On Sunday morning before daybreak, 94 men and women stood on the sand at the Isthmus on Catalina, warming themselves by a fire pit. They had woken at 4:30 a.m. to start stretching, whitening their faces with titanium dioxide sunscreen and mentally preparing themselves for the day ahead.
Now they stood together, psyching each other up with nervous laughter and light hearted jabs. Just before six o’clock, the sun barely visible on the horizon, the paddlers took to the water, knowing they wouldn’t touch anything but the ocean and their boards until they reached Manhattan Beach, 32 miles and at least five hours away.
And so the 2014 Catalina Classic paddle board race began, as it has for the last 32 years, with the blast of the starting horn, the splashes of bodies and the roar of escort boat motors echoing back onto the sleepy shores of Two Harbors.
Paddlers travel from Hawaii, Australia and Europe to compete in the Catalina Classic, the 32-mile prone paddle trek across the channel from Santa Catalina Island to the Manhattan Beach Pier. But the event is local to the core, and competing in the race is not just about winning. It’s about enduring.
“Out of the 100 guys, three might be trying to win,” Matt Walls said, sitting on the back deck of the Disappearance, Saturday afternoon as the boat made its way from Redondo Beach to Catalina. “The rest of us are just trying to beat our buddies.”
Walls is a 46-year old Hermosa Beach native and a top competitive paddler. He worked for the Redondo-based Body Glove watersports brand for years and now manages Jack’s Surfboards in Hermosa Beach.
Body Glove’s yacht, the 72-foot Disappearance, provides race weekend transportation and quarters for various Classic paddlers and their support crew every year. Walls was onboard with his girlfriend, Gina, as well as his friend, surfer Doug Weems, one of those buddies he was hoping to beat.
Walls was on his way to complete his 12th Catalina Classic, a feat Gina deemed insane. Weems was on his ninth.
Also on board was Gus McConnell, a Manhattan Beach native who goes to the Classic every year to be part of the fun and to snap photos. He finally did his own trek in 2010 but won’t be doing it again.
“Anyone who does it more than once has a screw loose,” McConnell said.
At the helm of the Disappearance was Ronnie Meistrell, son of legendary waterman and Dive N’ Surf and Body Glove co-founder Bob Meistrell. Bob died in June of last year, two months before the 2013 Catalina Classic, and Ronnie has taken over captain duties. The boat is integral to the Classic: for the last three decades it has led the paddlers on race day.
The Disappearance is rich with remembrances of Bob, from portraits and memorabilia to a simple framed photo that sits behind the ship’s wheel. But if Ronnie’s heart was heavy last weekend, he didn’t let on. He was on his own mission: to help everyone cross the channel safely.
Walls recalled the history of the Classic while the Disappearance made its way to Two Harbors. He explained how the concept began almost 60 years ago when lifeguard Bob Hogan convinced ten of his friends to race across the channel. The race gained popularity in the fifties but died out after miserable conditions canceled the 1961 race.
Two paddlers resurrected the Catalina Classic in 1982: Karl “Buddy” Bohn and Weldon “Gibby” Gibson. The two had similar Manhattan Beach upbringings and long careers as L.A. County Lifeguards. Gibby was an early participant in the race and Bohn convinced him to help bring it back, thus reestablishing the Catalina Classic as the rite of passage for local watermen and women. Gibby died in 2007. Buddy helps the tradition live on as CEO and founding director.
The Catalina Classic is old school. All paddlers are prone (no paddles allowed, thus no SUP) and riding directly behind another paddler, or drafting, is prohibited. In order to compete in the stock division, the paddler’s board must weigh over 20 pounds but cannot be longer than 12 feet. With popular boards becoming lighter and lighter, 20 pounds is a hard weight for a 12-foot board to meet. Paddlers sometimes have to tape fishing weights to their boards to qualify. Boards in the unlimited division can be any length and weight, but typically are 18 feet long and 25 to 30 pounds.
“This race demands respect,” Walls said. “There is not a lot of glamour in winning. There will never be prize money. Sponsors may give prizes…But, mostly, you do it to get your name added to the perpetual trophy.”
