The straight ahead strategy paid off for the 32-year-old, Hermosa Beach paddler who had an unremarkable, 19th place finish in his first Catalina Classic paddleboard race last year.
Despite a headwind, bumpy water and taking what he afterwards acknowledged was too high a course, Buckley arrived at the Manhattan Beach pier finish line Sunday morning 23 minutes ahead of his last year’s time and seven minutes ahead of second place finisher Brian Rocheleau, of Hawaii who finished fourth in the Classic last year.
Buckley took an early lead out of Catalina Island’s Two Harbors, followed closely by Anthony Vela, a Los Angeles County lifeguard who was competing in his first Catalina Classic.
Trailing not far behind them was George Plsek of Solano, who finished third in the previous two years. The frontrunners were in such a tight formation when they passed Ship Rock, two miles off the island, that they appeared roped together. They all followed a northerly route along the leeward side of the island until clearing the point at Parsons Landing, where they began shifting southward. But the leaders were still bearing north of the R10 buoy, which they needed to round before heading up the final eight miles to the Manhattan pier. The R10 is a mile off of Lunada Bay.
In the wheelhouse of the lead boat “The Disappearance,” skipper Bob Meistrell wondered aloud, “What are they doing? Don’t they know the shortest distance between two points is a straight line?”
The 35th Catalina Classic 32 Mile Paddleboard Marathon started at 6 a.m. at Two Harbors, Catalina with the blare of an air horn and whoops and war cries from 87 competitors.
During the morning sign-in, paddlers gathered around a bonfire while applying sunscreen, stretching and shaking off pre-race jitters. Whether you were a first timer who just wanted to finish the race, a repeater wanting to best your previous time, or a contender hoping to have your name added to the perpetual trophy, the distance, the air and water temps, and the currents would all be the same.
The first known crossings from mainland California to Catalina Island occurred over 9,000 years ago when the Gabrielino Tribe began exploring the island in canoes known as tomols. More recent history found ranchers, miners and the Chicago White Cubs (spring training from 1921 to 1951) making the trek to the 22-mile long island in search of good grazing land, precious minerals or a pennant winning combo.
In 1932, Wisconsin native Tom Blake, and two friends paddled across the channel on 14-foot, 150 pound redwood boards that were inspired by surf boards Blake had seen in the Bishop Museum in Honolulu. In 1939, future Los Angeles County lifeguard Paul Matthies and four fellow members of the Hermosa Surf Club made their own crossing on homemade boards.
“They were 12- to 14-feet, hollow and made of plywood and fiber board. One of the guys had some nice paint we used to make them waterproof,” Matthies said.
A few other ad-hoc crossings occurred over the years, but it wasn’t until 1955 that the first organized Catalina Classic was begun by LA County Lifeguard Bob Hogan. With the exception of 1959, the race continued through 1961 when a storm forced the race’s cancellation mid-channel.
Karl “Buddy” Bohn and Weldon “Gibby” Gibson gave the Catalina Classic a new lease on life when they resurrected it in 1982. Los Angeles County lifeguard Kip Jerger finished first out of 10 paddlers that year. Bohn was second, paddling a vintage “kook” box he had found under a neighbor’s house. Terry Stevens won the stock division and was third overall and former Mira Costa swimmer Andrea Carr placed fifth to become the first woman to paddle across the Catalina Channel.
A woman’s division in the Classic wouldn’t be established until just three years ago, thanks largely to the efforts by Christina Powers and fellow Mermaid paddlers. In addition to a men’s and women’s division, the Classic is broken down into just two other divisions — stock and unlimited. Stock boards must be no longer than 12 feet and weigh no less than 20 pounds. Unlimited boards are typically 18-feet and weight 25 to 30 pounds.
A waterman’s fraternity
The pre-race barbeque the night before in Buffalo Park was a festive event for the tightly knit paddling community. All around there were hugs, high-fives and plenty of backslapping. Nowhere in evidence was the elitism common to other sports. The favorites and first timers mingled comfortably together. If there were any egos, they were left back on the mainland.
“I think it’s because we all know what it takes to get here,” Vela said. “We all have to train the same amount and under the same conditions — no matter who you are.”
