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Closing the Circle: After spending a lifetime in the ocean, David Skarman still has waves left to conquer

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

On the morning of August 25th, well before dawn, David Skarman will enter the dark waters off Catalina Island’s Isthmus Cove. Lying prone on a paddleboard, fueled by 1,000 calories of liquid energy and a large dose of adrenaline, David and 99 others will begin the 32-mile marathon to Manhattan Beach. Powered only by their own arms, and whatever psychological strength it takes to endure seven-plus hours of navigating punishing waves, open water vessels, and dangerous sea life, only about 80 percent of them will finish. For those who do not, it won’t be because they weren’t up to the task. It already took Herculean strength for these elite athletes to even qualify.

David describes himself as a survivalist, and that’s exactly what this race requires. Competitors come from all over the world – Australia and Canada, France, Hawaii, California, the Pacific Northwest, and east coast. There are no age categories, and participants run the gamut. At 57, David is one of the older men to compete. But as surf legend Laird Hamilton once said, “There are strong young guys. But there’s nothing meaner and more experienced than a fifty-year-old tough guy.”

Closing the closeup

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David Skarman in his Laguna Beach home

David has experience on his side. This will be his sixth Catalina Classic. And there’s never been a time in his life when the ocean hasn’t played a critical role. It’s not an exaggeration to say that, as a kid, surfing was his savior. Half a century later, the water is still where David makes his second home.

Mother ocean, father shore

David spent his youngest years growing up in Corona del Mar’s Cameo Shores. He had a key to the private beach, a surfboard, and an unquenchable desire to be in the water. But things wouldn’t always be so idyllic. 

Like many survivalists, David had a difficult childhood. His parents divorced. His mother moved away. After his father remarried, his stepmother ordered him out. David found himself – at age 15 – living on Laguna’s streets. He scrambled to find odd jobs, in gas stations and anywhere else that would hire him. His father slipped him some cash before the new wife found out, and David used it to buy a 1962 VW bus, which he lived in for the next few years. Ultimately he found his way to Oak Street Surf Shop (now Laguna Surf & Sport) where he worked as a stock boy. At 18, with the help of some investors, he figured out a way to buy the store. 

Surfing, and the ocean, wasn’t only a hobby or simply a career. For David, it was life itself. He may have learned more life lessons from the sea than he did from his parents, and the ocean became the place he turned to for comfort and strength. 

Sea skills translate to land

The skills he learned at sea served him well on land. Being prepared, anticipating difficult conditions, keeping his mind focused and his body in shape all led to a life of success. David would go on to become a personal trainer and, eventually, the Vice President and General Sales Manager at California Title Company, where he’s worked since 1998. 

He also applies his abilities and altruism to firefighting, working as a volunteer Senior Reserve firefighter to Station 11 in Emerald Bay for 28 years. David earned the honor of Firefighter of the Year in 1992 and stepped up to protect our town during the 1993 fire. 

In his “spare” time, he parents two little boys with his wife, model Victoria Whittaker.

History of the Catalina Classic

The Catalina Classic, known as “the granddaddy of all paddleboard races,” is the oldest and most celebrated endurance race of its kind in the world. It began in 1955 but didn’t gain consistent momentum until 1982. This month marks its 41st year. 

Closing the poster

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The annual poster hangs in David’s home

Qualifying is no easy feat. The event is limited to 100 people, and the only slots open are from those who didn’t complete the race the previous year. For those few spots left, competitors must endure several qualifying rounds and demonstrate complete preparation.

While the race doesn’t separate participants by age or gender, it does delineate the competition by two different classes – stock and unlimited. Stock boards can be no longer than 12 feet and weigh no more than 20 pounds. The unlimited class is, well, unlimited. Boards can be up to 18 feet long. “What’s sexy about the Stock Division,” says David, “is that the boards are the great equalizer. It comes down to the guy on the board.” But each board has different advantages, depending on the day.

Closing the boards

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David displays his Stock and Unlimited Class boards

Paddlers aren’t out on the open water alone. Each competitor has a team that follows from a prescribed distance. The support vessel includes a captain, a navigator who charts the course and wards off dangerous predators, and a handler who monitors nutrition, hydration, and general wellbeing. “It’s a team effort,” David says. “And that navigator is key.” 

Craig Lockwood, founder of Waterman Paddleboards and a longtime municipal lifeguard, had been David’s navigator and mentor throughout his paddling career. He began training David in 1988 and rode with him until 2017. But now, as Craig enters his 80s, it’s time for David to find a new navigator. He’s entrusted the job to his eldest son, Jonathan. 

A proven performer

David has an established success record in the competition. He won the 1989 Catalina Classic Stock Class with a time of 7:08 and placed 6th overall. The following year he came in second in the Stock Class at 6:48, and 9th overall. In 1991, after a girl (who then became his wife) got inside his head, David slipped to 4th place in the Stock Class and decided to retire his board. “If I wasn’t winning,” he says, “I wasn’t going to compete.”

