There are many so-called “Great Races” in this world. There’s the Great Amazing Race, the Philadelphia 10K. There’s the Great Race, the men’s rowing contest in New Zealand. There’s Eppie’s Great Race, the San Francisco triathlon. There’s the Last Great Race, the Iditarod.
But have you heard of The World’s Greatest Ski Race, in which the very best water skiers from all over the world come to Southern California to race the 62 miles from Long Beach to Catalina Island and back? It is the world’s only recurring open-ocean ski race, and it is spectacular.
Formally known as the Catalina Ski Race, the event has come to Long Beach each summer for the past 70 summers. On July 20, more than 100 boats will cue up at an imaginary starting line (because ocean) stretching between two of San Pedro Bay’s artificial islands: White on the left, Grissom on the right. Once the starter fires the flares, the race is on.
The boat drivers speed off toward Catalina’s Avalon Harbor. There, they’ll see a Turn Boat, a boat around which they must turn, counterclockwise, before racing back toward the Queen Mary. “To legally finish the race, the skier(s) must pass the finish buoy in an upright skiing position. Skiers may not be dragged across the finish line in the water,” state the race rules (emphasis theirs).
There are 20 different classes of competition, broken up by age or experience level or type of boat. Some races can take hours. The course record was set in 2015: 45 minutes and 31.39 seconds. You might think an open-ocean race wouldn’t be a spectator sport, but you would be wrong. Race Day kicks off with a 7am boat parade before the first wave of competitors takes off, and then things really get going. So beloved is the World’s Greatest Ski Race that water skiing aficionados and casual fans pour onto the Queen Mary, the retired British ocean liner that today serves as Long Beach’s iconic floating hotel -- that’s where you’ll find the prime views of the race’s start and finish.
“That’s the best place for someone from out of town to go watch,” Boat Liaison Jeff Barrus told Thrillist. “Off the back deck you get a good shot at the start, and then about 45, 50 minutes [later] they’ll be coming back from the island and the finish line’s right there, off the back of the Queen Mary.”
Last year’s fastest time (54 minutes, 31.6 seconds) was a neck-and-neck finish through choppy waters. You’ll want a front-row seat -- by which we mean the deck of the Queen Mary (“the World’s Greatest Viewing Area”) from which you can also enjoy some mimosas. There will also be a live feed on race day, which you’ll be able to find on the Catalina Ski Race website and Facebook page.
“Some people also watch from off the beach,” Barrus said. “Or I mean, bring out a boat if you’ve got one.”
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