Irish marathon swimmer Stephen Redmond has one goal in life: to be the first human to conquer the infamous Ocean’s Seven of the world. With three swims already tucked under his cap, Redmond battled the 22-mile channel separating Los Angeles and Catalina Island. He had no idea it would be the toughest swim of his life. All images by Chris Baldwin.

Nothing is going according to plan. It is 4:57 am on the dark, frosty morning of October 20th, 2011, and a vile retching can suddenly be heard bellowing from the starboard side of our boat, a sound not unlike the primal scream a gutted hyena might make. It is a howl that summons all from the insides of the boat to the railing. From a distance of about 40 meters away in the pitch black night, you can see open water swimmer Stephen Redmond projectile vomiting what looks like the contents of a 3” fire hose on blast. It is a nasty sight, his jaw unlocking violently like a transforming werewolf from a 1980s horror film. This is not what you want happening only 4 hours into an expected 13-hour swim. Near Redmond, seasoned marathon swimmer and official observer Forrest Davis lies flat on a paddleboard whispering words of encouragement, trying to steer Stephen back in motion. Back from the dark horizon behind him, and onto the light barely dawning ahead over Long Beach.

After two minutes, Redmond has collected himself. Without a word he again begins his breaststroke slowly, methodically, relentlessly moving — the steady slap of his massive arms smacking against the water, sloshing ever forward. Off in the distance, Los Angeles isn’t a line or bright light, but rather a faint glow of a city shining up into the cloud cover from the black nothing of the sea. The City of Angels looks far.

Half an hour later light has broken over the horizon, and the sky is an inclement soft blue grey. The skipper, Greg Elliot, emerges from the bowels of his boat with a cumbersome sack of plaid bagpipes wrapped around his body and ascends to the bridge overlooking the wide deck of his 63-foot boat, the Bottom Scratcher. It is tradition: at every sunrise, Elliot rises to the top of the 42-year-old purpose-built diving vessel and plays the pipes to welcome the morning and motivate his crew. The Skipper’s appearance is somewhere between that of Blue from Old School and the weathered Sea Captain from “The Simpsons”. In other words, he’s exactly what you’d expect from one who’s dedicated his life to the salty seas.

And then he starts playing, the melancholy tones ringing out over the water to the lone figure swimming slowly, methodically, relentlessly. The skipper may have hoped for the desired effect of welcoming the morning and infusing his swimmer with regained fortitude, but the results are decidedly different.

The Skipper performing his dawn bag pipes below; hit the Jump to continue reading The Long Way Home vol 1: Marathon Swimming the Seven Channels of the World With Stephen Redmond…

“He appears stunned, punch drunk, and he hurls an expletive or three at his sibling who won’t budge…”

“I wanna get out! Pull me outta the water you bloody bastards!” yells Stephen, now only a couple of feet from the side of the boat. He’s swum over, and he is pissed, foul and exhausted. “I’ve never called it before, but this time I’m callin’ it!”

“We’re not lettin’ ya in!” retorts Anthony, Steve’s younger brother and official feeder.

“It’s my call, and I’m callin’ it. I always finish, but this time it’s for real, I’m callin’ it!” barks Stephen angrily in his rough Irish brogue, complaining about severe stomach cramping and a sore shoulder. He appears stunned, punch drunk, and he hurls an expletive or three at his sibling who won’t budge. Anthony turns to us, half-cocked smile, “He’s just being a bitch.” Anthony’s trying to be light, but you can see he’s concerned. Stephen has by now been treading water for ten minutes without swimming, a lifetime in a sport where half a degree of body temperature loss can spell doom. The drama is steady, even. There’s no panic, but there’s sincere anxiety — not enough to pull his brother into the boat, but enough to know that if Stephen keeps allowing himself to wallow down that mental path of despair the swim is over with. Of course if he really wanted out, all Redmond would have to do is touch the boat and the crossing is instantly terminated — the protocol to open water swimming is a strictly enforced, strictly observed rigmarole.

Then something happens. Anthony converses in hushed tones to Forrest who’s in the water on the paddleboard, and Forrest swims over to Stephen and whispers in his ear. It is bizarre. Stephen gains a sort of clarity in his eyes that had acquired the lost swirl of a concussion. “Gimme some chocolates, and a sweet tea!” he orders. Quickly the hot tea is sequestered and lowered to Steve, and a Milky Way is ripped from its wrapper and tossed towards him. It falls in the water. Stephen dives out of sight to fish it out, surfaces, stuffs the small salty wet chocolate into his mouth, and without even grabbing his tea to wash it down he once again strokes forward towards Los Angeles — slowly, methodically, relentlessly sloshing on his long trek across the lonely channel. From the boat, everyone cheers and hollers. It is a small step; it is a critical victory.

Come back on Monday for Volume 2 of “The Long Way Home: Marathon Swimming the Seven Channels of the World”

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