Alex Rawling ’07 added an enormous feather to his swim cap Aug. 20, swimming southern California’s 32.3-kilometer Catalina Channel in 12 hours, 46 minutes and 31 seconds. For the land-lubbers out there, Rawling swam well more than 300 Olympic pool laps.
Impressive distances aside, swimming the Los Angeles-area Catalina Channel brings the additional challenges of the open seas: Unpredictable currents, cold water and possible wildlife encounters – plus Catalina swimmers begin their journeys at midnight to avoid afternoon winds, so the swim is mainly in the dark.
Aside from a mandated pilot boat, Rawling was accompanied by his friend and mentor, Kevin Shinnick, who paddled alongside Rawling in a kayak throughout his swim. In the late evening darkness of Aug. 19, Rawling began his swim at Doctor’s Cove on Catalina Island. His sole visibility came from glow sticks on the kayak. He also had glow sticks on his swimsuit, plus a light on his goggles for the benefit of his support crew.
Mentally, Rawling broke up the swim into small pieces. “I thought about it in terms of getting to the next feed,” he said. When Rawling says “feed,” he is referring to the intervals when he ingested food of some sort. Shinnick fed him every 30 minutes, with a five-minute warning before each feed. For hydration, Rawling utilized water bottles secured to the kayak with ropes. To take on nutrition Rawling rolled over to his back “like a sea otter.”
Swimming the Catalina Channel is always challenging, and the night Rawling swam was particularly “rough,” noted Roxanne Hipolito of the Catalina Channel Swimming Federation. During the night, Rawling experienced higher-than-usual wind speeds and wave swells of 2-3 feet. These conditions led to choppier seas and resulted in Rawling becoming nauseous and seasick during the swim.
Despite being “at the mercy of the ocean” he “never thought about quitting.” As a VMI alumnus, the experiences of the rat line and four years at VMI is “an experience I rely on a lot when I gauge the difficulty of something. My time at VMI certainly prepared me mentally to take on challenges like this,” Rawling noted.
Around 10:45 a.m. Aug. 20, Rawling finished his swim, stepping out of the water onto the rocky shore at Sacred Cove. Pictures of his finish are a throwback to the 1970s. Rawling sported American-flag speedos and large moustache – purposely channeling iconic American swimmer and Olympic medalist Mark Spitz.
A native of the Los Angeles area, Rawling remembers he could “see Catalina Island on a clear day.” He was intrigued with the island from a young age and often thought of kayaking there from the mainland. He began swimming as a teenager, and swam for a season as a Keydet. After a decadelong hiatus from swimming, Rawling got interested in the sport again and began open water swimming a few years ago. Last year, he set a goal of swimming a 6-mile event. Following that, he moved on to a 10-mile swim. Then, he learned about swimming’s “triple crown.”
The Catalina Channel swim is part of what’s known as the triple crown of swimming. The other two swims are the well-known English Channel, and the 20 Bridges swim that circles New York City’s Manhattan Island. These challenging swims appealed to Rawling, and Catalina made sense to him on many levels. Although the Catalina Channel water is chilly, it’s downright balmy when compared to the English Channel, and warmer than the New York City water. The location was also attractive: Rawling lives in Hermosa Beach, California, making the Catalina Channel logistically the easiest swim to complete.
Much like VMI, an undertaking like swimming the Catalina Channel is better with a team. In all aspects, Shinnick – a successful triple crown swimmer – was a great aid to Rawling. He was also supported by another friend, Nelson Fiske, and his girlfriend and former University of Southern California swimmer, Whitney Hentzen.
Although he has no immediate plans to complete the rest of open water swimming’s triple crown, Rawling is intrigued by the Strait of Gibraltar and may one day attempt to swim that narrow body of water dividing Europe and Africa.
Molly Rolon Editorial Specialist
The editorial specialist assists the editor-in-chief in various tasks relating to the production of quarterly and monthly publications, as well as prepares written materials for publication.