Swim Across the Long Island Sound
Saturday August 5, 2017
Marcia Cleveland 9 hours, 25 minutes; 1st solo finisher
Crew: My husband, Mark Green; Richard Clifford and Morris Finkelstein, both have been involved with my swimming for over 2 decades.
Boat & Crew: Sassy, Captain Ewan Mirylees (wife Mary),
1st Mate Charlie Watson (wife Masha)
Race Director: Liz Fry
I did it because I thought I could.
At the end of last summer, as my daughter, Julia, was getting ready to start college, I realized I would have time to work on some long-term goals. The Swim Across the Sound event was top of mind. It benefits the St. Vincent’s Medical Center Foundation, which is an organization that assists individuals with their specific needs as they battle cancer, and provides services such as cancer education, no-cost screening and prevention programs. To learn more about St. Vincent’s, visit https://give.stvincents.org/swimacrossthesound. I put together a training plan that would hopefully allow me to swim the 25 kilometers across the Long Island Sound from Port Jefferson, New York, to Bridgeport, Connecticut. I had 10 months to think/dwell/contemplate what touching that ladder would feel like and made every stroke along the way count.
As is my custom, I posted an aerial picture of the Sound on the bulletin board above my desk at home so I would see it on a regular basis, a reminder of why I was training at a high level again. That space had been empty for several years, while Julia was in High School. All my energies had been directed towards helping her to navigate passage through those tumultuous years, and being in Julia’s support boat as the high seas of a startling abusive high school community continually challenged her. This swim testified that we have moved forward because this is what we need to do.
The short story is I finished, in 9 hours, 25 minutes, as the first of eight solo swimmers; only 3 soloists would complete the full distance of this race due to the tough conditions. The full results can be viewed at https://give.stvincents.org/file/documents---swim-marathon/2017-SWIM-Across-the-Sound-Results.pdf
This link to St. Vincent’s Facebook page shows my finish if you scroll to August 5, 2017 at 5:29pm. https://www.facebook.com/St.VincentsSWIMAcrossTheSound/
Even better, Julia’s 6-person relay team, “Waves of Support,” in the Never Alone category, finished in 8:59; she had a ball. You can view a short video of her relay team here, posted on August 11, 2017 at 4:06am. https://www.facebook.com/marcy.macdonald/posts/10214663236003070
If the long version of the story is of interest to you, please read on. Otherwise, you can be done!
On the Monday before the race, my two children, Julia (19) & Sam (16) & I drove from Illinois to Connecticut. The car was packed with lots of race gear, most importantly, my suit, cap, and goggles. On Wednesday, I started putting everything together and my race bags were ready to go on Friday morning. We stayed with my mom, Carolyn, in Connecticut, and she saw how much the devil is in the details of preparation.
On Thursday night, we attended the swimmers meeting and dinner at the race headquarters. I saw several Connecticut Age Group Swimmers from the 1970s/80s over the weekend: Denise Callahan, Greg Sargent, Andy Davis, Marcy MacDonald, Beth MacDonald Collins, Liz Fry, Jim Bayles, and others; it is quite encouraging that several of us “oldsters” are still suiting up.
On Friday, Mark, Julia, Richard, and I stayed at the Holiday Inn, a five-minute walk from the ferry terminal. Saturday began early, because the ferry from Bridgeport, Connecticut to Port Jefferson, Long Island, New York would cast off precisely at 6am with all the race participants, their crews, the event staff, and a few NARPs.
The weather forecast on Saturday called for storms until about 10am then ok weather thereafter. The storm which followed us across the Sound looked as if it would deliver the apocalypse at any moment but everyone was like, “Yeah, let’s get it out of the way. Then we’ll have a clear day.” During this ferry passage, Julia told Mark, “I just saw lightning.” He replied, “Look the other way.”
Our rain-soaked arrival in Port Jefferson was greeted by live, energizing bagpipe music while we disembarked the ferry, then proceeded in an ant-like procession to Dansford Marina. We found our boat’s first mate, Charlie Watson holding our #3 banner, and we left much of the gear with him outside before going into the main ballroom at the Marina to wait out the weather. An hour or so later, the announcement came for the solos to start boarding their boats. A big difference here was the I didn’t immediately feel the bottom of my stomach drop out. I was ready for this and I wanted it.
