Had I promised to keep watch? Or heat a pot of coffee? With a jolt of euphoria and dread, I remember: I am getting in the water. I had promised to offer Attia a morale boost, while also providing myself some clue of what it really means to swim in the open ocean.
Diving from the boat's fantail, I find even a hazy morning sun has enough wattage to restore a deep, royal blue to an ocean that here is close to 2,700 feet deep. Embraced by the brilliant color and the relative warmth, my dark fantasies of great white shark attacks slip away.
I churn ahead and fall in line next to Attia and the kayak. All seems right with the world as I breathe on the left, keeping an eye on my partner and trying to match his easy stroke.
But then I turn right for the first time and see a flash of white belly — too big, too fast and way too close. I look again.
A dolphin, one of at least half a dozen, appears to be eyeballing the ungainly creatures struggling through its neighborhood. Three more dolphins appear on our right, one atop the other just 20 feet below, then peel away like silvery jets breaking from formation.
For at least 10 minutes, the dolphins speed beneath and beside us. When Attia pauses for his next feeding, he smiles. "They're putting on quite a show for us."
A little more than an hour and a couple of miles later, my time in the water is nearing an end as another swimmer comes out to take my place.
Floating on my back as Attia slurps calories, I'm already beginning to miss the dog-whistle piping of the dolphins and the near weightlessness offered by the salty waves.
Accustomed to wearing the journalist's veil of impartiality — at once necessary and stifling — I have been liberated this time to join in. The world seems somehow larger. And my brief rotation beside Attia has given me a glimpse of the inchoate blend of anxiety and elation that drives someone as they swim across the ocean.
The crowd on the Bottom Scratcher is increasingly ebullient, but on the water, Attia's stroke rate has dropped a little more and his lower lip and jaw chatter from the cold when he tries to speak. He flexes his fingers to bring blood to his stiffening hands.
Then, as the rust and chalk-colored cliffs of Palos Verdes loom larger, the tiring swimmer begins cranking his arms more rapidly.
His parents, Eid and Sonia, Egyptian immigrants, have always viewed their oldest son as something of a marvel. They struggled with worry overnight and replaced sleep with prayer.
"I told Peter that if God held the world, he will be holding you too on the water," Sonia Attia says from the deck. "That gave me some comfort."
So close to home, Attia is approaching another potential hurdle. Channel swimmers have come within shouting distance of Palos Verdes before, only to be swept south for a mile or more by the swift current running down the coast. But on this day, the swift waters never appear. Even a mass of jellyfish that emerges near the beach can offer little resistance, as Attia cuts through the brilliant purple minefield unscathed.
When he is half a mile from shore, the clouds open for the first time all morning, uncorking an astounding burst of sunshine to light Attia's way.
He had planned a swim of about 12 hours, but instead has been in for 10 1/2 .
"I was amazed," Attia said later. "I didn't feel like I had been in the water long enough to reach land."
He strokes evenly the rest of the way, pausing briefly to gather himself, then scrambles ashore across slippery boulders. The Catalina federation counts only swims that go from dry land to dry land, and Attia has met the final requirement.
Elliott, the skipper, orders several blasts from his boat's horn. Jill Attia lets out a whoop and her eyes well with tears. Then the skipper breaks out the bagpipes he carries on every trip and a jaunty "Scotland the Brave" rings across the water.
Less than 24 hours later, Attia will be back on call at the hospital on the other end of the country. But for this moment, he is lord of the Catalina Channel.
"For whatever reason, the ocean was crossable," he says. "The channel just tolerated me today."
Times staff writer James Rainey can be reached at email@example.com.