The allure of Catalina Island is unavoidable, especially for those who grew up exploring the waters off the South Bay. “For those of us who love the water, there’s this draw of wanting to cross the channel,” says Francziska Steagall, race director for the Catalina Classic Paddleboard Race.
The 32-mile race is something of a rite of passage for dedicated local ocean athletes. Aside from being a remarkable challenge, the race serves as a competitive embodiment of the South Bay’s ocean-oriented culture and past. In order to understand the race’s significance—and to get a better grasp as to why anyone would want to paddle five hours across the open ocean—it’s critical to look to the past … to the early origins of the race.
Tom Blake and His Paddleboards
Famous waterman Tom Blake did not start the Catalina Classic, but he helped initiate some of the first paddleboard channel crossings among local Angeleno surfers and watermen. Francziska notes that in 1932, as part of an effort to showcase the effectiveness of his massive, 14-foot, 75-pound paddleboards, Tom convinced Pete Peterson and Wally Burton to paddle with him across the channel. That same year, according to The Encyclopedia of Surfing, Tom became the first person to paddleboard the stretch of ocean between the mainland (in this case San Pedro) and Catalina Island.
From the ‘30s into the ‘50s, paddleboarding—along with surfing, of course—began to increase in popularity. In 1955, LA lifeguard Bob Hogan, along with a handful of friends, raced across the channel. “This is when the first 32-mile open ocean paddleboard marathon began,” says Francziska.
Much like today, the early Classic started at Catalina’s Isthmus and ended at the Manhattan Beach Pier. Francziska notes that the Manhattan Beach Chamber of Commerce played a big role during the Classic’s formative years, helping promote it.
Chamber of Commerce member Cliff Webster was a major supporter, and he helped drive attention toward the race. Unfortunately, terrible ocean conditions caused race organizers to cancel the Classic in 1961, and after Cliff passed, Chamber of Commerce support dwindled. The race, says Francziska, went on a 30-year hiatus after that point.
In 1982 LA County lifeguards Karl “Buddy” Bohn and Weldon “Gibby” Gibson resurrected the Classic—not only due to a profound love of paddleboarding but also as a way to keep the South Bay in touch with its oceanic past. The race is a thriving event now.
Last year, roughly 100 individuals finished the Classic. As the event continues to draw attention—and as paddleboard technology improves, making the sport more approachable—the Classic will undoubtedly grow in stature with each passing year.
“From just an adventure perspective, you know, what else is there?” says Adam Buckley, a frequent first-place winner of the race. “You look out to the sea, and you see this island that’s out there in the distance. I think going over there by boat might be an adventure for some people. But waking up at 4:30 a.m. in the dark and leaving at 6 a.m. and racing across as fast you can—that’s a real adventure. That’s a goal you can set and do at the end of the summer. It’s addicting for people. It’s human nature, it’s work, but at the end you’re really stoked and happy. You’re now part of the tradition.”
The race is an ongoing tradition for paddleboard designer Joe Bark, who both competes and creates many of the boards that break the water. Two of Joe’s kids, Jack and Gemma, are also competitors, making the race a true family affair.
“What’s neat about the Classic is that it’s not a dog-eat-dog thing,” shares Joe. “There’s no money. It’s a respectable, honorable race, and you fight it out there with your friends until the end. It’s a race of honor. You help your buddies—it’s still a race and a sport where you do the right thing. Every paddler is out there to challenge themselves, and at the end of the day you go back to your day job.”
Not just a boy’s club, the race also attracts many female competitors, like finisher D.J. O’Brien. “We do train as hard as any guy trains,” she says. “I don’t want to sound too competitive or negative, but it’s so nice to have the women’s class recognized now.”
As Francziska points out, finishing the Classic is a major accomplishment. And although she hasn’t done the Classic herself yet, she’s seen firsthand how competitors come together after finishing the race, bonding over the shared and momentous challenge of open-ocean paddling. By crossing those 32 miles, competitors become a part of South Bay history, forming a distinct connection with the earliest watermen.
“When you cross the channel, there’s this sense of accomplishment and intimacy with the water that you can’t get any other way,” she says. “For those that grew up here, you want to be a part of that history.”
Not ready to compete in the Catalina Classic but want to experience the thrill of stand-up paddleboarding in the Pacific? Check in with Terranea’s Adventure Concierge for your opportunity to traverse the waters just off the resort.
Written by Stefan Slater