Reflections on paddling from Catalina Island to Seal Beach

Courtesy photo

Seal Beach resident Zac Ernst recently paddled 30.7 miles from Catalina Island’s Isthmus Cove to Seal Beach on Friday, Oct. 13. Below, Ernst shares his story of crossing the great distance by paddleboard.

People kept asking me, “Why are you doing this?”

My knee jerk response would be to accomplish an old desire to cross the channel or I am trying to motivate others to do uncomfortable things. But really when I was on the beach at 5 a.m. in Catalina; stretching out, feeling the nerves, anxiousness and fear, I felt the real answer would be discovered somewhere in the middle of that channel.

The purpose or the “answer” moved from being external to something deeply personal.

We launched in the dark, at 5:44 a.m. There wasn’t a breath of wind, and the surface of the water could be easily mistaken for the starry sky. People slept in their boats around us as we stealthily cut through the water. Every stroke with my paddle was like breaking liquid glass, distorting the stars. The sailboat quietly hummed its little engine and set a pace similar to mine. We were off, and there was no turning back. The goal was Seal Beach, an expected 26 miles away.

As the sun rose, putting the stars to bed, a new beauty awoke. The wind, still non existent, had the Pacific like our own giant pool. The boat and I were the only disruptions to the mirror surface. Everything turned orange. The sky, water, and darker silhouette of the island was an orange I experienced for the first time.

The sense of Freedom was overwhelming, as I paddled on to the invisible horizon. I pulled away from the boat and was alone. All I could hear was my breath, water lapping over my board and the paddle cutting through the surface. The experience was freedom. No engine, no sail, no one else to move me along. I found myself deeply submitted to the sea and God Himself. The ocean is unpredictable, a powerful force that can morph and change at any instant. Large and dangerous creatures lurked just below my feet. I was forced to trust and rely on something bigger than myself.

In that trust I found freedom. I heard it said that the best place to be is when God is your only option. I find my natural leanings are to control, protect, and secure everything around me, to the point where those securities and comforts actually turn into bondage. What were luxuries now become expectations. WiFi is no longer a convenience; it has become an essential human right. Take away my iPhone, and I am lost and naked. This is bondage.

My 7+ hours on the water was a breaking free of the unnecessary dependencies, securities, comforts and safety nets I put up all around me. More than that, the crossing was a breaking free of even my mental and physical limitations. Crossing that channel was the hardest thing I have ever done. The channel took me to places mentally and physically I have never been.

Around mile 15, I was struck with peace and joy. I believe these two were by products of freedom. It was as if freedom was the covering over the whole experience, and peace and joy were fruits produced under freedom. Freedom is only healthy within boundaries. Total freedom leads to destruction. Had I paddled the opposite way from Seal Beach, my experience would have ended in death. I experienced freedom and the fruits of it because the two coast lines marking my boundaries. A small child can have wonderful adventures in the bounds of his back yard. But take away the gates, and he wanders to the front where a busy street and other threats endanger his life.

Fear of the unknown gripped me prior to leaving the beach.

Looking across that channel with no visible destination was a mental feat to overcome. My head said, “What do you think you are doing? You have never done this and it is unsafe. You aren’t prepared.”

But my heart retorted, “Shut up and let’s go!”

What I discovered on the other side of fear was freedom, peace, and joy. Peace came and went, especially as my body began to give out. But ironically as the pain increased, so did joy. The last 10 miles were the most difficult, because I had expected and trained for 26 miles.

When I hit 25 miles and still couldn’t see my destination, my heart sank. I still had another 6 miles to go, which translated to over an hour longer of hard paddling! My feet were numb and everything burned. The cramping in my hands became normal. Despite the radical discomfort, joy was grinning at me and through me the whole time. It’s really hard to explain, but I almost enjoyed the extremeness of the whole situation, and knew I had to finish.

As I came to mile, 29, 30, and the final stretch, the pain subsided and my focus was the finish line. What struck me was the limitations I put on myself thinking it was only 26 miles. Had I known it would be 30.7 miles, I don’t know if I would have gone. I would probably either trained longer or found a shorter route. But at the final stretch, my strength was renewed and the pain subsided. The end was near, and my beautiful wife, two kids and friends were on the beach to welcome me. I caught a small wave in, landed on the shore of Seal Beach, and dropped to my knees in elation and gratitude.

A Navy Seal said, “When you think you are at your limit, you are really only at 60%. You have another 40% capacity left.”

The limitations we put on ourselves are made up. They are fabricated. How often do we say, “I could never” or “That is impossible” or “I just can’t anymore.”

A book I think everyone should read is Victor Frankl’s, “Man’s Search for Meaning.” Victor Frankl was a holocaust survivor and has endured the worst a human can endure. He says the following:

“A human being is not one thing among others; things determine each other, but man is ultimately self-determining. What he becomes – within the limits of endowment and environment- he has made out of himself. In the concentration camps, for example, in this living laboratory and on this testing ground, we watched and witnessed some of our comrades behave like swine while others behaved like saints. Man has both potentialities within himself; which one is actualized depends on decisions but not on conditions.”

This is an extreme example, but a good one as we face our ever-increasing comforts and conveniences. As life become more comfortable, comfort becomes the expectation, eliminating even the ability for us to think we can do uncomfortable things. We make agreements for why I can’t, wouldn’t or shouldn’t. But in the end we get to choose.

The paddle was uncomfortable. As I write this almost a week later, I am still sore. But the soreness is a reminder of joy. I look fondly over that channel knowing that every stroke across brought me closer to my true self and revealed more capabilities. I want to live from the heart, to be in touch with the desires God imprints on my heart. Uncovering that desire and going after it uncovers who we are and what we are actually capable of. Going after our hearts desire is challenging but rewarding. You might be surprised what you find.

What is your channel to cross?

What do you desire?