We’re Going to Need a Bigger Boat

Last time I told you about tackling alligators while swimming. Or whatever that unwelcome creature from the black lagoon was. This is the story of it’s bigger, meaner, salt water brother.

We’re Going to Need a Bigger Boat

Early in the summer of 2008 I returned home to New York to go to a wedding. I had a little bit of extra time so I stayed with my parents on the south shore of Long Island and took the opportunity to get my kayak team, my friend Kevin and My Dad, out on the Great South Bay for some practice. After all, what could be better than actually swimming in the actual area where the race would be held? There was under 2 month until the race and my kayakers had never kayaked and I hadn’t ever swam in my wetsuit. It was time to get serious.

We woke up early in the morning, grabbed some egg and bagel sandwiches and made our way to the beach. Kevin had rented the kayak the day before so we were all set.

The practice was good, we got a great workout, and we learned about the logistics of how to carry, portage, and manage a kayak. Good information that would prove essential when I actually competed in the 2009 Cross Bay Swim.

You Play How You Practice

Like I said, this was my first time in a wetsuit and in salt water. Both dramatically increase your buoyancy. This led to me bobbing up and down comfortably when I would stop swimming. About halfway through our practice I stopped swimming and stood up on a sandbar to talk with my kayakers. I stood up a little out of the water, feet on the ground, and carried on a conversation.

Then the ground moved.

I remember cold fear welling in my stomach. My feet had just been standing on a sand-paper textured support that was clearly alive. And ridiculously huge. My limbs felt heavy and I was suddenly exhausted. Instinct propelled me to grab on to the kayak. I think part of my brain replayed the ‘visual accuity’ scene of Jeff Goldblum vs the T-Rex in Jurassic Park. ‘If I just don’t move, it won’t be able to see me’ I told myself.

We never figured out what I was standing on. Whatever it was, it was freaking huge! Best guess is that my stance kept my feet about 2.5 feet. My weight was around 200lbs at the time so let’s say that 1/2 of that was negated from buoyancy. What kind of salt water animals do you know that are bigger than 2.5 feet long, feel like sand paper-y, level ground, and can support 100lbs?

Exactly.

I’m surprised I didn’t soil my wetsuit.

Flashback

This episode reminded me of surfing in Virginia Beach early one morning over Labor Day in 2001. I had taken a surfboard and paddled out to calm surf before anyone else had woken up. Although there were no waves, I was happy to be out in the ocean. That’s when the sea came to a boil. There was a ton of bait fish suddenly jumping up all around me trying to escape some predator that was chasing them below my dangling, and very exposed, toes.

It wasn’t the bait fish that stole my breath away. It was what came next.

A single dark fin breaking the water.

I remember going cold, my limbs feeling like lead, and a vague nauseous feeling over come me. ‘Don’t get eaten,’ I remember thinking.

Careful not to lose my balance and tip myself into the feeding frenzy, I drew my legs up on to the surfboard. Visions of the movie Jaws flashed in my head.

As it turned out, the fins belonged to bottle nosed dolphins. That became clear after just a few seconds, but My God, how long those few seconds felt!

Not the last time

That trip to Virginia Beach wasn’t the first nor was it the last time I’d find myself swimming with dolphins. The Cross bay swim training in New York wasn’t the first nor last time I’d swim with large marine animals. In fact, later that same summer my fiance and I would come fin-to-face with a large shark patrolling the coast of Jacksonville, Florida.

Sometimes you’ll be out living your life and thinking about that scene in Jaws where they learn the true size of the creature they are hunting and for safety’s sake Roy states “We’re going to need a bigger boat.” I am as certain that I’ve swam along side things I had no idea were there as I am that I’ll run into more critters in the future.

