Saturday Night Magazine
May 1990 Page 46 to Page 50
by Don Gillmor
For the first 19 minutes Vicki thought only of sharks.
"Have another donut."
"No," Vicki Keith said. She'd already had two, and a can of peaches
in heavy syrup. She smiled quickly and made nervous jokes and surveyed the
pile of food bought for the trip. At the stern of the Cold Spaghetti, a 50
foot fishing yacht, she applied sun block in the offshore one o'clock A. M.
gloom, careful not to get any in her goggles. Behind her the island at Santa
Catalina rose up the several hundred feet as a one-dimensional wall in the
dark. The boat dropped her at Emerald Bay, the green water now black and fathomless.
She stepped off the island into the ocean, moving uncertainly over barnacle-covered
rocks, picking a route through scuttling crabs and the vicious rubber touch
of kelp. At 1:33 A. M. Keith glided into Catalina Channel to swim the 22 miles
to mainland California and the Los Angeles harbour of San Pedro.
The Cold Spaghetti moved noisily ahead of her, its diesel exhaust lingering
at the stern as the boat moved between a low trawling gear and neutral to maintain
a swimmer's pace. The green phosphorescent glow stick attached to Keith's bathing
suit remained partially submerged, giving off a soft eerie shimmer. There was
an unbroken plane of dark sky and ocean, and Keith's butterfly stroke, heaving
and relentless, was mute, too distant to hear over the motors. Fifty feet from
shore, two minutes into the crossing, her voice carried across the water, "Are
we there yet?"
At 29, Vicki Keith is the world's pre-eminent marathon swimmer. In 1989, using
the butterfly stroke, she swam around Sydney Harbour, across the English Channel,
the Strait of Juan De Fuca, Lake Winnipeg, and Lake Ontario. In 1986 she swam
for five and have days in a pool, A record, hallucinating vividly from sleep
deprivation and exhaustion. A she swam the lanes of Artillery Park pool in
Kingston, she saw a grocery store with martians on the shelves; friends spread
peanut butter on the aliens to neutralise them.
Keith was born in Winnipeg and lived with her family in Ottawa and Pointe
Claire, Quebec before moving, finally, to Kingston. Unathletic out of the water,
she became involved in swimming and coached competitive swimming for six years.
She is five foot 5 3/4, squared and bulky, with the powerful shoulders and
aggressive cut of a middle linebacker. Marathon swimmers are unlikely looking
athletes, without the tapered grace of speed swimmers. To sustain the demands
of their sport, their bodies are necessarily bulky, carrying fat for energy
and insulation against bitter ocean temperatures. When she crossed it in August,
the Strait of Juan de Fuca was 52F, cold enough to induce hypothermia. After
the 14 hour swim, her body temperature was 86 degrees Fahrenheit. The skewed
logic and hampered movements of hypothermia had taken hold, and the last mile
was achieved between brief spells of unconsciousness. Still, others have crossed
the Strait of Juan de Fuca (though not since 1956, when Marilyn Bell did it)
and the English Channel is crossed regularly, almost routinely. What separates
Keith from her marathon swimming peers is the butterfly, an unwieldy, lurching
stroke that propels the head and shoulders out of the water. It is energy intensive
and slow, an unnatural movement that works the shoulders incessantly. Three
others have attempted to cross the English Channel using the butterfly; the
farthest anyone got was two miles. The butterfly was developed in the 1950s
as a modification of the breast stroke. It was faster but involved more labour,
it was a sprinting stroke.
At the stern of the cold spaghetti, dragonflies rammed the floodlights with
fluttering thuds. Three observers from the Catalina Channel Swimming Federation
were on hand to verify Keith's swim, marking her progress in detail, noting
her current rate of 28 strokes per minute. One of the swims organisers asked, "What's
a good pace for the butterfly?"
"I don't know," said David Clark, one of the observers. "This
is the first time I've seen anyone swim the butterfly farther than 400 m."
Tens of thousands of anchovies roiled and leapt in the wake of the boat, flashing
in the stern lights. The boat's Colormatic HE 640 Fishfinder indicated that
the school was 120 feet deep.
"The anchovies are feeding off the plankton that come up to the light," skipper
Mike Fadely said.
What feeds off the anchovies?"
