In my mind the Boston Light Swim (BLS), after 20 Bridges, was my most important swim of this season. Entry is by lottery; I initially didn’t get in, but to my great fortune, a swimmer dropped out and I was the first person on the waitlist.
Travelling to Boston, I did not feel the euphoria of my trip to New York City back in June. For 20 Bridges I had trained properly, I had tapered properly. I was confident I had done—at least training-wise—everything in my power to contribute toward a successful swim. I swam around Manhattan and returned to Florida with an imaginary crown. One down, two to go.
I felt it took me five weeks to fully recover from 20 Bridges. As a matter of fact, I had planned to swim in Ocean City, MD three weeks after 20 Bridges, but regretfully the race was cancelled due to atrocious weather. BLS was scheduled six weeks after 20 Bridges. On week five I swam a 5K time trial in a long-course pool. I was appalled at my time: three minutes slower than my target, though still a minute faster than the previous year. Perhaps I wasn’t so recovered after all. By then BLS was only ten days away and the horrendous Florida heat was making training a slog.
BLS is the oldest open water marathon swim in the United States. The course is 8-miles long and starts at the Boston Light on Little Brewster Island and wends west through the Boston Harbor Islands toward L Street Beach in Old Harbor. The race is timed to coincide with the flood tide. The Massachusetts Open Water Swimming Association sanctions the race.
By a stroke of luck, I was on the proper side of the plane when it flew over Boston Harbor. It was a clear day and I had a birdseye view of Little Brewster Island and the Boston Light. I followed the imaginary course line, wending through the Harbor Islands, past the pilings of a ghost bridge, toward the L Street Beach. I felt grateful for the opportunity to swim in Boston.
That same day my friend Chris, who very graciously agreed to crew for me, met me at Pleasure Bay for a twilight swim. He was concerned about the proximity to low tide. Pleasure Bay is a tidal pool, roughly 800 m in diameter. Water enters and exits through two water control structures located on its southeast quarter. The water was 67°F (19.4°C). I couldn’t have been happier. What is it about cold water that makes one feel so alive? Upon entering the water, I cut the bottom of my foot with a sharp mussel but ignored it. I later found out the mussels are a danger during low tide. We swam a lap around the pool. Chris, who is significantly faster than me, would swim and then wait for me, and every time we met I grinned ear-to-ear. It was a lovely swim and I was grateful to my friend for sharing this magical swimming hole with me. Unlike 20 Bridges, my excitement for this swim was external. I was drawing from the beauty of the New England waters, as well as their cooler temperatures and their wild tides.
The next day, I walked from my hotel to Old Harbor. I wanted to see the beach at high tide. It was a Friday, so the beach was sparsely populated. I used an orange tow float, much to my chagrin, to keep my phone, keys, and glasses safe. I swam for half an hour along the beach. The water temperature must have been in the mid 60s. I swam toward a placidly bobbing flock of geese. The geese paddled away from me on my approach and called to each other. I laughed. I’d never seen geese floating in the ocean. Upon exiting the water, two young lifeguards approached me. They were brothers from my hometown in South Florida. They were interested in my tow float. I spoke to them about my swim from the lighthouse and encouraged them to enter as a relay next year. I returned to my hotel room feeling invigorated. It had been a great idea to come to Boston. I couldn’t have enough of the water.
In the afternoon the race directors, Elaine and Greg, held the safety meeting at the Curley Community Center (CCC). I had the opportunity to familiarize myself with the finish line and imagined stepping on the beach the next day. The L Street Beach is semi-private with wooden fences separating the family-friendly beach from the men’s beach and the women’s beach. I found the concept rather quaint. Afterwards, we walked to the Boston Harbor Yacht Club (BHYC) for the pre-race dinner. Following tradition, Greg asked swimmers to introduce themselves. People found it funny I grew up and live in the tropics, for all intents and purposes, and hate warm water. I had the opportunity to make new friends. Marathon swimmers are usually a friendly bunch.
