The steamer Avalon was rigged out as hospital ship and floating grandstand. A fleet of 300 boats stood off to convoy the swimmers, each contestant accompanied by a rowboat with an impartial observer, his trainer and an oarsman aboard. The observer was changed at frequent intervals to prevent hanky-panky, such as swimmers climbing aboard in the dark of night. Powerboats with doctors aboard accompanied many of the swimmers. Escort boats were loaded with emergency equipment, hot-water bags, red flags, flares and elaborate devices to feed swimmers in midswim. Red Cross, newspaper and wire-service speedboats formed a considerable armada of their own, and President Calvin Coolidge ordered the Coast Guard to be there, as well. When the whole fleet got under way it rivaled that of the future Normandy invasion.
At the crack of Fred Cady's gun swimmers in all hues, from lampblack through yellow, green and lard-white, took off—14 women and 88 men (one was only 14 years old). Seven minutes later the first casualty was fished out more drowned than alive. Philip Moore had set out in an unbeatable combination against the chill: six long-john undershirts, each heavily greased, and three pairs of heavy winter-woolen underdrawers tied at the ankles with rope, the whole finished off with an inch-thick frosting of rendered beef suet. He sank like a wounded walrus. By nightfall less than half the starters were still in there kicking.
Clarabelle Barrett succumbed to the bitter cold and left the water at 1:11 a.m., well behind dark horses Margaret Hauser of Long Beach, Calif. and Martha Stager of Portland, Ore. Flamboyant Lottie Schoemmel, attractively larded out in her bear fat, surrendered to leg cramps by sunset. By midnight no more than a dozen of the field of 102 were in the sea. The race settled down to a three-way contest between George Young, well out in the lead and swimming with machinelike precision at 46 crawl strokes to the minute, Peter Meyer of Cincinnati and favorite Norman Ross.
Meyer gave up off Point Fimmin at 4:15 a.m., beaten by the fog and crosscurrents against which he had battled vainly for two heartbreaking hours, always drifting back. He came within a mile or so of shore, swimming an estimated 34 to 38 miles with a trudgen crawl.
Ross had made a poor decision early in the race, swimming toward the northern end of Santa Catalina to get the better of the wide, southerly flow. Thus he had much distance to regain before turning sharply toward the San Pedro Lighthouse. When he reached the fast offshore tide within a few miles of Point Vicente he had nothing more to give.
But those of us who were huddled on the beach at the mainland end of the course knew nothing of all this, particularly we children. My own memory of the long night vigil is hazy: a wave-lulled sleep broken now and again by people running around with flashlights and chunks of driftwood set ablaze in the beach fires. Suddenly along toward 3 in the morning. Father, in a great state of excitement, ran from child to child, shaking us awake. Just off the kelp beds, out beyond the rocky point in the midst, the bobbing light of an escort boat had appeared. In a little while, rising out of the black water in the light of the many cars parked facing the sea, appeared a dark head and the flash of white arms.
At exactly 3:08 a.m. on the morning of Jan. 16. 1927, by Father's fat, gold pocket watch, there staggered up out of the sweeping current an exhausted boy, with a heavy, prognathous jaw, his thick neck widening into blocky torso, his skin puckered from long immersion. The whites of his eyes gleamed blood-red from the burn of salt water. His mouth hung open, and he wore an oddly puzzled look, as if he didn't know where he was or how he got there. We had one good, clear look at him. Then little kids were pushed out of the way by men racing out waist-deep into the sea to lift George Young, now in the final few yards, stumbling and flopping through the surf.
Naked, he was wrapped in blankets and borne off to a waiting official car, I suppose to a hospital. Though the distance from the isthmus at Catalina to Point Vicente is only a little more than 22 miles, he had swum more than 30 miles before he touched land. I don't recall whether he had any vestiges of grease clinging to his heavy-muscled body, but I remember the shocked hush of the crowd, as if all of us were interlopers in the personal highlight of a man's life. The mood changed from awe to excitement when George issued a brief statement. He owed it all, he said, to a fit body spurred on by the faith of his ailing mother, a onetime cook in tourist camps who had donated the last of her savings, $135, to the purchase of his beat-up motorcycle.
Father was beside himself with joy. Strong body and clean heart. Who could ask for more than that a poor boy triumph over nature and the world's greatest distance swimmers? George became a family hero right alongside Teddy Roosevelt, Richard E. Byrd, Robert Peary and Charles Augustus Lindbergh, who joined this distinctive company a few months later. We children were enjoined to make up a scrapbook of clippings with headlines such as: CHANNEL CONQUEROR HOLDS SPOTLIGHT OF ENTIRE WORLD, SOLE MERMAN WINS OVER FRIGID WATERS, WORLD'S PREMIER NATATORS BESTED BY BOY and LAD RECEIVES FORTUNE FROM CHICLE MONARCH.
After the race, panting newsmen rushed to fill in gaps in George's youthful chronicle. He was a very good boy, a credit to his mother and holder of a slew of Canadian amateur swim records. Entrepreneurs of various kinds dangled vaudeville contracts and such under George's outthrust chin, but I don't know if he accepted any. Our family scrapbook ends with news that Mrs. Jenny Young, mother of the champ, wired him to put his $25,000 prize in a California bank and return to her at once. Apparently this was before anyone had heard of the generation gap, because that's the last clip in the saga of the teenage wonder boy.