While terrifying, you can’t go through life avoiding what scares you. Whether it’s swimming in the ocean, travelling through Palestine, or learning to fly an airplane. Chris Guillebeau over at the excellent Art of Non Conformity has an excellent write up of this concept in his article Beware of Life.There’s no need to retread ground he covers there so I’ll just add my two cents here:

What’s more terrifying? Encountering the ‘We’re gonna need a bigger boat’ moment or going through life safe but unchallenged?

Tell us below.

Things That Go Bump in the Lake

This past Spring and Summer (2009) Kevin and I spent a great deal of time practicing on lake wylie. He in my kayak leading me, watching out for me. I swam along side getting my mileage in.

Most of the time we swam in Lake Wylie, South Carolina – the lake on which I live. A previously-flooded Cawataba river, it had over 350 miles of fractal shoreline for me to cover. It is freshwater and it is fed by the Cawataba that starts far north and feeds into the enormous Lake Norman 20 miles north of Charlotte, and makes its way down to a Duke Energy dam just across the South Carolina line that creates the lake.

Swimming downstream of a major metropolitan area you expect to find interesting things in the water. The Cove Keepers, a local volunteer conservency pull all sorts of interesting things out of the lake on a regular basis. Despite the appeal of the Bass Master’s tournaments held on Lake Wylie, you don’t expect to find a lot of wildlife.

That would be an incorrect assumption.

You see, we had to get out on the water early in the AM in order to avoid boat traffic while we practiced. Unfortunately, that’s when things from the black lagoon like to feed.

My parents have visited me before and encountered snakes of various species, sizes, and colors but that is expected in the south. As was the snapper turtle I found swimming from one landing early one morning. Note that his size – roughly equivilent to a garbage lid – was not.

One morning we had been swimming for about 2 hours continuously on a glassy-smooth surface. No one else was on the lake except fro a few die-hard bass fishermen. Everyone else was still asleep. It was beautiful. It was perfect.

We were directly on the east side of the lake, about 50 yards off shore and heading west straight across when it happened. This was the final 1/2 mile stretch and we were aiming for the beach which represented our begining and finishing line. I had been slowing down. Swimming 2+ hours continuously will tire you out! My resting glides on my crawl stroke were getting longer and longer.

One one particular glide I crashed in to SOMETHING!

It felt like I was tackling a slimy punching bag. This something was the length of my arm, which went under the beast, to the crown of my head – which I used to spear the animal. It felt like I was tackling a slimy punching bag.

Instinctively, I reacted how I feel most of you reading this would; I shreiked like a little girl and swung my arm – already in a mid-stroke arc – and connected with the beast.

At one time I was considered a trained fighter, entering tournaments and the like. I know what it is like to punch someone, and connect solidly, in fear, anger and with authority. Believe me when I tell you I punched this beast, whatever it was, and connected.

Completing the hit, I scrabled to the underside of the kayak, wrapped my body around the boat, and said a silent prayer that I wouldn’t get eaten. It took a few minutes for me to regain my composure. All the while Kevin was laughing his a$$ off.

Eventually I was able to man up, let go of the kayak, and swim the last 1/2 mile. I don’t mind telling you that I was more than a little jumpy. Kevin of course mocked me the whole way back.

Once we reached shore, Kevin let me in on something else about this behemoth. Remember how I said that you occasionally run into flotsam on the lake? There was a sneaker floating nearby this encounter. Apparently the creature from the black lagoon saw it, too. As he put it “I didn’t want to tell you while you were swimming, but I think whatever that was tried to eat the sneaker.”

Fun, fun, fun!

Later that week we read that there were (3) small aligators sighted on the lake. The area has a history of gators, the last monster pulled out of a nearby cove reached over 12′ in length. I don’t know what I crashed into but I was glad the sneaker got the worst of it!

Crashing into a lake creature wasn’t the only time I screamed like a little girl and sought the safety of the kayak. No, those series of dance moves were pre-rehearsed. Except that time I was in the ocean. And the animal was much bigger. I’ll tell you about that one next time. Keep reading.

