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.
From the boat, little can be seen but the glow stick pinned to the swimmer's Speedo and the matching lights hung from a kayak that help him to navigate.
On board the Bottom Scratcher, Clark's wife, Margaret, the channel federation's monitor this night, begins her log. She notes the water temperature — an unseasonably warm 66 degrees. And she jots down the condition of the seas: "silky smooth."
Attia feels a surge of adrenaline — fueled by the glassy conditions and by a light show unfolding before him. Each time his hand cuts the water, microscopic algae near the surface burst into a plume of phosphorescent sparks.
Rolling onto his back for his first feeding from a bottle of dextrose-enhanced sports drink, Attia declares: "The water is beautiful!"
On board the Bottom Scratcher, I can't help but feel a little giddy too. Attia had said a few days earlier that I could join him in the water at some point as a pace swimmer. Now the prospect of plunging in seems a bit more pleasant — the placid conditions subduing my earlier fantasies of a death struggle atop a roiling ocean.
But skipper Greg Elliott, who at 64 has two decades on the ocean, issues a good-natured warning.
"You never talk about how good the weather and the ocean is," says the sun-ravaged, white-bearded captain, "or God will jump up and throw a hurricane at you."
EVERY channel swimmer must overcome emotional hurdles, at least as steep as the physical ones. For Attia, that included the fear of swimming at night in an unknown ocean, reaching again and again, forward into the colorless sea.
Once, crawling in darkness, he sensed something had changed.
Barracuda. From behind. They bared their razor teeth and surged toward him. Attia amped up his stroke rate. He tried to pull away. But he couldn't escape the sleek predators here in their domain, and they bit and ripped at his ankles.
Then it ended, quite suddenly with Attia snapping awake. Still home in his bed. It was only a dream, several weeks before he left for California.
"There are so many things," he said, "that make this really frightening."
To say nothing about the rigors of preparation. While at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Attia had logged as many as 100 hours a week in his demanding residency. What little time remained he divided among eating, sleeping and swimming — three or four hours a day in the pool and a swim each weekend of up to eight hours in northern Virginia's Lake Barcroft.
No matter how well he budgeted his time, the roughly 26 miles of training he could cram into a week left him at the low end for those preparing to take on the Catalina Channel.
Many endurance swimmers begin training in childhood, but Attia did not have a tremendous reservoir of experience to draw on. He swam his first pool lap just five years ago and didn't complete his first open water swim until the summer of 2004.