Wednesday, September 2, 1992
A Long Way to Paddle; Race From Catalina to Manhattan Beach Is a Real
By: RICH ROBERTS
TIMES STAFF WRITER
Twenty-six miles across the sea, Long Beach glows on the horizon,
while in Isthmus Cove on Santa Catalina Island, mast lights on moored
sailboats sway like an uncoordinated chorus line.
Bad signs. A clear San Pedro Channel means a windy channel, so rough
that even after dark, swells roll into the protected anchorage. The 1992
LA Sound Catalina Classic Paddleboard Marathon is less than eagerly
awaited by the record number of 38 competitors.
"I'm so scared," says one paddler who will not sleep much the night
before. "I don't know why I'm doing this."
It's not sharks or the shipping traffic that worries the competitors,
although those are always concerns.
"It's the miles," says Brian Lanigan, 21, of Palos Verdes, who is
paddling his fourth marathon.
The race covers the historic route of 32 miles from the beach at the
isthmus to the Manhattan Beach Pier established unofficially in the
1930s. The event faded after 1957 when the late Tom Zahn won and Weldon
(Gibby) Gibson got lost in fog and paddled to L.A. Harbor, before
recovering to place third.
In 1982 Gibson and another former competitor, Karl (Buddy) Bohn,
revived the race with tighter rules, such as an escort boat for each
paddler, but the race didn't get any easier.
Why do they do it? Certainly not for the money. First place in each
division--unlimited and stock board--pays $1,500, with $500 to second and
$250 to third.
And not for the fun. They could avoid the expense and the risks and
lie prone on an ironing board all day while someone threw salt water in
On Saturday night there is an outdoor, carbo-loading spaghetti dinner.
Everybody seems to have sun-bleached hair, a flat belly and a full-on
tan. Nobody smokes. Most drink juice or soda pop, a few sip beer. The
mood is festive until Bohn announces, "Tomorrow is going to be rough. I
can guarantee it."
The crowd goes quiet, and soon all drift off to bed in the campground
or on boats in the cove. The race starts at first light Sunday, about 6
a.m., to get in maximum distance before the wind rises.
The light breeze continues ominously through the night. In his 10th
marathon, Joe Bark, 32, knows the signs.
"I just want to survive it without coming in dead last," he says.
He will finish 27th out of 38.
Even Bark, a Redondo Beach fireman who won the unlimited class titles
in '88 and '89, can't explain why he does it.
"It's a feeling you can't understand unless you do it, something that
brings you back," he said.
Lifeguard Steve Wood, 49, of Manhattan Beach, is the oldest entry this
year, although there have been older ones. He will finish 23rd.
There is one woman: Helene Phillips of Hawaii, who will place 20th
Bark says he has "built about 80% of the boards in the race, just for
a hobby, for the sport. There's no money in it."
Stock boards, similar to those used by lifeguards, are limited to 12
feet and must weigh at least 20 pounds. Unlimited boards are what the
name suggests but are usually from 17 to 19 feet. Not to be confused with
modern surfboards, which are much shorter and cheaper, paddleboards cost
from $800 to $2,000 but aren't much good for anything but paddling. And
there are only a few competitions, of which the Catalina event is the
Brendan Shea, 25, grew up in Long Beach and now lives on the North
Shore of Oahu. He won the nine-mile Duke Kahanamoku World Championship
race in Hawaii in July and would be the favorite if he weren't paddling a
stock board, the longer unlimiteds being inherently faster.
His reasons for switching: "Partly because I think it's going to be
windy--the big boards are more affected by the wind--and partly because
it was too much of a hassle to bring my unlimited board over here (on an
airplane) from Hawaii. That's the main reason."
His friend, Pete Johnson, also from Hawaii, won the marathon two years
ago and has brought a 19-footer.
"This board is going to be the fastest board if it's glassy, but if
it's bumpy it's going to be a little slower," Johnson says.
"Pray for glass," Bohn says, "but prepare for anything."
Shea is nervous, too.
"I've never paddled this distance in a race," he says. "And the
conditions here are completely different from what we're used to in
Hawaii--either no wind or into the wind. I've done 30-plus miles when I
went across the Molokai Channel, but that's more downwind, so any amount
of roughness is pushing us toward Oahu. Here it'll be pushing us toward
Long Beach--not where we want to go."
But for this race, he has the right board.
