This 18-mile marathon swim started on Nantucket’s western end of Eel Point and the goal was to land at the Edgartown Lighthouse on Martha’s Vineyard. The swim was comfortable while we were in flat water that was protected by land, but things changed once we got out into the open ocean. That’s when the waves slapped me around and made the kayakers flip. We knew those conditions would come; the Nantucket Sound is really open ocean with tidal currents that are only partly predictable. The water temperatures fluctuated between 64 and 67 degrees. The current was crazy. Read on to learn all about the event. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
We swam 18 miles that day and, by my thinking, we came up short. For once, I swam TOO fast (We had a significant push from a tidal current in the early part of the day) and we made more progress to the west than we had expected. We had studied the tides for months, and knew that we would have a southward push for a couple of hours, that would be followed by an almost opposite northward push. It was the northward tidal current that would take us to our original goal that included the Cape Poge Lighthouse at the north end of Chappaquiddick Island.
We made great time and were right up against East Beach of Chappy. Given the waves and chop, we briefly amended our plans and decided to just land the swim there. Then, the southern current was much faster than we had predicted and, in addition to pushing us out to sea, it had caused a rip current between us and the landing beach. In a very level-headed way, the boat captains agreed that it would not be safe for the swimmer, the kayaks and even the motorboats to cross that rip. We all evaluated and discussed the realities and even discussed the possibility of me treading water for two hours waiting for the fair tide, but the safety first rule dictated that the swim was over. I touched the boat, climbed onto the boat, and it was done. We were 3/10 of a mile from the landing beach. In ordinary conditions, I can cover 0.3 miles in less than 400 swimming strokes.
English Channel Rules govern our sport. There are a number of requirements to be followed, but one of them is that a swim must begin and end on dry land. To comply with these rules, a swimmer must walk into the water, swim across unassisted, and walk out to “the land beyond the water.” I did not finish the Nantucket to Martha’s Vineyard swim to satisfy this rule, and despite all well-wishers to the contrary, one day I will walk to dry land. It didn’t happen last Wednesday, but I know it can be done.
The biggest challenge of this swim is navigation. Understanding the tidal currents and anticipating their impact on a slow-moving swimmer is the key to completing it. When it came to that navigational expertise we relied on Charlie , Edgartown Harbomaster, who knows the Nantucket Sound like the back of his hand. We also had the luxury of two on-water experts, each driving support boats on this swim. The first was a 32-foot Boston Whaler named Chill that belongs to Bernard Chiu (who also owns the Harbor View Hotel) that was captained by Spa Tharpe, longtime Vineyard Boat Captain. The second boat was a 25.5 foot Steiger Craft named Island Girl, belonging to and captained by Eamonn Solway, longtime Vineyard Boat Captain and EMT. In addition to being so knowledgeable, both Eamonn and Spa are just first-rate individuals, and scoring high on the good-guy-o-meter is critical when the team spends a long and stressful day together. Thanks to an old-fashioned ad in the Vineyard Gazette, we had our pick of boats and boat captains, and I am confident that we picked the best of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket.
Because of the slow speed, navigating a swimmer across this channel is different than motor boating across, so we also enlisted the invaluable aid of Dana Gaines. Dana is a world-class ocean kayaker on Martha’s Vineyard and has traversed the Nantucket Sound any number of times. Our logic was that Dana’s experience would be important because he has spent time at lower speeds than the motorboats had and, as a result, would be more in tune with the micro-currents and subtle vagaries of the route. Having Dana on the team as the navigator and tactician was a brilliant stroke of luck.
Sharks and Jellyfish
The Vineyard Sound is known for its wildlife and, we had spent some serious time planning for it. Prior to the swim, we couldn’t get away from all the people who wanted to talk about the jellyfish and the sharks. Some people were downright ugly about it, and there is no question that all of the chatter had an effect on my wife Susan’s mood. Our whole team is involved in research, speaking to experts, and the decision making.
For the sharks, our solution of choice is; e-Sharkforce. e-Sharkforce is a rechargeable device that deters sharks and attaches to your ankle with a Velcro strap. The technology is brilliant; it emits an electronic signal that is specifically tuned to disrupt the electrical signal that sharks use to find prey. Not only does e-Sharkforce “jam” that signal, it makes it unpleasant to the shark to be within 50 feet of the device. I have no interest in being even 50 feet from one of those killing machines, but we were strident about not harming the animals (we are in their environment, after all) and felt like it would give us time to get out of the water. We’ve used the e-Sharkforce in two of our swims now, Hawaii’s Ka’iwi Channel and the Nantucket Channel, and we love it.