How I Swam 5.25 Miles in the Open Ocean

On Friday, July 24th, I successfully swam 5.25 miles in the ocean non-stop as part of the Maggie Fischer Memorial Cross Bay swim. It was the culmination of 20 months of hard work and it was incredibly satisfying. I have been writing somewhat random posts talking about the events and training leading up to the swim and my reflections afterward. This article is a bit of a summation and aggregation of articles I wrote about how I did it and what I learned. Enjoy!

Introduction to the Cross Bay Swim

If you’re new here, you might be wondering ‘What is the Cross Bay Swim?’ Here’s a brief article I wrote just before leaving for the swim. An assembly of photos of the swim course can help you visualize the race and the scale.

I wasn’t alone in my efforts. I had a team backing me up.

Step 1: Get the Motivation

First off, you might like an introduction and overview of the Maggie Fischer Memorial Cross Bay swim found in Who’s the Guy in the Wetsuit. The swim website has a great article here on getting the motivation to do an event like this. My motivations were a little bit different.

I answer the question, ‘Why enter a 5.25 mile swim’ in this earlier article. While it seems like I was born knowing how to swim, not everyone is. Chris Gulliebeau writes about living with the regret from not learning how to swim. Even though I was comfortable with swimming in most situations, 5 miles in the ocean is a long, long way. But once I found out about the race and I learned that someone I knew did it, I couldn’t – not – try (double negative intended there!) Chris uses learning to swim in a metaphor for living a life without regrets. I echo his sentiment; “If there’s anything I don’t want, it’s a life of regrets.”

Step 2: Do the Training

Hey, 5.25 miles is along way, but it’s not as difficult as swimming the Amazon River.

I started off slowly. The hardest part was getting myself into the pool. I had to rely on a trick I used to do a body building show in college; Tell everyone you know you are going to do something and then be too embarrassed not to make every attempt to do it.

The first year I trained at the YMCA triathlon and around my buddy’s wake boarding boat. The second year, I was able to get a little more serious. Kevin moved to Charlotte and that offered the opportunity for me to swim while he kayaked along side me during the summer months. Let me tell you, swimming in open lakes for miles is very, very different than swimming in the pool! No matter the medium or your challenge, you have to get started. While I was training, I wrote this article on How to swim 1 Mile. I think the advice is good for swimming in particular and goal setting in general. Remember “A journey of 1000 miles begins with the first step.”

“You don’t want to know what we see swimming next to you.”

Step 3: Overcome Hurdles

The 2008 Debacle

Nothing ever goes according to plan. Not even Big Rocks like the Cross Bay Swim. You get obstacles. There are hurdles that need to be overcome. There’s no such thing as a free lunch.

I started training for the 2008 cross bay swim after returning from Israel in the Spring of 2008. The race I wanted to enter was never to be. I learned of the cancellation reading this post via my iPhone waiting for 8 hours on a plane that would never take off. Here’s a video of the race day conditions. I had trained and trained hard for 5 months for nothing. There was to be no race at all. I had to make a decision, would I give myself a mulligan for that goal or would I man up and decide to train even harder for the 2009 race? After about a month of feeling sorry for myself, I re-invented F-Club, and trained lights out for the 2009 Cross Bay Swim.

The 2009 Debacle

While I was training for the 2009 swim with renewed vigor I came to the harsh realization that the corrective foot surgery that I had been putting off had to get done. I had bent my big toe backwards 180 degrees the wrong way when a 250lb tight end fell on me while playing flag football (if anyone ever tells you flag football is non-contact, they lie!) This combined with a previous football injury collapsing the arch in my other foot had led to me wearing a foot cast and carryign crutches around for the better part of 3 years. That sucked. I had to end that cycle. The trouble was that the injury wasn’t interfering with my training (just all other aspects of my life.) Should I have the surgery? Would I be able to recover in time to train myself back into elite shape to do the swim? Was I just procrastinating because I was terrified of surgery? In the end, I had the surgery. It was awful, but I got through with it with tremendous help from my friends. And then we trained harder than ever to get in shape for the swim.

