Boston Light Swim 2018 – A Most Enjoyable DNF

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.

The BLS course. (Credit: Massachusetts Open Water Swimming Association).

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.

Pleasure Bay.

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.

Pleasure Bay at low tide.

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.

Old Harbor.

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.

Evening at BHYC.

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.

Chains on the bottom of Old Harbor at low tide. Each link is as large as a shoe.

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.

The Boston Light.

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).

Splash time. (Credit: Chris Graefe).

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.

It’s love. (Credit: Chris Graefe).

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.

Captain Van is watching. (Credit: Chris Graefe).

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.

Swimming in the rain. (Credit: Chris Graefe).

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.

My track. (Credit:

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.’

20 Bridges – Once around Manhattan

A morning in November of last year, I anxiously awaited the announcement of the 2018 20 Bridges participants. Over the past two years, I had taken on increasingly more challenging swims and I wondered whether I’d be able to qualify for it, one of the Triple Crown swims, the other two being Catalina Channel and the English Channel. I had reservations about my ability to succeed in a swim that is governed by complicated tidal patterns; however, my best swim buddy, on a subway trip to Coney Island for the lovely Triple Dip, persuaded me that I could do it. I gave much consideration to the choice of date when applying. The race is run in June, July, August, and September by New York Open Water (NYOW). My body doesn’t do well in warm water. I studied the historical temperatures in the Hudson for the past three years and decided that my best bet would be June for cooler water.

When I opened the NYOW webpage, my name topped the list of selected swimmers. I squelched a yelp and was forced to maintain my composure during a meeting at work. As soon as it was over, I ran out of my office to call my coach and friend, Patrick, to give him the terrific news. My voice was cracking because I was trying not to cry.

Seven months later, I arrived in New York City with Patrick and my head coach, Linda. They had generously offered to crew for me. This would be the first time a Palm Beach Masters Wahoo swimmer would be attempting a Triple Crown swim and all of us were excited about it. I could never bring accolades to my team based on speed, but I could based on distance. My kayaker would be Lizzy, who quite deftly guided me down the Hudson in last year’s Stage 4 of 8 Bridges. She is not only superbly skilled in the handling of her craft, but she’s also an excellent strategist, a trait that can help a swimmer complete a swim, particularly when the course is quite technical in nature as 20 Bridges’ is. Rondi Davies, one of the RDs for 20 Bridges, has earned a reputation in the marathon swimming world for her thorough understanding of the tidal patterns around Manhattan. Making the tides work for every swimmer in the field, whose speeds can vary widely, is nothing short of astonishing.

The course. (Credit:


20 Bridges is the 28.5 mi (49.5 km) counterclockwise circumnavigation of Manhattan. The swim uses two starting points, Pier A at The Battery or Mill Rock, though only one is used on a particular race date. The June 2018 participants were due to start at Pier A. The start is timed in waves, from slowest to fastest swimmers. From Pier A, the field moves into the East River with its fast flowing north current. Swimmers have to clear Mill Rock by a predetermined time, otherwise the tides will be against them and their probability of success critically diminished. The confluence of the East River, Harlem River, and the Long Island Sound is at Hell’s Gate, aptly named for its turbulent flow, located just west of Mill Rock. Then the swimmers move into the Harlem River, which is warmer, shallower, and whose water quality is poorer than the other rivers. The tide is against the swimmers up to a certain point where the river reverses its flow. The east-west section of the Harlem River, at the northern tip of Manhattan, is the Spuyten Duyvil Creek, which discharges into the vast Hudson. Swimmers would be reaching the Hudson while the tide is going out, therefore taking advantage of a swift south current that carries them back to Pier A. There’s a clencher, though. If the flow of the Hudson is slow due to a weak tide, there is the possibility that the tide will turn before the slowest swimmers reach Pier A. I’ve been in the Hudson when the tide turns: last year during Stage 4 of 8 Bridges. I did not finish. I was pulled out with three miles to go because a strong headwind had slowed my progress and there was no overcoming the incoming tide.

There is incredible beauty in witnessing with one’s body the power of the tides, a force so powerful I can feel only humbled by the water in allowing me to complete a swim safely. I would never be one to proclaim to prevail over a body of water as if water and I were engaged in some kind of struggle. I’ve seen a child start to drown before my nine-year old eyes, I’ve seen sailors fall overboard in the blink of an eye, I’ve lost a family member to the ocean. When I’m in the water I’m a humble visitor seeking to experience nature’s beauty and power. Safe passage is all I ask for. And in the process, I hope to learn something about myself and to be transformed in ways I never imagined. All my journeys through water make me feel alive.

