Dr. Stephen Autry Shares Personal Letter About Catalina Channel Swim

CINCINNATI, Ohio, November 16. DR. Stephen Autry, an accomplished open water swimmer who is an orthopedic surgeon by trade, has completed several different open water swims over his swimming career – including the Holy Grail that is the English Channel.

After each of these swims, he has taken the time to capture his thoughts in personal letters sent out to his family and friends. Swimming World was made aware of these intelligent and insightful documents, and received Autry's permission to reprint them for our readers.

This is the third of three letters we will post, which is Autry's recollection of the Catalina Channel Swim:

While preparing for my 2007 English Channel swim, I received some sage advice from Mike Oram, the dean of English Channel pilots. Channel swimmers who did not have a back up challenge often suffer from the sudden void left in the aftermath of a successful swim. With that in mind I began to look for new horizons. The Manhattan Island Marathon Swim (28.5 miles) and the Catalina Channel (21 miles) seemed suitable goals. I soon learned the three together, English and Catalina Channels along with Manhattan were considered the Triple Crown of marathon swimming. So I thought why not do all three?

Manhattan would follow my English Channel swim, but in 2008 I was not prepared for this event. The Manhattan Island Marathon Swim required more than determination, it also required speed. My experience in marathon racing was nonexistent. So last summer I swam in the Masters 10 K Open Water National Championships (second in my age group), Boston Light eight mile swim, and was first in my age group in the New York Little Red Light House swim (5.85 miles).

I was accepted into the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim this year. After falling behind the tides in June's attempt, I received a chance at redemption in July and completed the Manhattan swim in 8 hrs 37 minutes.

Catalina was next on the docket for this September. I had intended to take a "swim vacation" in the Canadian Maritimes on Prince Edward Island in August. Hurricanes Bill and Danny hit us within a week of each other, roiling the ocean water red while making daily training impossible. Swimming like a caged cat back and forth following lane lines in a pool is just not the same. Daily three to four hour pool sessions at TriHealth, biking, and a bit of weight lifting was the best I could muster. Ocean training in Cincinnati is in short supply.

My wife and I arrived at Two Harbors, Catalina by ferry two days before my Catalina Channel attempt. The north end of Catalina is closest to California. The town of Two Harbors hangs on a narrow island isthmus where two inlets almost touch each other. It is suspended in a time warp forty years old. A single bed and breakfast, some camp grounds, a single bar and restaurant and general store was the sum of it. Not exactly a tourist Mecca. My wife was ecstatic……not.

My boat, the Bottom Scratcher (great name, that's why I picked it), hailed from Long Beach. I also secured three kayakers from the La Jolla Cove Swim Club to accompany me on my swim. Two observers from the Catalina Channel Swimming Association rounded out the crew.

The day of the swim was both windy with a gloomy overcast. I felt the spirit of Edgar Poe hover over me when several crows began perching on the power line in front of our room. I am not superstitious, but I didn't like the hint of such an omen.

Just before sundown the haze cleared and the winds wound down to a gentle breeze. Out of nowhere a single bald eagle sailed effortlessly above us. Shortly thereafter, a lone bison stepped into the meadow below. Hmm, the grace and determination of an eagle combined with the power and bull headiness of the buffalo……maybe I was beginning to believe in better omens….forget the ravens.

My boat met me at the dock at 11 p.m. The swim was set to begin at midnight at a fitting site, Doctor's Cove. Swims are almost always conducted at night because winds calm to manageable levels during the dark.

I jumped off the boat and swam to the Catalina shore through rafts of waving kelp rousting a single seal from its slumber. After climbing out on a rocky beach I dropped my arm signaling the start of the swim. The vision of the eagle reappeared as I pushed away from the beach, gliding over the forest of kelp waving below the surface.

The night was moonless and the sky crystal clear. There were frequent rolling swells but the sea had become glass. I could see a light stick on the shoulder of my kayaker and the diesel sounds of the boat were near. The stars were vibrant against the backdrop of an ink black sky and sea.

A curious phenomenon occurs at night in the ocean. Tiny bioluminescent organisms reside just beneath the surface. Any jolt causes them to glow yellow green. With every forward arm thrust I created an explosion of light that was almost blinding and reminiscent of a shooting star's final descent. Those little creatures created a welcome curiosity to divert my attention from the task at hand.

