In the summer of 1926, Gertrude Ederle, a young woman from New York had become the first woman to swim the English Channel. Her accomplishment set off a major American craze for long distance swimming. In the winter of 1927, William Wrigley Jr., owner of Catalina Island, decided to sponsor a swim across the Catalina Channel to keep Catalina Island in the public eye and to promote visitation. Wrigley was concerned about the low number of visitors to the island during winter months, and thought the swim would highlight the mild island winters. Dubbed the "Wrigley Ocean Marathon," the swim started in Two Harbors, then known as the Isthmus, and ended at Point Vicente, off Palos Verdes Peninsula. The swim was twenty-two miles, one mile longer than the English Channel, with a prize of $25,000, a huge sum of money at the time.
The swim drew thousands of spectators to Catalina Island, to the mainland finish line, and on boats floating in the Channel. Wrigley had originally offered Miss Ederle money to swim the channel alone, but decided opening it up to all would garner more attention. The Ocean Marathon attracted over 100 swimmers, including sixty of the greatest swimmers in in the world. It also attracted participants who were not true swimmers, just hoping for a chance at the $25,000 prize.
Over 100 swimmers, covered in greases, animal fat and oils of all kinds, thought to have thermal properties, started in the water at 11:21 am on Saturday, January 15, 1927. Mack Sennett’s famous “Bathing Beauties” were on hand for the send off. Concerned about the safety of swimmers, Wrigley implemented a number of safety requirements. Each swimmer was required to have a boat with one sanctioned official. A power boat could not get any closer than fifty yards; one half hour before the race, each winner had to turn in a certificate from a doctor stating that the swimmer was in good physical condition; all boats had to have the swimmer’s number painted on the side, and the number rigged so that it could be seen at night. In case of illness, an attack or possible drowning, Mr. Wrigley transformed the Catalina steamships into temporary hospital ships.
Almost all swimmers had given up at various points during the race. The water temperature in the Catalina Channel was reported to be in the low 50s. As darkness approached at the end the day, and with a full moon to help light the way, only twelve swimmers remained.
From the start, George Young, a seventeen year-old Canadian amateur swimming champion, had taken the lead. George had come to Catalina from his home in Toronto, with just $135, money his crippled mother had taken from her savings. By 2:30am, Young could see that the prize was within his grasp. As he approached the shore, the judges waded out to shake his hand. At 3:05:30 am, Young emerged from the water having spent 15 hours, 44 minutes and 30 seconds on his journey. 15,000 spectators were on hand for the finish. Boat whistles, auto horns and human cheers joined in the chorus as flares of Roman fire lit the scene.
When Young emerged, two remaining competitors, Margaret Hauser and Martha Stager were still in the water, a mile from the finish. They were pulled out, and although they did not finish, Mr. Wrigley awarded them $2,500 each for their valiant effort.
Although the swim generated lots of publicity for the island, with safety concerns in mind, Wrigley decided not to “tempt fate” again, making the swim the first and final Wrigley Ocean Marathon.