Sharks are the most pressing psychological issue for marathon swimmers in salt
water. For the first 90 minutes of her swim, the only thoughts Keith had were
of sharks. Every shape was a fin, every piece of flotsam a rising snout, the
brush of seaweed a predatory nudge. There are other things to avoid: stingrays,
Barracuda, jelly fish, and marlin that stab their prey and take it down to
the bottom of the sea. But sharks have the most effective hold on the imagination,
the best advance publicity. Blue sharks are plentiful in the Catalina Channel,
great whites an unfortunate threat. The blues have a marked, stalking approach,
circling their prey, trailing behind it, their fins often visible, waiting
for an opportunity. Great whites arrive from beneath unannounced, swimming
upward and stealing a piece of their prey on the first strike. They retreat
then and wait until loss of blood has induced shock and immobilised their victim.
They feed when their prey is motionless, suspended in a red shroud. The hunting
cycle of the great white is the reason people often survive shark attacks and
seals seldom do: the people get the land or are pulled from the water by friends.
Shark attacks are rare, statistically the chances are remote. But when you're
moving noisily on the service of deep, alien territory, conscious of your exposed
silhouette, imagination is a powerful thing. Vicki Keith hadn't eaten seafood
for six months, a unilateral pact with her hosts.
The 6:15 sunrise was obscured by mist and low clouds. The dark gave way slowly
to articulated greys that came into focus like a self-developing photograph.
The dry Santa Ana winds off the desert, which had caused 100 F heat in Los
Angeles, were thwarted by prevailing ocean breezes and the channel was cool.
Vicki had covered five miles in the night. A large pod of fifty dolphins trailed
100 yards behind her before veering away. The slick black curve of a pilot
whale appeared briefly. Eight dirty grey seagulls flew in tight formation,
banking into the wind, and two pelicans skimmed the water, their beaks inches
from the shallow swells. Behind the Cold Spaghetti, Vicki's stroke broke the
shifting surface, the Canadian flag on for bathing cap visible as she cleared
the water to breathe.
At 9:33 AM she stopped for a regular feeding, taken at two hour intervals.
She trod water and ate Del Monte fruit cocktail from the can, drank fresh water
and hot chocolate, and ate M&Ms that were tossed at her bobbing head. She
joked with Ethan and Craig in the pontoon boat, crew members who had been along
on other swims. In less than two minutes she was under way, moving towards
the invisible coastline at one mile an hour. Through the day, the observers
and sponsors on board the navigation boat took turns trying to sleep in the
rolling bunks. They watched the Notre Dame - Michigan game on a snowy televisions
set, ate crackers, and sat huddled in cold-weather gear on deck chairs, observing
the grey seas and Vicki's Keith Sisyphean progress. The alarming size of passing
freighters in the shipping lane provided the only change in perspective. Keith
was 50 yards behind the boat an isolated dot that disappeared regularly in
the morning chop. Ethan and Craig floated nearby in the runabout, legs draped
over the sides, looking like day 3 of a shipwreck.
I wanted to show that things aren't impossible," Keith had said, explaining
the genesis of her marathon swimming career. “I wanted to push my limits,
to see what I could do." Keith has a frequent smile and the abrupt, linear
personality necessary for extended acts of will. “I had never been good
any sport in my life; I was the last picked for team sports. I had no reason
to believe I could do my first swim. When I planned all my salt water swims,
I had never swum in salt water before. "
Her first marathon was in 1984, a 12 miles swim using the butterfly along the
Lake Ontario coastline near Kingston. In subsequent swims, she would sometimes
stare across the dull grey horizonless water and wonder why she was doing it,
what instinct was driving for her to swim. She never formulated a clear answer.
Last year she became the first person to cross all five Great Lakes, raising
$548,000 for Variety Village, a Scarborough pool facility for disabled children. “I
started working with disabled children when I was ten years old, teaching them
to swim," Keith said. “Water is freedom for them; they can move
around for the first time. Pools are essential for disabled children “Her
association with the Variety Club of Ontario, the charity that sponsors Variety
Village, provided her with another reason for swimming, or at least a new rationalisation.
This year 's crossings were geographically diverse, lacking the marketing allure
of the Great Lakes, and donations were near $200,000.
Keith doesn't have a coach, or trainer, doesn't follow a special diet. She
trains seven hours a day in a pool and lifts weights three times a week. Through
the winter she gives motivational seminars to schools and corporations. "She's
so, like, focused," one of her California host noted enviously.