The week before the 2009 swim a giant shark washed up on shore. YOU DO NOT WANT TO MISS THE VIDEO HERE.. Sure, that kind of shark doesn’t eat people. But no one on those beaches thought they were bathing next to a prehistoric beast, either! Gut check time. Those shark images reminded me of the stories Long Island pilots would tell as they flew over area beaches. “You don’t want to know what we see swimming next to you” they would say. No, no sir I don’t. I pulled up my ‘big boy pants’ and decided to cowboy up.

Step 4: Get the Job Done!

In the end, there’s nothing left to do but swim. The event took me 3 hours. It felt like an eternity. If you’re interested, here’s an account in 3 acts of the swim day.

Conclusion

In the end this swim was more than about traversing 5+ miles in the ocean. Aside from the ego trip and validation of completing a long distance swim,I found there were many, many ancillary benefits, too. Sure, I picked up a bunch of practicle skills, but there were unintended, in tangible lessons learned as well. Some like weightloss were expected. Others like a change in psychology or help ending insomnia were not.

Abbreviated List of Benefits Derived from Long Distance Swimming

  • Learn how to swim in Open Water.
  • Learn how to cope with the unexpected.
  • Unforgettable experiences with good friends.
  • Weight loss.
  • Injury rehabilitation.
  • Drastically improved my insomnia.
  • Controlled my temper.
  • More productive at work.
  • See new places, and swim them!

I could continue rambling on about each item listed above, but that’s not my point. My motive in this article was to describe what it is like to set your sites on some foreign, larger-than-life goal, work yourself senseless to achieve it, and then enjoy the fruits of your labours. There were many times I wondered to myself if the efforts I was putting in were worth it. Many people thought I was crazy for attempting the swim. Others saw no point and no value in this kind of a goal. I hope that I’ve made a case here for setting your own hugely aggressive goal, and for following through.

At this time of year (January) there is no shortage of people wishing to make themselves over in a more ideal image. What separates the success stories from those people who will be making those same resolutions again next year is the ability to follow through. What’s your next life-changing goal? What will you do to get there?

The Final Miles

The second mile of the swim proved more difficult that the first. Now that we were clear of the small barrier islands, the full effect of the wind became apparent blowing up waves from the East. Coupled with this, the tide started coming in from Fire Island inlet in full force – in direct opposition from the wind – creating a chumming effect. It felt like trying to swim in a washing machine. I had a lot of trouble keeping my body level in that mess as some strokes would lead me to breath in full waves and others would flip me over on to my back. I think I spent as much time swimming forward as I did up and sideways.

I wasn’t the only one having difficulty with the waves. Each time I managed to get a glimpse of my kayakers they were bailing out their tiny ship. I have no idea how Kevin managed to steer the boat as well as he did but we remained parallel for the entire journey. Having Dad and Kevin along side was very comforting as I was tossed around.

The 8 pairs of goggles we brought turned out to be fortuitous as the force of the waves broke several pairs of my glasses. I must have been swimming the wrong way as I didn’t hear of any other swimmers having this problem. Still, fortune favors the prepared and I dutifully retired at least 5 pairs of goggles that day. My MP3 player was attached to my first set of goggles and I never did get the time to re-attach it to the other pairs. It woud have been nice to mark the time but I was certainly not bored. The effort made the swim seem interminable though.

The effects of swimming in that chop were plain exhaustion. Things didn’t smooth out until around mile 4 or so and by that time I was too tired to capitalize on the relatively flat water. It was everything I could do to keep my arms rolling over. I could literally feel the muscles in my rotator cuffs fraying. Having recovered from a torn rotator cuff 2 years earlier I knew the feeling well. Each stroke I had to make a concious decision to keep injuring myself so I could keep going.

