The Laguna Beach Aquathon never happens every year.
If someone told me that by swimming the entirety of Laguna Beach’s coastline I could discover underwater blowholes, Indiana Jonesesque sea caves, beaches where waves spray out like a sideways fan, and secluded salt water pools, I would have jumped in with my fins a long time ago. Locals–please don’t hate me. Visitors–I still can’t tell you where they all are because my memory is dim. However, I will tell you this: Every year in August there is a gathering of adventurous die-hard ocean lovers who set out to explore the entire eight-mile coastline of Laguna Beach starting from the private northern end of town and ending with drinks at the Ritz Carlton in Dana Point before taking a well-deserved dip in one of its Jacuzzis.
Only a few hours after I finish this unofficial gathering, I take inventory. I have cuts all over my body, I am tired, slightly inebriated and incredibly exhilarated. And even educated, as I’ve just seen many parts of Laguna Beach’s shoreline that I never knew existed.
The best part is that this unofficial event is rich with more than 24 years of history. Legend has it the “non event” started with a group of men who swam Laguna’s coastline from Emerald Bay all the way to Victoria Beach. During the swim they discovered many hidden treasures, including tiny coves where women would sunbathe nude. Thus, their desire to return the next year was a no-brainer. The group of guys grew and grew, but once their wives caught on, they decided to make it a “family event” to save face and possibly a marriage or two. The journey would always start and end the same, with a brief informal instruction and gathering at Emerald Bay followed by a revelry regrouping at a bar, Jacuzzi, or eatery to refuel and more importantly, to enjoy some celebratory alcohol.
There’s no advertising or marketing for the Aquathon, and there are no timing chips or race bibs involved. The non-event is all about participating in an escapade, being able to experience every nook and cranny of the Laguna coastline, and then being able to happily drink your way to merriment six to eight hours later.
I ask everyone in town who looks like a swimmer if they have heard about the Aquathon, and most greet me with blank stares. A few enlightened ones share that it is one of their favorite yearly town activities. Others advise on attire: Aqua socks are necessary unless you have burly, tough feet; goggles, fins and wetsuits are optional; and something to hold my money is a must so I can celebrate afterward. Others also tell me that it is not a race, but that it involves traversing over rocks and as much swimming as I want, less swimming if the tide is low.
I buy fins at Laguna Surf and Sport, find waterproof Spandex yoga shorts to wear so I won’t chafe in just my bathing suit, and then grab some inexpensive Aqua Socks at Hobie. I also recruit my two friends Mike Funk and Lindsay White to save me from drowning–just in case. I know they will come because they usually agree to do anything in the name of a good time.
The morning of the Aquathon, Lindsay, Mike and I arrive at 8 a.m. In my 28 years of existence, I have been to countless sporting activities and events. None are quite as nonchalant as this one. There are no signs, no cones, just incredibly stoked people standing around in swimsuits, holding fins and fanny packs filled with money, socializing with each other. At 9 a.m. sharp, one of the non event organizers, Gary Cogorno, rolls in on his golf cart.
Gary and his partner, Scott McCarter (the unofficial non event organizers), hand out the one thing that’s this side of official: this year’s rash guards (T-shirts), which have a map of all the coves and beaches we will be covering. Next, Gary, truly a kid trapped inside a man’s body–always smiling, cracking jokes and having fun–gives his famous welcoming speech and explains the event “is not an event,” and tells us all to go home if we are here for an event. No one leaves. Then he reads a letter supposedly from George W. Bush acknowledging the Aquathon as one of the most catastrophic successes in the State of Laguna Beach. Afterward, he shares the rules: “There are no rules, just take a buddy at all times for safety.” He then reminds everyone to bring money for the end party (and to buy him drinks), and lastly has his friend Nubie Sears recite a performance poem to the ocean as an ode to keep all safe.
With Gary’s signal to start, about 150 people from ages 11 up to 75 all run down to the northern cliffs of Laguna Beach and start trekking around the rocks. The less experienced create a bottleneck as they climb their way over the cliffs. The veterans either start in the front or just swim around the bay until they get to Main Beach. The view is beautiful, but I am in the back and there is a lot of traffic navigating the cliffs. I finally jump in the water right before Rockpile and then swim to Main Beach.
As I run along the soft sand at Main Beach, I introduce myself to my fellow ocean explorers and chat them up to see if they are a good fit with me. I finally come across Chris Hilton and Becky Peterson, a veteran duo who participate every year. When they tell me they are going to an underwater sea cave, I stick to them like glue.
We start swimming again after we get to a point in South Laguna where the rocks are too exposed to walk over, and Chris points out the blowhole. It is basically a rock bridge in the middle of the ocean that breaks about six feet down. It looks sketchy, and since I am claustrophobic, I am not sure about following through. Chris navigates the hole about 10 times, but I make one attempt and chicken out half way. It just seems too deep. Then an older gentleman goes through with ease, so I bag my fear and go for it. Chris’s instructions are to dive deep until I see light, then swim through and surface to the top. I am worried I will hit my head on the rock, but with so much adrenaline going through my body, I dive down, down, see the light, and come out onto a bed of mussel shells on the other side. I raise my hands in the air like Rocky Balboa. When the lifeguard comes out and starts yelling at us, though, we continue our swim onward a half mile down the beach.
The further south we travel, the more treasures reveal themselves along Laguna’s coastline. Sea caves, algae that never sees the light, sea anemones galore, tide pools, and the most incredible homes that are hidden from the road. One house is carved into the rock, while others look like castles, and there are some along the cliffs in South Laguna that actually have trams to transport their owners or sand toys to shore. We watch as skimboarders ride a sideways wave to catch an incoming onshore wave all the way to the sand. There is a swimmer in the salt water pools carved into the rockbeds, and people are jumping off rock cliffs to avoid trespassing on private beach front property.
About five or six hours later, we end the tour at a rocky beach below the Ritz Carlton in Dana Point. We hike up a massive hill to the hotel pool where our group is gathering. Athletic Lagunites are drinking massive amounts of $15 beers, and I dine on a $25 fish taco while I sit in the Jacuzzi. Magazine and newspaper photographers are there with cameras, taking pics of me pretty disheveled with my swim cap, bootie shorts and Speedo bathing suit top. Nonetheless, I feel like a rock star.
The Aquathon is held around the same time every year, but some years bring colder water, bigger waves and more arduous conditions. One year, Gary said it was so cold, by the time they got to the hotel, everyone was lying in the pool chairs with towels covering their faces, making it look like a hospital scene. This year, Gary said was one of the best. There were moderate water temperatures and powerful ocean surges, especially going through the final cave where participants had to play Frogger with the incoming water. It was also the biggest turnout ever. I felt lucky to have been part of it and am very grateful to the people who brought oatmeal cookies and Gatorade to the halfway point, as well as to Gary and Scott, my fellow water adventurers, Barry who lent me his fins (since I’d gotten cocky and left mine behind), Mike and Lindsay, Becky and Chris, my ride home, and the three guys who started this non event 24 years ago.
Participants in this non event pay a $20 fee, which gets them their T-shirt, and proceeds go to charities like the Surfrider Foundation (www.surfrider.org) or Miocean (www.miocean.org). This year the Aquathon generated a $600 donation to Miocean’s Coastline Foundation.) or Miocean (www.miocean.org).