This was my frame of mind when my coaches and I met Lizzy and our race observer, JC, at Pier 25, our muster point. I was happy and relaxed, but I was worried about several factors. Temperature was first and foremost. Warm water is my bane. The water temperature at The Battery had been approximately 69°F (20.6°C) all week. I had hoped for at least 65°F (18.3°C). In addition, NYC was undergoing a heat wave. The high was expected to be 91°F (32.8°C). My second worry was the slow-moving Hudson. Tides were not expected to be strong; therefore, the flow south would not be as fast as originally expected. My third worry was the wind. It was forecast to blow from the south or south southeast, peaking between 1400 and 1500 at 11 mph (17.7 kph). A headwind in an already slow-moving Hudson would make for even slower progress. However, after Chesapeake earlier in June, where I swam against strong currents throughout the race, I felt confident that I had prepared well for the challenge of 20 Bridges.

Kayakers and their craft awaiting Launch 5. (Credit: Linda Irish Bostic)

A dear friend had advised to break up the swim thus: East River, Harlem River, and Hudson River, with the objective to get off whatever river I was swimming in and move on to the next one. Intermediate goals in such a long race are helpful. I had defined challenges to be overcome for each river. For the East River, the challenge was to reach Mill Rock before 1130, the time indicated by the RD. For the Harlem River, to make progress against the tide and to endure the higher water temperature. For the Hudson River, to endure the relentless beating of the headwind and to make it to Pier A before the tide turned. I did not expect an easy swim.

After Coach Linda covered my whole body in Baby Butt Paste (40% zinc oxide!) and we listened to RD Dave Barra’s safety briefing, Lizzy took my feed bottles and extra gear and headed down the pier ramp. Kayakers and their crafts would be shuttled by the vessel Launch 5 to Pier A, where they would put to water and wait for the swimmers. Swimmers and crews boarded their respective escort boats in numeric order due to limited dock space at Pier 25. My crew hooted and hollered at the sight of our boat, Hookers. She was a comfortable two-decker fishing boat. I immediately considered Captain Ron and First Mate Edwin to be Lizzy’s and my bodyguards.

We motored down to Pier A, where many escort boats hung about. The kayaks were already on the water. Soon the first wave was called. We were in the second wave, but somehow missed the call for me to come over to the starting line, so Tobey, a member of the safety crew, zipped over in her jet ski and beckoned me to hop on to the platform she was towing. I said goodbye to my crew and jumped in the water. I always enjoy that first contact before a long swim. It’s the start of an intimate relationship that will last for hours and I feel excitement in not knowing how it will evolve, just like falling in love. I was pleasantly surprised at how cool the water felt. I broke the surface laughing. I was extremely happy to be in New York Harbor and told Tobey so. She gave me very valuable information during the short ride to the start line. The most important was that the start and finish were marked by the north corner pilings of Pier A. I slid off the platform and rendezvoused with Lizzy. The four swimmers in Wave 2 now present, we promptly took off at 0920.

Rounding The Battery. (Credit: Patrick Billingsley)

We started rounding The Battery in a counterclockwise direction, only to be stopped by the safety crew. No sooner had I lifted my head, the Staten Island Ferry blasted its loud horn and slipped out of her berth. A friend from Staten Island later called her a ‘big stupid lumbering orange boat [that] screws up everybody’s plans.’ I had a big laugh at his remark, though at the time, even though she was indeed making me late, I was in awe of watching so closely such a large vessel crossing my path so swiftly.

