On 11 August, Robert Palmese will attempt a three-way Catalina Channel crossing. If he succeeds he will be not only the first person to do so, but also the first person to even attempt it. Robert’s first marathon swim was a one-way Catalina crossing, a 21-mile stretch of water between Catalina Island and the Californian coast, in June 2015. We caught up with him to chat about his upcoming record-breaking attempt.
What inspired you to start marathon swimming?
The inspiration for all my swims is my close friend Emily Nichols. In January of 2015, she passed away after 21 years of living with Cystic Fibrosis. I never took the opportunity to do fundraising while Em was alive. I wanted to do something to memorialise her.
To me the challenge of swimming a roughly 21-mile stretch of open water was my way of saying goodbye and thank you. There could not have been a more perfect metaphor: Emily’s 21-year battle with Cystic Fibrosis, and my battle with 21 miles of mother nature’s most powerful force on earth, water.
What were conditions like for your one-way crossing?
Within a couple of hours, I hit a very strong cross current. My pace went from about 2.5 miles per hour to just over one mile per hour. For the next 12 hours I battled a current that pushed me back 50 yards every 30 minutes when I stopped to consume my feed. I grew frustrated with my lack of progress and several times told myself, “Maybe you’re just not good at this”. I began to tell myself, “Just make it to the next feed”. Roughly 12 and a half hours after starting I was standing, just long enough to make the crossing official, before sitting down from the vertigo of the swells. This swim was expected to take me no more than 10 hours, but it took me about 20 per cent longer. After the swim I told myself and everyone on the boat I didn’t ever want to do that again.
That sounds a pretty grueling experience. Why did you decide to attempt a three-way?
About two months later I began gathering info on records to see what I could have a shot at. I remember telling myself, “Maybe you’re not good at this” and that motivated me to challenge myself even more, having overcome that same thought a couple months back. There were so many different types of crossing, from speed to all four strokes, but multiple crossings were limited to just doubles. I confirmed through the Catalina Channel Swimming Federation that a triple crossing had never been completed, nor even attempted. This was strange to me, considering the English Channel has had a few. The English Channel, in my opinion is more difficult, and it was hard to believe this opportunity is just sitting there waiting for someone to swim up and grab it!
Not even a week later I was booked for a triple crossing attempt on August 11, 2016!
What are you most looking forward to about the swim?
Simply the challenge. Like Captain Matthew Webb once said, “Nothing great is easy”.
What are you least looking forward to?
Swimming for 36 hours. I find it hard to believe it will be enjoyable. Swimming in the ocean for me loses its zest after about two hours, when your tongue feels like it was hit by a hammer with all the swelling from the salt.
What will your coping strategies be when the going gets tough?
When the going gets mentally tough, I try to block it out. I acknowledge it and tell myself, “Nothing lasts forever”. It is a mindset I adopted in the military. Regardless of how much time it takes, the time will go by and I will cover the distance. Basically, I try to avoid the “what ifs”. Just swim until you hit land, turn around and do it again. And again in this particular instance!