Closing the mini boards

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David holds his miniature boards, one given each year he completed the Catalina Classic

He never gave up on the ocean, though. The following year, he turned his attention to outrigger races. “I wanted to close the paddle circle,” he says. David joined the Newport Outrigger team and competed in world sprints, again doing the Catalina Crossing from Avalon to Back Bay. His team placed 6th in 1992. But for David, team sports weren’t where his skillset lay. “I didn’t like the team aspect,” he says. “I’m a solo guy. If one guy is off, the whole boat is off.”

He returned to the Catalina Classic in 2017 under grueling conditions. Last year, he finished 16th in the stock class with a time of 7:17 (note that, 30 years later, his times haven’t much changed). This month will be David’s first time competing in the unlimited class.

The most difficult race to date

The 2017 Catalina Classic may have set the benchmark for physical and psychological endurance. David worried it would be a difficult day shortly after entering the water, but his innate optimism initially prevailed. The event would take all day, and he figured the weather was bound to improve. Instead, it only got worse. 

“It doesn’t matter how hard you train, or what your nutritional program is like, or what your mental state is. You could have done everything in the world. When the day arrives, you still wonder if you’ve done enough,” David says.

That morning, the weather changed. By the two-mile mark, when David turned his head, he could see it in the other men’s faces. “Everyone’s look said, ‘This is not good.’” Mother Ocean will dole out whatever she doles out, and that morning she was in the mood to dole out rough water. 

“Conditions were so brutal and gnarly, guys were dropping out left and right,” David says. “All this radio traffic was taking place as people were being pulled out.” These were some of the strongest athletes in the world. Everyone was qualified and trained for this event. “We knew no matter what time we’d set in our heads for the event, we’d have to add 45 minutes to an hour. We just weren’t mentally prepared for that.” 

Closing the on board

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David displays the power stroke on his Bark board, once owned by last year’s winner Lachie Landsdown

As racers reached the R10 buoy, just a few miles off the Palos Verde coast and 24 miles into the race, the situation grew even worse. Headwinds picked up and David still had many miles to go. “It’s like running a marathon and, at the last stretch, you’re told you have to run the last 10 miles uphill.” The winds, the tides, everything was against him. David’s music ran out and the battery in his headphones went dead. He was left with only his own thoughts and exhaustion. 

But he was determined to finish the race. He put his head down, reset his determination, and logged a time of 7 hours and 53 minutes.

Closing the tattoo

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After completing five Catalina Crossings, David took the plunge and got the traditional Tommy Zahn tattoo

Today, David trains a minimum of two hours, and often upwards of four hours, per day. He has 444 miles of training under his belt this year and, by the time August 25th arrives, he will have 550 miles logged as the precursor to the event. 

Paddling for a cause

When he returned to the sport, David decided to marry his two great passions – the ocean and philanthropy. “I want to be a vehicle for a bigger cause,” David says. “I have the ability. I have the network of people I know. And I have the means.” 

David discovered the Mauli Ola Foundation, run by Hans Hagan, and knew he’d found his cause. Mauli Ola – meaning “breath of life” – serves children with cystic fibrosis by getting them into the ocean, where the saline acts as a natural therapy. Spawned from a genetic engineering company, the foundation brings professional surfers from all over, but primarily Hawaii, to take kids from hospitals and bring them into the ocean. “After 20 minutes in the water, they can breathe,” says David. “It’s an organic, natural therapy.”

To date, David has raised over $7,000 for the Foundation. He partners with Berkshire Hathaway, an organization that’s been a generous and active donor. This year, he will paddle for the cause once again and is on track to raise at least as much as last year. 

The Waterman’s journey

“The sea calls to everyone, but Watermen speak the language of the sea.” This from “Watermen Defined” on “Surfing, free diving, paddling, kayaking, ocean swimming or even lifeguarding alone does not make a Waterman. Watermen are defined by those who speak the language of the sea. They learn the language of the sea by the accumulation of experiences. It is these experiences that give Watermen the in-depth understanding of the ocean only a Waterman would know.”

Although it’s not a title he claims, the notion of the Waterman seems to sum up David’s life. And while it’s an elusive designation, the parameters hotly debated in surf culture and beyond, there’s beauty in its purity.

“When we call someone a Waterman, maybe what we’re really saying is that that person is entirely and uncommonly devoted – to their core, in a subculture already rife with uncommon devotion – to a coastal life lived in its totality,” writes Brad Melekian in The Surfer’s Journal. “To the raw, edge-of-nature wilderness experience that the ocean can offer, and to the possibility that such devotion can lead to a better existence not just as a person in the ocean, but as a person in search of a meaningful life.”

David speaks with reverence about his quest to become a Waterman. It’s not a title that can be sought, nor a label that a man can bestow upon himself. Even the mere desire to achieve it suggests it will remain forever out of reach, for true Watermen are beyond such things. And yet…

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