A Post-Hurricane Swim Into the Record Books

By Vladimir Brezina

NYC Swim‘s premier long-distance swim, the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim, has become an institution in the world of long-distance swimming.  But its younger sibling, the Ederle Swim between Manhattan and Sandy Hook, New Jersey, is still growing, full of surprising twists and turns.

In October 2010, the top two finishers in the Ederle Swim were Lance Ogren and Liz Fry. This year, each of them went on to swim their own exclusive version of the Ederle Swim. In June 2011, Liz completed an unprecedented 35-mile double Ederle Swim from Manhattan to Sandy Hook and back. In an amazing swim, she set records not only for the overall course but for each of the two individual directions as well.

A few days ago, in August 2011, Lance set out to break the record—now Liz’s record—for the Manhattan to Sandy Hook direction.

I was one of the two kayakers accompanying Lance on his swim. Here are some photos and a brief account.

This is Lance’s track—or, more precisely, the track of one of the accompanying kayaks—generated in near-real time with a SentryGPSid system and displayed on the NYC Swim site.

Getting the kayaks ready at Pier 40 on the West Side of Manhattan. The embayment is full of floating trash left behind by Hurricane Irene…

The swim took place just three days after Hurricane Irene passed directly over New York City. The water was muddy brown with the silt being brought down the Hudson River by the runoff water. Of greater concern, however, were the rafts of floating trash, including large tree branches and logs, that we could see drifting through the embayment where we loaded the support motor boat and launched our kayaks. Swimming into a big log could certainly ruin a swimmer’s day!

Loading the main support motor boat, the “Together II”, at Pier 40. We have a film crew with us!

On the other hand, with a fast spring-tide ebb current accelerated still further by the powerful runoff, we anticipated a uniquely strong push down the harbor—ideal for breaking the record, and more!

Off the Battery, at the southern tip of Manhattan, Lance waited on the motor boat until the ebb had clearly started…

Lance and the crew chatting with supporters come to see him off at the Battery

While we wait, the NYPD comes over to find out what the **** is going on… We ended up with a police-boat escort all the way down the Upper Bay until well past the Verrazano Narrows…

Finally, Lance enters the water!

First strokes along the Battery wall

And then, it was time to swim!

… 3 … 2 … 1 … Go!!  (That’s Richard Clifford, the other kayaker, in the red boat.)

Lance powering down the Upper Bay

From the Battery, Lance swam around the west side of Governors Island, avoiding the Staten Island Ferry coming toward us, and then straight down the harbor between the barges anchored along the Bay Ridge Anchorage.

Manhattan and Brooklyn are left behind

Richard Clifford, the other kayaker, paddled close to Lance to direct him and feed him at intervals, while I went ahead to scout for debris in the water. Except when crossing a couple of eddy lines, there was mercifully little of it once we were in open water, and Lance said afterward that he never hit “anything big”.

Lance approaching the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge

After an hour and a half—which, with an ordinary current, would be a good time even for a kayaker!— we were closing in on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.  At the two-hour mark, we were well past it and into the Lower Bay. By my GPS, we were moving at over six knots at times!

Lance said afterward that the water temperature (around 75 degrees at the Battery that day) was “perfect” for him overall, but that it was uneven. There were patches of very warm water that made him lethargic, fortunately to be woken up by colder water suddenly welling up to the surface…

In the Lower Bay, with the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge now far behind…

Lance swimming past Romer Shoal Light

Our course took us along the western edge of Ambrose Channel (where, since there was little wind, Lance was spared the steep wind-against-current waves that Liz experienced during her double Ederle Swim two months before), and then just to the east of Romer Shoal Light.  And then Sandy Hook, not just the treetops but now even the beach, was in sight!

Sandy Hook beach is in sight!

“One mile to go!”, we told Lance. But there were still tricky currents to contend with. At that stage of the tidal cycle, not long past the height of the ebb at Sandy Hook, the current along the top of Sandy Hook sets strongly from west to east. And so, as Lance was swimming toward Sandy Hook, he was also being swept out to sea.

We could have (and, probably more than we did, should have) had Lance swim at a greater angle into the current to maintain a straighter overall line toward the beach. But there’s little to be gained from angling into the current when it exceeds a certain speed. It’s often better to cross the current as fast as possible, even if temporarily swept downstream, before working back upstream through the calmer water on the other side. (David Burch, in his book Fundamentals of Kayak Navigation, has a good discussion of the pros and cons of the two strategies, and how they depend on the relative current and paddling speeds, for kayakers. The same arguments apply to swimmers, just translated to slower speeds.)

So that’s what we did (although more by luck than by good judgment!). We crossed Sandy Hook Channel, the shipping channel along the top of Sandy Hook through which the eastward current was ripping at two knots, into the eddy beyond. Lance was then able to work his way west toward the beach of Sandy Hook, albeit already some distance south of the very tip.

Just a few hundred yards left to the beach. Go, Lance!!

Lance standing up on the beach at Sandy Hook

After what must have felt like the longest final mile ever, Lance finally emerged through the surf onto the beach of Sandy Hook. He had swum from Manhattan to Sandy Hook in 4 hours, 1 minute, and 7 seconds.

Liz Fry’s record, set just a couple of months before, was 4 hours, 59 minutes, 6 seconds. So Lance beat this time—as it was clear almost from the start of his swim that he would—decisively, by almost an hour.

We all get back on the motor boat for the ride back to Manhattan….

Leaving Sandy Hook behind

Just four hours to swim from Manhattan to Sandy Hook!! And this new record of Lance’s is likely to stand for a long time… To break it will take, in addition to a swimmer of Lance’s caliber, a similarly fast current, which on this day was due to a fortunate conjunction of astronomically fast current and hurricane runoff, circumstances unlikely to be repeated very often.  (Still, with the number of hurricanes predicted to increase with Global Warming… :-) )

So, one of the three records that Liz set in June 2011 is now gone… but she still has the other two.

As Richard Clifford remarked to me, he and I in our kayaks have also been trading these Ederle Swim records.  Richard was the kayaker with Tammy van Wisse in 2006 when she set the record that Liz then broke in June, when I was with her… Richard was with Lance and I was with Liz during the 2010 Ederle Swim, when they were the top two finishers and set records … and now both Richard and I were there to see Lance break one of Liz’s records in its turn… It’s not just the swimmers who have fun at these events!

All of my photos from the day are here. See also a blog post on the swim at The Daily News of Open Water Swimming.

8 responses to “A Post-Hurricane Swim Into the Record Books

  1. Another satellite image of the sediment being brought down by the Hudson River that day… (Thanks to Hannah Borgeson)

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  2. Correction: On measuring it again from the marine chart, the distance from the Battery to Sandy Hook along Lance’s course is about 14.3 nautical miles, or 16.4 land miles…

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  3. Wasn’t he worried about all the crap that was floating down the Hudson from sewage overflow?

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    • If this had been a regular swim for many participants, it would almost certainly have been canceled. As I understand it, Lance was warned about the problems—the large floating debris into which he could swim and injure himself, the muddy runoff, and the possible contamination of the water by sewage overflow—but chose to go ahead. He had been training for this swim for a long time and understandably did not want to quit. As it turned out, he did not swim into anything and remains healthy as far as I know. Sometimes you have to trust your luck… I think I would have made the same call :-)

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  4. The Daily has now produced a video about Lance’s swim—his story, his motivation for swimming, and some images from the swim itself:

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  5. Pingback: Ederle Swim 2011, Round Three | Wind Against Current

  6. Pingback: Ederle Swim 2013 | Wind Against Current

  7. Pingback: A Picture-Perfect Ederle Swim | Wind Against Current

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