Once cleared, Lizzy and I continued rounding The Battery until we reached the East River. Lizzy was positioned on my left, between Manhattan and me. Hookers was behind me, off to my right, ever watchful. I was truly enjoying the fast ride with the current. My tracker later indicated a maximum speed of 5.83 mph (9.39 kph). I was trying to make the best of that fantastic push, since I had a date with Mill Rock at 1130. I was so focused on my swim, I didn’t notice a hydroplane took off right next to us. I only found out when I looked at the pictures Coach Linda had taken. I passed under the Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Williamsburg bridges so quickly, I realized that after being mesmerized by the technical aspects of the swim, perhaps I had failed to consider the alluring visual aspects. The ever-changing landscape was a feast for the eyes. I continued swimming in a fantastic groove, though I noticed the current speed had decreased. Past the United Nations building, we stayed between Manhattan and Roosevelt Island, passing under the Queensboro Bridge. The current sped up again in this narrow passage. Clear of Roosevelt Island, I could see FDR Drive on my left and ahead of me, Mill Rock on my right. Suddenly, I felt like I was passing through a gauntlet. This must be Hell’s Gate, I thought. The swift flow of the East River had emptied into a boiling cauldron. At the confluence of the East River, the Harlem River, and the Long Island Sound, water seemed to slap me from every direction. I felt the strongest waves hitting me broadsides from the east, those waves would ricochet off the river wall at FDR Drive and hit me broadsides from the west, but not as hard. I powered through the melee, knowing it would be short-lived. Lizzy, interestingly, seemed to be floating above it all, unperturbed. I was in awe of her.

The East River at the Brooklyn Bridge. (Credit: Linda Irish Bostic)

Just as quickly as the turbulence had started, it disappeared into stillness. This swim was not only rich in visuals, but in sensory experiences. I found myself engaged with the water in a way I’ve never been. Clear of Hell’s Gate, I had reached my first objective: I was out of the East River and in the Harlem River. Using the timing of my feeds as an estimate, I reckoned I’d reached Mill Rock on time. I stopped for a feed and heard Coach Linda shouting encouragement. I did so every half hour and Coach Linda never failed to cheer. It made me happy. I quickly glanced around me and noticed the field had collapsed. There were many swimmers, kayaks, and support boats. I pictured a picnic at the park, since the Harlem was so still. We got underway. It was a slow going. I was now swimming against the current of the Harlem, so Lizzy kept me close to the wall in order to avoid the faster water. North of Ward’s Island Bridge we moved right. The current was flowing north again. The water was probably the dirtiest I’ve ever swum in, but it wasn’t as bad as I expected, perhaps because I’ve worked at a few wastewater treatment plants. The river did not smell like wastewater, so I was pleased. Later I heard some swimmers had spotted dead rats, but I didn’t. That was a blessing; I would’ve screamed. Even with its slow flow and warmer water temperature, the Harlem is entertaining because many of its bridges are close together: Triborough, Willis Avenue, Third Avenue, Park Avenue, Madison Avenue, 145th Street, and Macombs Dam. Most carried vehicular traffic and one carried rail traffic. They have low clearances and except for the Triborough Bridge, a center support, which Lizzy and I always passed on its left side. The passage was sometimes so narrow, I could smell the creosote that covered the pilings. Clear of the Macombs Dam Bridge, there’s quite a ways without any bridges. I the distance I could spot three tall bridges: High, Alexander Hamilton, and Washington. On our left we had the Harlem River Speedway. It was here where my feeds started to feel too warm. Lizzy must’ve read my mind, because she offered to get fresh and icy feeds from Hookers. The next feed, past the tall bridges, tasted phenomenal. The river widened and we continued our rhythmic sojourn, enjoying the gentle push of the current. We passed a boathouse on our left, which I would’ve loved to investigate, the University Heights Bridge, and an industrial area also on our left. I felt excitement as we reached the northern end of Manhattan and turned west into Spuyten Duyvil Creek and under the Broadway Bridge. Ahead of me were a rock cliff with a giant white ‘C’ for Columbia University and two familiar bridges, which I’d gotten to know from a distance during the Spuyten Duyvil 10K last September. The Hudson lay beyond those two bridges. I swam under the Henry Hudson Bridge. Approaching the Spuyten Duyvil Bridge, Lizzy and I stayed to our left and passed under the deck with the lowest clearance of the day. Hookers went to the right, where the railroad bridge was swung open.