Los Angeles was a tiny glow between the swells on the horizon. Hours passed and the glow got brighter. More lights. Brighter lights. I continued to swim strong and was warmed by their growing presence as the sea temperatures dropped in the mid Channel.

As dawn broke a fin whale spouted and rolled in front of the boat. I had looked forward to daylight, but that was a mistake. Sure I was out of the dark, but the welcoming lights of California had vanished and shore line had retreated to a hazy and distant apparition.

I compounded the problem by doing what one should never do…look back. Catalina, bathed in the dawn's sun, appeared to be stalking me. And as if on cue, here came the winds. Now from the south and east the waves buffeted by progress and began to take their toll. My stroke count started to fall and my liquid feedings were no longer doing the trick.

While my progress slowed, I continued doggedly on with the support of my crew. While not in the water crew members got some shut eye in the bunks below. Meanwhile my captain wiled away the boredom by playing on his bagpipes.

At ten hours I was bushed. My lack of ocean preparation was beginning to take a toll (not to mention my age…which I am loath to admit). Exhaustion and pain are first cousins. Pain you can ignore. Exhaustion gets right in your face and just won't go away.

Channel rules prevent a swimmer from touching or holding on to a boat or rope. I started taking a longer break at the half hour feeds. Treading water for a few minutes more didn't help all that much. And I began to lose interest in finishing off the barely palatable brew of sugar and electrolytes I called food. Then I started doing some breast stroke to rest my arms (a real bad sign…I knew it… and so did the crew.) I began to wonder if I had the will to make it. I started doing more breast stroke and less freestyle….uh oh!

Then I did what I should have been doing. Concentrate on the moment. One stroke at a time, feed to feed, forget about the itty bitty shore horizon or time line. How was I doing right now? Given my druthers I would have been elsewhere, but what seemed to be an infinite total body ache was manageable and it couldn't last forever, could it?

At last I saw waves crashing on the shore. A dingy was set free and there were smiles on the crew. My California landing was near. How was I to know they saved the worst for me?

For a hundred yards out there were dense kelp beds. I could knife my way through them with a free style stroke. With breast stroke the tendrils of sea weed bound my arms and legs as effectively as a police pat down. Big mossy boulders were my next discovery near shore. Four foot waves were crashing in and propelling an exhausted swimmer (me) onto the foot size and barnacled stones just ahead. I was rolling around on the rocks like a pair of dice on a craps table. Now I know what a frog in a blender must experience.

The swim ended as it began twelve hours and fifty one minutes earlier, with me standing unassisted and straddling a couple of dry rocks with my tired and recently stoned and scraped legs. I dreaded, for good reason, my exit off the beach over this same piece of soggy real estate. I was one tired puppy.

A couple of the support crew jumped in and endured the same rocky fun in order to pry me off the beach. One dove off the dingy stripped to his underwear and a pair of boat sized sandals. Normally I would resist the urge to hug a guy in this attire, but not this time.

I began the day with a support crew and observers that were mere acquaintances. I ended the day with true friends I trust with my life. As is often the case, personal success, when you read the fine print, is truly a team effort

The saga of my Triple Crown swimming quest is over. I am now one of twenty eight in the world to have swum the English and Catalina Channels and the Manhattan Marathon Swim.

What next? More time with my family for sure. And more biking and maybe a triathlon or so. Lots of new skills develop. What about distance swimming…nothing at the moment although the Strait of Gibraltar has the allure of swimming from Spain to Morocco.

Peter Drucker, an icon of American business, had a passion for mastering new and unfamiliar disciplines up until his death in his late nineties. Complacency with a contented life is as dangerous is as saturated fat. Mike Oram, the English Channel pilot, often opines "Define your limits….and then exceed them." I am not a gifted athlete…..but I am a better athlete….and a better person by pushing the elasticity of my self imposed limitations.

Besides, I have had a hell of a time and met many great people along the way.


Read his first letter about Crossing the English Channel

Read his second letter about Manhattan Island Marathon Swim

Notify of

Welcome to our community. We invite you to join our discussion. Our community guidelines are simple: be respectful and constructive, keep on topic, and support your fellow commenters. Commenting signifies that you agree to our Terms of Use

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x