Crossing the icy waters for posterity

Times Staff Writer

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, too busy cashing in on her new celebrity on the vaudeville circuit. 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. Nearly every day for weeks in advance, press dispatches tracked preparations for the swim -- obsessing over everything from the rules (no cork or rubber swimsuits!), to tactics (playing the tides) to pre-race favorites (Olympic hero Norman “Big Moose” Ross headed most lists.)

Three weeks before the big day, one writer, Fred Cady had worked himself into a hyperbolic lather. His newspaper columns declared the Wrigley marathon -- imagine here, the nasal vibrato voice of the old newsreels -- “The largest swimming field in aquatic history” and the “Greatest event of its kind ever attempted.”

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 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.

But from the beginning a few swimmers appeared strong, particularly a young Canadian swim champion named George Young. He forged ahead of all the others, including Ross, who had predicted that Young might be the winner after watching his workouts in the Santa Monica surf. (To even get to the starting line Young had to survive another ordeal, a low-budget trip from Toronto that began on a motorcycle and ended, after a breakdown, with the swimmer hitchhiking to Los Angeles with a pair of honeymooners.)

Still, thousands of spectators onshore listened to radio updates and awaited the swimmers on Point Vicente. When word came that the swimmers had pulled close to the shore, the spectators snapped on a flood of car headlights and saluted the struggling swimmers with cheers and blaring car horns.

Just after 3 a.m., 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.)

None of the others finished, although a pair of women came within a mile or two of Palos Verdes before the current forced them to give up. Both later received $2,500 prizes from Wrigley for their effort.

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.

Cox, now 48 and living in Los Alamitos, recalls that ironically it was Cox’s failure to cross the Catalina Channel that drove her as much as her many successes.

She was 17 and trying to set another record -- having already mastered the English Channel twice, both in record times. On her way from Catalina to the mainland that September night in 1974, however, nature shook any notion that Cox or any other top swimmer could assume dominion on what was still the open ocean.

A fog descended so heavily it cut visibility to half the length of a kayak. Two escort boats that ventured just slightly ahead lost Cox. And for several panicked minutes she treaded water. Alone. She recalled feeling some unknown creatures wriggling past her sides and beneath her in the inky water. Bonita? Seals? Blue sharks?

“And it’s pitch black all around you,” she recalls. “Everything is magnified.”

By the time her support crews found her, Cox’s nerves had been stripped bare. She grabbed hold of a paddle board, assistance that officially put an end to her swim.

But, just weeks later, with the support of her parents and a swimming mentor, she returned to the Channel. This time -- swimming mainland to island -- she not only finished but set another record.

“If I had stopped then, all this training and all this effort would have been for naught,” Cox says. “I never would have gone on and swum the Bering Strait, the Cook Strait [between the north and south islands of New Zealand], the strait of Magellan and on and on and on.

“There are days when it is just not right. There are days when nature is just stronger than you are,” Cox says. “But that is part of the beauty of it. You sort of have to work through those big things and decide whether it’s really important to you or not.”

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