Moments after Nubie Sears performed his heartfelt ode to the sea as a traditional send off of the 26th Aquathon last Sunday, unofficial organizer Gary Cogorno announced with mock solemnity that the unsanctioned event was officially cancelled.
Thus began the annual odyssey of swimmers, hikers, kayakers and SUP-ers as they left the picturesque confines of Emerald Bay en route south along Laguna Beach’s pristine shoreline in search of cold beer and a soothing resort hotel Jacuzzi. “It’s kind of been the official close of summer,” said local resident John Colladay, who sees the 8.5-mile surf and turf trek as “a nice stroll to the party at the Ritz.”
The whole thing began–or didn’t begin, depending on who you can’t admit you talked to–when Emerald Bay residents Alan Wolf, Mark Disman, John Heatley, and Bailey Smith decided to end the summer of 1986 with an extended snorkeling expedition that would take them well south of their usual Crescent Bay boundary.
Although exhausted when they finally arrived at Victoria Beach, they were happy to have made the trip because of the natural wonders they had seen along the way and the topless beauties they had stumbled upon in some of the more remote coves.
The foursome’s summer-ending adventure into the unbridled coastal recesses lasted but one more year. That’s when their wives found out and turned the fledgling Aquathon into a family event, one whose very existence is often denied tongue-in-cheek to avoid liability issues.
Norm Meager’s house meets the sand near the south end of Emerald Bay. He came out with his two golden retrievers to take in the sight as he does every year. “I’m amazed. Truly amazed,” he said, as the neoprene-clad army of Aquathoners kicked, paddled and climbed its way out of sight.
Before his knees wore out, Meager used to brave the crystal clear waters that lap at his front yard. Now, “at 88, you don’t do things like that,” he said.
The recent surge in popularity of stand up paddleboarding, which brought out an estimated 50 or more SUP-ers, surprised Cogorno. “That kind of came out of left field,” he said.
After nearly two decades of Aquathon adventures, Cogorno still prefers to stay on land as much as possible, hiking over the reefs and through the various tunnels along the way. “Swimming’s boring. Let’s face it,” he said.
Rob Wilson has SUP-ed his way through five Aquathons, but this year he took a keener interest when his employer, Montage, stepped up to offer food and drink to the weary as the last official stop before the finish. No kitchen duties for this executive chef, though. “Today I get to relax and enjoy it,” he said.
Spectacular weather, 70-degree water, and flat surf brought out twice the usual crowd and led to food and drink shortages at Victoria Beach, the halfway rest stop. “Luckily the Montage covered for us,” said Cogorno.
Quicksilver CEO Bob McKnight and several other members of the SUP set posed with their boards in front of the Emerald Bay volleyball nets before launching their flotilla of fun. “We kind of go. We stop. We have some cocktails, and we keep going,” he said with the smile of an experienced Aquathoner.
When 11-time Aquathoners Julie Padach and Curtis Mathewson reached the steep, paved trail leading to the finish, the Ritz Jacuzzi was already full of SUP-ers, many of whom had been sipping cocktails and soaking their sore muscles for hours. Although both swimmer/hikers called the conditions relatively “tame,” Padach still finds adventure in each Aquathon. “It’s scary, but it’s compelling,” she said.
The parties along the way and at the end provided the impetus for many of the more than 200 that either registered or just showed up to have some fun. But Laguna Beach High senior Jack Winter, was driven by the chance “to see some of the coves he and his friends never go to.”
Taking a break on a long stretch of uninterrupted beach between Main and Cress, LBHS varsity swimmer Maggie Renner and former JSerra swimmer Mallory Saldana, now a UCLA freshman, recounted the excitement of being in the open ocean. “I saw a couple of stingrays.” said Saldana.
Much to his dismay and disbelief, Cogorno has watched many local Laguna teens over the years turn their backs on the vast beauty that lay just beyond the shore. “You know kids,” he said. “If the water’s cold, they go ‘I’m not doing that.’”
This year was different, though, as Cogorno met and spoke with many young Aquathoners. “They all just had big giant smiles on their faces,” he said.
In hopes of preserving the coastal waters for the next generation of Aquathoners, a portion of each non-participant’s unofficial entry fee is donated to a very real Miocean, a nonprofit foundation whose efforts help curb the harmful effects of urban run-off along Orange County’s 42 miles of coastline.
The efforts of Miocean, and more importantly, the recent ban on commercial and sport fishing along Laguna’s coast, are beginning to pay dividends, according to Cogorno. “I can actually say that I have seen a lot more [sea life] than before, but we have a long ways to go,” he said. Let’s hope that we didn’t fish this place out to the point that it will never come back.”