The Standard for Open Water Swimming
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Denis Crean,  the founder of WaveOne Swimming and marathon open water swimmer, swam 20+ miles from Santa Catalina Island to
the Palos Verdes Peninsula, Los Angeles in the Pacific Ocean, on October 10, 2016. The inspiration to attempt this channel crossing
comes from his heroes and team mates, who are also
Special Olympics athletes. This is his account of the swim.
(click on photos to enlarge)
The Catalina Swim
Inspiring Your Inner Hero – One Stroke at a Time
October 9-10, 2016

Short Version:
I am writing to share with you some of what has taken the last few weeks to interpret and
assimilate from the swim from Catalina Island to the mainland.  Ultimately, it is you, the
WaveOne open water community, friends and family that were the key to its success. My
ocean crew reminded me, my job is to swim. So I swam. The swim started on October 9 at
23:55 on Catalina Island and finished 16 hours, 18 minutes, and 20 seconds later at
Portuguese Bend Beach, October 10.

Long (Very) Version:
A million pieces of information, thoughts and considerations converge into a split second
when a person steps across the boat rail into the deep black abyss of the ocean to begin a
20+ mile swim. Months of preparation disappear into that icy splash of darkness. Without
thinking, I put my head down and took a stroke to the Catalina shore…

I arrived in LA a week before the swim to finish preparing logistically, finalize the ocean
crew and acclimate to the Pacific Ocean. The
Catalina Channel Swimming Federation is very
helpful and supportive in finding support and providing information. They supply two
observers who monitor the integrity of the unassisted swim and the safety of the
swimmer. I was very fortunate that Forrest Nelson chose my swim to be the primary
observer, and he and I discussed various aspects of Catalina that helped me a great deal in
readiness for swim day. I first met Forrest in 2004 at the Tampa 24 Mile Marathon Swim. He
is a very experienced marathon swimmer and was inducted the International Marathon
Swimmers Hall of Fame last year. A good guy to be watching out for you.  CCSF put me in
touch with Dan Simonelli for kayak support and he didn’t hesitate in joining the crew.  Dan’
s reputation as a marathon swimmer, coach and crew member is very strong. I met Dan a
few years back swimming in the La Jolla Cove. I met him again Monday at the Outrider’s
dock and launched into a long conversation about marathon swimming, drawing on his
experience as much as possible.  Ian Rowe, coach at
Nation’s Capital Swim Club, flew in the
day before the swim as swimming, paddling and crew support. There is no substitute for a
team that knows you in different aspects, swimming and personally, with experience to
provide what you need in different and adapting ways throughout the swim process.
Their dedication and knowledge proved crucial especially later.

It is difficult for me to describe a “plan” to swim Catalina or any other long swim. Basically,
besides getting the large logistic pieces (date, sanction, boat, core crew, most supplies) in
place, my mind and body prepare the best I can, too many variables exist swim day to be
set on any one “plan”. This was supposed to be about a 10 hour swim, maybe a little
longer, based on my pace times and conditions.  Nine years passed since my last 20+ mile
swim, which made me one of the variables: how would age affect endurance, pacing and
muscles, mental perseverance; would I need different feeding options; how would my
stroke adapt…? The final area of preparation is letting go of the questions, doubts,
potential obstacles and turning everything over to the ocean, universe, the energy of my
community and trust the swim itself and all the people involved. It’s one stroke at a time
until you land on shore.

My sister, Maria, who lives in LA, Ian, and I loaded the car and headed down to the dock to
meet the crew at the Outrider at 8pm to transfer the swim supplies and paddleboard to
the boat. Joe Bark of
Bark Paddleboards is one of the most experienced and revered
waterman in the area and world. He kindly offered one of his boards to support the swim
which was much appreciated.  After peppering Forrest at dinner with more last minute
questions, we met the rest of the ocean crew. Captain John Pittman leads the
with Captains Scott and Dawn (also an EMT), Cami, the cook, and Mike, deckhand. Captain
John has over 30 years’ experience escorting swimmers across the 3,000 feet deep San
Pedro (Catalina) Channel. This was the last crossing of the season (possibly of the Outrider
since he just sold it) and he brought his “A” team. We were also joined by Linda Bamford,
CCSF observer and Timettra Wellington as support crew. Dan loaded his kayak and we
pushed off.

