Secrets of the 
Big Swim

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Get to know the ins and outs of Laguna’s annual Aquathon, an unofficial 8-mile trek across the land and water from Emerald Bay to Monarch Beach.

By Sharael Kolberg | Photos by Mary Hurlbut

 

Those who peer along the Laguna Beach coastline Sept. 14 might spot numerous people swimming or hiking, like a trail of ants, from Emerald Bay to Monarch Beach. Although they are braving an 8-mile stretch of rough water and challenging terrain, they will likely be laughing and smiling along the way. This is the Aquathon and, although it is a feat worthy of bragging about, there is no official winner.

Startb2013So what’s the point? According to event co-organizer Gary Cogorno, it is a way to enjoy the beauty of Laguna Beach’s coastline and have fun doing it. “The slower you go, the more you take in,” Gary says. “The winner actually loses because the longer you take, the more sightseeing you get to do.” He says the average finish time is between five and seven hours, adding: “If you do it [in] under two hours, you won’t remember a damn thing you saw.”

 

HUMBLE BEGINNINGS

Gary, 67, has been swimming, surfing and hiking along the Laguna Beach coastline since he was a youngster. A true waterman, he already knew the ins and outs of the various coves, but the Aquathon piqued his interest. “To do the entire coastline was a big draw to me,” he says. “I got involved because it was one thing I had never done. … Putting the pieces together was a home run. There is so much to see.”

Although exploration of the waters along Laguna Beach was pioneered by watermen such as Bob Johnson, Brant Davis and Steve Kinney back in the 1970s, inspiration for the Aquathon event came in 1986 when Emerald Bay residents Alan Wolf, Mark Disman, John Heatley and Bailey Smith spent their weekends snorkeling the local waters, walking from cove to cove and swimming around certain points when necessary. At summer’s end, they decided to explore Laguna’s entire coast, a trek that evolved over the years into the Aquathon, now drawing nearly 300 participants as the area’s most secretive “nonevent.” Every year, Gary and co-organizer Scott McCarter attempt to “cancel” the gathering as it poses many dangers and they do not wish to officially organize it due to liability.

“We try to make people feel like they shouldn’t do it because it’s not easy,” Gary says. “People underestimate the challenge. We try to cancel it to save people’s lives, but people show up anyway.” He emphasizes that ocean swimming experience is mandatory. “There are no escort boats. You’re on your own.” He jokingly adds, “Oh, and if a shark attacks you, swim away from the crowd, so there is no feeding frenzy.”

 

‘EXTREME,’ BUT ‘NOT THAT EXTREME’ 

Luckily, no one has ever been seriously injured in the event. Gary says he mostly sees just scrapes and bruises, although, one participant, Carrie Reynolds, did have a close call and was rescued by a fellow participant, who just happened to be a Navy SEAL.

“We were hiking along and, somehow, we got below Rockledge where you really are supposed to swim, not hike, and I jumped down from a rock to scurry up the next and I slipped, losing my grip,” Carrie says. “I found myself in the water between the rocks as the next set came. A guy on the rocks grabbed my hand to try and pull me up, but, instead, he tumbled in with me. We got thrown to the back of a cove as sets were coming in. He had wrapped me like human Kevlar and taken all of the impact in the back of that cove. He finally hoisted me out and then he got out. I was so lucky it was him there that day.”

IMG_9444AQUA-M-1Gary encourages people of all ages with ocean swimming experience to give it a try. “It’s extreme, but it’s not that extreme,” Gary says. “You can stop anytime you want. If anything goes wrong, you can just go up to the highway and take the bus back to Emerald Bay.”

When the event originated in 1986, it began at Emerald Bay and ended at Victoria Beach. In 1988, the city’s boundaries were extended to Three Arch Bay with the annexation of south Laguna. Local resident Bob Harman spearheaded the idea of lengthening the race to Three Arch Bay, creating a flier and enlisting participants; attendance increased to 30 that year. Bob provided participants with food and water at the finish line and generated a party atmosphere where people could sip a beer and swap stories about their experience. “It’s a fun ‘nonevent’ that provides a challenge and an opportunity to be with some really nice folks,” Bob Harman says.

A common draw for participants is not the challenge, but the camaraderie and friendships (old and new). “Whether it is your first time or 10th time, each year brings different conditions, so it never gets old,” says longtime participant John Mansour. “The one thing that remains constant is the positive buzz and camaraderie carried by all of the participants. It is a great platform to unplug, spend time with friends and view our exceptional coastline from a perspective you wouldn’t otherwise get.” He says his favorite part of the race is when it’s over. “It’s all about the cold beer and embellished stories told at the finish,” he shares.

 

EVOLUTION OF THE NONEVENT

In 1991, with Bob Harman and Alan in charge, it was time for some changes. The finish line moved from Three Arch Bay to the newly built Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel, rest stops with food and water were added at Victoria Beach and Three Arch Bay, and the first Aquathon T-shirts were offered for Aquathon participants who wear them with pride.

IMG_9239AQUA-MMore changes came in 1993: In an effort to ensure safety of participants, a buddy system was implemented, requiring each participant to have a partner throughout the event. Then, after 13 years at the helm, which included a lot of planning and schlepping supplies, Bob Harman and Alan passed the torch to Gary and Scott to take over as organizers in 2000.

Since then, the Aquathon has been turned into a charity event with the entry fees and proceeds from T-shirt and food sales going to Miocean, a nonprofit committed to reducing the destructive runoff that enters the ocean along the 42-mile Orange County coast. Miocean board member Steve Robbins believes the event helps bring awareness to ocean conservation. “Actually seeing and touching our coastline is all one needs to do to want to nurture and preserve it,” says Steve, who is a six-time participant. “… I try to make little connections with other people … and just soak in all the sensory experiences.”

Pat Fuscoe, Miocean board chairman, says he loves to promote the success of the Aquathon because it multiplies the people who care about the ocean. Having participated in the event for 18 years (including the first one), Pat, 63, now takes in the sights from his stand-up paddleboard and still enjoys overcoming the challenge, sightseeing and people watching.

Last year, the Montage Laguna Beach, located midway through the course, stepped up to provide participants with light snacks and water as part of the entry fee. Since Montage donated the food, the donations to Miocean increased to nearly $5,800, according to Gary.

Now that hundreds of people are participating in the event, the Ritz-Carlton can no longer accommodate the large crowd, so the end point is at Monarch Beach with an after-party at Salt Creek Grille in Dana Point. There is no longer a rest stop at Victoria Beach, and there is only water available at Three Arch Bay.

No matter where the finish line is located, this “nonevent” that starts with a prayer and ends with a beer has become part of Laguna Beach’s culture, and we hope it stays that way.

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