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.
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!
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…
And then, it was time to swim!
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.
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”.
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…
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!
“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.
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.
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!