Before leaving San Pedro Harbor, we all met in the cabin to review conditions and strategy.
Dan had informed me in previous days the channel had some changing and unpredictable
currents. I had been viewing W and SW swells with variable wind in the last 72 hours.
Captain John rolled out the 24-hour average current charts showing a west swell, but we
believed based on experience and the 1 hour charts, that it would drop or shift as we went
into the night/early morning. Wind was negligible at the time. Captain John told me that it
was my decision to reverse the course and swim to Catalina, or swim from Catalina to LA as
planned. I looked at them and said we are starting from Catalina.

The 2-hour trip to Catalina includes preparation for sea sickness. In previous swims, we
practiced with Bonine to determine and counter the influences of the rolling sea. That
proved crucial during the trip over and the swim. Everybody took time to rest, I watched
the lights of San Pedro and Palos Verdes disappear, except for the periodic beam from the
peninsula lighthouse, trying to discern any clues I could use during the swim back. I heard
the engines cut and realized we must be there. My first (and only) wave of nausea flowed
through me. It left as soon as it arrived.  Forrest pulled me aside to scope out the landing
spot and give me last minute instructions to start the swim.

With Desitin in strategic body areas and WaterMan’s sunscreen everywhere else, cap,
goggles and suit on (yup, check), Captain Scott opened the rail and I stepped to the edge.
He instructed me, “When I say go, you need to jump, don’t hesitate because we need to
pull away to deeper water asap. Are you ready?” “I’m as ready as I will ever be.” That was
the obvious truth. The unknown was about to be known, any fear was being smothered
by equal parts a lack of choice and faith. “Go.” I jumped just like many times off the dock at
National Harbor, except different. I couldn’t believe I was in the middle of the Pacific, in the
middle of the night, about to swim back to LA. The boat can only get to within about 100
yards of shore, so I swam ashore, walked out to dry land, raised my hand and lowered it
when I stepped into the water. This signals the observers that the swim has started. The
time was 11:55pm Sunday October 9. Water temperature was 71F. I declined to know the
water temp prior to starting or during the swim.

It was a beach start, and like so many repeats at Hains Point in Coach Flannigan’s practice,
I blindly started taking stroke after stroke, acclimating to a sense of void, feeling
weightless, tasting the Catalina saltwater for the first time. I looked up and saw Ian and
Dan lit up with glow sticks on the paddleboard and kayak and swam toward them. They
flanked me on both sides which made getting into a rhythm easier until I warmed up my
muscles. The water was cool but exactly like it was the past week, so it felt normal. There
was nothing to sight so I followed the lights of Dan and Ian. My job was to swim, so I

For the next three hours, I swam. I didn’t think about much but being comfortable with my
stroke, staying slow and calm. I felt the solitude of the vastness of the ocean at night.
There is no difference in where the water ends and the sky begins. Initially, the only light is
from the glow sticks of the paddler and the cabin of the boat (which stayed out of view
behind me). About 90 minutes in, during a breath, I noticed the three stars of Orion’s belt
at about 40 degrees off the horizontal. Hmmm, another buddy keeping watch. Orion and I
became fast friends. He told me (from his position in the sky) how long I had been
swimming, approximately when Anne would join me swimming (we had planned about
4am) and when dawn would occur. He is also a Monty Python fan and together we
invented a swim technique course called Total Explosion Swimming. I laughed until I
stopped. Dan started to wonder…