Charlie led us to Sassy, and Captain Ewan Mirylees. This 20-foot sailboat somehow absorbed these two excellent seamen, my three crew, both Ewan’s and Charlie’s wives, all our race gear, and me. There wasn’t much room to move around but it worked. Soon we cast off towards the start, a short jaunt out of the harbor and around the corner to the beach. During this trip, the group effort to cover me with sunscreen, and perform all my other pre-race necessities (Vaseline on chafe points, hair pinned/tailed/&netted, ingest 1 Aleve & 1 gel) made the time fly by. Ewan maneuvered the boat about 20 yards from the shore, gave me the word to jump, and I was off the boat and swam towards the beach. Nora Toledano’s friend, Mariel Hawley, greeted me warmly on the beach as everyone wished one another a good swim. The countdown swiftly arrived and we eight solo swimmers were off.
I swam strongly from stroke number one. I felt great and knew how well-prepared I was for this swim. Over the past 10 months, I had retrained myself to swim for hours on end, one stroke at a time. I do not consider myself a “beast,” nor was I “crushing, killing, squeezing, pounding, or mashing it.” My goal was direct and simple: I was focused and motivated, executing the plan I set in motion months ago. This was my day to make the most of, if I chose to do so.
I was confident Sassywould find me as the pack headed out into the large flotilla waiting under very cloudy skies. Very soon, we were matched up and headed towards Connecticut. I had joked with one of the staff on the ferry on the way over that since I didn’t have the return fare, I’d be swimming back. Happens.
My first feeding was coming in an hour so the idea was for me as much distance covered in before the chow line started. I churned my arms at a pace I knew I could hold all day, 62 to 64 strokes a minute. Because there were several boats around, I didn’t know what position I was in, nor was I concerned because my primary goal was to finish. Everyone had a role on our team and mine was to swim alongside the boat. (This is Rule #1.) It was going to take as long as it was going to take. From the way I had been training and looking at the race results from previous years, I figured we would finish in the 8 to 8 ½ hour range. From the start, I wanted to get to cruising altitude quickly so I could get up and move about the cabin for the duration of the flight. This plan came off well.
Early on, I saw the lead boat with the flashing lights even with us; that’s always a good thing. I just kept powering through the water. The water was a bit choppy but Rule #1 applies. For having never swum alongside Sassybefore, we were an instant pair. Captain Ewan kept us together brilliantly all day, mostly positioning me between mid-boat and stern, like we discussed in the harbor before I jumped overboard. I never had to crane my neck up to see the boat. For this I am grateful.
The first hour seemed to take a long time. I told Mark and Morris that if I was ok, they could push the feedings longer, i.e. increase the span between feeds, and I figured they were doing that. I would only find out later that I was swimming against the current for nearly the entire race. Mother Nature has an unusual sense of humor and it is entirely up to her every single time. This past year, I have trained myself to under-predict the time, such as “It must have been only about 20 minutes,” when in fact it is probably longer than that. This has helped my ability to concentrate and delay gratification. Finally, I get the “2” sign from Mark indicating that I’ll get fed in 2 minutes. I increase my stroke rate a little before having my feed delivered via a well-thrown line containing a gel fastened to a stationery clip, a water bottle with 12 ounces of Endurox, and a water bottle with mint mouthwash which swishes away the salt water from my mouth at the conclusion of this banquet.
And so we continue like that for the next 8 hours: I swim, they throw the feed line down every 30 minutes, I take about a minute to eat, then we do it over again. Are you thinking, “Oh my God, I would be out of my mind with boredom!”? I never once was. My crew wrote the names of those who were interested in this swim, in BIG BOLD LETTERS on a white board, three names at a time, for me to read. Because I generally breathe every 3 strokes, I would chant these names, one for every arm stroke, over and over until the next three names came up. Since there were hundreds of names on this list, I had a steady stream all day.
Like a hawk, I watched everything happening on the boat, mainly Mark and Richard sitting on the deck at mid-boat and Captain Ewan steering. I could also see the brim of Morris’s hat the entire time since he was sitting astern so I knew I was being carefully watched and cared for, again, something for which I am grateful. This is so important to a swimmer in this situation.