And there it was in front of us: the Mighty Hudson in all its glory. I had no scheduled feed, but I stopped to hoot and holler. I’d gotten off the Harlem and now I’d been reunited with the Hudson. A glance over its choppy waters told me that, as I had expected, it would be a challenging passage. Lizzy, who always had the right words at the right moment, informed me that I’d been swimming for five hours. In my mind, I expected to be swimming for another four or five. I got underway. As we turned the corner to join the southern flow of the river, I felt the effect of the headwind. It would be tough, not as tough as swimming in the whitecaps of last year’s Stage 4, but tough enough. The George Washington Bridge stood tall ahead of me. At my next feed, Lizzy informed me that my coaches would jump in with me to pace me for a bit. That was a welcome news, because no sooner I put my head down, I threw up my feed. That was a first, but I was so happy to have my coaches in the water that I chalked it up to a fluke and kept on swimming. When I saw Coach Patrick next to me, I could’ve sworn the river had turned him into a playful dolphin. He swam with pure joy through the unrelenting chop. At some point he and Coach Linda traded places. She sliced through the water and I could tell she was holding back, because she’s so much faster than me. I felt only gratefulness to these two people, who so generously had devoted a weekend of their lives to accompany me on this journey. Coach Linda exited the water past the George Washington Bridge. I peered at the Little Red Lighthouse, but at that point my stroke was falling apart. My left biceps hurt. My stomach was not well. During the next feed, I could only get down a couple of sips, but they too came right back up. Lizzy asked me if I was feeling well, and after telling her that my stomach was bothering me, I asked her to tell my crew to dilute my feeds to fifty percent. It was an idea that came out of the blue, since I’d never been in such a situation. I resumed my toil, ever mindful of my stroke and trying to make it better. At the next feed, Lizzy handed me the diluted formula. I felt she’d given me an elixir from the gods. I drank it all. It stayed down. I immediately felt better. I resumed my swimming to find that my stroke had returned. I was in business again.

Company under the GWB. (Credit: Patrick Billingsley)

Mile after mile Lizzy and I continued our journey toward The Battery. Boat traffic had increased; I could tell by the wakes. I could also tell when boats were close by the underwater whine of their motors. Several times I spied Captain Ron repositioning Hookers so as to shield us. Otherwise, he’d stay behind me on my right, ever so watchful. I was grateful for his protection. The Hudson was slowing down. After the throwing up episode I had lost my feed count, so I didn’t know exactly how long I’d been swimming. Having stayed Downtown, in a room with a view of the Hudson and watching the sunsets for two days, I could tell the time was around 1800 when I reached the Chelsea Piers. Downtown looked deceptively close and the thought that the course closed at 1930 loomed large in my mind. The Hudson would continue to slow down and the tide would turn. All my sensory input pointed to another showdown with the Hudson. I was not depressed, however. I didn’t feel sorry for the fact that after swimming for who knows how many hours, the possibility of failure was real, but unlike other swims where I’ve been tortured by that kind of thought, now I wasn’t. I had promised to myself and all the people behind me, who were indeed many, that I would swim my heart out.

Final sprint. (Credit: Linda Irish Bostic)

Lizzy and I pressed on and reached Downtown, now closer to the Manhattan shore. The Freedom Tower stood ahead. We had reached the New Jersey ferry terminal when Tobey approached Lizzy in her jet ski. Trouble, I thought. They conferred for a while. Lizzy handed me a feed and while I drank she informed me that the tide was going to turn soon. Her words washed over me. Then she said, ‘You gotta give it all you got.’ I asked her how far I had to go and she indicated a building with a conical roof. I wanted to judge the distance, not to look at the building as a sight mark, but to gauge how hard I could swim without losing speed. ‘Okay,’ I said and put my head down and swam as hard as I could along the seawall of The Battery. Nothing hurt, to my surprise. Tobey had positioned her jet ski on my right. Lizzy stayed as close to the wall as she could. I thought about many people while I was sprinting toward the finish: my kids, my sister, my friends, my teammates, my coaches on Hookers. I was swimming my heart out for me and for them, but success came down to the Hudson and me. The Hudson had to let me pass and I had to press on. As we moved along the wall, people watched me with curiosity and started walking along with me. I was surprised I hadn’t let down. After a few slight turns of the wall, I could see Pier A. Not until I passed the pilings I had any certainty of making it.

I stopped swimming when I heard a blast and the loud cheering of spectators on Pier A. I hung my head back, breathing hard, and laughed. It felt surreal. I made it. Lizzy made it. Hookers made it. The Hudson had taken me on a ride that started at 3.29 mph (5.29 kph) and finished at 0.76 mph (1.23 kph). I did beat the tide. I swam over to Lizzy and shook her hand. I happily accepted a ride on the jet ski platform from Tobey back to Hookers. Captain Ron and First Mate Edwin helped me up the ladder. My crew was ecstatic. Yes, we’d all made it. It was a great day.

