By Johna Till Johnson
Photos by Vladimir Brezina
Maybe the magic was in the pasta.
This year, Vlad and I signed up to provide kayak support for the Ederle Swim, a 17.5-mile open-water swim from Manhattan to Sandy Hook, New Jersey. Vlad has done it several times, but this was my first time accompanying swimmers to Sandy Hook (though we’ve paddled there many times).
We’d each been assigned a swimmer, and the day before the swim, the organizers, NYC Swim, sent us the swimmers’ email addresses. So I reached out to “my” swimmer, Andrea Varalli, mentioned that I’d done the paddle many times, and offered what advice I could, including the detailed blogs Vlad has posted on Wind Against Current about his previous Ederle Swims (here, here, here, and here).
Next thing I knew, Vlad and I agreed to meet Andrea and his support team for dinner at a “real Italian restaurant” (as Andrea called it), Piacere. (Pleasure, in Italian.) We had guessed (correctly as it turned out) that Andrea was “real Italian”—not merely of Italian descent. So the “real Italian” restaurant was sure to be a treat!
And it was. I’m used to the ritual pre-race pasta dinner, but this one was special: Andrea and his wife, along with his motor boat support team, his other kayaker (and triathlete) Jim, and Vlad and me. And wonderful pasta, pizza, and grilled octopus—Piacere is one NYC restaurant that truly lives up to its name, Pleasure. Plus several bottles of excellent wine—Andrea apparently didn’t buy into the “no pre-race alcohol” orthodoxy.
It was a lovely dinner, and we hashed out the finer details of the swim support process. Having two kayaks made it easier: Jim would handle the feeding, and I’d tackle navigation and timing for catching the currents.
Currents are particularly important in this swim. Even though the route is fairly tightly dictated by the organizers, a distance of a few yards one way or another can add as much as a knot of favorable current—and shave minutes off the swimmer’s time. (Vlad has done a thorough job analyzing and describing the currents in his previous blog posts.)
There are three places where the currents get particularly tricky: At the very beginning, crossing from the Battery to Governors Island; then at the Verrazano Narrows; and finally at the very end, when the current can turn against late-arriving swimmers and keep them from finishing. Andrea had run into problems the year before—he’d made it almost to the end, but wasn’t quite able to finish. Jim and I were determined to do what we could to keep that from happening again!
The next morning, bright and early, Vlad and I arrived at Pier 40 to make the short paddle down to North Cove, where everyone was checking in. This year, the race was to start at 9:15 AM, so we aimed to be at North Cove around 7:30 AM.
As we paddled into North Cove, I caught sight of a cluster of swimmers, already stripped down to their swimsuits. I couldn’t see Andrea, but I did notice a well-built man with great posture. He turned out to be Vlad’s swimmer, Michael Miller, a very experienced swimmer who had completed the Ederle Swim before—as well as the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim, the Catalina Channel, the English Channel… As soon as we landed, we checked in, and Vlad went over to talk to Michael (who also had a second kayaker, Larry).
I found Andrea and wished him luck, then caught up with Jim to confirm the details we’d discussed the night before. After a quick paddlers’ briefing, we were back on the water, en route to the start of the swim at the Battery.
Both Michael and Andrea were in the same “wave” (in fact, they had adjacent numbers, 6 and 7). Because they were both expected to finish well, they were in a late wave—which meant that they had to wait for a while at the start on the swimmers’ boat.
Vlad and I paddled around and took photographs. Then, at 9:35 AM—just as scheduled—our wave of swimmers plunged into the water, and we were off!
Andrea immediately launched into a measured cadence of strokes, and Jim and I fell into line beside him. Things were going well already!
Michael had a slower start; I later learned he was struggling with his goggles for the first several minutes. So by the time we got ourselves organized, Vlad and Michael were behind us.
The first tricky part of the course is right at the beginning, crossing from the Battery around the corner of Governors Island into the Buttermilk Channel. The swim is timed to start in the last minutes of the flood current in the East River, which will help the swimmers into the Buttermilk Channel before the strong ebb down the harbor starts. But if the swim starts late, the ebb current is already running and may be strong enough to keep the swimmers from making it into the Buttermilk Channel. (That has happened at least once before.)
This time, everything went perfectly. The current was more or less slack, and our swimmers made it to Governors Island without a hitch. As we turned and went down the Buttermilk Channel, Vlad and Michael passed us (goggle issues resolved).
We settled in for the long stretch down to the Verrazano Narrows. We couldn’t have asked for more perfect weather: Bright sunshine, a gentle breeze, but strikingly cool for New York in August.
It seemed like a few minutes, but in reality it was about two hours, before we arrived at the Narrows—the second tricky part of the course. The swimmers have to cross the major shipping artery, the Ambrose Channel, at some point. But where, exactly, depends on current, conditions, and timing.
