After a 27-year hiatus, David Skarman is embarking on what he calls “an all out paddle battle,” having devoted every spare hour for months to train for the grueling and danger-filled endurance test that pushes off at dawn from the Catalina Island isthmus in two weeks.
After winning the race in 1989 and 1990 and placing fourth in 1991, the Laguna waterman and Emerald Bay reserve fire captain retired from racing and returned to surfing, what he describes as “the core of my being.”
Skarman is among the 100 paddlers who’ve qualified to compete Sunday, Aug. 27, in the Catalina Classic Paddleboard Race, crossing 32 miles of open ocean and a tanker-filled commercial shipping lane to reach Manhattan Beach.
While the last seven miles will likely be grueling due to a predictable west wind and possible strong currents, the first 23 mile stretch crosses a major shipping channel and “sharks are always present,” said Craig Lockwood, 79, another Laguna waterman who will be navigating from the escort boat, The Checkered Flag, owned and piloted by Brennan Slavik. He will bring a gun on board for use in a dire situation.
If “the man in the grey suit” is spotted, as Skarman refers to sharks, Lockwood will try to maneuver the boat between the sea creature and Skarman. “Worst case scenario is I’d have to be pulled from the water,” Skarman said. Escort boats are supposed to stay 100 yards away from the paddler.
“Almost everyone makes the first 23 miles to R-10,” Lockwood said, referring to a buoy near San Pedro. The home stretch, or “the grind” in Skarman’s description, is the final seven miles paralleling the coast toward the finish line at Manhattan Beach pier.
The crew also includes a nutritionist, Skarman’s son, Jonathan, 22, who will for the last stretch supply his father with “jet fuel,” a mixture of caffeine, ibuprofen and electrolytes. Regulations permit the use of a 15-foot pole with a bottle, hose and a mouthpiece attached, which is extended to the paddler, who will lock the bottle to his board and continue to paddle with one arm.
Unlike stand-up paddle boarders who propel themselves with long poles equipped with short blades from yard-wide surfaces, Skarman uses only his hands while prone or on his knees to push his narrow racing board, a 2017 Bark Commander.
Skarman will be racing in the stock class, which mandates a 12-foot board weighing 20 pounds. He’ll need to add fishing weights attached with Velcro to bring it up to the requisite weight.
Joe Bark, the maker of Skarman’s epoxy polystyrene board, competed with him in the 1989 contest and won in the unlimited division, which allows variances such as foot controlled rudders and tillers on boards of different sizes.
Lockwood will rely on a GPS unit, Coast Guard radio transmissions and his own knowledge to monitor currents and swell directions. The former lifeguard patrolled Laguna’s beaches from the 1960s through the early 2000s.
About being in the three-mile wide shipping channel he said, “a speck on the horizon can be a 60 foot tall ship bearing down on you, at 35 knots, within a half hour and leave a six foot wake.”
At age 50, Lockwood was one of the oldest competitors in the Catalina Classic in 1982. The race established in 1955 also took a 20-year hiatus, but is now in its 37th consecutive year.
Lockwood will use a radio but will also shout or whistle to alert Skarman of interfering conditions. When paddling from a prone position, “I can’t see 15 feet ahead,” said Skarman. Lockwood also served as his navigator in 1989.
With two weeks to go, Skarman, also the father of 6- and 7-year old sons, has tapered off the gym and paddle training regimen of the last eight months to allow his body to heal and recover before the marathon.
“I’m in the best shape I’ve even been in,” said the 55-year-old, who qualified for one of this year’s 15 open spots on his first attempt. He completed the Jay Race, from Capitola Beach to the Santa Cruz pier, named for Jay Moriarity the subject of the documentary film “Chasing Mavericks.”
Skarman aims to accomplish two goals in this year’s race: matching his winning time of seven hours in the 1989 race and raising money for the Mauli Ola Foundation. “I’m not in it to win it,” he said.