Swimmers before the start. (Credit: Linda Irish Bostic)

Of the sixteen swimmers who took to the waters of Manhattan, fourteen finished. Nine earned their Triple Crowns. To swim among such accomplished swimmers is humbling. I am grateful to NYOW for the opportunity to give this swim a go and for putting together such well-run and safe event, to my family and many friends for their unwavering support and positive encouragement, and specially to my crew. Lizzy’s kayaking skills are unparalleled. As a bonus, she could read my mind. My coaches were an inexhaustible source of encouragement and cheer throughout the day. During my darkest time, they were at the ready for me. Captain Ron, who was on his first 20 Bridges, and his First Mate Edwin, kept Lizzy and me safe. They were truly our bodyguards. JC documented all the goings of an eventful day. Because of all these wonderful and generous people, I had the experience of a lifetime.

As for the Hudson and I, well, I think we’re pals now.

Great Chesapeake Bay Swim 2018 – An Unexpected Gift

Last year I said I wouldn’t do the Great Chesapeake Bay Swim again. After three installments, I was at peace. The first time—against my gut’s advice and due to my lack of confidence—I swam in a wetsuit and ended up in a Kent County ambulance due to overheating. The second time I wore a tech suit. The third time, I made the crossing in a bathing suit printed with the beautiful Maryland flag colors. Chesapeake had become a gauge of my confidence as a swimmer. I had graduated from wearing slick, floating neoprene to the humble bathing suit worn by marathon swimmers. I was at peace with my rookie mistake and figured it was time to look for other challenges.

The Chesapeake Bay Bridge from Sandy Point State Park.

However, a dear friend of mine, who has no trouble persuading me to join him in swimming adventures, convinced me to put in for the lottery for the 2018 installment of Chesapeake. It’d be fun to swim together again. I got in, but he did not. Even though I was sad, I decided to go at his urging. I have two family members in Maryland with whom I wanted to spend time: my sister and the Chesapeake Bay. I think of the bay as my mother and the Atlantic Ocean as my father. The self-imposed pressure of proving I could swim across the Chesapeake in a bathing suit was now in the past, so I found myself free to look at this race in a completely different way. Even though I hate to be swum over by men in wetsuits—no women in wetsuits have ever swum over me—Chesapeake’s course is a favorite of mine. The view of the bridge’s straight spans from the waterline as one exits the western curve is breathtaking. In addition, this swim is an engineer’s dream. The promise of comparing data collected by NOAA’s Chesapeake Bay Interpretive Buoy System with one’s swimming experience is quite exciting.

Stormy weather was expected for the race. The National Weather Service had issued a small craft advisory the evening before the event. I wondered if the race would be held at all, since the Saturday prior the RD had communicated that the swim would start at 1030, thirty minutes ahead of schedule. The start of the swim is dependent on the tide change. Luckily, on race morning the advisory had been cancelled; however, a flash flood advisory had been issued. Thunderstorms were expected in the afternoon. The day was overcast and cool. The air temperature was comfortably in the low to mid 70s (22.2 – 24.2°C).

Air temperature.

I always enjoy the school bus ride from the Stevensville Park and Ride over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge to Sandy Point State Park. It allows one to gaze over the surface of the bay and wonder what the journey under one’s own power from the Western Shore to the Eastern Shore will surprise one with. No two swims on the same course are ever the same. Experiencing the ever-changing conditions of a body of water over a number of swims leaves one with a feeling of a growing intimate relationship. I feel the same way about my beach, Red Reef.

Once at Sandy Point State Park, I took advantage of the heavy cloud cover and dove into the gunmetal gray water for a warm-up swim rather than hide from the sun in the woods as I’ve done in previous years. In the underwater light columns, the bay water glowed its familiar green hue. I swam along the entire length of the swimming area and back. The water felt fantastic at 72.6°F (22.6°C) and would only rise to 73.6°F (23.1°C) throughout the race. It was also less brackish than previous years due to the recent heavy rains in the Chesapeake Bay’s watershed.

Water temperature.

I emerged from the water when the RD called for the safety briefing to start. I appreciated the earlier start time; perhaps we’d miss the storms altogether. Safety vessels already bobbed on the water and kayakers deployed their craft at the beach. The number of volunteers for this race is always impressive. At 700, it exceeds the number of swimmers, though I wasn’t clear if this figure included law enforcement and professional health and safety personnel. 650 people were to take to the water that morning to make the crossing.

