La Jolla septuagenarians set swimming record: Against the wind ... and swells ... and cold

A group of pretty “swell” guys — all members of the La Jolla Cove Swim Club — set a new swimming record this week for men in their 70s, when they swam from the California coast to Catalina Island in 14 hours flat. The team, called The Swell Guys Too, consists of Bill Crane, Kenneth (Pete) Pettigrew, Dan Henry, Steve Dockstader, Steve Cross and Tony Joseph. The previous record for the men ages 70-79 category was 16 hours, five minutes.

Departing from Rancho Palace Verdes near Long Beach, and accompanied by observers on kayaks, each team member swam an hour, then climbed in the “mother boat” for a rest, before rotating back in for another leg. Laughing at the retrospective ease with which they set the record back in 2013 for completing the swim going the other way — from Catalina to mainland (10 hours, 57 minutes) — Swell Guys swim club captain Steve Cross said the 23-and-a-half nautical-mile adventure was anything but easy.

“The currents in the Channel going toward the mainland are a little more forgiving, so we were able to set that record no problem,” he said. But heading towards Catalina, the swim was marked with colder-than-expected water temperatures, winds and swells, and a capsized kayak, he reported.

Bill Crane was the first swimmer in the excursion, and he dove in a little after 9 p.m. (night swimming lends itself to calmer waters), and was instantly awakened by the cold water. “As La Jolla Cove swimmers, we’re spoiled with 74-degree waters, so to just jump into 64-degree water was kind of an adrenaline rush,” he said. Noting that he uses swimming as a form of exercise following two partial knee replacements and a hip surgery, Crane said he was proud to be the first in the water.

Added Cross, “It is an act of faith and commitment to jump off a perfectly good boat into 64-degree water in pitch black night.”

Pettigrew swam the second leg, and completed more during his hour-long turn than anyone else – 1.7 nautical miles. But as a result, his recovery period on the boat was slow, as he was shaking for quite some time after he got out of the water.

For third swimmer Henry, who had to center himself after high swells rocked the boat the whole night, the water temperature started to climb, and reached about 70 degrees by the time he entered the water. “Things had gotten a little smoother,” he said, after watching his colleagues become disoriented at times, and nearly crashing headfirst into the boat.

While fourth swimmer Dockstader was not available to share his experience, fifth swimmer Cross said he got a visual reprieve when phosphorescent marine life appeared in the water. “It was like swimming with glowing boxing gloves on,” he said. “All these little floating diamonds in front of my goggles.” And by that time, winds had picked up to the point that Cross said it was more pleasant to be in the water than in the boat!

Still “rocking” days after the swim, sixth swimmer Joseph (the oldest participant at 79) faced the most time-consuming obstacle – being separated from the observation kayak. “The kayak needs to stay near you at all times, but I got separated from the kayakers about five times. Each time that happens, I had to stop and yell so the kayaker could find me. But despite all that, I was told I did 1.3 nautical miles, if so, I am very proud of that,” he said.

When he completed his turn, Joseph had two questions: How did I do? Whose distance did I beat?

Repeating the rotation, the men said they were more prepared for the second half, albeit tired from the first round, given they knew the conditions they were up against. But the sea provided one last unexpected challenge: in the 13th hour, one of the observation kayaks capsized twice, leaving Pettigrew to go it alone.

As the trek came to end, the Swell Guys said they felt like celebrities as they climbed onto the sand at Doctor’s Cove. “When we made our way to the beach, people had crowded there and were cheering and clapping for us, which was quite a thrill,” Cross said.

Appreciative of the acclaim, but exhausted, Crane added that he slept for 11 hours that night and that he’s still sore.

Looking back, Cross said, “We’ll remember our record going from Catalina, but in the long run, I think we’ll all remember this one more because conditions tested us so severely. Someone is going to come along and beat this record some day, but they will have had better conditions than we had. And while I’m very proud of the team, I’m especially proud that we laughed and enjoyed the whole experience, and everyone had such a positive attitude through it all; it really pushed us through.”

Of the added difficulty of completing the feat as septuagenarians, Cross said, “You’re defined by your goals and the things you have in front of you, not your age.”