When the laughter stopped, certain realities returned. The west swell continued, the wind
picked up and I was fighting about a 45-degree angle of current to stay on course….and
this is the time the sea is supposed to be calm! About 4 or 5 hours in, I felt tired and slow,
slightly nauseous, my left shoulder hurt (as usual) and I was cold. The night was getting to
me. I was blowing off the encouragement Dan and Ian gave me at each feed. Cami fired up
the grill on the Outrider and the smell of bacon and eggs wafted over the course. That’s
what I wanted! The picture of the crew sitting and eating a tasty breakfast made me
hungry and a bit lonely. I couldn’t look toward the cabin. Scenarios began going through
my head of quitting, what would that mean, how would I explain, was this not meant to
be, I should have trained more…etc. It is too early to stop. Anne would swim with me
within an hour, then daylight an hour or two after that. Those became my next two goals.
Around that time, my sinuses blocked up, which means I couldn’t exhale through my nose.
I attributed that to the cold, but was I getting sick? This is new. That changed my breathing
timing forcing my head to stay up longer, putting more pressure on the shoulders. Push
aside the negative and stay in touch with the beauty of the swim…Every stroke entry
exploded with the light and energy of millions of illuminating plankton. I followed the light
trail of the Pacific as each arm passed under me. It was mysterious and awesome. Mantras
came to mind, “the Pacific is my home, water is heaven, be here now, enjoy the beauty of
the night…”

Time became lost in the darkness. Like the laps in the pool, I lost track of how many 15
minute feeds I had. How many hours are left? Orion looked like he was returning to the
sea… Forrest educated me about how psychologically a buddy swimmer can help you, but
also create a sense of deprivation if they are swimming fast and you are swimming slow
and tired. My buddy swimmer jumped in and her graceful stroke looked easy, but I didn’t
care because Forrest forewarned me to stay within myself. I know I felt slow, but my job
was to swim. She was sending me the energy I craved at that time. Buddy swimmers are
only allowed one hour at a time and three hours total in any given swim per CCSF rules.

Orion was almost at 12 o’clock, telling me dawn was getting near. The black non-horizon
turned a dark grey. I double checked. Ian was next to me and I stopped, “Is that from the
sun or the stars?” He told me the sun. He told me I was looking strong. I knew he was
lying, but I still believed him. As the grey turned dark orange, I felt stronger. I decided that
I didn’t want to listen to my negative self-talk (whining) any longer and focused on one
stroke at a time. The orange began to be pierced by yellows and reflect off the swells and
chop that rolled by me. Every long swim recalls periods of those practices that I swim fast
and strong, where the pain fades into the interval or a goal to descend the set. Those sets
that kick your ass but build your confidence, especially if you are around 10,000 yards for
the day. That’s when I feel like I can swim forever. During the previous weeks, Ian had let
me join the afternoon practices he coaches and that’s where that feeling returned after 9
years. I soaked in the emerging sun’s energy and began to “descend the set.” The second
half began. Stroke rate picked up by at least 10 per minute.

That swim speed was not sustainable but necessary to complete the swim. I also knew I
could call on that speed anytime I needed to. I held it for about 90 minutes to try to make
as much distance as possible before the wind came up (HA! Little did I know it was blowing
for the past 5 hours), but mainly to prove that I could keep swimming strong. My sinuses
cleared, so breathing normalized, cold disappeared (although the water temp dropped to
65F), shoulders and heart were performing as needed and stroke grew stronger. I asked
Forrest rhetorically at a feed, if he liked that stroke count? Observers monitor stroke count
as an indicator of the health of the swimmer. A dropping count may indicate extreme
fatigue, hypothermia or other medical issues. I just increased my count by about 10 per
minute 7 or 8 hours into the swim. Most importantly, mentally I shifted to a place of
knowing I will complete the swim, no question. Orion disappeared into the daylight,
whispering me farewell to swim on my own with the sun.