Making the swim even more fun was my ‘farmer John wetsuit. This wetsuit is sleveless, like a tank top, and continues to my ankles. Over time the salt and sand kicked up in the chop made their way into my suit. Each stroke was like sandpaper. I began to understand why some swimmers opted to do the race in speedos. Despite the pain and the open sores the suit created along my chest and under my arms I was very thankful for the buoyancy it provided. I am not sure I would have been able to finish with out it. The fish even got in on the act with something biting me on my toe! That was another nice open, bleeding wound for the salt water to creep into. FUN!

Each time we would swim past a marker, I would ask Kevin the time. I would calculate my average speed in my head and the results were not impressive. I figured I was dead last. By the time we were at the 3.5 mile point I could plainly see the masts of the sailing ships in the harbour we were aiming for. Nothing to do but keep heading that way. Every so often I would ask for some water. The salt water had gotten into my mounth and I’ve never been as thirsty as I had been on that swim. Unfortunately my throat was too sore to swallow so I could only swish the water around in my mouth. This provided a little comfort but not much.

I remember being disappointed in myself towards the tail end of the race. I began evaluating where my training went wrong. Did I really give supreme effort in my training? No. Should I have dieted and cross trained? Yes. Why didn’t I hire a swim coach to help my technique? Thoughts that I had wasted, absolutely squandered the last 18 months of my life played through out my head as I slowly made my way to the shore.

By mile 4 I was absolutely defeated. Luckily my kayakers were not.

By mile 4 the sun was shining, the water was flat, and Kevin was obviously having a great time! He had his sunglasses on and a ridiculous excuse of a boonie hat and was working on his tan. Gone from his mind were any thoughts of capsizing or bailing out water. He was on vacation! So Kevin started doing what any training partner would. He started yelling at me to go faster!

I remember being so tired that I flopped on to my back for a minute. I looked out on the horizon, the place I had swam from and I could not see the beach at all. What I could see were a bunch of other swimmers and kayakers! I wasn’t in last place. I was still in a race! And it was time to go faster.

Well, my mind was made up and I put everything I had into finishing strong. I don’t think my body complied with the request to increase speed but I will say that it was a lot easier to swim the final mile and a quarter without those negative thoughts weighing me down.

It was soon after that I was swimming past the docks and I could hear the crowds cheering. I had done it. I had finally finished. A goal that I had set sitting on a plane returing from the Holy land 18 months earlier was finished. It was a hell of a journey. What an amazing feeling. I don’t have the words to describe it. So I’ll let someone else do it for me;

“That which we obtain too easily, we esteem too lightly.”

The 2009 Cross Bay Swim in Pictures

This past summer, July, 2008 I swam 5.25 miles in open ocean for the Cross Bay Swim. It was excruciating but so much fun.

Here are some pics of the event. Click on the images to see the neat lightbox thing I built!

This post is really a test to see if the nifty dynamic photo gallery software I custom built works as intended. Any comments on what you see, how you see it, are very appreciative. If you can, please include the browser you used to see it and the kind of computer you used.

Ex 1. Windows Vista / Internet Explorer 7.0
Ex 2. iPhone 3G / Safari
Ex 3. Google Reader on Firefox 3.

That kind of data will help me fix any issues you have or attend to any suggestions.

Swimmers, to Your Marks

Once the kayakers were in position on the sandbar at Farmer’s Shoals the swimmers got in the water. A line of co-ed lifeguards formed a human starting line. The water was chili, but not too cold. The wetsuit did its job and my body soon warmed the water trapped in the neoprene. Between the wetsuit, the goggles, my MP3 player, and tons of rash guard lube, I felt kind of like Iron Man in his suit. I remember being surprised at how strong the pull of the current was as I eased out to the starting line. The poor lifeguards looked to be freezing as they stood there waiting on direction, the current knocking them around. The waves sure looked a lot bigger in the water than they did from the shore!

Some people calmed their nerves by chatting with family. I adjusted my headphones and started my music. Waiting for the starting gun, I focused on my opening swim strategy.