The RD indicated that swimmers would get a push from the tide toward Kent Island at the beginning of the race and that slack tide would occur halfway through the race. I questioned these statements in my mind. In my experience, the flood tide pushes the bay’s water north and the ebb tide south. It was unclear to me how swimmers would have an easterly assist, particularly when the wind was coming from the NE. Swimmers would be leaving the beach toward the end of the ebb tide; therefore, water would be moving south toward the ocean. When would one encounter the slack tide? Well, that depends on how fast a swimmer one is.

Current direction.
Current speed.

Safety briefing over, the green-capped Wave 1 swimmers gathered at the beach and trundled over the timing mats, wetsuits on the left, skins on the right. My line, skins, had no wait. I stood quietly by a signpost, listening to another RD yell at swimmers to get out of the water, as if they were unruly schoolchildren. A man sauntered by muttering not to listen to the RD about the tide, because the tide would tell one what to do. I had a chuckle. A swimmer might find herself in the wrong spot when the tide slaps her with instructions.

Wind speed.
Wind direction.

I glanced along the spans of the bridge toward Kent Island and over the gunmetal gray of the water’s surface and wondered what surprises the bay would hurl at me this time. Light winds were expected. So were storms. The go signal was given. I was neither scared nor excited. I was at peace. The bay would make the crossing easy or hard; I accepted that thought and felt I would make it safely across.

Course map.

Mile 1: From Sandy Point State Park’s beach to bridge’s western curve exit – I entered the water from the north end of the beach to avoid the crowd. I was pleased I’d already warmed up because I fell right into my pace. I reached the ‘beach ball’ buoys that mark the entry into the ‘lane’ formed by the bridge’s spans and stayed close to the northern span. I was enjoying all the room I seemed to have to myself. The NE wind was very light. Just a bit of chop is all I need to feel engaged. I reached the Mile 1 buoy and felt elated that I had not seen any of the yellow-capped Wave 2 swimmers yet. Coming out of the curve one has the most glorious view of the race: a straightaway of nearly three miles that ends at Kent Island. I find Chesapeake to be a very technical swim. A lot can happen in three miles.

Mile 2: From the bridge’s western curve exit to past the second set of suspension towers – Conditions rapidly changed coming out of the curve. The outgoing tide picked up speed and rapidly swept me from north of the centerline of the course to just under the southern span. I’ve never experienced this wicked tide, but I knew what to do. I’d done it before. One has to swim at an angle and be extremely mindful of an efficient catch. I tried an angle of about 100 degrees from the horizontal. I was making progress, but not to my liking. The southern span was still too close. I increased the angle to 135 degrees and even though it seemed to put me head-to-head with the wind, I was making much better progress. Approaching the first southern concrete monolith, which sits on a tiny island, I saw an opportunity to widen the gap between the southern span and me. Two Wave 2 women, swimming in tandem, passed me. I decided to try to draft them since drafting is legal in this race. I hung on to them long enough to reach the tiny island. The island is an obstruction to the southerly flow of water, which causes it to lose speed, therefore making it easier for a swimmer to effectively swim upstream. I reached the centerline of the course and positioned myself north of it. I held my line as I crossed the western shipping channel, which is located between the two sets of suspension towers.

Mile 3: From past the second set of suspension towers to the middle of the trussed section – Past the Mile 2 buoy, I felt the ebb tide gradually recede and with it my need to work against it. I relished in the overcast day and the few lenses of colder water I encountered. Finding them feels like a strike of luck. I enjoy entering them and feeling them sliding along my body until the moment that they flick my toes before saying goodbye. I moved close to the southern span in anticipation of the flood tide. Nearing the Mile 3 buoy, amid the eastern shipping channel, the tide slacked and the wind died. I felt transported to a quiet lake. Toward the north, tall, black clouds loomed. I felt the urgency to pick up my pace in case storms started. I hoped I wouldn’t be pulled out of the water due to lightning. The thought of powerboats picking swimmers off the water scared me. Then I recalled that powerboats other than the two anchored feed boats, weren’t allowed in between the spans, so I deduced smaller craft, like jet skis, would be picking off swimmers. Calmed by that thought, I continued to swim.