The three-foot, choppy seas were rough but how rough, I would only know afterwards. Rule #1 applied at all times. I trusted my crew and boat captain to make decisions that would help me finish this swim and sometimes these decisions weren’t obvious at the time. Did I think I should be swimming in the lea of the boat, out of the wind so I would have slight shelter from the relentlessly rogue wave action? Not my decision. I reasoned there must have been a purpose that the captain positioned the boat this way so I saw this as an opportunity to swim in challenging waves. The less I stopped and chattered away, the faster we would get to the finish. I had to channel my inner Veruca Salt and swim. http://roalddahl.wikia.com/wiki/Veruca_Salt
For all I know, we could have been making a wide turn to head back to Long Island and I would have been none the wiser.
With these types of swims, unless I supplied my own boat pilot and boat, of which I possess neither, I don’t know the skill at which the former handles the latter on race day. I hope for the best and do all I can to communicate my wants and needs. It helps that my crew also knows what these wants and needs are, thus can advocate for me while I am otherwise occupied. This event, Swim Across the Sound, is extraordinary in its organization and competence, stemming from such a talented team, with each boat captain generously donating his/her services for the day to the event. They are all top-notch and participating for the right reason – to help each participant achieve their goal. Captain Ewan was a-m-a-z-i-n-g in his ability to read the tides, judge the conditions presented and make course adjustments during every single moment of the swim, properly position the boat, and discount what other boat pilots were recommending. Eventually, the Race Committee boat suggested they tie the race balloon to our boat because we were the boat the rest of the field was following. This course was not a straight line on Saturday August 5th2017, it arched to the west with the low tide then back again to the east when the high tide made a brief appearance towards the end of the swim.
In order to keep my mind on the task at hand, I went 3 feedings in a row without looking up at the land in front of us. This took a lot of discipline but then when I finally did look, I had gotten a little closer. I realized the current against me was strong when the white board sign said, “< 1 mile to the harbor” and it took nearly 45 minutes (or more!) to swim this “< 1 mile.” When we finally did get into the harbor and I was no longer battling a current, my stroke rate picked up and I felt strong, making me thankful that I had prepared as much as I did for this event.
What did I see in the water? In the beginning, the overcast skies cast the water in a dark, mossy green-colored hue. Later in the day, when I sun came out, the water was lighter. All day it was like looking into a serene forest, with various shades of the same trees. I saw a few clumps of seaweed and 2 small buoy markers. I’m not trying to disappoint you, but I wasn’t in a well-stocked aquarium at feeding time. Most swims are like this and not particularly dramatic from a visual perspective.
There was no marine life to see. In the first hour or two, a big, and probably lost, fish ran into me and bounced off fast. Fish and other creatures that live in the ocean are as interested in coming to the surface as we humans are walking along the sea bottom. There were clear, squishy baby jellyfish present just below the surface towards the last 1/3 of the swim These babies will turn into big stinging jellyfish in a few weeks. Nicely dodged a bullet on this one. I did feel lots of tiny little “prickly” things which I figured were pre-stinging jellies. I got a few stray tentacles down my suit which I washed out of my suit at the next feeding, but not after these squatters held their own dance party on my chest and stung me a bit. Happens.
The second half of the swim, when I was seemingly getting no closer to the land, I thought a lot about the beneficiary of this swim, St. Vincent’s Medical Center Foundation. Sure, I had a long swim, a little over 1/3 of a day, but I reminded myself that for the people who benefit from the care and support of St. Vincent’s, they were experiencing what I was going through about 3 times a day. And then they wake up tomorrow and do it all over again, and the next day, and on and on until they hopefully recover from their cancer. I never contemplated stopping once, telling myself, “Just keep swimming, just keep swimming. You’ll get there eventually.” I had a lot to be grateful for and nothing to complain about. “Yes, you can. Dig down deep. Just keep swimming…”
As the final stretch to the finish line approached, I savored the feeling of this accomplishment, and especially cherished touching the finish ladder. However, what was more important was helping to make a difference in the lives of many people afflicted with cancer. Thank you to all who have supported my swim.
Good luck to all future participants in this event! Please support the St. Vincent’s Medical Center Foundation!
Marcia Cleveland, August 13, 2017
GPS readings (Distance to Buoy 2A) at various times:
11:13 AM 7.60 miles
11:38 AM 6.94
1:55 PM 4.10
2:53 PM 3.13
3:28 PM 2.58
3:54 PM 2.10
4:52 PM 1.00
5:07 PM 0.70
5:16 PM 0.50