The Old Men and the Sea

An 80+ plus Catalina Relay

August 19-20, 2015

by Dave Radcliff

On August 19-20, 6 men and one alternate became the oldest Relay to ever successfully swim across the 22 miles of the Catalina Channel, between the Island of Catalina and the Palos Verde Peninsula in California.  Dave Radcliff, an Oregon Swimmer, was a member of that World Record setting Relay.  This is his story.

The Preparation:

I remember when Don Baker, a retired Pharmacist and a Master Swimmer from San Diego called me a year ago about being a member of the relay.  It sounded exciting and challenging and fun.  I said yes!  Don was our Captain and the other members were Graham Johnston of Texas, Bob Beach of Florida, Don Baker, Bob Best and Bill Spore from San Diego, California.  Our alternate was Norm Stupfel from the San Francisco area.  I knew them all and they were a unique group.  Graham was a 1952 Olympian from South Africa.  Bob Beach was an original founding member of USMS, the first Vice Chair of USMS and a retired Judge.  Bill Spore is a great friend from my high school days and was my roommate at Cal.  I should mention that I was in his wedding party and caught the garter, then two weeks later I met Nancy.  Don, our Captain, had done his college swimming at Oregon State (Go Beavers).  Norm was a swimmer and water polo player from the University of San Francisco.

Each person was on his own to train and get ready for our Relay attempt.  I know from emails that all of us increased our training and yardage.  The Official Channel Rules require a swimmer to swim for one hour.  He can only wear a regular brief or jammer swim suit.  No wetsuits are allowed.  Along with our training, so we could swim for a straight hour, we had to be aware that we would be swimming in cold water.  It was predicted that the Channel would be in the low to mid 60s.  So cold water swimming and distance swimming became our goal.

This is a brief outline of what I did to get ready.  I knew the cold water would be the biggest obstacle for me.  For the swimming part I decided to really emphasize open water swimming.  I knew some of the Oregon lakes would give me the cold water training and the races would give me the experience of open water swimming.

In May I signed up for a series of Tuesday night 1500 meter swims in Hagg Lake.  I wimped out the first two Tuesdays and wore a wet suit.  The last two Tuesdays I swam the 1500 without a wetsuit.  I also started going out to Hagg Lake once a week on my own and swimming.  The water at this time was in the low to mid 60s. Then I started signing up for any Oregon or nearby Open Water Swim I could find.  This is the actual amount of competitive open water swims I did to get ready.

1 x 500 (Elk Lake)

Cold Water Training

Cold Water Training

1 x 1000 (Elk Lake)

1 x 15 minute swim (Trans Tahoe Relay)

5 x 1500 (4 @ Hagg Lake and 1 @ Elk Lake)

2 x 1 mile (A National Championship mile @ Lake Del Valle and 1 @ Foster Lake)

1 x 2000 (Hagg Lake)

1 x 30 minute swim (Trans Tahoe Relay)

1 x 3000 (Elk Lake)

1 x 2 miles (A National Championship 2 mile @ Foster Lake)

1 x 4000 (Hagg Lake)

2 x 5000 (Elk Lake and one ePostal)

2 x 10K (A National Championship 10K @ Lake Del Valle and one ePostal)

When I was not out of town for a lake swim, I continued training 6 days a week with the Barracudas in their 50 meter pool.

Walking out to begin a night swim at Elk Lake

Walking out to begin a night swim at Elk Lake

I spent 7 days at Elk Lake doing cold water training and of course competing in the Cascade Lake Series.  A really special thing I did at Elk was to do 3 night time swims.  The Channel swim was to begin at 11 PM and I was the first swimmer.  So I would swim my first leg of the relay from 11PM to Midnight.  If you have never swum in the middle of a dark night, it is different.  To be completely honest, we had a full moon at Elk so it was not totally dark.  Four good friends made this all possible.  Mark Lane of COMA, Dan Gray, long time RVM member and Oregon Open Water legend, and Tim Cespedes of THB each paddled a kayak for one of my swims.  This points out that an important part of marathon swimming is your support crew.  On Wednesday night, Bonnie Edwards of Oregon Reign, swam beside me to keep me company while Dan paddled.  So special thanks to Mark, Dan, Tim and Bonnie for guiding and helping me through the learning process of swimming at night.  My night swims at Catalina were so much easier because of those three training swims.  A funny story that happened on Saturday during the third training swim.  I looked up and saw this light way up over my head (at least it seemed that way).  I thought, Is a helicopter coming in to get water for a fire.  That light up there was really confusing to me.  Then I hear this voice, “Dave, it’s Mike”.  Mike Tennant had come out from his cabin and was on an SUP (Stand-Up Paddleboard).  That was so neat of him to come out and join in the fun.

