Thirty years ago, Charles Hathaway, then a 50-year-old gentleman, had a birthday and decided to celebrate the monumental day by climbing in his dory and rowing from the Two Harbors area of Catalina Island to the California Yacht Club in Marina del Rey.
The story goes that he stopped in the middle, opened presents and ate breakfast, then finished his journey.
The following year, 1977, the event was recognized as an official race and it has been a much anticipated event in the rowing world ever since [the destinations have since been reversed].
Today, the Catalina Crossing Rowing Regatta is the most prestigious competition on the offshore rowing circuit.
At 5 a.m. Saturday, September 9th, 15 modern slender hulls, all designed and engineered for speed — some built to carry one rower, others two — loitered around the Marina del Rey breakwater waiting to begin their 32-mile race over to Catalina Island.
Two hours prior, Hathaway and his two sons had their own start — they ran an informal relay in a symbolic class of their own where the three family members shared the workload of the long journey.
In this year’s contest, a workload is just what it was, for there was a swell, a chop and a headwind to fight for the entire length off the course, greatly lengthening finishing times.
But some believe that it’s in flat water where competitors get most tired due to the tendency for rowers to push hard when conditions are favorable.
“It’s interesting, because when the water is not flat you can’t go as hard,” said race chair and longtime rower Craig Leeds. “So in one way, you don’t row as hard and you don’t become as ground down.
“On the other hand, in sloppy water you’re just trying to stay in control so you get kind of tired from that.”
In either case, 32 miles in a self-propelled vessel, combined with the risks of negotiating a major shipping lane, is a formidable undertaking.
In the sport of rowing the boats are generally used in flatter conditions, and while these particular boats are technically designed for open water, they still perform better in calmer scenarios.
“They are slightly shorter, wider and heavier than flat-water boats,” said Leeds, comparing the offshore boats to the flat-water variety. “They’re built with compasses, suction balers and very-small-volume cockpits designed so if water gets in it will be sucked out real quickly.”
The local team out of Marina del Rey that came in first overall is well suited to both flat-water and ocean rowing.
Like most sports, it’s training and experience that wins contests and for this particular race it was indeed the case.
North American Offshore Champions Margie Cate and Wendy O’Brien were first across the line, taking five hours, 38 minutes to make the crossing, averaging about 5.5-knots, which earned them both line honors and first in the women’s double-handed class.
The team trains frequently and didn’t have many complaints about the inherent difficulties of the race.
“It was slower [than past races],” said Cate, who has now done the crossing 15 times. “We were tired, but we were on a plan where every 45 minutes we would stop and drink.
“And it was nice and overcast. There have been other years where it got really sunny and that makes you totally dehydrated, so we didn’t have those kinds of exhaustion issues. It wasn’t that bad.
“You just have to be able to keep going and going — it’s sort of like backpacking.”
In the mixed doubles class, Win Rumsey and Abagail Smyth took first; Ken Robinson from Sausalito won in the men’s single class; and Perry Heffelfinger, also from Sausalito, took first in the women’s singles.
The Hathaway family, with 80-year old Charles rowing his fair share, took 13 and a half hours to make the trek. And although it was the slowest time turned in, it earned the most respect.