Mile 4: From the middle of the trussed section to the eastern abutment – The wind returned, this time lighter and from the east. Still swimming just north of the southern span, a young man in a wetsuit joined me. The flood tide started to pull us north, so we swam at an angle of about 80 degrees from horizontal to counter its effects. I’m a very steady swimmer. My companion would pass me and fall back, giving the impression we were passing each other. This yo-yo tandem swim kept us focused on not losing our line when the tide’s pull increased. It’s amazing how two swimmers can help each other make progress without making eye contact or saying a word.

Mile 4.4 – From the eastern abutment to Hemingway’s Marina – My buddy crossed the southern span between the ‘beach ball’ buoys. I followed a few seconds behind him. I turned west toward the marina and spotted him standing in water taking a breather. I felt disappointed because I would’ve enjoyed his company until reaching the finish line on the shore. I continued to swim without pause. The stretch alongside the south side of the terminus of the bridge is never enjoyable. The water is shallow, muddy, and warm. My feet hadn’t touched the ground since I dove into the water at the Western Shore. When my hands touched the bottom, I stood up and waded out of the water onto the finish ramp proudly wearing the Maryland flag colors on my suit. My time was the slowest of my four Chesapeakes, but this race was the hardest in terms of tide and I felt so well, I could’ve turned around and swum back to Sandy Point State Park.

I swallowed a donut and gulped down a sugary drink. A volunteer handed me a race shirt, which to my delight boasted an imprint mimicking Maryland’s ‘Treasure the Chesapeake’ license plates. I accepted a shower from a Kent County firefighter (best reward of the race!), changed, and headed down the road toward the Stevensville Park and Ride, about a one-mile walk. I felt buoyant with joy because I didn’t feel tired and my body didn’t hurt. Suddenly, I realized that my next race is 20 Bridges and my heart fluttered in my chest. I thanked the Chesapeake for her gift, what I had come for, though at the time it was unbeknownst to me: the firm belief that I was ready to attempt a swim around Manhattan.

Around Lido Key 2018

April marks the start of another marathon swim season. While I started last season at a place I’d never visited—Arizona—this year was quite the opposite. The Tampa/Sarasota area is well known to me: St. Pete Beach, Fort De Soto, and Siesta Key are places where I’ve swum many times. This was my first time swimming in Lido Key, though the waters in the Gulf of Mexico in this area are a bit cloudy, shallow, and generally not as rough as the Atlantic Ocean, where I train on the opposite coast of the state of Florida. One remarkable feature is the whiteness of the sand. Walking on Siesta Key Beach, for example, gives the impression of walking on super fine sugar. Lido Key, just south of Siesta Key, boasts the same otherworldly sand.

Lido Key, Florida

I was very disappointed when the second installment of the swim around Fort De Soto was cancelled last year due to a low number of registrations. The race director, Dave Miner, very kindly transferred my registration to the Lido Key swim, a seven-mile circumnavigation. In its fourth year, Lido Key attracts swimmers from across the country, not just us ‘locals.’ I met a swimmer from Alaska! Lido Key has a reputation for being well organized and quite fun. As always, my concern was high water temperature. This time of the year the Gulf is in the lower 70s (21-26C)in Tampa/Sarasota. With so many shallow areas, I expected the course to get much warmer, something my body doesn’t handle well.

One of my Wahoo teammates and I arrived in Sarasota the Friday before the race after a three and a half-hour drive across the state. I met my paddler, Linda, at the sign-in social at the Daiquiri Deck in Lido Key. Linda was a veteran paddler and knew the course well, something that made me extremely happy. I was grateful for her willingness to spend a good part of her Saturday alongside a swimmer she’d never met before. It was great to see friends from the Tri-State area and Indiana, some of whom I hadn’t seen since Spuyten Duyvil or the Suck. It was happy energy at the Daiquiri Deck.

The course. (Credit: Swim Without Limits).

The race started at 1005 for the ladies, but I was at Lido Key Beach at 0800 as the schedule required. I grabbed a good parking spot for my diligence, which would come in handy when putting my bag and my friend’s in the car since there was no bag check. During the 0900 race meeting, I finally decided to cover myself in zinc oxide. Apparently, I’d just been milling about for an hour. My feeds, which consisted of Infinit in bottles full of ice topped with cold water and placed in a cooler full of ice, were safely in Linda’s kayak. I was doing just about everything I could think of to manage the temperature. For the first time I was wearing a two-piece suit. I’d brought a pink fabric cap but decided to stick with the silicon race cap unless it became a problem.