Another great training session was the Trans Tahoe Relay.  More Oregon swimmers stepped up to help.  Arlene Delmage, organized and did all of the paper work for our mixed relay.  Graham Johnston, Bob Beach and myself were the three old guys and Arlene Delmage, Bonnie Edwards and Jill Asch were the “three Babes” on our relay, “The Old Men and the Babes”.  That relay gave me more cold water training and also the experience of getting in and out of the boat and high fiving your relay team mate as you changed positions.  It may not seem like much but going through this type of training let me concentrate on my swimming during the relay and not worry about swimming at night, or changing position with another swimmer.  I also learned what to take for nourishment before and after my swims.

The Team and Support Crew meet on the boat

The Team and Support Crew meet on the boat

Finally the date arrived and Nancy and I flew to California.  As a warm up, I did a 1500 swim at a LCM meet in Mission Viejo.  We met the team in San Pedro on the 19th.

Now another Oregon swimmer came on the scene to help out.  My team mate and great friend, Michelle Macy was one of the Catalina Channel Official Observers for this swim.  Michelle is one of the outstanding female marathon swimmers in the World.  She is the first American woman to do the Oceans Seven.  It was nice to know that a real Pro was there to help all of us, but especially me if I needed help or advice.  She did the most fantastic job of psyching me up for my third and final leg, which ended our swim.

I was so impressed with the support crew we had for the swim.  We had Observers, kayakers, paddle boarders, a Doctor, a nurse, a coordinator and 3 ship captains.  The lead Captain said that it is so demanding with a relay that a Captain works a two hour shift and then another takes over for 2 hours.  Safety is the big concern and the boat has to shut down and be in idle when the relay exchange takes place.  The propellers are not moving so there is no chance of danger for the swimmer.  We got the safety rules from the Captain and the official Channel rules from the Observers.  We were ready to go.

The swim:

Michelle instructs me on my first swim

Michelle instructs me on my first swim

The boat left San Pedro harbor about 8:30 PM and we began a fairly fast two hour trip to Doctor’s Cove, our starting point on Catalina Island.  I crawled into my bunk and tried to get a little sleep before my first swim.  Thankfully, sea sickness did not become an issue.  I “dozed” until about 10:10 PM and then got up and got ready for my first swim.

The first swim is rather unique on a Channel Relay.  The support boat can only get to about 200 yards from the coast.  So the first swimmer has to jump in and swim to shore.  Climb out of the water and signal the boat and then the relay officially begins.  I was glad to have the opportunity to swim in and get adjusted to the water and late hour at which I was beginning the swim.

The Head Observer went over the details with me and then it was time to jump in and get the relay started.  Jumping into 72 degree water was so much nicer than jumping into 65 degree water.  I did an easy swim into the shore and adjusted to the water and kayaker and paddle boarder on either side of me.  The Kayaker and paddle boarder were able to go into the shore.  There were no waves breaking in Doctor’s Cove.  I climbed out of water and got above the water line on shore.  Then facing the boat I raised my hand above my head, which was my official starting signal and ran back into the water and the Relay was officially underway.

On my left was a kayaker and on my right was Kevin, our paddle boarder.  A few words about Kevin: he is a high school swim coach and a World Champion Paddle Boarder.  He holds the World’s Record for a race from Santa Barbara to San Diego.  He did the 132 miles in 22 hours.  The nice thing about a paddle boarder was that you can be within two feet of the board and not worry about paddles hitting you.  Also the paddle boarder is down at water level and very easy to see.  Kevin was either lying down to paddle, or kneeling.  He is not a stand up paddler.  No weird visions like up at Elk Lake with Mike.  I felt good and got in a steady rhythm and just looked at Kevin on every breath.  Before I knew it, he turned on his head lamp and held his five fingers up and I knew I had 5 minutes left to swim.  The time went fast and I had covered about 4000 meters.  They had wanted me to go over two miles on each of my swims and the 4000 meters made my goal.  I headed back to the boat and high fived the next swimmer.

