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Wrigley Ocean Marathon, 1927

Wrigley Ocean Marathon, Santa Catalina Island, 1927

January 15, 1927. Swimmers slathered in grease, animal fat and oil, meant as insulation against the cold ocean temperature (some swimming naked, including women, to minimize drag). They were preparing for the 22-mile swim from Isthmus Cove on Santa Catalina Island to Point Vicente on Palos Verdes Peninsula.
Photo from Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive at UCLA Library.

The swim event in the photograph above, the Wrigley Ocean Marathon, was organized by chewing gum magnate William Wrigley, Jr., then owner of Santa Catalina Island. There was new excitement for marathon swimming, due to Gertrude Ederle's accomplishment as the first woman and third American to swim across the English Channel, just four months earlier. Wrigley hoped that his own event would boost the number of winter-time visitors to the island, if it were to become an annual event. The huge prize of $25,000 (the largest marathon swim prize ever, worth $363,000 in 2021) drew 102 swimmers (87 men and 15 women), including many of the top swimmers in the world.

The starting gun sent swimmers into the water at 11:21 a.m. on January 15. The water was cold, in the 50s. Swimmers were aware that they shared the waters with sharks and rays. There was entangling seaweed. Swimmers were accompanied by support boats, each including an official marathon observer aboard. Two steamships stayed nearby, the Avalon and Cabrillo, converted into hospital ships with medical staff. Speedboats were on standby to serve as ambulances. Wrigley arranged for every foreseeable safety precaution.

Wrigley Ocean Marathon, Santa Catalina Island, 1927

Swimmers and support boats in the water at the Isthmus on Santa Catalina Island at the beginning of the Wrigley Ocean Marathon.
Photo from Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive at UCLA Library.

Almost 16 hours later, early on the following morning, only one swimmer was able to overcome exhuastion, cold, seawater and seaweed to complete the entire distance. At 3:05 a.m. on January 16, George Young, a 17-year-old Canadian amateur swimmer, waded ashore in the moonlight at Point Vicente. He had been in the water for 15 hours, 44 minutes and 30 seconds. Despite the early hour, an estimated crowd of 15,000 spectators had been gathering there since midnight to enthusiastically welcome him. When Young finished, there were only three other swimmers left in the water, one man and two women. By 6:30 a.m., only the two women, Margaret Hauser and Martha Stager, remained in the race. They still had incentive. Wrigley was offering a $15,000 prize (worth $225,000 in 2021) to the first woman to complete the marathon, if she didn't finish first. However, exhausted from trying to fight the current and having been in the water for more than 19 hours, they both decided to quit and be taken into their support boats. Hauser had only a mile to go and Stager was more than a half mile further out. Wrigley was nevertheless impressed. He awarded the women each $2,500 (worth more than $36,000 in 2021).

George Young, Wrigley Ocean Marathon, Santa Catalina Island, 1927

Wrigley Ocean Marathon winner, George Young, after coming ashore at Point Vicente in the early morning hours.
Photo from Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive at UCLA Library.

Young became an overnight celebrity and a national hero in Canada. His accomplishment ignited an interest in marathon swimming in that country, persisting to this day. The Wrigley Ocean Marathon drew national and international attention and succeeded at drawing the attention Wrigley had hoped for. Nonetheless, he decided not to repeat the event, opting instead to sponsor marathon swimming events in Canada.

Since 1927, marathon swimmers have successfully crossed the Catalina Channel well over 500 times. The crossing is listed among the World's Top 100 Open Water Swims.

See A History of the Catalina Channel Swims Since 1927 by Peggy Lee Dean