and Hermosa beach piers. And now, with Manhattan Beach Pier in the foreground and his competition in the background, Duryea's shoulders suddenly stopped churning.

"My sister was yelling from the escort boat, 'Don't stop now, Tommy, only a mile to go,' " he said. "I'm thinking in the back of my mind, 'Shut up, give me a break.' "

After 31 miles, Duryea's body was shutting down. His arms were screaming, his back and arms ached, his eyes burned, even his hair hurt. After a few seconds of self-doubt, he regrouped and won the 2002 Catalina Classic paddleboard race's stock division (limited to 12-foot boards) by finishing in 6 hours 24 minutes, 15 seconds ahead of Eric Meech.

Beginning at 6 a.m. Sunday in Catalina's Two Harbors, Duryea and 79 others will do it all over again -- testing their skill, strength, will and endurance over 32 miles of restless sea.

Some paddleboard races award money; the Catalina Classic offers a trophy and the respect of one's peers.

"If you're serious about the sport of paddleboarding, you're eventually going to wind up doing Catalina," said Duryea, 38, of Coronado.

In just his second full season, Duryea had a year to remember in 2002 -- winning the Coronado Island Loop, the U.S. Championships in Hermosa Beach and the Waterman Challenge in Encinitas.

But the lifelong surfer didn't feel at home in the paddleboard community until he captured Catalina.

"Catalina is so long and grueling and it has so much tradition, this race becomes a rite of passage," he said. "It's the benchmark."

The Catalina Classic began in 1955, the brainchild of Los Angeles County lifeguard Bob Hogan. The first few years it was known as the International Paddleboard Championship. The 1961 race was canceled by fog, which was a sign of things to come. The surfing boom hit in the early 1960s, kicking the paddles out of the water for two decades.

Los Angeles County lifeguards Karl "Buddy" Bohn and Weldon "Gibby" Gibson resurrected the classic in 1982. Only 10 paddlers turned out for that race, but participation has been growing steadily. Last year's race attracted 68 paddlers and 80 are entered in Sunday's classic.

"We try to keep the numbers down," Bohn said. "Everyone who is registered has to have a track record. They need to show us they're capable of finishing."

The top paddlers almost always finish the Catalina Classic.

"The first time I did Catalina, I was thinking, 'This has to be the maximum distance allowed,' " Duryea said. "When you're near the end, two miles to go feels like 20. You're crawling and you're trying to get there as fast as you can, but you feel like you're barely moving."

San Diego's Jay Scheckman said the last seven miles are usually when the crazy currents and the crazy thoughts take over.

"Once you pass the buoy off Palos Verdes, you start thinking this is a really stupid thing you're doing," he said. "The last time in '99, I thought, 'I'll never do this again.' "

But come Sunday afternoon, Scheckman and Duryea figure to be grinding their way toward Manhattan Beach together, putting one arm in front of the other as fast as they can. Scheckman, 38, will be drawing on his swimming background; Duryea, his surfing experience.

Scheckman prepared for Sunday by swimming four to five miles, four days a week and lifting weights. Duryea, a paddler through and through, is paddling five days a week with his buddy Manny Granillo. No swimming, no weightlifting, no cross-training.

Just paddling.

"Some people might think that would get a little monotonous, but it works for me," Duryea said. "Paddleboarding is what I enjoy. It's become a passion of mine."

It wasn't always. Duryea was a hard-core surfer for most of his life, but one day he realized the sport was becoming more trouble than it was worth. That's about the time Granillo turned him on to paddling.

"It's a lot more peaceful than surfing," Duryea said, "And it incorporates some of the same surfing techniques."

Duryea's technique is simple but effective. He lies on his 20-inch-wide board, reaching his hands forward as far as he can, trying to get as much of his arm in the water before pulling back toward his body. At the same time, Duryea is kicking so his legs don't fall asleep. Some of the top paddlers sit on their knees. Duryea alternates, 70% prone, 30% knees.

By the halfway point, Duryea's biggest fear is dehydration. He went through four 36-ounce bottles of water in last year's race. He gets a sugar fix by sucking on tubes of gooey carbohydrate bars. If the seas are rough, it can be a battle to keep the stomach happy.

The 1996 classic was described in Surfer's Journal magazine as the "paddleboard race from hell." Winds gusted to 20 mph, swells rose to 6 feet. A third of the field dropped out, some from exhaustion, some from seasickness.

"Most of the time, this is a low risk, low-contact sport," Duryea said. "But every now and then, the races can be a little punishing. I still love it and I hope to continue paddling as long as my arms can move."

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