It is best to keep thoughts simple. One being that my job is to swim, my body is the engine,
fuel it and it can swim forever. (…one stroke at a time…) It generates the power necessary
to go and the heat to maintain warmth.  In 2006, a friend told me about Hammer Nutrition
products for training and racing. I had tried other nutritional products but none worked as
well as Hammer, particularly with endurance swims. Once I began focusing on nutrition as
a vital component of swimming, performance and recovery improved greatly. Twenty
minutes was my feeding interval until I talked to fellow marathon swimmer, Chris Derks. He
suggested dropping to 12 – 15 minutes at a smaller intake to eliminate potential depletion
and to increase contact with your kayaker to keep stimulated and focused. Making that
change for Catalina made a positive difference. Feeds should take 5-20 seconds to stay
warm and not to be pushed off course by currents while treading water. We are allowed
being handed nutrition or equipment, but cannot be touched or hold on to anything like
the kayak per CCSF rules for unassisted swims. Typically, Dan and Ian threw a water bottle
on a rope (with a glow stick attached at night) to me to drink from and drop. One
challenge is drinking without letting in salt water from the spray or chop that catches you
by surprise.

The Middle Bit. During a 10-hour swim from Catalina to PV, halfway or 10 miles should fall
before dawn. I transitioned from reading Orion’s clock to the sun’s clock and what I
thought was about 8am, (crew never gave me the time) and after my speed increase, I
figured I should be a few miles from the finish. That was hopeful. The mainland was
becoming clearer and I swore I saw a building. I rolled over on my back to look at Catalina
in the distance. They both looked similarly far away. Hmmm.  At the feed, I asked Forrest
how far? (knowing he wouldn’t tell me), then I asked, am I 4 miles away? He said “No”
(that was a test, I knew I was further) 6 miles? Silence. He wasn’t budging. “OK I’m at least
10!?” Please Forrest throw me a bone. “Yes you are at least 10.” Whew! I didn’t know we
were at 10.5 miles. The current was stronger than anticipated and although I picked up the
pace, mileage was tough. Every time I stopped to feed, those west swells rolled right
through us pushing toward Newport Beach maybe 20 miles away. Could have been Mexico
but it didn’t matter. I trusted the course the crew set and knew it was best for the
conditions. I exclaimed to Dan at a feed, when are those swells going to switch from the
south (and give me a break)? Just swim.

Knowing the distance to the finish was more than I planned, and I had a few hours to go, I
settled into a solid sustainable pace. Left shoulder now felt strong (like on those 6+ mile
practice days) but the right was stressing, not in a good way. Concentration for the
foreseeable future is perfect stroke for the left and decreasing the stress point in my pull
for the right. That meant only breathing to the right, so I started using a 4 stroke pattern
only on the right side trying to keep my head as low as possible. Unfortunately, the
current grew stronger and later was told my swim speed dropped to .67 mph although I
felt like I was swimming at 2+mph.  Swells grew and I saw whitecaps behind Dan and Ian
when I sighted. The sun went higher but the mainland was slow to grow. Every so often, I
asked Dan “how far?” or am I within 3 miles, and he usually responded with “Let’s do four
more feeds and I’ll let you know.” That happened about 4 times. It didn’t matter, it was
one stroke at a time. The finish is inevitable; time is the only variable. Although those
bacon and eggs would be nice about now.

As the day extended, every feed I heard more encouragement. The crew was receiving
texts from our Special Olympics team in DC and relayed them. When I heard these, I smiled
and laughed, often with my head down into the ocean continuing to swim. People
typically ask 3 questions regarding these swims: Are there sharks? (yes, the ocean is where
they live, but we didn’t see any) Do you wear a wetsuit? (No, it’s against the rules and
ruins a perfectly good swim) and, what do you think about? Primarily the answer is,
exactly what I need to do this second, which is what am I doing with my stroke how
perfectly can I continue my stroke. But hearing the encouragement from Luke, Rose, Jeff,
John, Susan, Jenny and others, completed a circuit of energy that circled the world. Their
words shifted my thinking making me aware of the much greater energy we possess as a
community. We are all in the Pacific now, one stroke at a time to the mainland. Each of
their faces was pictured with their words, as well as times over the years we swam
together. I saw so much joy shared after they triumphed in a swim, I wanted to share this
with them. At just the right time, more than ever, we will get to Palos Verdes. Anne swam
with me two more times but was limited to the three-hour maximum, so I held off in asking

