FROM AN ISLAND TO THE NEXT – OPEN OCEAN, CHANNEL CROSSING, PADDLING ON 28 NAUTICAL MILES ! ISLAND-TO-ISLAND 2011, from Santa Barbara to Santa Catalina, CA
Written by Isabelle Malique-Park, SUP participant Team 37 “Candygram for Mongo” Victory Jon Photography / Highwayphotos.net
It all started in May 2011 in Australia, when I met Giles Finlayson, founder and organizer of the Island-to-Island Waterman Relay Race, covering 28 nautical miles between Santa Barbara Island and Santa Catalina, 50 miles off shore Los Angeles. I ran into him during an ASI (Academy of Surfing Instructor) Stand Up Paddling flat water instructor’s training in view of opening a SUP school in Singapore, where I live. Giles was on the Gold Coast for Jamie Mitchell’s wedding. We had a quick chat, exchanged name cards and the race (relay, long distance, open ocean) and the personality of the man (casual Californian, business minded and long time surfer and paddler) immediately intrigued me. I had the chance to see Giles again in Singapore, understand more about the paddling industry and hearing those words over a couple of beers: “just come, we’ll take care of everything, you’ll have a great time and meet great people”.
From that evening on, despite a full time job, a hectic traveling schedule and two very young children, I decided that I was going to make it. I knew no one, didn’t know what to expect, only practiced on second hands boards and paddles and here I was booking myself on a plane to Los Angeles. I remember reading those words when I confirmed my attendance: “we are stoked you are coming”. I didn’t know what that meant but I took it positively. All my training 6 weeks prior to the event was 2 to 3 SUP sessions of a continuous 2 hours each a week wherever I was: Singapore, Vancouver, Copenhagen, Berlin or Bordeaux! My weeks were packed with work, SUP arrangements in foreign countries and languages, home duties, etc. – but with this in mind: I will finish! I tried all sort of equipment, met a bunch of passionate SUP folks from different cultures and backgrounds, and realized how much the sport really was at its infancy. I was privileged to rent the first very few SUP in Berlin and in Copenhagen. You had to look very hard to find those newly arrived SUP in the best kayak centers, to the extent that they had to improvise some pricing for rental! It also gave me the idea that I was entering a very niche and neat community: the paddlers.
Arrived in Los Angeles 2 days prior to the race, I was projected into a totally different scene: a world of elite paddlers and surfers in a well established industry. I was both very thrilled and intimidated. I hooked up with 3 top local paddlers, I never heard of before and who were to become my team. We tried different boards to find out which one would suit us best. We could only bring one board on the boat and we are of different constitutions, levels and tastes. After spending the morning trying high end custom boards at a local creek, we all agreed on a Hobie 14’, an ocean racing prototype, which has been used for other races
We just had to pack, prepare the boat, the board and the paddles and take all this all the way from San Diego to Santa Catalina. The boat journey was amazing, with all the marine life, the cruise and army ships, the gorgeous Indian summer weather and fresh wind. The swell was against us, as an indication of the sort of water we’ll paddle in the next day. The trip took us a good four hours and our conversation was evolving around ‘wind direction’, ‘downwind’, and ‘currents’. We also discussed strokes, boards, paddles, past events (Battle of the Paddle) and I thought to myself: that is it, I am totally disconnected, my life is just about paddling on a board from now on.
We had to wake up before dawn the next morning to drive the boat from Santa Catalina to Santa Barbara. The race started on the dot at 7.30 am and the light on Santa Barbara’s rocks and at the lineup was just incredible, a mix of oranges, red and yellows…. reflecting onto the first paddlers and the ocean. The moment the first member of each team was paddling out from the boat to the departure line was rich with emotions and expectations.
Those first few strokes were going to give the tempo of the race. We decided we’ll change paddler every 20 minutes, but we didn’t know how this would work out and we also didn’t rehearse. The first few board exchanges were weird with us diving into the ocean thinking we’ll save time. It happened that doing it calmly seated on the boat with a third person handing the paddles was more effective. My first round of paddling was very awkward, for not being sprint paddling fit but also for having problems just keeping up with my balance. The first trial was probably the most difficult for everyone and the time to warm up and assess the situation for the next 28 miles or so.
We were happily distracted by marine life, our own boat, other boats, other paddlers and lots of excitement. I am still amazed today at the pace we were going out – not even being the fastest. It only took few hours for Santa Barbara Island to disappear from the horizon. The more we paddled, the more we enjoyed it, upgrading our own style and technique and also looking religiously at what others were doing. The sea went glossy, the wind slightly picked up and Santa Catalina showed its outline clearly in front of us. So near and yet still so far. At this point of time, all we were talking about was ‘downwind’.
Entering Two Harbor after 6 hours and 40 minutes of paddling and the boat behind was simply magical, as an unique sense of achievement and cohesion to ocean. The water was expected to be calm until the ferry departed confusing my route to the finishing line. Lots of paddlers, tourists and just people were cheering us up there, like the latest ocean warriors on Earth. A party went on with Hawaiian dance and a band. I met great people such as like Mike Eaton and Gary MacNabb. I heard that Carol Sing was swimming around Catalina over night that same day. I don’t know if it was the paddling, the beer or all those stories but I recall being very wobbly by then. Today, looking back, I still can’t believe what I did. I feel strong for the physical and mental challenges behind but furthermore for having entered the real world of paddlers.