Safety is so important on these swims.  The Captain turns the engines to idle during the changeover.  We are not allowed to jump in or climb out until we get a vocal signal of “all clear”.  This was drilled into us at our orientation meeting before the swim.

My Bunk

My Bunk

I climbed out of water and was met by Dr. Jeff, an MD from Arkansas and the son of one of the swimmers.  He had towels and warm clothes for me and questioned me to make sure I was OK.  Once again we had a phenomenal support team.  They took such good care of us.  I ate a peanut butter and honey sandwich and climbed back into bed.  I got up during the fourth leg so I could see my good friend, Bill Spore, swim.  After watching him swim I climbed back into my bunk and tried to sleep.  At this point I felt like I was border line with sea sickness.

Swimming at night

Swimming at night

We hit some big rolling swells during this stretch of the relay. I got up about 4:15 to get ready for my 5 AM leg.  Because of how I was feeling I did not eat.  I did take a GU about 15 minutes before swimming.  I was ready to go and had not gotten actually sick and that was good news.  I got the “all clear” and jumped in and swam over, and Don Baker, our number 6 swimmer, and I exchanged high fives and I was off.  As soon as I was in the water, I started to feel better.  The feeling of slight sea sickness was gone.  Grady, a recent graduate of NYU, was the paddler this time.  We got our rhythm going and swimming felt strong and smooth.  Again the water was a great temperature and there was no feeling of getting cold or chilled.  Michelle told me that I had gone about the same distance as my first leg.  About half way through this swim I was able to notice that dawn was beginning to break.  It was nice to start making the transition from darkness to light.  Soon Grady gave me the signal that my hour was up and Graham and I did our high five and my second leg was over.

Another peanut butter sandwich and a cup of coffee and I was feeling better.  With daylight I was able to stay out on the deck and talk with my teammates and the volunteers.  All feelings of sea sickness were gone.  Michelle said a lot of the feeling better was because I could focus on the horizon and that helped to ease the feeling of motion.  The big question at this time became When would we finish?  It looked like it would be close between our number 6 swimmer, Don, finishing or maybe I would have to do a short third leg.  Don, who is battling prostate cancer, did a great effort but came up about half a mile short.

Michelle did a super job of psyching me up for my third leg.  It was a special feeling to know that I had started the relay and now I got to finish the relay.  It was good pressure but I sure felt it.  As Don finished his second leg, I got ready to jump in and swim for shore.  Kevin was back on the paddle board and I knew I would have a great guide.  Don and I did the traditional high five and then Kevin told me to follow him when we hit the kelp, and he would guide me through.  I looked at Kevin and said, “let’s roll” and we did.  My third and short leg of just over a half mile felt so good.  Kevin told me afterwards that our third leg into the shore was as fast as he had ever brought a channel swimmer into the finish.  I felt good.  After a kiss from Nancy who was waiting on the shore, I turned around and walked out into the shallow water and greeted my teammates.  They had all jumped off the boat and followed me into the finish.  It was great having us all there at the finish and being able to celebrate together.

At the Celebration Banquet that night, they gave us all great T shirts, back packs and a coffee cup that said, “Old Guys Rule”.  I am not sure that we rule but I hope that we showed there is life after 80.  This is just like Willard Lamb is showing us all, that there is life after 90.

At the Banquet we were all asked to say a few words.  My comments were mainly thanking our Relay Captain, Don, for organizing the relay.  Then a special thank you to our support crew.  We were up in front getting the glory but we could not have done the swim without their volunteer help and support.  Now I want to extend that same thanks to all of the Oregon swimmers who were part of my journey and helped me to that wonderful destination on a small sandy beach at Abalone Cove on the Palos Verde Peninsula.

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