Channel challenges paddlers in 2017 Catalina Classic Paddleboard Race
Los Angeles County Lifeguard Max First, 27, of Manhattan Beach, lived up to his family name with a third first place finish in the Catalina Classic Paddleboard Race on Sunday. First finished the 32 mile race, from Two Harbors on Catalina Island to the Manhattan Beach pier, in 5:55. His time was half an hour slower than his winning time last year and nearly an hour slower than his winning time of 5:07 in 2014.
“This was one of the toughest years I’ve ever seen,” First said at the finish.
Other finishers were also well off their personal bests.
Katie Hazelrigg, 26, of El Segundo a recurrent (part time) Los Angeles County Lifeguard, won the women’s division in 7:20, half an hour slower than her fourth place finish last year.
Last month, Hazelrigg and boyfriend Jack Bark, 23, of Torrance, won the coed relay division in the 32 Mile Molokai-2-Oahu Paddleboard Race.
In 2012, Bark won the Molokai-2-Oahu stock (12-foot boards) division. He finished second in stock in the past two years’ Catalina Classics. On Sunday, Bark competed for the first time in the Classic’s unlimited division (16- to 19-foot boards). He took an early lead.
“Jack’s really good in the bump. He was on his knees almost the whole time. I just made sure he didn’t break away,” First said of his training partner.
But after several miles, according to First’s uncle and escort boat captain Ross King, Bark went off on a high course, in an apparent effort to compensate for the wind and current coming out of the north, while First held to the rhumb line.
“I was worried because whoever leads at the start usually wins,” said King, who has escorted his nephew on six of his eight Classics. But by the time First reached the R10 buoy (mile 22), Bark had been pushed down below the rhumb line and First had built a quarter mile lead.
“At that point, unless Max broke down, I knew he had the race,” King said.
For the third consecutive year Lachie Lansdown, 21, of Noosa, Australia, won the stock division. His winning time of 6:29, was an hour slower than his 2016 Classic stock division record.
The slow times reflected the Catalina Channel’s unpredictability. Saturday, the air was still and the Channel flat. Sunday morning, when 101 paddlers lined up in knee deep water for the 6 a.m. start, they were greeted with a 5- to 10-mile-an-hour north wind and wind-chopped water. The race runs due north. As the day progressed, the head wind began gusting at a whitecap-forming 15-miles an hour. Equally punishing was the strong southerly current that has been running down the coast most of the summer. Earlier this month, during the International Surf Festival Two Mile Swim, from the Hermosa Beach pier to the Manhattan Beach pier, the southerly current added five minutes to the top swimmers’, mid 40 minute times and up to 20 minutes to the slower swimmers’ times.
During Sunday’s Classic, paddlers were dragged backwards at one- to two-miles-per-hour when they stopped to take nourishment from their escort boats. In still water, top paddlers maintain a six- to seven-mile-per-hour pace. Back of the pack paddlers typically maintain a four- to five-mile-per-hour pace. First said he struggled to maintain a five-mile-per hour pace.
The paddlers race prone (lying down) or knee paddle. (The Classic does not include stand-up paddlers).
Each Classic paddler is required to have an escort boat to provides nutrition and set the paddler’s course. But in Sunday’s conditions, even the escort boats had trouble staying on course. “If I took my eye off my GPS for even a moment, I’d have to correct by 10 to 15 degrees,” said Ross, who escorted First in his 23-foot Trophy fishing boat.
Scott Rusher, who with Buddy Bohn, Francziska Steagall and Steve Fairbrother, form the race committee, said he knew the race would be challenging when he looked at the weather report Saturday night after dinner at the Doug’s Harbor Reef, Two Harbor’s only restaurant.
Morning wind at Two Harbors typically comes from the west and funnels through the Isthmus, giving the paddlers a boost off the beach that can still be felt at Ship Rock, two miles out from the island. But Saturday night’s forecast showed the wind coming from the north at 5- to 10-mile an hour, starting at 5 a.m. and gusting at 10 to 20 by late morning.
Less accurate was the 78 degree forecast, which led the paddlers to wear only boardshorts and rash guards and not wetsuit vests. The sun never came out, resulting in most of the paddlers experiencing mild hypothermia and several requiring foil, hypothermia blankets from the lifeguards at the finish.
Walters, the Olympic gold medalist, acknowledged that his 14th place finish in 6 hours, 45 minutes and 22 seconds was sobering for a guy used to winning.
“I guess I need to start training three mornings a week with Max and Jack and Robert (Parucha, who finished third),” he said. “At mile five, I started grinding my teeth. I now see how hard I need to work to get better at this. Incredible respect for Max and Jack and Robert. What they accomplished today in the face of these conditions was awesome.”
Of the 101 paddlers who started the race, 14 failed to finish or finished after the nine-hour cutoff.
Kevin Cody, 68, of Hermosa Beach, was among those who finished after the cutoff. He was competing in his 20th consecutive Classic and was hopeful of beating his 2012, personal best of just under seven hours. But when he reached the Hermosa pier, after the nine hour cutoff, his wife Beverly, who has escorted her husband on 19 of his races, suggested he turn into the beach. She only agreed to escort him the final 1.6 miles to the Manhattan pier after he correctly named his two grandchildren and the day of the week.
“After completing the Classic so many years, I was getting a bit cavalier about it. That won’t happen again,” Cody said. He was evasive when asked if he meant he was done paddling the Classic, or would step up his training next year.
Joe Bark, 57, a retired Redondo Beach firefighter, was competing in his 35th consecutive Classic. He missed the first, modern Catalina Classic in 1982 because he didn’t know about it until he met that year’s paddlers celebrating after the race in Beachbum Burt’s bar. He was a top 10 finisher in each of the next 10 races. He won the Classic in 1988 and 1989.
(The first Catalina Classics ran from 1955 to 1960. The 1961 the race was cancelled because of rough Channel conditions. It was not held again until 1982, when it was resurrected by Bohn and fellow lifeguard Weldon “Gibby” Gibson, a paddler in the late 1950 races).
This year Bark was an hour off his recent times and two hours off his winning times.
“The ocean won,” he said of Sunday’s race. “It was okay the first mile, then we hit mud that lasted the next 31 miles. I saw paddlers doing el rollos.”
Bark said he plans to continue competing in the Classic until he hits a reality check more compelling than the leg and shoulder cramps he pushed through this year.
“Burritos and beer with the paddling community are worth the eight hours of pain, which you get over,” he said.
For complete results visit catalinaclassicpaddleboardrace.org
by Kevin Cody
Kevin is the publisher of Easy Reader and Beach. Share your news tips. 310 372-4611 ext. 110 or kevin[at]easyreadernews[dot]com