Opening Strategy – Part One

Since my plan wasn’t to win the race, just to complete it, I would let the sprinters get ahead and busy myself with regulating my breathing and calming my adrenaline. Even though I wasn’t competing for the race, my personality isn’t built in a way that lets me sit back and relax. When there is a starting gun I want to race out in front and dominate. Once, in
high school, I managed to make all county for track on the 1600m (~1 mile). I had made it around the track for one lap at the near front of the pack only to realize that I had just reached a personal best time – not for the mile, but for the quarter mile. My time then dropped sharply as my body ran out of adrenaline to propel me over the remaining 3/4s of a mile.

I wasn’t going to let that happen this time. If I did sprint swim the first half mile, there would be no chance of me completing mile 5. Easy strokes with regular breathing was my plan for the entire race. If you have never tried
to swim long distance before allow me to assure you that calm, regular breathing is the key. Let everyone else be a rabbit that sprinted to the kayaks. I was going to be the tortoise that finished this race.

Opening Strategy – Part Two

The second part of our two-part opening race strategy concerned meeting up together at the sandbar. Finding a kayak (or them finding me) was not going to be easy with over one hundred competitors. We mitigated this by planning
for the kayak to be on the western most part of the sandbar. This would help my aim as they would be considered a fixed point. Even if I couldn’t see them per se I would know where they were. Also helping was the expected current coming in from the Atlantic through the Fire Island Inlet would be pressing all swimmers eastward. I was going to have to bear West for the eastern tip of Sexton Island in order to stay on course even past this first sandbar. If I fell out of range, I would end up having to swim against the current to the first mile marker. Swimming against the current is a losing battle. By leaving the sandbar as far west as possible, the incoming tide would have less of a chance to push me out of range and I
would have a greater chance of actually finishing this thing.

The Reality of the Start

So much is made about starting a new venture. Everyone from your mom admonishing you to have a healthy breakfast to Kawasaki’s Art of the Start will tell you that a good, quality start to anything is important. I wanted my start to be perfect. It wasn’t to be.

Once the gun went off, I dove into the water. Cold, salt water whipped into a frenzy from the storms that had ended just a few hours ago pushed me around. Fighting both current and my own adrenaline, I leveled off and started my stroke. The water was pitch black and the morning sun sat low in the east. Each time I tried to breath on my right side I was blinded by those rays. Breathing on either side ended up being a losing proposition due to the chop. I must have swallowed gallons of water that first half mile.

The First Half Mile – Solo

Slowly, I gained ground. Swimmers from all directions crashed into each other. This is where my opening strategy failed. On the starting line I was positioned on the East (right hand side) of the swimmers. My targeting point was the West most boat (left hand side) on the kayak line. Most of the other swimmers were headed straight for the center of the kayak line. That meant that while I was swimming straight north, 70% of the other swimmers were  headed North East cutting into me at acute angles.

Swimmers, current, and waves from all angles pounded me until I eventually reached the starting line. Other kayaks seaching for their swimmers crossed over me. I reached my kayakers almost by accident. There was so much chop that I never accurately saw them until I heard Kevin yell out at me. I was very relieved at finding them.

There was no time to stand on the sandbar and rest. It felt like I was the last to arrive at this beginning checkpoint. It took me significantly longer than the 15 minute 1/2 mile time I had been running. Topping it all off, my tinted goggles also failed in the mix. The right eye was seeping through. Now that the adrenaline of starting a race was wearing off, my body was exhausted from the effort of the first 11th of the race.

The Second Half Mile – Paired

Now that I had found my kayakers, it was time to start the race. I was already more tired now that I was when I completed a solo 2 mile race at Mountain Island Lake in North Carolina several weeks earlier. It was disheartening to realize that I still had 4.75 miles left to go on an angry ocean!

Kevin and my Dad aimed the kayak toward the first mile marker check in. We were to pass through gates set up by manned powerboats and yell out our numbers as we passed through. Since I was fighting for breath with each stroke, I hoped that my kayakers planned on doing the talking for me.