The field was 110 solo swimmers and 25 relays. The men promptly left the beach at 1000 in their green caps. The ladies, in pink caps, then swam to the starting line, just north of the jetty. Our paddlers were positioned behind us. I had no problem in finding my happy paddler. I loved her energy! A horn blasted and we took off. The relays, in orange or yellow caps, were to follow.

We swam north. At 74F (23.3C), the water felt manageable. The sky was clear, something that wouldn’t change throughout the day. With a flood tide and a 11-mph (17.7-kph) southeast wind, we were moving at a good clip. After half a mile the water became shallow, but we moved a little west and I was in deeper water once again. Past the one-mile mark, the course started turning west. As we rounded the northwest corner of the island, the waves ricocheted off a seawall. I had a similar experience at Fort De Soto, when one feels waves in two different directions. Makes for lively swimming. Now we were moving due west along New Pass and the island created a wind shadow. The water was calm, but I could feel the pull of the flood tide. It’s always fun to swim fast. I felt a sudden urge to backstroke under the John Ringling Parkway bridge. When Linda noticed what I was doing we both burst laughing. It felt beautiful to be in the water. It felt like home. We enjoyed a little over a mile of those fun conditions. I knew they would come to an abrupt halt as we rounded the northeast corner of the island.

I love choppy saltwater perhaps because it’s what I grew up with. With the wind still blowing from the southeast, we were now swimming into a headwind. Time to put my head down and focus. For the next three miles—the length of the lee side of the island—I just swam. I wasn’t concerned with who was passing me, who was ahead of me or behind me, or what big yachts were sailing by. I even missed a dolphin that swam underneath me! I simply swam and stopped when Linda offered me a feed. I felt great in the water. My stroke felt efficient, which made me think of my coach and good friend Patrick, who has been working with me for years making me a better swimmer. I felt the swim along the lee side of the island was a tribute to him.

At noon we passed under the John Ringling Causeway bridge. I backstroked, but quickly switched back to freestyle because I felt change coming. Several shifts were at play: it was high tide and the wind changed direction and increased speed. It’s easy to tell the effect of the tide in shallow, grassy bottoms. Before the second bridge, I could see the grasses bent in the direction I was swimming since it was flood tide. At high tide, the grasses were slack. But the wind veered from the southeast to the southwest and increased to 15 mph (24.1 kph). I felt very slow until I started feeling the effect of the outgoing tide. Now the grasses were bent in the direction I was swimming once again, but not much. As we neared the southern tip of the island, I glanced at a natural beach on my right. I heard kids squealing and saw families wading in the water next to their anchored boats. I could feel their eyes on me. At moments like this I wish kids and adults are inspired by the lunatics in the water to swim far someday. The water was shallow and a bit warmer, but still bearable.

Soon we found ourselves at Big Sarasota Pass. The conditions changed quickly and drastically. The water was bright aquamarine, warm, extremely shallow, and turbulent. The white bottom was suddenly very close and the aquamarine waves three feet (0.9 meters) above my head. Linda maneuvered her kayak deftly ahead of me, hugging the tip of the island. To my right, a couple in the water tried to upright a tandem kayak very calmly. I felt the surf side sweeping me toward the pass, but I managed to follow Linda and stay close to the island. Back in the Gulf, it was a different one than the one I’d left hours before. There were many whitecaps: the wind had picked up to 18 mph (29 kph). Two-foot (0.6-meter) waves pushed kayaks and swimmers towards the beach. I felt like swimming at home, just moving alongside the shore, with the difference that with the beach on my right, I was moving north. The water was very warm; I slowed down considerably, but with a mile to go, I focused on following Linda and swimming at a consistent pace. Past the jetty I turned into the beach. I finished two minutes over my expected time and felt fantastic when I got out of the water.

My line. (Credit:
Speed profile. (Credit:

Lido Key was a great swim thanks to my paddler Linda, who kept me on a very efficient line, hydrated, and happy, to Dave Miner, who organized a safe and fun event, and to many Wahoo teammates, who were doing their first seven-mile swim. I have told my coach and teammates that this will be my last Florida race, since I have to add more cold water swims to my ‘resume’ in order to be better prepared for my future goals. However, this is an event that I would love to come back to as support for a friend. As far as my training, I feel I’m on the right track. I felt fantastic after the race, no aches or pains whatsoever, and had plenty of energy left to have a fun dinner with friends in Siesta Key and not be a bore.

Swim on, friends!