Classic committee member Los Angeles County Lifeguard Kyle Daniels took the stage to review the rules and stress safety.
“Besides the normal hazards, the air and water temps are much colder this year. We had over 40 people get treated for hypothermia in the pier to pier swim this month, and we don’t need it to happen to our paddlers.”
“I had to change my paddling style and stay on my board [prone] more just to stay warm,” Buckley would say after the race.
Gaping the field
With five miles to the R-10, the lead pack corrected its course southward. Vela was still in second, hoping to reel in Buckley.
“I tried several times to sprint and catch up with Adam, but I never could,” he recalled later. “He was just too strong.”
Instead, Rocheleau reeled in Vela.
“That really started to play with my head,” Vela admitted. “I really started to doubt myself.”
By 9:40, Buckley had put a half mile gap between himself and Rocheleau.
By the time he reached the R10, a mile off of Lunada Bay, and 4:09:36 into the race, Buckley had increased the gap to over nine minutes. From there to the finish his only serious threat was bonking, a common problem in the long race. Throughout the entire race, Buckley never rested.
Vela, lost ground by falling too far below the R10. He and Plsek would duel to the finish for third. Vela prevailed by just one minute, finishing in 5:47:06.
From dream to reality
Buckley crossed the finish line five hours, thirty-four minutes and six seconds after the horn had broken the dawn in Two Harbors. It was the unexpected fulfillment of a dream he had had since he was a 10-year-old Manhattan Beach Junior Lifeguard.
“I love the ocean,” he said. “And paddling is a great way to enjoy it. I watched guys doing the Classic growing up and knew I’d do it one day. I just never dreamed I’d win it,” he said.
Buckley attributed his success to getting his technique dialed in, and being in better shape. He started training in March. At the awards dinner at Sangria he singled out the 16th Street Hermosa Beach Donkeys, whom he trained with, for their encouragement.
Rocheleau’s second place time was 5:41:03. Plsek finished third in 5:48:26, followed by Jay Miller in 5:51:51.
Tom Duryea, of Coronado, claimed his third stock division Classic title in 6:14. The loaded stock field included last month’s first and second place Molokai finishers Erick Abbot of Hawaii, and Shane Scoggins of Ventura. They finished fifth and sixth, respectively in the stock division. Matt Sullivan was second in 6:17:15 and Jay Scheckman was third in 6:17:27.
Australian firefighter Jo Ambrosi captured her second consecutive women’s division title in 6:40:55 on a stock board. Her time was just 34 seconds behind her last year’s time, despite having torn her right ACL just a few days before the race while giving surfing lessons.
Dan Bates, 53, of Manhattan Beach, became the first paddler to both beat a son and lose to a son in one race. Austin, 20, a Los Angeles County Lifeguard beat his dad while finishing seventh in the stock division, in 6:33:51. But dad beat his other son Spencer, 23, though Spencer handicapped himself by paddling a stock board he shaped himself. The board was more notable for its serape paint job than its seaworthiness.
And paddlers raised over $70,000 from pledges for a variety of charities. Vela and Carley Rogers raised funds for the Jimmy Miller Foundation, which offers ocean therapy for injured Marines at Camp Pendleton, and local kids. Tom Horton raised funds for the ALS Association’s Golden West Chapter to Spread Awareness of Lou Gehrig’s Disease. In addition, Team O2H (Ocean of Hope) paddlers, including Mark Schulen and Joel Pepper, raised funds for the Sarcoma Alliance.
Race sponsors included Sangria, who hosted the dinner; Honolua Surf Company who supplied the surf trunks; Body Glove who supplied the rash guards; and Vertra Elemental Resistance, Bark Paddleboards, Sarcoma Alliance/Ocean of Hope, The Jimmy Miller Foundation, and Spyder Surf.
At the awards dinner Body Glove co-founder Bob Meistrell was thanked for making his 70-foot The Disappearance available as the lead boat for the past 15 years.
Meistrell said he marked the R10 and Ship Rock on his GPS on his way over to make sure he’d run a straight course for the paddlers.
“All I can do is lead. I can’t help it if they don’t follow me,” the 82-year-old skipper said. ER
Photos by Nick Meistrell, Brian Kingston and Brent Broza.