If anything, the chop got rougher after the sandbar. I could feel the full force of the angry Atlantic ocean pushing through Fire Island Inlet. Waves from all directions hammered me. I could not swim straight on plane and drive with my torso for an efficient stroke. When I would breath on my glide, I would get a face and mouth full of water. Sometimes the force of the waves would toss me over on to my back or stand me straight upright like I was trying to swim to the sky.

You are trained to not try and force a breath when you are swimming. If a wave hits you and you get a mouthful of water when you try to breathe, you just continue your stroke, spit the water out, and try to breathe next stroke. That’s the good thing about swimming long distance; you get many, many opportunities to make the next stroke better than your last and to keep making progress. Unfortunately, in really rough seas, you are forced to stop your momentum and lift your head straight out of the water to catch your breath. Not really the most efficient way of doing things.

When we finally did reach the first mile marker, Kevin yelled out my number and told me my time. It had been an hour since I had left shore. It felt like a millennium. That was twice my expected time. At this pace I would never possibly finish. one mile per hour would put me in at five and a half hours and I didn’t think that I could last that long. I was beaten and sore from the waves. I was nauseous from being spun around, bobbing up and down, and swallowing so much salt water. I was not sure that I was going to be able to keep going.

Luckily, I didn’t have to decide whether to keep going. All I had to do was keep going for as long as I could. I remember thinking that I had already trained 18 months for this day and that while my training must not have been good, hard, or strict enough, I was going to have to finish anyway. 1 mile was not enough to make me quit. Maybe 2 miles would. I didn’t know. I set my sites on the 2nd mile marker and kept swimming.

My Cross Bay Swim

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?

My Open Water Swim Team

Open water is a body of water subject to natural elements and all of the randomness this entails. In the ocean or large lakes you have tides, swells, salt, wind and marine life to contend with. The sun can play havoc with you as can boaters. Unless you are very fortunate, open water also generally means opaque water you cannot see in and depths you cannot easily gauge.

There is only one way to combat such an array of forces set against you; you must team up.

My Mentor

Now that I’ve grown a bit, learned a bit, and been around the block, I’ve come to realize, to my great disappointment, I do not indeed know everything. Shocking, right? These days when I seek to conquer something, I pick a mentor. My first stop was contact my Dad’s friend who swam the Cross Bay Swim for his 60th birthday. Let’s call him ‘Bob.’

Bob’s qualifications are much longer, too, than swimming the race at 60. Ignoring his college football career, the guy had already swam the race many times in his youth, winning it at least once. Not a bad resource to have.

Bob and I exchanged emails about practicing and equipment for the first few months I started training. He told me the kind of wetsuit he used (which I ended up buying) and how he trained. By the time we were nearing the 2008 race day, he was all set to spend the next year training to rejoin in 2009! This is the kind of mentor you want to be able to ask questions to. The only way he could have been better suited for me is if we were possessed of anywhere near the same kind of athletic prowess. Writing this post after the fact having swum the Cross Bay in 2009, I can now appreciated the kind of athlete he is. Comparatively, he did absolutely no training for the event! At 60!!! Just goes to show you, winners win. And keep winning.

My Winter Team

After the 2008 race was canceled I found it difficult to keep swimming. Luckily, I started F-Club (see other archives for that explanation), and thus found several friends that wanted to get in better shape and swim. These guys helped me keep focused and having fun while getting my pool miles in over the winter. We must have invented a few dozen oddball training routines to keep the swimming entertaining. This was essential in keeping the training fun and fresh but it also payed great dividends when the time came to swim in open water where new and different muscles are used.

My Spring & Summer Team

When the weather got warmer, and I pulled through my foot surgery, it was time to get into open water. Swimming in open water is a much different sport than pool swimming. The water is darker, vaster, and there are no lanes. Hazards are all over the place and you need to use the buddy system.

