Finding Solace on the Open Sea

Will Schmidt crossing between two of the Channel Islands.
Will Schmidt crossing between two of the Channel Islands.

Laguna Niguel resident Will Schmidt streaked across the Catalina Channel to Dana Point Harbor from Avalon aboard a 14-foot standup paddleboard in less than eight hours last Friday, Sept. 20. If confirmed by the World Paddle Association, his time of 7:47:33 will establish a new record for such a crossing, knocking more than five minutes off the current mark of 7:52:34 set by Jared Vargas in 2009.

Setting a channel record, though, seems nearly anti-climatic compared to Schmidt’s earlier achievement: paddling over the previous six days a 200-mile course between the five inner Channel Islands as part of his personal journey to overcome a life-long battle with depression. “I believe stand up paddling saved my life,” he said, recalling a dark day not too long ago when he put down a handful of pills, picked up his paddle and found solace on the open sea.

Will Schmidt along with his support crew at paddle's end, coming into Dana Point Harbor.
Will Schmidt along with his support crew at paddle’s end, coming into Dana Point Harbor.

His inner revival led the former Camp Pendleton Marine to create a website,, to share his life experiences and dream of paddling the Channel Islands. Even so, a big hurdle stood in the way of his goal to raise awareness about depression and its effects on former soldiers and their families, and to solicit support for the Wounded Warriors Project.

Schmidt knew the Channel Islands trip would not be possible without a support team and chase boat. And it had to be a sailboat; he couldn’t afford the fuel it would take for a powerboat to idle along side of him for seven days.

When Schmidt shared his dream with acquaintances Hannah Feldman and Heidi Marriner, “We were like, you’re crazy,” said Marriner, a ‘06 graduate of LBHS. Nevertheless, Feldman and Marriner pitched Schmidt’s idea to Laguna Beach resident Susie Campbell, captain and owner of Campbell Sloop, a 34-foot Catalina sailboat berthed in Dana Point.

Campbell was skeptical of Schmidt’s original plan, a 300-mile course to all eight of the Channel Islands. She sought advice from Jim “Skip” Wehan, captain of the tall ship Spirit of Dana Point, with more than 40 years of experience sailing the Channel Islands. “I wanted Skip to sit down with us and talk about the reality of what we were trying to do,” she said.

Laguna Beach resident Susie Campbell agreed to help Schmidt achieve his dream.
Laguna Beach resident Susie Campbell agreed to help Schmidt achieve his dream.

Wehan showed them a chart and pointed to Gull Rock near the west end of Santa Cruz Island off the Ventura County coast. “’Right after there, the wind’s going to blow like snot,’” said Campbell, laughing as she recalled Wehan’s colorful remark.

Campbell, familiar with friends and family members whose military experiences left them emotionally scared, took inspiration from Will’s cause. And she saw an opportunity to help Marriner accumulate helm time toward her pursuit of a captain’s license. Campbell agreed to volunteer her boat and skills in exchange for a donation to Casa Hogar, an orphanage in Ensenada Mexico that she and her husband Don have supported for nearly two decades.

With his grandfather’s WW II dog tags around his neck, Schmidt, Campbell Sloop, its captain, and crew of Feldman, Marriner and Campbell’s husband Don, left Channel Island Harbor in Oxnard on Friday, Sept. 13 for Anacapa Island, 20 miles to the west.

Although an experienced captain, Campbell knew the trip was going to test the limits of her crew. “It was a stretch,” she said. “But I know that we never grow unless we stretch ourselves.”

They reached those limits exactly where Wehan had predicted: at Gull Rock. “Sure enough, it was right at that rock where it was blowing so hard that we lost Will,” said Campbell.

Ironically, it was Don, an ex-firefighter who joined the crew at the last minute after two others dropped out, who made the crucial decision to drop anchor in 35-knot winds and nine-foot seas near the rocky, kelp-lined Santa Cruz coast. “That was the critical moment of the entire trip,” said Campbell.

The crew eventually spotted Schmidt, who had been forced ashore by the wind and waves “It’s a good thing [they found me],” he said, “because I wasn’t going any further right then. There was no way.”

They picked up the exhausted paddler and retreated to a calmer anchorage in the lee of the island, hoping to make another attempt at Santa Rosa the next morning around 4 a.m., but the winds didn’t cooperate.

It took two iPods and a long playlist to keep Schmidt’s thoughts occupied through more than 60 hours of constant paddling, especially at night. “That’s the time that your mind starts to race,” he said. “Every little thing that is normal before seems three times bigger, and seems like it’s alive.”

During one nighttime paddling session, something bumped Schmidt’s board from below, which prompted him to seek safety on the Sloop. During another session, a small flying fish hit him from behind and landed on his board. “Of course to me, it felt like a barracuda came after me because it was dark,” he said laughing.

The severe conditions around Santa Cruz forced them to modify their itinerary and give up the outer islands of Santa Rosa, San Miguel and San Nicholas. Instead, they set a course for Santa Barbara Island, about 50 miles to the southeast.

From there, they landed at Cat Harbor on the backside of Catalina, before heading out to San Clemente, the southern-most island in the chain. The next morning they returned to Catalina, stopping in Avalon for the evening before making the final record-setting run to Dana Point, where a small crowd of friends and family were waiting to hear the inspiring tale of four intrepid sailors and one driven paddler, who came together in a search for the healing powers of the sea.


Expedition Facts:

Fastest Catalina Channel crossing

First to cross the Catalina channel twice

First to paddle all five inner Channel Islands

Most miles (220) paddled in the Channel Islands

60,000+ calories burned

500,000 paddle strokes

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  1. Such a great story describing the adventures of Will and the crew of Campbell Sloop, esp my little cousin Susie Campbell. The much needed attention to veterans with PTSD and all the horrible side effects that come with it. Not to forget the orphanage in Mexico. God smiles upon those who are charitable with heart.
    Blessings to all,


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