Keith had made an earlier, unsuccessful attempt at swimming the Catalina Channel,
shortly after the English Channel crossing. In the first ten hours she covered
ten miles in the next 10, less than a mile. "Her stroke deteriorated,” said
David Clark, also an observer on that attempt. “She was hardly pulling
any water, not getting anywhere. This went on for hours and hours and hours.
Mentally she was still tough, she wanted to go on, but physically she wasn't
going anywhere. “She was caught in a current that she wasn't able to
overcome. Her crew was solicited to help talk her out of the swim. One of them
took the runabout out to her and explained the situation: she wasn't moving.
They could return another time. Her stroke had become a diminished mechanical
failing, motivated by some dimly remembered impulse. Perhaps that is the essence
of marathon events: the will to continue when the body has exhausted its reserves,
the ability to hold logic at bay. A swimmer of some note had set out to swim
Catalina Channel earlier that same year but had turned back in the dark while
still in the boat out to the island. Bouncing over the black swells, he had
allowed the barren reality of his task to stare him down.
The first successful crossing of the Catalina Channel was in 1927, by George
Young, and 17-year-old Canadian. Chewing-gum magnate William Wrigley, Jr.,
had offered $25,000 to the winner of a race across the Channel in January.
Wrigley sponsored the event to gain publicity for Catalina Island, which he
owned; he felt it was wrongly regarded as only a summer vacation spot. Of the
102 swimmers who started the race, only Young, fuelled by hot chocolate and
debt, was able to finish. Using the Australian crawl, he crossed the channel
in 15 hours, 44 minutes, 30 seconds and received his checked at Grauman’s
Egyptian Theatre on Hollywood Blvd. When he returned to Toronto, 150,000 people
welcomed him as a national hero. Marathon swimming caught the collective imagination
and competitions proliferated.
The idea of marathon swimming had begun in 1875 when Matthew Webb, captain
in the British merchant marine, swam across the English Channel to Calais,
France. He had been warned that any attempt would be suicidal and took it as
a challenge. It was 36 years before the next successful crossing, but a series
of attempts publicized the event over the years. (Webb set out to swim the
length of the whirlpool rapids below Niagara Falls in 1883 and died of head
injuries sustained in the attempt. He was buried at Oakwood Cemetery on the
American side). In recent decades, marathon swimming has retreated as a sporting
event. It no longer holds our imagination or perhaps we no longer have one.
Sporting events are televised, scripted, and produced with precision and flair.
We see the graphic exhaustion and immediate interviews of marathon runners;
the legs of quarterbacks broken like sticks in slow motion at several entertaining
angles; race drivers emerging from their collapsed cars and running flaming
around the infield. A woman alone in a large body of water is to elemental,
the context to vague, to grab our attention.
In the early afternoon, baby jellyfish arrived, tiny, indivisible in the grey
waves. Each sting was diluted to an itch that prickled at every stroke for
the next two hours. In the English Channel Keith had hit five adults stinging
jellyfish and the pain had kept her awake for a week.
Two miles from shore, the crew perceived the mainland for the first time that
day. The sun had burned off the haze and expensive homes could be seen clinging
to the cliffs. The last few miles had been fast and the estimated time of 20
hours was reassessed a 15. Bill Petrasich, the organiser, got on the phone
and called the LA media to let them know when Keith would be landing.
We’ve caught the afternoon express, “Mike Fadely said, a reference
to the current that pulls southward along the shore at that time of day. He
stared off the bow of his boat and bounced a red M&M off the back of Keith’s
head from 50 feet. She turned around and Fadely outlined the best route in
to shore. She negotiated the substantial kelp beds that ringed the beach and
the braved the scudding windsurfers in the bay. She arrived at Cabrillo Beach
at 4:26 PM, 14 hours 53 minutes, and 26 seconds after she began. The sky had
cleared to pale tropical blue and the L.A. media crowded the landing site.
She was delivered from the grey abstraction of the sea to the greater abstraction
of sunny Los Angeles. A woman on the beach picked up her round faced baby and
rushed towards the cameras. “Y’all need a beautiful baby in the
picture, I got one right here,” she said shuffling into the scrum.
Vicki waded through the last few yards of surf with, lumbering towards the
crowd, her leg heavy. “How do you feel?” a reporter asked.
“Wet, " she said.
Champagne was opened and poured over her, the sporting signal for victory.
After posing for pictures with a resolute smile, she went back to her Hotel
in San Pedro, had a shower, and dined on seafood.