Catalina Ocean Marathon
In order to keep Santa Catalina Island in the news, Mr. William Wrigley Jr. decided to sponsor a channel swim from the Isthmus (now called Two Harbors) to Point Vicente off Palos Verdes Peninsula. The swim was twenty-two miles, one mile further than the English Channel. The swim was officially known as “The Wrigley Ocean Marathon” and the prize was $25,000, a huge sum at the time.
In the summer of 1926, Gertrude Ederle, a young woman from New York became the first woman to swim the English Channel and set off a major American craze for long distance swimming. Wrigley, concerned about the low number of visitors to the island in the winter, decided to hold a Catalina Channel swim on January 15, 1927 to highlight the mild island winters. The swim drew thousands of spectators including those waiting on the bluff of Point Vicente. Originally he had offered Miss Ederle $10,000 to swim the channel alone but then decided to open the swim to all. Many of the contestants were not true swimmers but were attracted by the $25,000 prize (some could not even swim) however over sixty of the greatest swimmers in the world participated.
At 11:00 AM that Saturday, January 15, 1927 over one hundred swimmers entered the water. Mack Sennett’s famous “Bathing Beauties” were there for the send off. Mr. Wrigley was very concerned about the safety of the swimmers and a number of requirements and safety measures were in place. Each swimmer was required to have a boat with one sanctioned official. A power boat could not get any closer than fifty yards; one half hour before the race, each winner had to turn in a certificate from a doctor stating that the swimmer was in good physical condition; all boats had to have the swimmer’s number painted on the side, and the number rigged so that it could be seen at night. In case of illness, an attack or possible drowning, in order to prepare from any of these occurrences, Mr. Wrigley transformed the steamships “Avalon” and “Cabrillo” into hospital ships.
The swim continued without incident except for almost all of the swimmers giving up at various intervals. As darkness approached, with a full moon to help light the way, there were only twelve swimmers still in the water.
From the very beginning the lead had been taken by George Young, a seventeen year-old Canadian amateur swimming champion. He worked his way across country from his home in Toronto where his crippled mother had been able to give him $135.00 from her meager savings. By 2:30 AM Young could see that the prize was within his grasp. As he approached the shore, the judges waded out to shake his hand. At 3:05:30 AM Young emerged from the water having spent 15 hours, 44 minutes and 30 seconds on his journey. It was estimated that 15,000 spectators were on hand for the finish. Boat whistles, auto horns and human cheers joined in the chorus as flares of Roman fire lit the scene.
The last two swimmers behind Young were Margaret Hauser, who was one mile out, and Martha Stager, a mile and a half out when they were pulled from the water. Wrigley had promised a $15,000 prize to the first woman to finish the swim. Although they did not finish, Mr. Wrigley awarded them $2,500 each for their valiant effort.
Although the swim generated lots of publicity and everything went well and no one suffered harm, Wrigley’s safety concerns were real so he decided not to “tempt fate” again and the swim became the first and final Wrigley Ocean Marathon.