Race day started early. I arrived at BHYC at 0520 and Chris was volunteering there already. Our boat captain, Van Christie, motored over from Quincy in his vessel Karavi pretty early due to the extreme tides. He explained that normally there is an eleven-foot difference, but that morning the tide was two feet lower. He did not want to get stuck at his slip, hence his early start. By 0650 we were already on our way to the lighthouse. The day was overcast and cool—my kind of day. The forecast called for rain. As we pulled away from the BHYC dock, I studied the seawall. Coming from South Florida, where the tide difference is no more than 2.5 feet, it’s impressive to see the marks left by a tide difference of over ten feet. As we left the harbor, I spotted in the distance the Pleasure Bay spillways, which were passing an immense amount of water. I wondered why the spillways weren’t marked by protective buoys on their opposite side in Pleasure Bay for swimmer safety.
As we motored east, Captain Van talked to us about the landmarks in our course. He told us that in his childhood, Spectacle Island had been so flat, one could see across. Its now hilly topography was due to the spoils from the Big Dig that were deposited on it. We then passed between the supports of a bridge that once connected Moon Island to Long Island. The removal of the bridge deck by blasting had been controversial. A homeless shelter had been located on Long Island. Due to the bridge removal, the people who resided at the shelter had to be moved to downtown Boston prompting a frantic search for a suitable venue. We continued cruising toward the east and passed north of Rainsford Island and south of Georges Island, home to Fort Warren. The fort was built in the 1800s and was used as a prison during the Civil War. We spotted a pair of fishermen on a boat, pulling lobster pots. The water depth was forty feet at that location. By the time we reached Little Brewster Island it was sprinkling.
Our boat was one of the first to reach the starting line made by the lighthouse and a red can buoy due south. The strong flood tide pulled us toward the west and several times Captain Van motored back to the starting line as we waited for about half an hour for the horn. I was wearing a light jacket and long pants and was getting wet and cold. The air temperature was in the low 60s. I usually want my feeds ice cold, but recognizing the day would be cool, I asked Chris to keep the water for my feeds at ambient temperature. Only a few minutes before the 0730 start, I stripped my wet clothes and sloppily slathered some sunscreen on my skin, which deviated from my usual routine of covering myself in zinc oxide. I was a little mad at myself. If I’d brought proper clothes on the boat, I would’ve been warm and had gone through with my routine, which does take a while. But having worn the wrong clothes, I didn’t want to spend much time standing around in a two-piece while my body temperature continued to drop. I didn’t want to get any colder before jumping in the water. This was the first time I faced the issue of getting cold before the start of a swim. I had little time to ponder on that thought. I sat on the gunwale waiting for the start. Boats drifted west of the start line. Three blasts of the horn. Boats continued to drift. The swimmer behind me jumped in the water and immediately started moving his arms like the vanes of a fan set at high speed. Then Elaine came on the radio and told swimmers to start swimming. It was as if everyone had been afraid to find out how cold the water really was. I jumped in. I felt like my whole body wanted to compress itself. It felt like jumping in at the Horse Mesa Dam in Canyon Lake, AZ during SCAR. The water had to be in the 50s. I later found out it was 58°F (14.4°C).
I broke the surface, surprised I hadn’t gasped for air. A headache compressed my temples and my heart raced. The water was cold, salty, lovely. I started swimming hard. My breathing was uncontrolled and my stroke ragged. I thought of my friend and coach, Patrick, and all the times we practiced getting my swimming under control after a frantic start. Based on experience, I knew that all I had to do was to be patient and my body would eventually settle down and fall into a rhythm. And so it did. After a few minutes I was calmly breathing to both sides and I had settled into a cadence.
We were moving at 2.12 mph (3.41 kph). There was very little wind and it had stopped raining, so the water looked glassy. I felt thrilled to swim in water so cold. My first feed was at 0800. I told Chris the water was fast and I was feeling great. By my second feed at 0830, we had passed south of Georges Island. I was surprised the water still felt as cold and doubt started to set in regardless of the fact that I was still feeling great. By my third feed, at 0900, we were north of Rainsford Island. I recall being sullen and worried that Chris would think there was something wrong with me.
