My iPhone alarm sounded at 4:30 am, waking me bright and early from a restless sleep. The day had finally come. The Cross Bay Swim for which I had been preparing over the last 20 months was here.
Bleary-eyed, I crept down the stairs to the first floor of my parent’s Long Island home and busied myself making coffee. It was strangely quiet outside. Such a dramatic counter to the stormy day before.
Just yesterday I watched wind stirring up 4′ seas on the Great South Bay over an egg bagel breakfast. The rough seas were enough to give the Tuna Club’s annual tournament pause setting up. After all, who could set up fairway tents with 20+ mph wind whipping in their faces? Heck, I had enough fun getting soaked picking up the rental kayak my support team was going to lead me with. My kayaker was delayed, stuck in a Charlotte airport for hours waiting for the East Coast storms to die down enough for a plane to take off.
I checked my email messages on my phone. No cancellations had come through. I checked the website. No warnings were listed. A year earlier a storm had kept me from even reaching New York. I had learned from the Cross Bay swim website the at the 2008 event had been canceled as I waited for 8 hours on a Charlotte plane that would never depart. It looked like I would really have to do this thing.
Everyone was quiet we ate breakfast. A knock on the door signaled Kevin, my kayaker, had made it. It was time to go.
Time to Go
We drove over the Great South Bay, tracing the route I would take. Crossing the Robert Moses bridges I tried to visualize myself swimming the entire distance. I couldn’t. Heck, it takes nearly a half hour to drive over the distance. The swim didn’t seem real. Somehow I remembered a friend of mine telling me that he had spent the first 30 some-odd years of his life not taking a real airplane flight. He had taken off in 5 planes as an adult and sky-dived out of all of them. When he finally flew down to see me, he had thought the idea of touchdown novel.
We had a caravan of 2 cars. We dropped the kayak off at the end of the road and deposited my 2 kayakers in it, along with such provisions we would need for the crossing – water, sun block, extra goggles, etc. The rest of us drove to Robert Moses Field 5, parked and walked to the Fire Island lighthouse. After about 15 minutes of searching along boardwalks and the bay coast, we found sign up. This was exactly opposite of what most competitors did; brought their kayaks and selves over on the early AM ferry.
There were over 100 people carrying kayaks, stepping over each other, trying to get sorted after getting off the ferry. It was chaos. Our 2 man kayak was one of the larger ones and since we got there earlier than most, we secured a spot directly in the way of everyone debarking. We busied ourselves removing excess items from the kayak. Did we really need a CASE of water bottles? No. Did I really need 2 boxes of granola bars? I had no idea. I hadn’t eaten much that morning so they stayed. Bailout buckets were made ready, life jackets adjusted, and sun block applied. I donned my wetsuit – it’s called a farmer John because it looks exactly like what you’d think a pair of neoprene overalls would look like. I applied a ton of anti-chafing lube to the places the wetsuit would likely wear one me, fitted my cap, selected my trusty pair of goggles, queued up my MP3 player music and was set.
With nothing to do but enjoy the sunrise, I looked around at the other competitors. The field was some 70% male. Ages widely varied. It looked like some families of 18 years to 50 years old, some couples, but mostly individuals.
I noticed one guy who looked older than God and got worried. Seriously, he had a Dumbledore/Gandalf-esque beard. Most 30 year olds in a race would be happy to try their endurance vs father time. Not me. I figure if you learned to swim alongside Jonah, and are still doing it today on a 5.25 mile open water course you’re either there to meet your maker or your very confident in your ability. Either way, I was steering away from that guy.
Another couple of people had decided to do the swim without a wetsuit. They looked serious. And in shape. Nearly everyone here was in tremendous shape. Including Dumbledore. I had a sinking feeling I was about to get my butt kicked. A lot of people had swim club shirts and college team shirts. Personally, I was wearing my favorite old Hokie sweatshirt. The big difference was that the only time I had spent in a pool in college was evenly divided between a 1 credit life guarding class freshman year and playing the world’s greatest game – Coed Inner Tube Water Polo. These people looked strikingly similar to real collegiate swimmers.
Kayaks in the Water
With 15 minutes left it was time for the kayakers to head off to Farmer Shoals – a shallow point just over a half a mile away. We, the swimmers, were to meet our kayakers at the shoal. It seemed like an easy enough task. The event organizers had stationed a boat on either side of the shoal and asked that the kayakers take up position in between. As my kayakers paddled off I was surprised at how much they had bounced. The water LOOKED calm from my vantage point. I was wrong.
I watched my kayakers paddle until I couldn’t see them anymore. I wasn’t worried. I had swum half mile courses for almost 2 years now. Heck, the first leg of my practice was a half mile stretch from my community park to a multimillion dollar house on the other side. I had run that course so many times that I could do it with ease. This should be no different, right?