Paul Teetor

LA Lifeguards Max First, Katie Hazelrigg win Catalina Classic Paddleboard Race

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Max First on his way to his third Classic title. Photo by Chris Aguilar/Fin Film

by Paul Teetor  

A bullhorn rang out over the half-moon shaped beach on the west side of the pier at Two Harbors on Catalina Island, shortly before 6 a.m. Sunday morning: “Five minutes.”

One hundred and one paddleboarders, among them, Molokai 2 Oahu, Australian, Tahitian, French and Classic champions and one Olympic gold medalist, completed their final preparations: chugging yet another bottle of water, wolfing down a last protein bar, and checking the GPS’s mounted on the front of their boards.

“Three minutes,” the bullhorn barked.

Then came the countdown: “10, 9, 8…”

The paddlers launched their 12- to 18-foot, needle-shaped, carbon fiber boards with adrenaline-fueled whoops and yells in another running of the oldest, most elemental battle in history: men and women  against nature.

On the undercard: men and women against themselves.

PHOTO GALLERY BY CHRIS AGUILAR/FIN FILM

The 36th consecutive Catalina Classic 32 Mile Paddleboard Race had begun.

Katie Hazelrigg won the woman’s division, one month after placing first in the Molokai 2 Oahu coed relay division. Photo by Chris Aguilar/Fin Film

Why?

Only a few of the competitors, including the aptly named, two-time Classic champion Max First and paddleboarding prince Jack Bark, son of paddling legend Joe Bark had realistic chances at getting their names engraved on the perpetual trophy. The trophy lists winners dating back to 1955, when the first Classic was won by big wave legend Ricky Gregg. The Classic was suspended in 1961 because of rough conditions and resurrected in 1982 by Buddy Bohn, a young Los Angeles County Lifeguard and his lifeguard mentor Weldon “Gibby” Gibson. Gibson had competed in the 1950s races.

During the Saturday night registration at Buffalo Park, the 27-year-old First was characteristically modest. “It’s a really deep field this year, there are a lot of guys who could win,” he said. The tall, lean Bark also downplayed his chances, despite a 2012 first place finish in the 32 mile Molokai 2 Oahu Paddleboard Race, in the stock division, and second place stock finishes in the past two Catalina Classics. This year, for the first time, he was racing in the Classic’s unlimited division. (Stock boards are 12-feet or smaller. Unlimited boards range from 16 to 19 feet).

Jack Bark finished second in his first Classic on an unlimited board. He was the Classic stock division in 2012. Photo by Chris Aguilar/Fin Film

“I just hope I can hang with the big boys on their big boards,” Bark said.

First’s and Bark’s training partner Robert Parucha was also a threat. He placed fourth last year. Nor could Olympic gold medalist David Walters be ignored, despite this being his first year paddling.

At the Beijing Olympics in 2008, Walters helped set a world record, swimming the first leg of the 4 x 200 meter relay. The following year, at the World Championships in Rome, Walters beat Michael Phelps’ American record for the 100 meter freestyle, with a time of 47.33. That record still stands.

“I love this sport because there is no black line to chase,” he said, referring to the black lane lines pool swimmers must follow. “Paddling is just me against the ocean. I know there are a lot of fast guys here, and I’m here to learn from them. But I don’t give up just because someone has more experience than me. I’ve got a strong motor and I’m going to use it,” the six-foot-two, 200 pound County Lifeguard said. Walters qualified for the Classic by winning the Rock 2 Rock stock division race on Father’s day. That race also starts at Two Harbors, but ends at Cabrillo Beach. The race is 10 miles shorter than the Classic.

 

Other contenders included Lockwood Holmes of Malibu, who broke the stock record in 2014 and Santa Monica College swim coach Erik Matheson, who placed seventh last year on a borrowed board.

The rest of the pack understood that there can be only one winner and it wouldn’t be one of them. They were motivated by the desire to tackle the 32-mile channel crossing, from Two Harbors on Catalina Island to Manhattan Beach pier with just their bodies and boards. There are no paddles in the Catalina Classic. Stand-up paddleboards are not allowed. Paddlers race prone or on their knees.

Veterans such as Joe Bark, 57, hoped to add to the number of their Classic finishes. Bark, whose Bark Paddleboards accounted for over 90 of the boards entered in the race, was racing in his 35th consecutive Classic. Jay Russell, John Carroll and George Loren were all going for their 15th. Newly appointed Catalina Classic committee member Scott Rusher was doing his 13th and D.J. O’Brien, who didn’t start paddling until she was 41, was paddling in her 10th Classic, as was Austin Bates. Two years ago O’Brien won the women’s division and last year placed second.  

Then there was the doing-it-to-help-others contingent, led by John Ward, Aimee Spector and the Cole Horton and Tom Horton father-and-son team.

“I’m racing to get donations for the Ronald McDonald House in Long Beach,” said Ward, 57, of Manhattan Beach. “They provide free room and board for families in critical care situations.” Ward has raised over $17,000 for the charity.

Spector is an organizer of Team Ocean Of Hope and had @teamoceanofhope stickers on her board to remind her of two families who had lost their children to cancer.