Before the race, I had expected the water to be 69°F (20.6°C) according to NOAA’s Boston Harbor buoy. The night before, Greg had informed swimmers that the buoy regularly reads at least 5°F (2.8°C) higher than actual temperature. Therefore, I had revised my expectation to 64°F (17.8°C). The water I was swimming in was certainly in the high 50s, though. The last time I’d swum in comparable water was in Arizona sixteen months before. It occurred to me that what I was doing was over my head. I was feeling great, though. I felt the cold water on my skin, but my body didn’t feel cold. I decided it was best to concentrate on the very positive signals I was receiving from my body and ignore the negative messages coming from my brain. From then on, I barely noticed the islands. I barely noticed other boats, only Karavi with Captain Van and Chris always on my left, mindful of me. It was just the cold, gray water and me and the occasional tree branch or lobster pot buoy (I bumped into one made from two large soda bottles tied together). The feeling that I first felt in the Hudson during Stage 4 had returned: I could live in the lovely water surrounding me forever. I had no yearning for land.
Nearing the western tip of Long Island, I glimpsed the bridge pillars and felt a renewed positive sense. My fourth feed, at 0930, was just before reaching the pilings. We were making excellent time and thought we had a good chance of beating the five-hour time limit. We passed the pillars and turned northwest, still making good time at my fifth feed, at 1000. Past Moon Island, entering the narrows between Thompson Island and Spectacle Island, part of the field seemed to collapse unto itself. There were boats ahead and behind us that seemed not to move at all. Reaching the eastern tip of Thompson Island seemed ever so unattainable. I had my sixth, seventh, and eighth feeds in this excruciatingly slow passage. The tracker showed my lowest speed was 0.14 mph (0.22 kph) or virtually swimming in place. Once I broke past the strait, I picked up my speed. Old Harbor was hidden in a curtain of rain. Soon it started raining at our location and the visibility decreased. For a second I worried about other boats, but the weather was so non-conducive to recreational boating that only the occasional ferry shared the water with the race vessels. Soon I noticed something peculiar: a thin, warm layer of rainwater formed over the deep, cold saltwater. I thought of a warm sugary glaze poured over a cake at room temperature. I had never felt such a subtle difference in water temperatures and it was thrilling. My ninth and last feed was north of Thompson Island, at noon. With half an hour left and nearly two miles to cover, I knew my day was over. Chris knew it, too. But Captain Van wanted to keep me in the fray and urged me to continue swimming. I swam as fast as I could for the next half hour. This was my season’s swan song. The races I had left were fun races in New York. Boston’s waters had stolen my heart and I would stay in their embrace not a minute less, regardless of the impossibility of setting my feet on the beach.
When time came to stop swimming, Chris stood by the gunwale. He didn’t have to say anything. I asked him if it was over and he nodded. I smiled and swam toward the boat. I had loved my five hours in the water. Once aboard and with teeth chattering, I again regretted bringing the wrong clothes and thought about my warm ones tucked safely inside a dry bag at the CCC. Our ride back to the BHYC dock was thankfully quick. By Chris’s estimate, I was short 0.8 miles. None of the six boats that got caught in the Thompson Island countercurrent made it back in time.
After bidding good-bye to Captain Van at the BHYC dock, now nearly leveled with the ground surface at high tide, Chris and I walked to the CCC to clean up and then trekked over to the L Street Tavern. This tiny bar was made famous by the movie “Good Will Hunting,” which is one of my favorites. The Guinness on tap was deliciously cold. One of the Irish swimmers assured me that Guinness in Ireland tastes slightly different. I hope to find out for myself next year during Cork Distance Week. The place was packed with swimmers and I again had the chance to make new friends, talk to old ones, and make some plans for the future. I realized that this was my coldest swim to date. The water temperature started at 58°F (14.4°C) at the lighthouse, warmed up to 63°F (17.2°C), and decreased to 58°F (14.4°C) by Thompson Island. The air temperature remained in the low to mid 60s. I’ve finally found that elusive cold water I’ve been searching for and I cannot wait to return. I’m very grateful to Elaine, Greg, Chris, and Captain Van for providing me with the opportunity to have the most enjoyable DNF of my marathon swimming ‘career.’