In the morning there is a ketch anchored in the cove, dismasted with
its sails hanging over the side--another bad sign.
The water is a warm 74 degrees, but some of the competitors are
shivering as they wait in the gray, pre-dawn chill, knee-deep, holding
their boards. Bohn orders the starting cannon fired at 6:05, awakening
everybody else on the isthmus.
The paddlers squeeze through a 25-yard channel between moored boats
and quickly spread out toward Ship Rock, a mile out, where they will meet
their escort boats and take a compass heading of 355 degrees--just right
of due north. Soon they are bobbing in and out of sight in the swells.
"These paddlers are going to need their (escort) boats big time
today," a voice on the radio race channel says.
Some won't find them until miles into the race. Later, when it's fully
light, Gibson leaves the guide boat, the 72-foot Body Glove
Disappearance, in a rubber dinghy to try to account for everyone.
At 7 a.m., there are already whitecaps. At 8 a.m., about eight miles
into the race, Gibson confirms the first dropout--a rarity in the event.
Others consider quitting but feel like Chris Brown, 23, of Hermosa
Beach, who paddled his first marathon last year, and has said, "I'm
really nervous. It's a lot of pain. But I have so many friends and family
that are going to be on the beach waiting, no way I can quit."
He will finish 25th overall, but two more will give up. Someone
suggests that they were overcome by an attack of common sense.
Johnson is the early leader, a couple of hundred yards ahead of
Lanigan and Jeff Stoner, 26, of Palos Verdes, off to his left.
Occasionally, Johnson, listening to motivational rock music on a
waterproof Walkman, tries to change the muscle groups he's using by
paddling on his knees, but the rough water makes it difficult to balance
the narrow board.
Soon Shea is seen moving up in the middle, gradually slipping toward
Johnson, who sees him coming and converges as Shea pulls alongside at
Johnson tells him, "I'm glad you're on that board,
man"--meaning, they are competing in separate classes.
Later, Johnson says, "I (also) told him I wasn't feeling very good.
Right away I had these heavy back pains."
Shea said he thought about pacing himself off Johnson, "but if I had
slowed down I would have lost my rhythm."
So after five minutes Shea pulls away.
"When it got rougher, I started gaining and went by these guys fairly
easily," he says later. "Right in the middle it got glassy and they were
able to catch up on the bigger boards, but I guess I put enough distance
No sharks are sighted, and only two container ships pass through the
field, but Shea is well ahead of both. Later, though, the distance starts
to tell where the water gets rough again along the peninsula, and Shea
labors the last few miles.
Finally, he carries his board ashore among surfers, toddlers,
sunbathers and blaring rock--6 hours 16 minutes and 52 seconds after
leaving the island. The record for stock boards is 6:00:28 by Gene Rink
in 1986. Rink also set the record for unlimited boards: 5:21:38.24 in
This year the times are generally an hour slower than usual. The last
paddler finishes 4 1/4 hours after Shea.
"I was on a record pace for a while, but I got tired," Shea says. "It
hit me about where that point is, by the R-10 buoy (off the peninsula). I
had some food and got a second wind, but at the last I was going through
the motions. I was dead."
Stoner overtakes the struggling Johnson in the last few hundred yards,
drags his board onto the beach, sits down in the sand, thinking he was
first to finish. Then he learns that Shea has finished 20 1/2 minutes
earlier--the first man ever to win the race on a stock board.
"I didn't even see Brendan," Stoner says, incredulous. "I thought he
was behind us. That guy's an animal. I'd hate to think what he could do
on an unlimited (board)."
"He is amazing," Johnson says of his friend. "The shorter board
helped him in the choppy water, but he's the man."
LA SOUND CATALINA CLASSIC PADDLEBOARD MARATHON
Santa Catalina Island Isthmus to Manhattan Beach
UNLIMITED CLASS (24 entries)--1. Jeff Stoner, Palos Verdes, 6 hours 37
minutes 26 seconds, $1,500; 2. Pete Johnson, Hawaii, 6:38:26, $500; 3.
Edmund Pestana, Hawaii, 6:47:25, $250.
STOCK CLASS (14)--1. Brendan Shea, Hawaii, 6:16:52, $1,500; 2. George
Kabris, Simi Valley, 6:52:42, $500; 3. Mark Feighan, La Jolla, 6:57:11,
Copyright 1992 Los Angeles Times. May not be reproduced or retransmitted without permission.