Cole and Tom Horton paddled to raise money for ALS research. Photo by Kevin Cody

The Hortons were raising money to fight ALS (Lou Gehrig disease), which struck down the great New York Yankee slugger of the 1920s and 1930s in the prime of his career. In 2007, ALS took the life of Tom’s mother, Anastasia “Peacha” Horton, a beloved third-grade teacher at Valley View Elementary School (now Hermosa Valley).

“We’ve raised $10,000 this year and $125,000 since 2007,” Tom Horton said. At the sign-in, they wore shirts that read “Paddling 86 miles to defeat ALS.” The 86 miles included the 22-mile Rock 2 Rock on Father’s Day, last month’s 32 Mile Molokai to Oahu race and Sunday’s Classic.

Austrailian Lachie Lansdown won his third consecutive stock division Classic title. Photo by Chris Aguilar/Fin Film

Though there is no prize money for the Classic, Australian Lachie Lansdown, the two-time reigning stock champion, was counting on a win to impress his sponsors. “I’m here to defend my title,” he said. Nick Franco of San Francisco, owns fledgling paddleboard company. Shearwater. He is hoping one day it will rival Joe Bark paddleboards in popularity. “We’re just getting started,” he said. “But we have big hopes for Shearwater.”

Santa Cruz big wave surfer Patrick Shaughnessy was paddling a Shearwater board.

Brutal conditions

By the time the swiftly moving field of paddlers reached Ship Rock, about two miles out, First, Bark and Parucha had already broken away. Though drafting is not allowed the training partners were well matched.

Once clear of the harbor, conditions turned ugly. A headwind and the chop it created buffeted the lightweight, carbon fiber boards. And the heat wave that was forecast failed to burn through the thick marine layer.

Equally punishing was the strong, southerly current that has been running down the coast most of the summer. Earlier this month, during the South Bay International Surf Festival Two Mile Swim, the southerly current added five minutes to the top swimmers times and up to 20 minutes to the slower swimmers’ times.

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 after the race that he struggled to stay above five.

The escort boats that are required of each paddler, providing food and water and quick assistance if their paddler encounters problems. At mile 15, Ronnie Meistrell, skipper of the Body Glove boat Disappearance, which has led the race for over two decades, spotted the Yang Ming, a Japanese cargo freighter, from San Pedro. It was on a collision course with the leaders.

Meistrell alerted the escort boats and the Yang Ming’s captain, who promised to pass ahead of Disappearance by at least 50 yards.

First maintained a steady 25 to 50-yard lead for the first 10 miles. Then Bark reeled him in.

“Jack got about 100 yards ahead, and then he went north while I kept following Disappearance,” First said after the race. “That was the difference.”

Parucha was in third place, well ahead of the rest of the pack.

By the time First and Bark reached the R10 buoy, off Palos Verde’s Bluff Cove, First had regained the lead and didn’t relinquish it. Paddlers must round the buoy before continuing on the final eight miles to the Manhattan Beach pier.

First’s time of 5 hours, 55 minutes and 55 seconds 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,” he said after reaching the beach.

Bark followed, with a time of 6 hours, 1 minute and 37 seconds. He pronounced himself more than happy with his second-place finish and his decision to switch from stock to the unlimited division.

“My plan was to stay with Max as long as I could,” he said. “At about 12 miles I started to drop back and never could get close again. Congrats to Max.”

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 won the coed relay division in the 32 Mile Molokai-2-Oahu Paddleboard Race.

Lansdown won his third consecutive stock title with a time of 6 hours, 29 minutes and 3 seconds. As he munched on pizza on the beach, he reflected on Bark finishing second in the stock category the last two years and finishing second in the unlimited category this year. “I just might have to follow Jack’s example and switch to unlimited, myself,” he said.

The beach was soon crowded with exhausted competitors, cheering supporters, and the just plain curious. The 78 degree forecast had led most of the paddlers to wear only board shorts and rash guards and not wetsuit vests, resulting in many of the paddlers experiencing mild hypothermia and several to require foil, hypothermia blankets from the lifeguards to restore their body temperatures.

“I feel wrecked, just wrecked,”Marisa Kuiken, a 30-year-old lifeguard from Carlsbad, said after reaching the beach. “The best part was seeing a whale 50 feet in front of me.” (Kuiken was the first woman finisher, and 33rd overall, with a time of seven hours, 15 minutes, 24 seconds. But because she was the only woman racing an unlimited board, she did not medal. The rules required a minimum of five racers for a division to be recognized).

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,” 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 is awesome.”

Jack Bark completing his 35 consecutive Catalina Classic. Photo by Chris Aguilar/Fin Film

But no one received more respect and love than Joe Bark, who finished 80th, with a time of 8 hours, 16 minutes and 45 seconds. As the burly retired firefighter from Rancho Palos Verdes emerged from the surf hundreds of people let loose a prolonged cheer that was more about his paddling perseverance and his contributions to the sport than it was about his 80th place finish.

“That was a tough one today,” he said.

Contact: teetor.paul@gmail.com. Follow: @paulteetor ER

 

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