September 2, 2021

For many of us the most strenuous birthday activity we engage in is blowing out the candles.

Not so for Ajae Clearway.

Clearway, a cinematic video game producer and director who resides in Culver City, turned 50 in July and wanted to celebrate in epic style. The result: a 21.5 mile swim through the Catalina Channel that started August 15th and ended the following day at Palos Verdes Estates.

She got her wish, completing the most ambitious swim she had ever done.

"People have been attempting and many successfully completing swimming the Catalina Channel since 1927," she said. "The swims are regulated by the Catalina Channel Swimming Federation. I heard about this and it got me excited about doing something big for my transition to 50. I did the marathon 28-mile swim around Manhattan when I moved from NYC as a sort of ceremonial goodbye to New York in 2003, but it had been a very long time since I had done anything like that. So, I would be starting over in a sense. And swimming in an open ocean channel is quite different than swimming around an island."

Clearway added that she "was never a competitive swimmer growing up. I just always loved natural water, jumping in cold rivers and lakes whenever I had the chance. Now I think of myself as a swimming adventurer. The way some people go for a hike, I go for a swim."

Because she had no idea how to train for an endeavor such as the Catalina Channel crossing, she joined an ocean swim group, One with the Ocean (www.onewiththeocean.org), about two years ago.

"One With the Ocean is a non-profit that does beach clean-ups, teaches people to swim safely in the ocean, and is generally a supportive community of water enthusiasts who swim together at various locations around California, the US and internationally," she said. "During the pandemic we couldn't meet as a big group, so small groups started meeting regularly to swim together in the ocean. And that's where I learned how to manage the cold, the endurance, and learned how important staying hydrated and fueled is during an endurance swim."

Clearway explained that "for a channel crossing to be official, a swimmer must wear only a swimsuit, cap and goggles. You must be in the water at all times with no assistance of any kind, no holding onto the rope or boat, or any flotation devices of any kind. There are no breaks other than treading water to feed. Once my swim is ratified, it will be in the official record."

The official rules can be found here: http://swimcatalina.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/CCSF-Rules.pdf

"There is a support boat navigating and support crew preparing feeds and tracking the swimmer's condition for safety and the general wind and water conditions," she continued. "It can take anywhere from 7 hours to 20+ hours to make the crossing depending on the wind, currents, water temperature and swimmer. It took me 12 hours and 38 minutes. I had friends on the boat, the Bottom Scratcher, as my support team and my husband and coach as my support kayakers."

Her husband, Jess Haas, expanded his knowledge of kayaking to support her swim and rigged his sea kayak with a sail as a pandemic hobby. "He did kayak for me on several training swims, including at night, as did my swim friend, Angela Lee," Clearway added.

Why does the ocean have special meaning for her?

"I worked throughout the pandemic and the ocean and open water swim community became my refuge," she responded. "The ocean is the most peaceful place when your face is underwater and there are no distractions, no phones or text messages, just the rhythm of the ocean.

"The most beautiful part of my Catalina swim was at night. I started at night on August 15th and went into the next day. There were glowing pyrosomes and other bioluminescent creatures that gave the effect of endless constellations of stars, like I was floating over the infinite night sky."

What about sharks?

"I was not afraid of sharks, as most sharks swim around people all the time and are completely uninterested in us," she replied. "We are a much bigger threat to them than they are to us. I wish more people would experience the wild beauty of the ocean to appreciate how it sustains us. I'm so grateful to have been able to have this experience and thankful for the many, many people who supported me along the way."

Clearway, a working mother of a 5th grader at La Ballona Elementary school, Milo Clearway Haas, shared his comment about her training: "My mom is completely and utterly insane." But after her successful crossing? "I'm impressed," he said.

As a milestone birthday commemoration that went swimmingly well, this one not only took the cake but added a tasty celebratory bonus, because when Clearway completed that 21.5 mile crossing "friends surprised me at the finish by being on the beach with donuts, which never tasted so good!"

Congratulations, Ajae Clearway, and happy waves to you.


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