My father rolled us up in Army blankets in the sand at Point Vicente, like so many small, giggly seals, and took up a lonely vigil on the wet rocks, looking out to sea with a pair of high-powered binoculars. It was a bright, moonlit night, with low fog out over the water and moderate surf, not at all miserable for January. The year was 1927. We were there, along with maybe a couple hundred other watchers, all huddled around little driftwood fires to do proper homage to the winner of the Wrigley Ocean Marathon, the first and only mass trans-San Pedro Channel swim from Santa Catalina Island to the Southern California mainland.
Not many people thought such a swim could be accomplished. Experts declared that no one could stand the awful midwinter temperatures for the requisite 12 to 25 hours. Betting ran 10 to 1 against anyone surviving the paralyzing cold and the wild and unpredictable tidal currents. But Father had a sixth sense about these things. Not only did he believe that a merman would rise out of the kelp beds in the small hours of the morning, right here across the shortest span, he wanted all his flock to see and be inspired when the merman rose.
One of my father's cherished theories of child-raising—he had eight of us on which to practice—was that the viewing of magnificent, lone feats of valor somehow would imbue us all with lion hearts. Thus we were lifted practically out of the cradle to view a remarkable series of events, sporting and otherwise, in which man pitted himself against great forces of nature.
The Wrigley Marathon, "World's Greatest Sporting Contest for One of the Greatest Prizes Ever Hung Up," was after Father's hero heart. Considered the most spectacular aquatic event of all times, it promised to pay the first man to touch shore an incredible $25,000 and the first woman $15,000. If the woman beat the man—thought most unlikely—she would get the 25 grand. Most of the great names of swimming in the '20s (103 in all) were entered, and they got reams of space on the sports pages for months in advance as each arrived to fatten up and harden to the chill waters. There were Henry Sullivan and Charles Toth, veteran distance swimmers and the first Americans to swim the English Channel; 240-pound Norman Ross, giant Chicago star of the interallied games at Paris in 1919. There were the French champion Bert Rovere; Schoolteacher Clarabelle Barrett of Pelham, New York, holder of women's endurance records; Millie Gade Corson, English Channel conqueror; Leo Purcell of the San Francisco Olympic Club, winner of the Golden Gate endurance swim; Charles (Zimmy) Zibelman, the legless distance swimmer from Oakland who trained against the San Francisco Bay tides; various motion-picture starlets entered for no better reason than to have their pictures taken posing prettily in button-shouldered knit bathing suits; and an Eskimo who claimed to have swum the Bering Strait and who kept making everybody mad by complaining of the "high temperature" of channel waters and distressing lack of ice floes.
The race was preceded by a month-long rhubarb stirred to fever heat by the Women's Christian Temperance Union when New York Lifeguard Lottie Schoemmel, who trained by swimming around Manhattan Island in 14 hours and 11 minutes, arrived on Santa Catalina Island with no bathing suit in her wardrobe but with 15 pounds of bear grease for insulation against the cold. Said authorities of Long Beach and neighboring seaside hamlets: "Mrs. Schoemmel or any other unclothed swimmer landing on this part of the coast will be promptly arrested."
William Wrigley Jr., multimillionaire island-owner and sponsor of the marathon, immediately ordered 200 pounds of the best axle grease and 100 pounds of prime hog lard delivered to the isthmus so that Lottie would have no unfair advantage over other contestants. To bare or not to bare became the question of the day, and while all this was going on an inconspicuous Canadian kid in a seedy cap—an amateur long-distance swimmer—hitchhiked into town to almost total neglect by the hordes of newsmen swarming around far more glamorous company.
If Father personally could have picked a winner to meet his exacting specifications he couldn't have done better than choose George Young, a 17-year-old Toronto, Ont. boy, who made a penniless and miserable trip across the continent on a wheezing, third-hand motorcycle that broke down in Arizona. Young himself never doubted that he would win, and he planned to spend the $25,000 on a Southern California pink-stucco bungalow for his ailing, widowed mother.
The Wrigley Marathon was a natural product of an era when the uses of publicity were being plumbed to the fullest. William Wrigley Jr., who made a fortune out of the rhythmically moving jaws of the U.S. public, could well afford the elaborate preparations and safety precautions of the mass swim. He leaped at the suggestion when it was made to him. At one time no fewer than 1,000 entrants were registered, but they dropped out like Raid-sprayed mosquitoes when the grim facts of the channel became known. Fred Cady, swim coach of the Los Angeles Athletic Club, was one of the many experts who doubted that the swim could be accomplished. Clarabelle Barrett, who later changed her mind and entered the race, announced that "it is not humanly possible for any swimmer, male or female, to remain in the water for more than ten hours, and the distance cannot be covered in that time."
As odds dipped to 10 to 1 that no one could complete the swim, contestants set about various plans to outwit the cold. A common solution usually was to fatten up with a high-caloric diet. The Eskimo sent north for a barrel of seal grease—to drink, not wear. Fickle-hearted Clarabelle Barrett ate sponge cake with her tea. The finest baby beef in the cooling rooms of the Hauser Packing Company was reduced in half-ton batches to beef juice, supplied in gallon lots to selected serious swimmers.
Meanwhile experts testing the San Pedro Channel waters came up with fearsome statistics: in midchannel, January temperatures were dropping to 52�, while near the California mainland waters were found to vary from 54� to 58�. Average temperatures of the English Channel, in contrast, is 60� in the swimming season. Currents were found to vary in their courses, running in all directions, different from day to day. Starters would swim into trouble right off the bat, encountering not half a mile from the isthmus a wide current running like a mill-race toward the northeastern end of the island. Farther out in the channel, there was a six-mile-wide current flowing southward directly across the course at a speed of one knot, rendering tides useless as a help to swimmers. Sharks, rumored out there waiting to chunk down meaty channel swimmers, turned out to be mythical. Still, as the dread day approached, another 50 swimmers dropped out, along with the last of the film cuties. The Eskimo went home.