Kayak Buddies

With boats, current, tides, and things that go ‘bump’ in open water, you need a kayaker to guide you. Sort of a cross between a lifeguard, a navigator, and a pack mule my kayakers were going to make or break my swim efforts. The kayaker acts serves a purpose of keeping me, the swimmer, out of trouble, provides assistance as needed, and gives the swimmer a point of reference. It takes a lot of energy to lift your head out of the water, sight a point on the coast, and correct your trajectory as needed. I was happy to offload this to the kayaker team!

Once they learned how to lead me, I was able to focus all of my energy on swimming efficiently. This is when I had my biggest breakthroughs in training and endurance ability. Not least because my kayakers kept showing up at my house at all sorts of ungodly hours though out the summer making sure I was in the water training!

Race Event Buddies

Swimming with a clock competing with one hundred people is very different from swimming by yourself or even in team trials. Luckily, several friends helped me out by entering half mile triathlon ‘tune up’ swims as well as other local mid distance (2 mile) swims. Swimming against other people in the madness of an open line start is unlike anything else I have ever tried. I am very happy I had a team to help me learn these critical skills.

My Race Team

My race team could be considered my 2 race day kayakers – Kevin who flew up to NY on his own dime and on his birthday no less – and my father. I am incredibly in their debt as you will read in the upcoming week when I complete my account of the Cross Bay Swim.

My team could also be considered those who came with me at the pre-dawn hours to the starting line to see me and the kayakers off and then meet up, cheering us on at the finish line.

My team could consist of my swim mentor and everyone who helped me train – I certainly believe it does. In reality, it took every training partner I have ever had to complete the swim. Each friend that ever went to the gym with me and told me to do ‘one more rep’ or to add a few more pounds to the bar. The friends that forbid me from quitting or slowing at anytime. And I’m eternally grateful.

Have you ever needed to enlist a team to achieve your goals?

Swimming with Sharks

26 foot shark heard I was coming to swim the week before the 2009 Cross Bay Swim, committed suicide.

Full Article

A map reference of the swim and the location of the shark.

Shark to Swim Map Reference
Shark to Swim Map Reference

“We’re going to need a bigger boat.”

For a video, check below.

Who’s the Guy in the Wetsuit?

There has been an interesting sighting reported on Lake Wylie this year. This is in addition to Tega Cay gators, imported Asian carp, giant catfish and marauding snakefish. Since the beginning of April early weekend risers and weekday post-commute boaters have reported seeing a dark object in the water adjacent to a blue 2 man kayak.

After 3 months of curious looks on shore and quizzical expressions from boaters and fishermen, I think introductions are in order. That dark object is a man in a wetsuit – me, and the kayakers my support team. Collectively we were training for the July 24th 5.25 mile Maggie Fischer Memorial Cross Bay Swim.

The Cross Bay Swim, held more-or-less annually on the south shore of Long Island, New York since the early 1900s, is an open-water race across a 5.25 mile stretch of the Great South Bay benefiting the Hospice Care Network Children’s and Family Bereavement Program. The race is named for a young area lifeguard who passed away shortly before being able to compete in the Cross Bay Swim. The competition is a testament to her compassion and memory.

The starting point of the swim is on Long Island’s famed Fire Island National Seashore barrier beaches, just steps away from the iconic lighthouse. The nearby Fire Island inlet will be at flood tide at the 7am starting gun, giving the mighty Atlantic Ocean a strong voice early in the competition. After tacking through shoals, support boats, and buoys, the swim ends at an indistinguishable spec on the horizon, Gilbert Park in Brightwaters.

Some of the competitors are past swimming champions. Others are family teams. Some competitors are very experienced having competed over decades. Others, like me are brand new to the sport.

Preparing and competing in the Cross Bay swim has been an incredible voyage. I look forward to sharing what went into the preparations, my observations, and lessons learned over the next several posts. Keep reading!