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30,000 strokes to go

It's a marathon swim from Catalina to the mainland. James Rainey jumps in as one man tackles the open-water adventure.

October 18, 2005|James Rainey

THE darkness spreads around us -- black as obsidian and even as a slate. Faint flickerings from the stars above and the lights of the Southern California coast offer a meek challenge. But as the moon sets behind Santa Catalina Island, sea and sky unite, nearly obliterating the horizon.

It seems a cruel prank to dump a man into the open ocean in this void -- outfitted only with a swimsuit, goggles and cap -- and then to watch as he struggles to swim back to the distant shore.

Yet we have come to Catalina to do just that. Friends, school chums and support crew, even his parents, are accompanying Peter Attia, a young doctor from Baltimore, on his quest to become the 120th person to cross the channel.

That means swimming from Doctor's Cove near the northwest end of the island to a beach beneath the Point Vicente lighthouse on the Palos Verdes Peninsula -- 20.2 miles as the dolphin swims. And possibly much longer for a human buffeted by wind and waves.

Many people in Los Angeles cast their gaze across the water at Catalina and recall summer idylls past -- peering at fish through a glass-bottom boat, tracking buffalo in a noisy Jeep or smacking saltwater taffy in sleepy Avalon.

Endurance swimmers look across the same expanse, says veteran channel crosser David Clark, and feel the same compulsion as some small children when they first enter a pool. "One lap across.... Just one very, very long lap."

The English Channel remains the world's marquee attraction for marathon swimmers. But if the Dover to Cape Gris-Nez crossing -- conquered by an estimated 810 swimmers since the late 1800s -- is the Mt. Everest of long-distance swimming, then the Catalina Channel is K2, a monumental challenge that rarely enters the consciousness of those outside the swimming fraternity.

Although the two passages are similar in distance, the English Channel generally is considered to offer the stiffer challenge because of its colder water and swifter currents.

In its relative obscurity, the Catalina Channel -- known on nautical charts as the San Pedro Channel -- has gone unchallenged for years at a stretch. But not this year, according to the Catalina Channel Swimming Federation (, the volunteer organization that promotes and monitors the crossings.

The federation logged 11 successful transits from July to early this month, more than in any year since a 17-year-old Canadian became the first to accomplish the feat in 1927.

Now Attia, a native of Toronto, rides a small Boston whaler from his support boat to the shore at Doctor's Cove -- the closest departure point to the mainland that also offers a hospitable beach.

If all goes according to plan, the prevailing southeasterly current will give him a little push, and his late-night departure will help him avoid the winds and chop that tend to blow through the channel in the afternoon.

The 32-year-old surgical resident has prepared as much as he can for this moment, boosting his fitness by logging 20 to 30 watery miles a week training back home. He diagramed the physics of his stroke like a scientist and became a savant of sports-drink chemistry to prepare his mid-channel nutrition.

But all the preparation in the world can't diminish the more than 30,000 strokes needed to reach the far shore. The distance is nearly 50% farther than he has ever swum. And those miles will not be logged in his overheated club pool or the Northern Virginia lake that maintained a steamy 80-plus degrees this summer.

Attia will plunge into an ocean that he knows has beaten far more accomplished swimmers. He can recite the story of the renowned swimmer, Lynne Cox, who gave up one quest when her support boats lost her in dense fog. And he knows how a record-breaking distance man had to be dragged from the channel, near death, after his body core temperature plummeted to 88 degrees.

The dangers not only don't deter him, they inspire him. "He is an extremist in everything he does," says his wife, Jill Attia, 28. "He has to do everything to the nth degree."

Attia calls it "an honor and a privilege to even try this," adding on one of his last days of training: "If the channel is kind enough to let me through, I will be honored to be in the company of those who went before me."


And so it begins

JUST before 12:19 a.m. Oct. 11, Attia stands alone on the pebbly beach. A diving barge that normally teems with young campers on bright summer days floats just off the beach, eerily silent. Flying fish flit just below the surface in the unexpected light from the 63-foot dive boat, Bottom Scratcher, which will follow Attia and be home base for his supporters.

The muscular swimmer wades into the water, his skin shining in the faint light. A smattering of applause and shouts of encouragement drift over the water. "Let's go, Pete! Go, baby!" screams Jason Pyle, a Stanford medical school buddy.

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