How far is it?
The distance varies but the traditional crossing route is approximately 20.2 miles.
Are there tides and currents involved?
There are some currents, that can help or hinder the swimmer. The currents are not consistent so they can be great at some point during the swim, and it can be a nightmare. They can also vary in strength so that it may not be a big deal, or can be a killer for the crossing and cause the swimmer to not make it.
Tides may be a small factor and definitely NOT as big of a factor as it is for the English Channel, as the typical crossing for Catalina is a nearly perfectly straight line. English Channel swims are never in a perfectly straight line due to the huge tidal flow.
Can you wear a wetsuit?
The rules for Catalina are identical to the English Channel. Start on dry land, end on dry land. No touching the boat, or anyone for support. No wetsuit, fins, paddles. Just a speedo, cap, goggles and ear plugs.
Was it cold?
The temperature for my swim on August 14th, 2013 was 65.8 at the coldest reading up to 67 at the highest. That is pretty warm by most standards. I never felt cold at all, it was very comfortable. It was about 3-4 degrees warmer than the temperature during my English Channel crossing, so not a huge difference, but enough to notice.
Are there sharks, or were you worried about sharks?
I must admit that I thought about doing this crossing before doing the English Channel, but after doing some very limited research I found out that yes, there are sharks in the Catalina Channel, and Great Whites which are the ones I was concerned with.
However after doing more research, the fear of getting attacked by a shark in the Catalina Channel is completely ridiculous. The odds of seeing one is so remote that it can be considered an unreasonable fear. There have been no reported attacks to a marathon swimmer during their Catalina Crossing, and as far as I know, not even any sightings. That isn't to say it couldn't happen, but the odds are so low that it isn't worth NOT going for it.
I read a book dedicated to shark behavior, I read a book that is dedicated to FEAR, I read a book that also discussed a couple Catalina Crossings. I had done my homework and after doing so, can honestly say that I no longer had that fear. Yes I thought about them maybe 2-3 times during the swim, but I didn't dwell on it and it didn't cause me any hesitation during the swim.
(Updated 9/3/2013) My friend, Charlotte Brynn, who made a Catalina Channel attempt less than a month after my own, was allegedly attacked by a shark the first hour into her swim. Apparently it happened in the dark of the night and she wasn't completely aware of what happened, and just kept on swimming and didn't alert her crew. It must have not been terribly painful, because she swam an additional 11 hours before she got pulled for hypothermia very close to the finish. According to Forrest Nelson, this would be the first attack during a Catalina Crossing attempt.
Was the Catalina Channel or the English Channel tougher?
The answer for this is completely and totally dependent on the swimmer, what kind of shape they're in when they attempted both, and also what the conditions were on the two given days. Personally I feel like I was in better shape for Catalina. I was confident that I could get under the 12 hour goal I set for myself.
However there was a two hour stretch right near the start where I was feeling nauseous and dizzy. The current was against me and the swells were more than I could really appreciate. I thought to myself, "What have you done!" I thought that if the conditions were to remain that way they whole time (and I knew they wouldn't), that I probably would not be able to finish.
However about 2 1/2 hours into the swim it got much better, I didn't feel sick anymore and I kicked it into gear. So for me, the Catalina Channel was tougher thanks to that two hour span. If it weren't for that, I'd say they were about the same in difficulty.
Did you see any sea life?
I was disappointed in not personally seeing any dolphins. At mile 5 I could hear them nearby squeaking. That really was a boost for me. I saw lots of beautiful jellyfish, and I felt something with my left hand in the dark propel itself away from me. But the two coolest things I saw, were the bioluminescent plankton that I saw with every stroke during the night. It was mesmerizing and very entertaining.
But the really neat thing was when I saw a huge Sunfish or Mola Mola. That experience only lasted a few short seconds that I wish could have lasted a lot longer! It was extremely moving to experience that!
How fast did you swim it, and what is the record?
I swam the Catalina Channel in 11:50. My goal was under 12 hours. Talk about cutting it close! There was an incident during my swim where I was asked to swim backwards towards Catalina in order to get the kayak that was tied up to the boat. Thanks to my friend Goody Tyler, he convinced the pilot to let him swim back to it while we continued our course towards California. If he didn't do that, there's no way I would have hit my 12 hour goal.
The record for the Catalina Channel is here. I didn't even come close. I just wanted to get under that 12 hour time.
Did you do it by yourself or in a race?
Channel crossings are an individual thing. There have been a few races both in Catalina Channel and English Channel back in the day, but today, its nearly always done individually. You need to go through the relevant federation that oversees crossings for the specific channel. In this case it is the Catalina Channel Swimming Federation. That federation recognizes two pilot boats that are licensed for escorting swimmers, so there are at most two swimmers that could go on a particular day. Typically there are a couple dozen successful solos per year (at least that was the case for 2012).
How much did it cost?
In my case it was roughly $4000 USD to book a pilot, pay for a kayaker to paddle alongside, and to pay the CCSF for sanctioning the swim and providing a couple officials to observe.
Other costs include airfare, hotel, and other expenses while there. Channel crossings are NOT cheap. If it were free I expect that the number of successful crossings would be more than double what they are today. It is a huge commitment financially to train for and make the attempts, which cannot be taken lightly. There are no refunds if you don't make it. You just had an expensive charter boat.