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CHRIS ERSKINE / FAN OF THE HOUSE

Prestige and wackiness at Catalina Water Ski Race

The Long Beach-to-Avalon water ski race runs for the 63rd time. In all those years, this contest has built a serious following and attracted global competition.

July 16, 2011|Chris Erskine
  • Bob Grande takes part in the Catalina Ski Race, an annual event running from Long Beach to Avalon that is part tanning party, part grueling endurance test.
Bob Grande takes part in the Catalina Ski Race, an annual event running from… (Francine Orr / Los Angeles…)

America's silkiest super highway, the stretch of sea between Long Bench and Avalon, was full of skiers Saturday as the Catalina Water Ski Race went off for the 63rd time. It's the zaniest start in sports: Speedboats race in with flags announcing the event is about to begin, then a start boat sends up a flare or two.

All it's lacking is Rodney Dangerfield dropping his anchor into your dinghy.

Part tanning party, part grueling endurance test, this prestigious ski race is one of those "why-do-they-do-that-again?" sporting events that just gets to be habit and wiggles its way into local lore.

This year, Captain America was there, of course, as was Mr. Incredible.

Most incredible of all, though, was this skier Todd Haig, a California kid who skips across that choppy channel like a moonstone. Broke the course record on Saturday, in good though not ideal conditions, completing the ornery task six seconds faster than ever before.

"Today, I was a little Jell-O-y out of the gate, just nerves," Haig explained. "Then I finally settled down."

In case you're just catching up to this sudsy spectacle, what participants do is strap a plank to their feet, loop a sling around their ka-tookis and whipsaw their way to Catalina behind Cigarette-style boats that have more muscle than brains. Speeds can reach 90 mph across the channel, though 60-to-70 is a winner's usual sweet spot. When they get to the island, they come immediately back.

They've been doing it here since 1949, when a guy by the name of Ed Stanley made the journey in 1 hour, 41 minutes. Ski legend Chuck Stearns would go on to win the race 11 times and was the first to try it on a single ski.

Like golf, like tennis, the Americans dominated for a while, but the foreigners started coming on in the '90s — the Brits, the Italians, but especially the Aussies, who seem just a toothier version of us.

On Saturday, from all the accents, you'd have thought you were in Melbourne.

But lately, this kid Haig has kind of taken over, dominated actually, winning 10 of the Catalina races.

"You've become the Tiger Woods of ski racing," I tell him.

"I prefer Lance Armstrong," he says. "Even with the drug controversies."

It was an Aussie, in fact, who chased our guy Haig — a Redlands product — right to the finish this year.

Peter Procter led the first 10 miles Saturday. In a dramatic return, the Haig boat, driven by Randy Davis, overtook the Procter team about 10 miles from home, and it was neck and neck.

Procter, who won last year, finished a few clicks back, not much — one one-thousand, two one-thousand, three ...

Erin Saunders won the top women's division, completing the first American sweep since 2000.

It's a passion sport, speed skiing is. Haig does it on the side, competing in several majors like this around the world during the course of the year while running the family construction business.

If you're very good, as Haig is, you can connect with someone like his driver, the deep-pocketed owner of Nordic Boats. Otherwise, gas alone would eat up most of the mortgage.

In degree of difficulty, getting up on a single ski is nothing easy — ranking somewhere between extricating yourself from a sand trap and dunking a basketball.

It's tougher still as you bob up and down in Long Beach Harbor, other boats and tow lines all around.

Even Captain America struggled.

"The hardest part is the start," said Jeff Barrus, who came up with the superhero costumes as a "let's just have a good time" statement.

"We had boats on both sides and we got pinched off," said Brian Samaniego (Mr. Incredible).

"I didn't breathe for the first 10 minutes," said Mark Wyneken, who was driving, his first race.

The superheroes were part of the "over and back," division, which means one skier takes the first leg to Catalina and second skier makes the ride back.

"It's just a relentless race, the rough water. There's no hiding," says Chris Gelle, 29, of Australia. "Basically, from [the chest down] down, you're dead" after it's over.

Seventy-five skiers, 66 race teams, about 50 miles of open ocean.

Some folks fall, and the tow boat has to circle to restart them, just like they would a weekend skier. In the past, skiers have fallen and still managed to win, though that's unheard of today.

Some years, the island is so fogged in that the drivers can't locate the anchored boat that serves as the return marker. In 63 years, some teams have completely missed the island.

But when they don't, when all works as planned and motors don't die or phantom kelp beds don't rise up and boggle everything, the ski teams return in an hour or three to the harbor at Long Beach, to spectators lining the rail of the Queen Mary and to a flotilla of 100 pleasure boats cheering them home. And 63 years later, this wacky race still seems like a good idea.

"It's crazy," said novice driver Wyneken. "And I can't wait to do it again next year."

chris.erskine@latimes.com

twitter.com/erskinetimes

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