At 4:10 am on Friday April 22nd, an Uber driver dropped Emilio and I off at the entrance of Abalone Cove Shoreline Park in Palos Verdes, California—along with our two Oru Coast Kayaks. At 6:30 am, we launched the 16 foot long corrugated plastic origami vessels into the surf, with our sights set on paddling to Two Harbors on Catalina Island—some twenty-something miles away. The journey would be every bit as difficult as we expected.
I had been dreaming of crossing the Catalina Channel ever since Oru first announced their longer, stabler Coast Kayak in May, 2015. The idea for the adventure just seemed so raw. So different. Someone would have to be crazy to attempt it. I have carved my career out of crazy adventures though and this one would fall perfectly into that category.
As it turned out, crazy runs rampant in my social circles; as soon as I announced the trip during the second week of April, Emilio—an aspiring big wall climber who recently sent Moonlight Buttress in Zion—sent me a message: He wanted to do it too. A new team was born.
Emilio and I shared mutual friends from the southern California climbing community, but we had never met in person, so during the next couple of weeks we planned details for the trip via Messenger. We researched gear: VHF marine radios and GPS receivers—and the knowledge of how to use them—are a must for travel on open water. A bilge hand pump would help us to purge any water we took on during the journey. Wetsuits would keep us warm in the chilly Pacific. USCG-certified PFDs would keep us afloat in the event that we capsized.
Emilio and I also researched shipping lanes (there are two: northbound between five and seven miles from California’s coast; southbound between eight and ten miles from California’s coast.) Trip reports of other people who had made the same crossing in traditional kayaks. NOAA forecasts for winds and surf. Currents. Everything that we thought we would need and need to know for a long open water crossing.
While neither of us had ever done any open water paddling, we had both done a decent amount of coastal kayaking—including time in an Oru Bay. We also spend a lot of time climbing in the mountains, where the ability to make critical decisions on-the-fly is a crucial skill for survival. A high degree of physical fitness and incredible mental fortitude are other soft skills which we possess that would carry over into this oceanic adventure. We were ready. Or so we thought.
As the sun rose behind us, details from our launch point at Palos Verdes began to shrink from view—partially distorted by the rays of light which pierced through the clouds above; partially due to the increased atmosphere between us. Within an hour, my Suunto Ambit3 GPS watch showed that we had traveled two and a half miles. With Two Harbors locked into view on the horizon, we continued to paddle. By the time we hit three, I started to feel queasy. Very queasy. Having always a believer of mind over matter, I continued paddling, but minutes later the sea sickness took over and vomit erupted from my mouth and into the ocean. Knowing that dehydration was a very real and dangerous possibility, I continued to sip from my hydration bladder. Three liters of fresh water were on demand; another six were in reserve. I ate some solid food and continued paddling. By the time we hit four miles, I vomited again. The food I had eaten earlier was now chum in the sea; the sickness was real—a possibility that Emilio and I had mistakenly overlooked.
When alpine climbing, days will often begin at midnight and activity can sustain well into the afternoon. During these long, steady hauls, the body burns thousands of calories. Those calories must continually be replenished, or the body will “bonk”—essentially crash. Out in the ocean, we could not risk that possibility, so we had an easily accessible stash of thousands of calories in the form of bars, gels, and chews. I quickly realized that while I could not keep solid food down—if I sucked a PowerBar PowerGel as soon as I finished puking, that it could digest before I vomited again. This method of energy intake provided a reliable source of carbs and caffeine to sustain the marathon paddle.
This routine of “paddle, vomit, drink, gel, paddle” continued at least five more times throughout the course of the morning; then as quickly as the seasickness had made itself present—so too did it vanish. By then it was noon and we had traveled nearly a dozen miles—about halfway there. Time to hammer down.
With a newfound vigor, Emilio and I continued paddling; as we did Catalina Island began to fill our view of the horizon. We could see buildings on the coastline. Soon, we could resolve trees and trails. The small village of Two Harbors was in sight. The sea had other plans for us though; as we entered the afternoon, forecasted winds began to pick up. So we paddled harder. The southward winds blew even harder, but we paddled harder still. Our battle of man vs. Mother Nature continued for hours—but we weren’t going to give up. We couldn’t give up.
For most of the morning, Emilio had taken lead as I coped with seasickness—but now I had a second wind and we were paddling together, tackling the overhead swells head on. The island was closer than ever. I could taste success. Bison burgers were waiting for us at the restaurant on shore. It was 5 pm. According to my GPS watch, we were less than five miles from landfall, which we could make in two hours—but we had been blown nearly six miles south of our intended course. Emilio paddled up to me. He wasn’t feeling so hot. We questioned our ability to make it to shore; then paddle the six miles north along the coast back to Two Harbors where our girlfriends were waiting—undoubtedly worrying about our continued absence. The sun would be setting soon; neither Emilio nor I wanted to be lost at sea.
We then diverted our efforts into choking down pride that swelled higher than the surf we battled; Emilio pulled out the VHF radio and called on Channel 16: “Mayday, mayday, mayday. We are two kayakers in distress.” Repeat. “Mayday, mayday, mayday. We are two kayakers in distress.” The Coast Guard had been monitoring the open channel; we provided our GPS coordinates along with a “long count” to help triangulate our position. Twenty minutes later a Los Angeles County Fire Department patrol boat, which was stationed at Two Harbors, was on its way. We were getting rescued.
After getting pulled up onto the boat, our demeanors were somber at best. Throughout years of adventuring around the world, neither Emilio nor I had ever needed to be rescued; it didn’t help that our objective was so close in sight. Captain Kirkland from the Baywatch Isthmus must have sensed our disappointment though; his answer to our first question triggered two long sighs of relief. Financially, we were off-the-hook. A good reason to never need rescuing again.
With that out of the way, we relaxed a bit and began to open up. The captain informed us that during the afternoon, the NOAA forecast had escalated to a “small craft advisory,” which was more severe than we had anticipated. While the seas were never too rough for us to handle, the winds severely affected our course—blowing us too far south to recover. Cap’n chalked it up to “another day at sea.”
So what could we have done differently? For starters, getting an earlier launch would have helped immensely. We could have made landfall before the wind advisory even went into effect. Alternately, instead of battling the winds for hours on-end, we could have adjusted course—using them to our advantage, and paddled further south towards Avalon instead. Perhaps if we had the resources, a chase boat could have provided a strong safety net as well. Despite our mishaps though, Emilio and I are ready to give it another shot; albeit with a little more planning, and the good graces of Captain Kirkland. And next time, we’ll bring some Dramamine.