When Walls, Weems and the rest of the Disappearance passengers arrived on Catalina Saturday afternoon, the Classic was already taking over the quiet Isthmus harbor. With just one small inn, the historical Banning House, and one restaurant with a patio bar, Doug’s Harbor Reef, it is a far cry from the bustling Avalon Harbor on the south side.
Inside Doug’s, stock paddler Gracie VanDerByl showed off surf rash on her chest to Steve Shikaya, a men’s unlimited paddler.
“Battle wounds, right?” she said.
Francziska Steagall, race director, buzzed around the harbor, welcoming the paddlers and crews, organizing her volunteers and readying the bandstand for registration and the pre race meeting.
“The paddling community is like nothing I have ever seen,” Steagall said. “There is so much aloha and so much camaraderie.”
The El Segundo resident has been the race director for the last three years and has volunteered for the Classic for the last 10. Each year she stands at the finish on the Manhattan Beach sand to personally welcome every paddler back to land. She hasn’t done the Classic, herself, yet. But she knows her time is coming soon.
“You have to wipe away every trace of negativity from your life to do it,” Steagall said. “You have your escort boat near you but you are alone with your thoughts in the middle of the ocean.”
“People think we’re crazy,” she said.
As the Classic crews piled into Two Harbors, even the paddlers seemed to question their sanity and to battle self doubt.
Fifty one-year old Pete Curry, a Hawaii native, was already doubting himself while climbing aboard the Disappearance hours before. He had completed the race twice but it had been 15 years since his last attempt.
“I kind of tricked myself into doing it this year,” Curry said. His son, Owen, 24, was there to accompany him on an escort boat.
“My dad is like the Godfather to me and my surfing friends in San Diego,” Owen said. “He told me, ‘No matter what I say, don’t let me onto the boat on Sunday. Don’t let me quit.’”
After registration, a casual welcome dinner and words from Buddy Bohn and Steagall, Saturday night’s preparations ended. Some went straight to bed. A few briefly joined the revelry at the lone local bar.
Despite rumors of big swells and heavy winds from Hurricane Lowell off of Baja, Sunday morning at the Isthmus rolled in calmly.
Paddlers will tell you that you can’t be sure how the weather and surf will be until you get out of the shadow of the island. Luckily, by 7 a.m., an hour into the race, the conditions remained ideal.
The paddlers took to the water in a tight pack. They began to meet up with their escort boats — each paddler is required to have an escort for obvious safety reasons — at Ship Rock, two miles out of the harbor. Once some separation emerged between the competitors, each boat found its paddler and checked in via radio with commercial diver Glen Dexter’s Triton, the committee boat occupied by Steagall, Bohn and volunteers.
All radio activity was audible from the wheelhouse of the Disappearance. Patrol boats and the Triton ran the length of the paddlers throughout the race, checking in on the competitors and escorts. The Disappearance led the race course, but by an hour into the race only a few paddlers were visible from the stern.
“You gotta ask yourself, how many strokes have these guys already done,” Ronnie said, whipping out his cell phone calculator to try to estimate the figure. “And this is only an hour in.”
Almost from the outset, Max First, 24, a L.A. County Lifeguard and Manhattan Beach native, had a significant lead. By 7:30 a.m. he was the singular frontrunner.
“This was my fifth Catalina Classic,” First said. “I know that the first 30 to 45 minutes of the race pretty much determine the winner. I knew I had to build that lead early.”
First went hard that first hour. He had trained harder and longer for this year’s Classic than he had in any previous year, and the added strength helped propel him forward. By 9 a.m., he was the only paddler visible from the Disappearance.
“I didn’t look back and I didn’t want to know how far ahead I was,” First said.
The middle of the channel was the most emotionally draining part of the race for him.
“All of a sudden I was out there…and I knew no one was in front of me,” he said. “I had this mental breakdown and almost started crying. It was this realization that I was in the middle of everything I had been training so hard for since February.”
“I have gotten closer to first every year and I wanted it so bad this year, more than ever before,” he said.
