Wednesday, August 25, 1993
These Dudes Hang Zen;
Grueling Catalina Classic Tests the Strength--and Psyches--of Top
By: PETE THOMAS
TIMES STAFF WRITER
For Andrew Thieme, it must have seemed like a bad dream.
There he was in the middle of the ocean, paddling frantically on a
needle-thin board while a towering ship bore down on him at 30 knots.
Nowhere to hide. Nothing to do but paddle.
Thieme scratched at the sea until the huge freighter was upon him.
Thieme seemed doomed.
Fortunately for him, though, the ship roared on by, barely missing him
but swamping him in its massive wake.
"He made a bad judgment and the wake of the tanker knocked him back
and rolled him around," said Weldon (Gibby) Gibson, himself a paddler of
needle-like boards on the open sea, recalling Thieme's version of the
incident a few years back.
Some would be quick indeed to question Thieme's judgment. What in the
name of Neptune was he doing, floundering 1,000 feet above the ocean
floor, smack in the middle of the shipping lanes?
The answer is simple: Trying to get to the other side.
Thieme, after all, is not the first to have paddled from Catalina to
the Manhattan Beach Pier. Nor will he be the last. In fact, dozens will
be making the same voyage Sunday during the annual L.A. Sound Catalina
Classic, a race that originated more than 40 years ago.
The paddlers will cover 32 miles, amid sharks and speed boats of all
sizes, along with the possibility of fierce winds and blinding fog.
Not that the paddlers mind any of this. Being the "watermen" they are,
having spent most of their lives living, breathing and, in Thieme's case,
swallowing saltwater, they soak in the brine any chance they get.
"You got to remember who you're dealing with here," said Gibson, 55,
one of the organizers of this year's race. "You're dealing mostly with
surfers and, you know, they aren't stupid, but they're guys that are a
little wilder than your average crowd."
Said Brendan Shea, 26, an Oahu lifeguard who won last year's Catalina
Classic: "We surf all winter and then the surf goes flat. And those of us
who don't go to Bali to surf all summer stay here and compete in
In 1990, Hawaii's Buzzy Kerbox and Laird Hamilton paddled from France
to England on 12-foot boards. After that, they paddled 43 miles from
Corsica to Elba, off Italy.
Having conquered the Hawaiian channel from Molokai to Oahu, in 9 hours
57 minutes, Ray Evans of Hahala, Hawaii, told the Honolulu Star-Bulletin:
"I got a little seasick, and my body was welted from Portuguese
man-of-war stings, but I felt safe on my board."
But paddlers are a breed apart, most of them surfers as Gibson says,
and most of them following a lifestyle established decades ago by the
legendary Tom Blake.
In 1926, Blake became the first person to surf Malibu Point; in 1931
he invented the sailboard; in 1932 he received his first patent for the
Blake hollow-board design for a paddleboard, then later invented the
Blake was the winner of the first mainland-to-Catalina paddleboard
race in 1932. In 1948, he paddled the length of Golden Gate Bridge to
demonstrate the efficiency of his rescue paddleboard, and in 1969 he made
The Guinness Book of World Records for the longest surfboard ride on an
ocean wave, having shot the curl for 4,500 feet in 1936.
The Catalina Classic is the most demanding paddleboard race of any, an
"uphill" paddle against a strong current for more than five hours.
"I've run a few marathons, but this is totally different," said Joe
Bark, 33, a Torrance fireman who has competed in 10 consecutive
paddleboard races. "At least in a marathon, if you want to walk you can
keep walking, but when conditions get bad out there (on the water), you
can't even stay on the board, basically. You get into some currents that
are running the opposite direction, so you decide to take a rest and
you're losing ground, whereas in a marathon, at least you're not losing
if you stop or if you walk.
"And it has a bathtub effect because you're getting millions of boats
out there giving different wakes, and so you're not getting wakes to push
you, you're getting them over the bow (of the board) and it's like being
in a little kids' pool with about 10 kids splashing."
Bark will be racing in his 11th consecutive Catalina Classic.
"You get your real highs and your real lows, where one minute you're
feeling good and the next minute you're feeling like, 'Man, I'm only
halfway, this is no fun at all,' " Bark said.
"But it really is fun. You do get rushes where you're just
totally stoked and high, man, but then all of a sudden, Boom! It
shuts you down. I don't know what it is, maybe another paddler coming up
on you or maybe realizing you're not that close after all."
For the slower paddlers, the highs and lows--more lows as the hours
pass--can last 10 hours or more.
Karl (Buddy) Bohn, 44, a former competitor and now a race organizer,
recalled the time in 1983 that he got a report from one of the paddlers'
escort boats--each racer must have one for safety's sake--that the
paddler was going ashore near his home at Torrance Beach because he
hadn't the strength go on.
"They said he was scratching," Bohn said. "Well, we went to
Hennessey's Tavern for the awards banquet and just before dark this guy
comes staggering into the bar with sand all over him, and it was (the
paddler who had intended to quit).
"He looked like a ghost. He finished, wretched himself silly down
there on the beach, then walked up the street, left his board under the
pier, then walked in and said, 'I made it.' We figured he'd been paddling
for 11 1/2 hours. That's a long time to stand up . Try doing
anything for 11 hours. I don't think I could sleep for 11 1/2
Remarkably, Bohn said, only about 5% of the racers drop out.
"We've had people experience mild hypothermia and pull out," he said.
"They pull out from cramps and one guy even got seasick."
Last year's race was the most grueling ever, Bohn said, as 12-m.p.h.
winds blew from the wrong direction.
Shea, participating in his first Catalina Classic, surprised everyone
by taking first place overall, finishing on a stock board--12 feet or
shorter--in 6 hours 16 minutes 52 seconds.
His time was not considered particularly fast, but then conditions
were not what they were when Zuma Beach lifeguard Gene Rink set the
record of 5:21:34 in 1987.
Shea, who has been paddling in the shorter Hawaiian paddleboard races
for only four years, said he developed tendinitis in his wrists after the
"In Hawaii, the races start upwind and finish downwind and you can
actually catch waves and a little chop," he said. "It's in a way like
surfing. It's how most of us surfers stay in shape.
"But in retrospect (winning the Catalina Classic) was absolutely
miserable because it was against the wind the whole way and it was
everything we're not used to doing in Hawaii."
Edmund Pestana, 38, another Hawaiian lifeguard, accompanied Shea last
year and said that during a race of such proportions, during which
paddlers are often hundreds of yards from the nearest competitor, the
chilly Pacific can be a lonely place indeed.
"It was a real unique situation for me," Pestana said. "My (escort
boat) had broken down and I was by myself, so at the three-quarter mark
it was lonely. It was just a head trip from there."
Pestana finished third in the unlimited class--boards of any
length--to Pete Johnson and Jeff Stoner, who won his division after 6
hours 37 minutes of arm-dragging over a wind-whipped sea. "You have to
be somewhere else, you know what I mean," said Stoner, a carpenter from
Palos Verdes. "You kind of like have to be outside of your body almost.
If you're thinking about it, thinking and thinking and thinking about how
long this race is, you're never going to make it. It's kind of like you
have to go into a state of Zen or something."
Copyright 1993 Los Angeles Times. May not be reproduced or retransmitted without permission.