Catalina Channel Solo Swim

Catalina Channel Solo Swim

Guest Blogger: Ian Down

On 21 September 2016 I took on a solo swim of the Catalina Channel from Catalina Island to Los Angeles. It’s considered to be one of the 3 “Triple Crown” open-water swims, along with the English Channel and the around Manhattan Island swim, and only 390 people have ever completed it.

For me, this was a come-back swim. I’d previously taken on the English Channel swim, but in 2014 I was hit by a car when cycling to work and am still not healed. My chest took the full force of the blow, with the top 6 ribs snapping off my sternum and puncturing one lung. In short, I had to start training again and see how far my chest would let me go. Bit by bit the training was able to become more meaningful.

By the time the day of the swim came round, I had two years of preparation behind me, with a good mix of pool and sea swimming to increase endurance, pace and power. On the day of the swim I was supported by my friend Don, a consummate swimmer and experienced crew member, having swum Catalina the year before. So I knew I couldn’t be in better hands.

It was a beautiful clear night with a bright moon and hardly a breath of wind. Before I got into the water, glow sticks were attached to me, the sides of the boat and kayak and my drinking bottles. Don then plastered me with sun-cream – always a surreal exercise under moonlight – and grease (a mix of lanolin and Vaseline) to stop the chafing.  As well as the support boat, there was a kayak at my side throughout the swim who would pass me the warm “maxi” maltodextrin energy drink in a bottle at regular intervals.

The swim hardly proved less daunting a task than the English Channel swim. Much of the swim takes place in the dark – surviving a full 6 hours of dark is required until dawn, which  is enough of a challenge in itself. And, however remote the prospect of seeing one, sharks are an unsettling thought! But it’s from dawn that the real mental games start, due to the optical illusion which starts to play out once the LA coastal cliffs of Palos Verdes become visible. Seen through the dawn haze, the cliffs look quite close, but as the day becomes lighter the cliffs become better defined and appear to recede instead of getting closer! Apparently, many an attempt has fallen short when resilience has been worn down by this.     

During the daylight part of the swim I felt increasingly nauseous from the tiredness, energy drink and the diesel fumes from the boat. This is where the brutal side of the training programme, with the long soul-destroying weekend swims in Dover harbour, helped me to keep going and see in the dawn. I guess all the training comes in to play, plus a large dose of bloody-mindedness and fear of failure!

So on I went, stomaching the overwhelming discomfort and urge to give up and, eventually, the cliffs got closer and, finally, the shore came within striking distance.

As I approached the shore, Don told me I could not just swim in – I would need to pick my time to make sure that I wouldn’t be caught from behind by any big breakers and then sprint in as fast as I could, to avoid being smashed on to the rocks. I hadn’t come this far to be denied and after much scrabbling and a few scrapes I got clear and held up my hand. It was only later that I heard that there has been at least one crossing which was ruled unsuccessful as the swimmer, having cleared the water, then got caught and pulled back by a breaker and had to be rescued. It certainly made me think that I had been luckier than I’d realised to get through it!

It had taken over 12 hours to do so. It’s faster than I’d allowed myself to hope for, but the time seems unimportant. What matters for me was just hanging on when every sane thought in my head was telling me to do otherwise.


Ian has raised an incredible £3,400 for Ronald McDonald House Charities, via his Just Giving page.

Has Ian's story inspired you to take part in a fundraising challenge event? Browse our upcoming events. 

Get in touch