First came in 37th place in 2010, his first year at the Classic. In the next year he made a massive leap to place eighth. In 2012 he was sixth and last year he placed third.
He calmed himself, mid-channel, by focusing on his pace and rhythm. He didn’t let himself slow down. He no idea how far ahead he was until he reached the R10 buoy in Palos Verdes, which marks eight miles from the finish line.
“At the R10, my support told me I was about five minutes ahead of the next paddler, Canon,” First said.
The lead was encouraging but First had raced against Canon Smith, 24, of Long Beach, before and knew the race was far from over.
“Canon is really fast and I knew if I let up at all in those last eight miles, he would pass me.”
First tore through the last leg of the race with every ounce of strength his body and spirit could muster. He didn’t know it was over until he looked up at the finish line. First finished in 5:07:58. Seven minutes later, Smith arrived. Tod Robinson, 49, took third, arriving just five minutes after Smith.
The Disappearance anchored a few hundred yards off the Manhattan Beach pier as the paddlers crossed the finish line. On the beach, Steagall hugged every paddler as he or she touched sand. The paddlers were welcomed with leis and cheers from a crowd of families, friends, locals and passerby.
Some went home to shower or sleep or eat. Some got right back into the water to meet the rest of their buddies as they finished and to talk shop.
Friends Darrell Bednark, 59, of Seattle and Wally Buckingham, 61, of San Diego, spent the entire race next to each other.
“I was thinking, ‘If I’m gonna lose, I want to lose to him,” Bednark said.
“We bullshitted our way across the water,” Buckingham said. “By the end, there was no need to try to beat each other.”
The two crossed the finish line holding hands to make sure they finished with a perfect tie. They both came in at 6:29:39.
“There are no egos here and that’s why I keep torturing myself with this race again and again,” Bednark said, laughing.
First accepted his award for first place at a ceremony at the Seaside Lagoon in Redondo Beach Sunday evening.
“This is what I have dreamt of since I was ten years old, standing at the finish line on the beach watching Kyle Daniels win,” he said. First lives in Santa Monica and works for Crest Real Estate. But he still works as an L.A. County Lifeguard in Hermosa Beach and he trains with the South Bay Paddlers in his limited off time.
Asked how he manages both a day job and a paddler’s life, he answered, simply, “A lot of early mornings.”
“Max is super humble and works his ass off,” Walls said.
First earned his spot on the perpetual trophy and came just five minutes shy of beating the record for fastest time. The record is 5:02:12, set by lifeguard Tim Gair in 1999.
Lockwood Holmes, 31, a Florida native and Pepperdine graduate, provided the biggest upset of the day. The relatively unknown paddler not only won the stock division but shattered the stock record in the process with a 5:45:59 finish. Holmes took a whopping 10 minutes off the previous record. Australian Zeb Walsh, 31, came in second in the division. He, too, came in under the previous record time.
Jack Bark, 20, of Rancho Palos Verdes, completed the stock race with a 6:05:49 finish but did not place as highly as hoped. Last month he won the stock division at Molokai, setting a new stock record.
Two female paddlers also broke records: Carter Graves, 22, of Coronado, broke the record for the women’s stock division with a 6:08:05 finishing time. Australian Jo Ambrosi, 42, broke the women’s unlimited record, finishing just three minutes after Graves.
Graves accomplished an additional feat: she became the first female to win both the Molokai Channel Paddleboard Race and the Catalina Classic since the inception of the Classic’s women’s trophy.
Jack’s father, Joe Bark, is a seminal figure in the paddling scene and one of its most important makers and shapers of boards. Virtually every paddler that took a turn on the microphone on Sunday evening mentioned Bark in their thanks. He presented the top winners, Graves, Holmes and First, with custom made big wave boards to honor their victories.
“You know, we’re out there slogging away for whatever reason,” said Tod Robinson. “If you were to tell 99.9% of people what we do and that we do this for fun, they would think we’re all crazy.”
“The paddling community is a family,” Bohn told the crowd at the awards ceremony after sharing some old stories from the early days of the Classic.
“I wanted to share a little bit of our history because you’re all part of that history,” he said. “And I love you all.”