By Vladimir Brezina
In October 2010, Liz Fry swam in NYC Swim‘s Ederle Swim, a 17.5-mile tide-assisted swim through New York Harbor from Manhattan to Sandy Hook, New Jersey. Yet when she reached Sandy Hook, she wasn’t all that tired. As all the swimmers were getting onto their accompanying motor boats to return to Manhattan, Liz thought to herself, “Isn’t the tide soon going to turn back toward Manhattan again? Why don’t I just swim back?” And so in 2011 she did.
On June 14, 2011, Liz became the first person ever to complete a Two-Way Ederle Swim, the 35-mile swim from Manhattan to Sandy Hook and back again, in 11 hours, 5 minutes, and 7 seconds. And on top of that, she set new records for each direction. She made it from Manhattan to Sandy Hook in just 4 hours, 59 minutes, 6 seconds, beating her 2010 time and, by 7 minutes, the previous record of Tammy van Wisse of Australia. And she made it back in just 6 hours, 6 minutes, 1 second—also a record, and not a bad time for someone who had already completed a 17.5-mile swim!
I was one of the two kayakers who accompanied Liz as she completed this feat. Here’s the swim from a kayaker’s perspective:
Click on the track to open it in a new tab or window. The red arrows show the direction of the swim; the red numbers mark individual annotations; the blue arrows indicate tidal current directions.
2. The course was planned with an original start time of 9:15 a.m., when the East River was just beginning to ebb. But the start was postponed until 9:45 a.m. so that Liz will reach Sandy Hook ideally just when the ebb changes again to flood for her swim back. That postponement has two negative consequences, one of which now materializes.
The planned course would have Liz swim down the Buttermilk Channel, to the east of Governors Island. But to get round the northern tip of Governors Island into the Buttermilk Channel requires that Liz swim southeast—and after 9:45 a.m. the ebb current sweeping down the East River toward the southwest is simply too strong. Liz is increasingly swept westward. After a few agonizing minutes, we let the current have its way. (Just as well: persevering would have cost Liz a record, as it turned out.) We turn and Liz swims west of Governors Island instead. Soon Manhattan is small behind.
4. (~11:45 a.m.) After 2 hours, we are closing in on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge while diagonally crossing the channel from the Brooklyn side to the Staten Island side. The ebb current’s boiling, and we’re flying at 5 mph. From the support motor boat, the Together II, Morty Berger remarks on the radio, “That’s the fastest she’s going to be moving all day, right here.” (He was right).
5. South of the Narrows, we follow the western edge of Ambrose Channel. The strong ebb current continues, but is now directly opposed by a 10-knot southerly wind. Soon Liz is plunging through a washing machine of steep 3-foot wind-against-current seas. “This is not fun!”, she says at the next feeding.
6. (~1.45 p.m.) At the bend of the Ambrose Channel we diverge from it and its strong current and the washing machine calms down. (Unfortunately we also slow down.) After 4 hours, Liz passes Romer Shoal Light.
7. Although the steep wind-against-current seas are gone, south of Romer Shoal we begin to meet even larger waves, 3- to 4-foot swells rolling in from the open Atlantic.
The plan is for Liz to land on the eastern side of Sandy Hook. But off the tip of Sandy Hook, the flood current starts early, and its sets strongly westward. (Indeed, it is this current that built Sandy Hook.) This current is now carrying us increasingly westward as we approach the Sandy Hook shoreline—another consequence of the postponed start.
I look at my watch. The beach is close, but so is the record time that Liz has to break. It would take too long if she were to angle into the current to counteract its effect. So I allow her to be carried west while swimming directly for the beach. I hear no complaints on the radio from the Together II, so they’ve presumably made the same calculation. It’s down to the wire!
8. (2:44 p.m.) Sandy Hook!! Liz steps up on the beach after 4 hours, 59 minutes, and 6 seconds, breaking the Manhattan to Sandy Hook record, set in 2006 by Tammy van Wisse of Australia, by 7 minutes. I am so thrilled that I completely forget to take a picture, but a blurry record of the moment does exist:
But the harder swim back to Manhattan is still to come.
9. After a few minutes Liz starts swimming north. But now there is a price to be paid for Liz’s record: we are on the western side of Sandy Hook, where the flood current continues to carry us west, away from the more northward current of the Ambrose Channel that we really want to reach as soon as possible.
We do the best we can. Angling into the current, we aim for Romer Shoal Light, even though clearly the current will take us far to the west of it. At that angle, we are creeping along only at 1.5 mph—but if we gave in to the current completely, we would wash up on the south shore of Staten Island. No wonder I look glum in the picture! Liz can feel our slow progress, but does not complain. She swims steadily along, for what seem like endless hours: a job that needs to be done. After 7 hours in the 65-degree water, however, she requests a hot drink at the next feeding.
12. (~7:15 p.m.) I tell Liz Morty’s assessment: she can finish the swim in daylight, but only if she picks up the pace a bit. Otherwise the swim will end much more dangerously in darkness, which everyone is nervous about. I am thinking of an even worse thing: the current may turn against her, which could prevent her from completing the swim altogether. The current should not begin to ebb until 9:30 p.m. or so, but currents are fickle and it will be a close thing.
Liz requests a treat: a couple of Pepperidge Farm cookies. And immediately she begins swimming much more aggressively. We should have done this before! The current suddenly strengthens too, and we are moving at 4 mph. Tensions ease.
14. (~8:15 p.m.) A brief rain shower, then clearing over the Manhattan skyline that has been teasing us for an hour, growing ever so slowly larger.
We are now at Governors Island, but we are losing our flood current! Our second motor boat is sent to scout for current; it reports significant flood current still up the middle of the harbor. So we head out into the shipping channel. I am happy that we have two motor boats to watch for traffic in the gathering darkness. We turn on lights on our kayaks. The Together II gives us lighted goggles for Liz if she needs them.
15. (~8:45 p.m.) Liz swims the final crossing to the Battery in fine style—still swimming at 66 strokes per minute, she doesn’t seem tired at all ;-). It’s not yet completely dark, and in any case we are surrounded by the myriad lights of the city. When Liz looks up, this is probably what she sees:
Finally at 8:50 p.m. Liz swims into South Cove. The Together II joyously sounds its horn, but Liz keeps on swimming—straight into a log! She recoils and curses. We laugh and tell her she’s done.
16. If you were following Liz’s track live, you might have concluded that Liz then swam up the Hudson, and she was certainly capable of it! But you can’t believe everything that you see on the Internet. The entire GPS track is actually the track of my kayak, to which the SentryGPSid device was attached, and Sergio and I paddled up to Pier 40 after the swim…
So there you have it. Liz set three new records:
- Manhattan to Sandy Hook: 4:59:06
- Sandy Hook to Manhattan: 6:06:01
- Round-trip between Manhattan and Sandy Hook: 11:05:07
Now she tells me she is looking for new challenges.
A report of Liz’s swim in NYC Swim’s Cross Currents Newsletter is here.