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Crossing the icy waters for posterity

William Wrigley Jr. planned the first channel swim in 1927 with fanfare. But the event's popularity waned until the 1970s.

October 18, 2005|James Rainey

FOR decades, Catalina Channel swimmers have labored in obscurity -- a tiny fraternity that pays its own way, makes its own rules and revisits its triumphs and failures, mostly among its own.

"Some people ask, 'Are you trying to make this some kind of mass-participation sport?' " says David Clark, a successful channel crosser. "I just shake my head. It's just way too hard, way too hard. It's a very niche thing."

But it didn't start that way. William Wrigley Jr. made sure of that.

The chewing gum magnate and Chicago Cubs owner had purchased a controlling share of the Santa Catalina Island Co. in 1919, bringing him vast acres of unspoiled scrub, a coastline dotted with sparkling coves and a summer resort centered on Avalon harbor.

It was lovely and it was all his. But Wrigley wanted more. If only he could bring more attention to his little gem, which often lay shrouded behind the fog off the Palos Verdes Peninsula.

Inspiration arrived in the summer of 1926, when word came that a woman had not only crossed the English Channel for the first time but also had shattered the man-made record by almost two hours.

Wrigley took note of Gertrude Ederle's stunning accomplishment and, particularly, the ticker-tape parade and worldwide press coverage that followed.

He tried to coax Ederle into making the swim from Catalina to the mainland -- roughly the same distance as the English Channel -- but she declined. That gave Wrigley pause, but not for long. In an era of pole sitting, marathon dances and barrel rides over Niagara Falls, why not stage a spectacle all his own?

It would be called the Wrigley Ocean Marathon. And the chewing gum baron would make sure he had plenty of participants. He offered the then-lavish sum of $25,000 to the first person to cross the channel and later sweetened the pot with $15,000 for the first finisher of "the fair sex." He set Jan. 15, 1927, as the date for the swim.

Wrigley had accurately judged the temper of his time. A malleable press swallowed the event whole, taking the public along for the ride.

The specter of the unknown provided excitement enough, but a swimming champion from New York, Charlotte Schoemmell, stirred the pot anew when she announced she intended to complete the swim in the nude. She said the 10 pounds of grease smeared on her body (as insulation and, she said, shark repellent) would provide more than adequate cover. The race committee agreed to naked contestants, a decision angrily denounced by the local chapter of the Women's Christian Temperance Union as an act of "brazen vulgarity."

By late morning on race day, 102 men and women from around the world lined the beach at Isthmus Cove, the narrow choke point that nearly divides Catalina into two islands.

Behind the swimmers, more than 3,500 people with their picnic baskets watched from shore. Many more crowded the armada of power boats that plied the fog-blanketed sea.

The wintry water hovered at 54 degrees, and the heavy betting landed not on Olympic hero Norman "Big Moose" Ross or the other champions, but on "no finisher." That lack of faith seemed justified. By 5 p.m., five hours and 40 minutes after the start, only 30 swimmers remained in the water.

Just after 3 a.m., a young Canadian, George Young, waded ashore, 15 hours and 44 minutes after he left the beach at the isthmus. (But he quickly beat it back into the surf when he remembered that he had stripped off his chafing swimsuit just a few miles out.)

If he had fears or pangs of doubt during the ordeal, the first to cross the Catalina Channel did not reveal them. "I never was discouraged at any point in the game," Young later told the assembled newspaper reporters. "I never figured I would have to quit."

By the end of 1927, four of those who had failed in Wrigley's marathon challenged the channel again and succeeded. The quest then fell out of favor until the 1950s, when a new generation of swimmers made a series of crossings and eventually cut the record time to less than 10 hours.

The real renaissance of Catalina Channel swimming did not occur, however, until the 1970s. That's when a tiny swimmer from Pomona College, Penny Lee Dean, set the all-time standard for men and women, crossing from Palos Verdes to Doctor's Cove near the western end of the island in just under 7 hours and 16 minutes.

The channel also launched the career of Long Beach's Lynne Cox, a teenage phenom who would become the most famous athlete in open water, swimming in frigid crossings in the Bering Sea, the Strait of Magellan, the Cape of Good Hope and, most recently, an icy antarctic cove.

-- James Rainey

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