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30,000 strokes to go

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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 (www.swimcatalina.org), 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 beginsJUST 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.

Within a few moments, the euphoric rush of the start gives way to the night's quiet — broken only by the rhythmic slap, slap, slap of Attia's arms breaking the water.

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."

*

Lurking predatorsEVERY 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.

Most swimmers who start so late in life can be spotted with ease. They're the ones churning the water furiously, producing little glide per stroke.

"They usually just really, really struggle to get it," says John Flanagan, Attia's coach and a trainer of Olympic medalists. "But Peter's kinesthetic awareness is just so great that he is able to do something that is totally alien to him. He's a beautiful swimmer."

At 5-foot-10 and 180 pounds, with thick shoulders and chest, Attia resembles less a distance swimmer and more a defensive back or the boxer he once was.

Attia, who majored in mechanical engineering as an undergrad, worked relentlessly on streamlining his body position in the water. He drew diagrams to understand how to balance the center of gravity in his belly and the center of mass in his chest — forces that tend to drive the upper body toward the surface, while dragging the lower body down.

He crammed a notebook with workout logs and sketches of stick figures in motion, then broke it down in his mind. His ideal stroke, he will tell you, begins by entering the water, "pinky first, immediately rotating my humerus, catching water with my elbow high, pulling and not seeing any bubbles because I've entered cleanly. And then rotating my hips — snap, snap, snap. It's really a beautiful, beautiful problem of physics — generating a torque to oppose the torque our body generates."

In the 11 days leading to his attempt, Attia and his wife holed up in La Jolla, where he made daily swims to acclimate to the cold ocean. In the couple's tiny room at the Travelodge, he spent hours planning how to dilute and enhance a variety of sports drinks to deliver the optimum combination of carbohydrates and electrolytes for the 20-plus miles ahead.

And he repeatedly watched a DVD about his hero, Terry Fox, a young Canadian who captivated his nation by running cross-country in 1980. His right leg amputated because of a rare bone cancer, Fox completed a marathon — 26.2 miles — each day for 143 days, before his cancer returned and forced him to stop.

Attia became mesmerized by Fox in grade school and says he hopes his one-day trial in the Pacific will bring attention to the Terry Fox Foundation, which has raised $360 million for cancer research.

"My swim pales in comparison to what he did. But, mentally, I am as tough as the next guy," Attia says. "And what I lack in ability or in technique I hope to make up for in toughness."

*

Winds of changeABOUT 3 a.m., the sea gods make it clear that Attia will not get a free pass this night.

The winds suddenly snap to life, with gusts to 20 miles an hour that kick up a fierce chop. White caps top 4-foot swells and make it hard for Attia to get his bearings or breathe without swallowing doses of briny water.

The heaving ocean leaves the landlubbers aboard the 71-ton escort boat staggering to keep their footing. A few have become sick.

At one point, Attia drifts more than 50 yards off-course and nearly out of view. A blast from the Bottom Scratcher's horn helps bring him back in line.

Veteran water man Don Van Cleve has taken over the escort kayak, and he struggles to keep upright. He navigates with freezing hands while juggling the small plastic bottles that deliver nutrients to Attia every 15 minutes.

Attia begins to feel nauseated from gulping saltwater and suffers dry heaves that do nothing to relieve his rolling stomach. Nevertheless, he presses ahead.

A gray dawn at 6 a.m. finds him a little more than halfway to Point Vicente. His stroke has slowed from its starting point of 48 pulls per minute and his legs are splayed slightly — sure signs of fatigue.

So far, I have spent nearly nine hours aboard as the passive observer. And as I stumble from below deck (where I spent a fitful hour of near-sleep), I plan to take up my notebook again.

Instead, a smiling Jill Attia rushes toward the back of the Bottom Scratcher.

"Jim, Jim," she calls to me, "Peter needs you!"

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.

I pull on a wetsuit and fins (strictly forbidden by the channel federation's bylaws for competitors) to make sure I won't slow Attia down. My silent oath to the doctor: "I will do no harm."

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 james.rainey@latimes.com.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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