There are two main risks to crossing the channel. The first is traffic: Container ships and other commercial vessels must remain in the channel, and they can’t stop or slow down for swimmers. So you have to time your crossing carefully to avoid them.
Having crossed, the second risk is then being swept too far west into the backwater around the Hoffman and Swinburne Islands, out of the main ebb current. This can slow the swimmer down so much that he or she arrives at Sandy Hook when the current there is already starting to flood—which means, in turn, that the swimmer might not be able to finish. This has happened in previous races. Would it happen to us?
The course called for us to cross the Narrows just north of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. Then we’d proceed down the western edge of the Ambrose Channel, close enough to catch the strongest ebb current while staying out of the channel proper. Hopefully this would give us plenty of momentum—and indeed it did.
We made it across the Narrows without incident. Ahead in the distance, Jim and I could see Vlad’s yellow hat. We carefully followed the route we’d mapped out, adjusting occasionally to make sure we had the strongest current with us, and using Vlad’s position as a validation: Wherever possible, we tried to follow the route he’d taken.
Slowly, slowly, the Sandy Hook shoreline glimmered into view. We were now over three hours into the swim. Andrea still maintained the measured cadence he’d started with: stroke, stroke, stroke, breathe; stroke, stroke, stroke, breathe..
But the hardest part of the entire swim was coming up next: The last few miles. Just past the West Bank Lighthouse, we departed from the Ambrose Channel and headed straight for Sandy Hook. Immediately, the ebb current diminished to a trickle, and no longer provided the swimmers with much help.
And ahead of us, in the Sandy Hook Channel that runs across the tip of Sandy Hook, the flood current would soon be starting. Approaching Sandy Hook, the swimmers would then be swimming against the current—or more accurately, would be pushed westward by it.
That was the third tricky part of the course, and it was the toughest. Every year, some swimmers had made it almost to the end, but found themselves fighting a current that was simply too strong for them to get to shore. That turned an almost-perfect swim into DNF and disappointment. That very thing had happened to Andrea the year before—he made it almost to the end, then couldn’t go on. Not a scenario we wanted to repeat!
So far, though, we were doing fine. The sea ahead of us was dotted with swimmers, boats, and kayaks (with Vlad’s yellow hat still visible). And beyond, the golden strip of Sandy Hook beach glowed.
I’d been listening to the race organizers over the marine radio. Now their voices crackled more purposefully, as they instructed the swim support teams to announce as their swimmers approached land.
Around 2:45 PM, the first swimmers started to land. The radio buzzed with excited voices: “Swimmer is 200 yards from shore… 75 yards from shore… Swimmer has landed!!”
We were close—so close! The beach seemed like it was just a minute or two away. But looks can be deceiving—I knew from experience how long it takes to reach that beach, even when it seems you can just stretch out your arm and touch it.
Vlad and Michael were getting closer.
I listened for them on the radio. And then I heard it: “Swimmer 6 is 200 yards from shore… 75 yards from shore… Swimmer 6 has landed!” Off in the distance, I could see a tiny figure standing up on the beach.
I was thrilled for Michael, and Vlad. But we had to focus. The current against us had already picked up, and Andrea was being swept sideways. (He later told us he could see the sea bottom sweeping sideways under him.)
“Dai! Dai! Dai!” we shouted (an untranslateable Italian word that in this context means, Go, Go, Go!)
And then it was our turn: “Swimmer 7 is 200 yards from shore… 75 yards…” I could see Vlad paddling along the shore, hoping to intercept us at the climactic moment.
Then, almost unbelievably, Andrea was on his feet among the waves. “Swimmer 7 has landed!!”
He stood up on the beach and turned around.
We cheered. He’d made it!
* * * * *
Then it was time to head back to Manhattan for the post-swim feast. Normally the kayaks are transported back on the motor boats, but Vlad and I had elected to paddle back—it was such a perfect day, and the starting flood current was ideal for the return trip.
So we congratulated our swimmers once more, said goodbye, and started on the paddle back.
We had a helpful southerly tailwind. There was a light chop, here and there a few surfable waves, and the air was cool and pleasant in the afternoon sunshine. Perfect conditions!
The perfection held the whole way back. We saw the Sunday-afternoon cruise ships pass by, and several container ships. And just as the sun was setting, we arrived back at the Statue of Liberty, framed by sailboats.
We pulled into Pier 40 at dusk, tired and happy. The swim had gone perfectly. Our swimmers had finished (with excellent times!) and we’d had wonderful conditions. All in all, it was a picture-perfect day.
It must have been the pasta!
Here are Vlad’s photos, and some of mine, from the day. The approximate locations of the photos taken during the swim itself are marked on the GPS track shown earlier. Click on any photo to start a slideshow.
Even more photos are here.