On nothing but flat fiberglass boards and their bare hands, 90 local paddleboarders gathered at the Isthmus on Catalina Island Sunday, August 27th, and paddled some 32 miles to Manhattan Beach for the largest and oldest paddleboard race in the U.S. —the Catalina Classic, which is informally considered a world-championship event for this grass-roots sport.
The event boasted a record turnout of participants and a particularly grueling day for the competition.
With a sizable swell and a short chop to battle, the paddlers’ strength and endurance would be tested to the fullest.
In the best of circumstances this race is an exhausting and excruciating challenge, but the conditions this year were the most difficult many of the paddlers had ever seen.
“It was rougher than hell,” said longtime paddler John Carroll, 52, of Marina del Rey. “For the first ten miles we had real bad swell, chop and wind.
“And we had current that was coming from the wrong way, so it was kind of like a washing machine. It was my sixth one and it was the worst one I’d ever done in terms of physical pain.”
The race dates back to 1955, when Los Angeles life guard Bob Hogan organized the first race and, fittingly, this year’s contest was won by another L.A. lifeguard and race organizer, Kyle Daniels.
The 30-year-old Daniels, a 14-year L.A. lifeguard veteran, who finished the race in five hours, 34 seconds, had a formidable task when he started the race at 6 a.m. from the shores of Catalina Island Sunday.
He was hoping to hand Australian paddleboarding champion Jamie Mitchell his first loss in five years.
Mitchell won the race back in 2002 and is regarded by many as the fastest paddleboarder in the world.
“I grew up in Hermosa Beach, I live in Redondo, and lifeguard in Manhattan — so I feel like this is my water,” said Daniels with a laugh of his motivation to win. “So I was going to die trying to win that race, but knowing full well that in 2002 Jamie passed Brian Zeller at the Hermosa Pier to win it.
“Mentally I was determined — I wasn’t going to let him in.”
Indeed, Daniels was perseverant and relentless aboard his 18-foot board.
He finished the course in about the same amount of time that most cruising sailboats take — with nothing but his bare hands pulling at the water against an insensitive wind/wave condition.
The sport is not unlike a marathon, but with the upper body instead of the lower taking the brunt of the punishment.
In addition to the sheer strength it takes to complete the course, there is also the obstacle of the weather and large ships. Although remote, the possibility of shark attack is also a concern for the paddlers.
During this race Carroll recounts an anecdote from the contest where he heard a fellow competitor calling for help.
“I heard a commotion behind me and [a paddler] had sprinted over to our chase boat. [Every entrant must have a chase boat to follow them in case of an emergency.] I said, ‘What’s the problem?’ and he said, ‘I just saw a huge shark.’ I said, ‘Well, that’s good.’
“He asked what I meant and I told him that it’s when you don’t see ’em is when they’re gonna hit ya!”
But through the excruciating physical anguish of completing the race and the inherent risks, more and more paddleboarders make their way to Catalina Island to participate in this unique contest every year.
Like surfing, for those involved, this sport is about more than a competition or exercise benefits — it’s about its solitary meditative quality and the specific manner in which it interacts with nature.
“I played college sports,” said Carroll of his experience with paddling. “Football, rugby on an international level, I’m an expert surfer, skier — I’ve done a lot of different things, but nothing compares to paddling that channel. Nothing.”