The current gave in a little and with the boost from home, a beach became visible and I
picked up the pace again. One of the pitfalls of OWS is believing you are closer than you
actually are to the finish. Captain John changed course slightly to hopefully catch a current
into a landing further south than our original target. I didn’t know if I was a mile away or
3, but I felt faster and land grew larger. I passed a piece of kelp which told me the shore
was getting closer. That was the closest I came to seeing any wildlife (besides Ian in the
kayak). However, just after sunrise over a thousand dolphins joined us. Evidently it was
awesome. I had no clue, I just swam. Later, a smaller pod greeted us a mile from shore.

At what I thought was about 1000 meters from shore I gave up the feeds. Hammer is
fantastic, but enough is enough. That was still about 40 minutes away. With all the wishful
thinking about catching a favorable current, the current shifted straight head on.
Although a slight current, the Pacific didn’t give in this day. I just swam as fast as I could to
shore.  Ian and Dan paddled for the finish.  The waves were small. The bottom become
clearer. Finally, I stretched out and let a small wave wash me in. Prepared to crawl, once I
touched the pebbles and sand, I felt energized to stand and walk to dry sand. I raised my
hands. Dan raised his paddle signaling the end of the swim.  The afternoon sun felt warm,
16:18.20 after leaving the shore of Santa Catalina Island.

“Passion is an empty vessel without connection.” Easkey Britton

This swim has had a profound impact on me, in ways I don’t yet fully know or understand.
Immediately, I feel immense gratitude for all the people that contributed to making it
successful, supporting me and supporting our open water swimming community,
especially the
Special Olympics athletes that inspire us all. With the generous help of Kindy
French, we raised over $14,000 for our SO open water and triathlon programs. This
Catalina swim connected a larger community through a shared passion. Thank you. As
always…It’s a great day for a swim.
Here comes the sun and a new surge
of energy. Ian kayaking. Dan and Ian
took about 3 hour shifts in the kayak
for feeding and navigation.
Click to enlarge
Prior to leaving the dock at San Pedro, we
discussed conditions, strategy,  and Forrest
read the
Catalina Channel Swimming
Federation  rules for the swim.
Dan, and  Forrest in the
Outrider. GPS  course
chart in the background
Forrest, Denis, Dan and
Captain John Pittman
reviewing currents
A "before" photo with the lights of
San Pedro fading in the distance
The Start from Catalina
Dan in the kayak, Ian on the paddleboard
Night swimming using glow sticks to see swimmer and kayaker. Ian kayaking.
Catalina in the background.
Denis and Ian with the Bark
Paddleboard. Mixing the
Hammer  Nutrition for feeding.
Denis and Maria. Denis at the
Outrider prior to boarding.
Pace increased, swell grew, wind blew, dolphins swam by...
All is good with Dan in the kayak
Sighting ahead. Did I see a building on
the cliff? No, about 8 miles from shore.
Ian, Forrest, Linda, Timettra,
was a long day and they stayed strong
and full of energy. I couldnt have
asked for a better crew!
It's a great night for a swim!
Where's the swimmer? Denis playing hide and seek with Ian behind the
increasing wind and swell. About 14.5 hours in the water.  
The finish 16:18:20
Portuguese Bend Beach
The Ocean Crew (L-R):
Forrest, Cami, Timettra, Denis, Scott, Ian,
Mike, Dawn, Anne, Captain John, Dan,
The GPS chart of the last 5 hours
of the swim.
Click photos to enlarge
Forrest explaining the start
location and procedure to Denis.
6.5 hours
7 hours
10 hours
12 hours
14.5 hours
Ian, Timettra, and Linda