Jellyfish are a different challenge. Jellyfish are one of the unavoidable bits of unpleasantness of marathon ocean swimming. Different types are in all oceans (there are some 200 species) and, as their prevalence in different places has changed as the oceans warm. Many swimmers I know grew up around the seashore and learned from early on to stay away from the little buggers; I was from the Midwest and never learned those lessons. Further, I didn’t realize until I was 53 years old that I was allergic to jellyfish stings. If you swim through the jellyfish’s living room, you’re going to be stung. The thing we could anticipate is the allergic reaction, so I take over-the-counter antihistamine pills for a few days before a swim and hope that this largely uncontrollable risk is addressed.
During our Nantucket to Martha’s Vineyard swim, I was stung the first time only 35 strokes after I started and took probably another 100 stings during the day. The jellyfish we encountered were very pretty, with pink helmets that were up to volleyball size, and nearly-invisible tentacles that stretch as far as ten feet. The feel of jellyfish stings vary by the body of water. The stings we had in the Nantucket Sound felt like sharp scrapes like you might get from one of those stiff wire pet brushes, and they lingered for several minutes before they gave way to an itchy feeling. The jellies in Tampa Bay were like an electrical shock, in Hawaii they were like little stabs, and the ones off California were just hot. There were times in the Nantucket Sound that felt like we were swimming through jellyfish soup as the wrapped around my arms, hit my chest and shoulders and, ultimately, parked on my forehead above my goggles. Jellyfish are tiresome, to be sure, but by later that evening all evidence of the stings were gone.
Teamwork Always Wins
Our entire team consisted of, from left to right, Eamonn Solway, Ali Murphy, Don Macdonald, Susan McConnell, Alley McConnell, Kate Himes, Spa Tharp, Gordy McConnell, Doug McConnell, Mack McConnell, Bennett Blakeman, and Dana Gaines.
Marathon swimming is the best team sport ever. Having just one swimmer may make it look like an individual sport, but nothing could be farther from the truth. Without a team – the RIGHT team, I would add – the swimmer couldn’t expect to make it to the starting line, let alone the finishing beach. The swimmer cedes control over decision-making and quite literally puts their life in the hands of the people on the escort boat, so the dynamics of that team are critically important. Susan McConnell is the CEO of these marathon swims and calls all the shots, all while she takes the best photos and videos in the world and tries to manage her emotions and worries over having a spouse in the water. We have been through some pretty gnarly situations during these swims, and she is amazing. From our very first conversation about swimming the English Channel, Susan had the idea of making our family into the team, and it was a stroke of brilliance. Not all of our kids have been available for all of our swims, but all of them are now experienced enough to be experts. Having that confidence relieves an enormous mental burden in the runup to one of these swims and, as a parent, having our family together on these projects is an incalculable gift.
For the Nantucket to Martha’s Vineyard swim, we had all of the kids but Billy. He had a pretty tight window based on work obligations, and when we postponed the swim from the 26th to the 28th, we lost him. We were all disappointed because Billy brings special gifts to the team. Taking up the slack were Gordy, Ashley, and Mack; there are just a million important jobs that all need to be done, correctly and on time. We also had social media guru Ali Murphy working on social media from the escort boat during the swim, and she did such a bang-up job. My nephew Brenten Blakeman was pulled along for his maiden voyage. His fresh perspectives on keeping the log book was brilliant, and will definitely be a strategy for the future. Kate Himes was on the team for the first time, and like every great rookie teammate she immediately tucked into the task flow, and will be a great go-to for future crew needs.
Let’s talk about kayakers. Having experienced ocean kayakers on a swim like this is irreplaceable, as they have a different perspective than the teammates on the motorboat. Don Macdonald has been an A Long Swim kayaking stalwart for all of our swims, and is a secret weapon of the highest order. Don is a very experienced marathon swimmer himself, and by applying that knowledge to being a kayak escort, he has become the best in the business. Don is always laser-focused on achieving the team’s goal, he is my great friend, and I completely trust him.
It was a wonderful luxury to have a second kayaker for this swim. I met Clif Wilson when we were nine-year olds at Camp Edwards in Wisconsin, and we have been good friends ever since. Clif is an adventurer of the highest order, and he has been on the A Long Swim team since our swim across the Catalina Channel in 2012. Part of Clif’s resume is that he was on the canoe expedition that reenacted the LaSalle II Expedition of the French explorer’s treck through the St. Lawrence River, the Great Lakes, the Missippi and New Orleans. 3,300 miles in 8 months. Clif is badass.
During the swim, Clif got the flip-the-kayak-over initiation over shortly after we left the starting beach, and was rock-solid the rest of the way. He was there for every stroke, and has a good instinct of how to deal with the swimmer. Experienced open ocean kayakers know that at various times they need to cheer, coach, scold, fib and just relay information. I need Clif.
Enormous Help From Our Friends
We’re supposed to call them sponsors, but they’ve become more than that. The Vineyard Gazette, Martha’s Vineyard’s award-winning broadsheet newspaper, was all in with coverage before, during and after the event in the way they can produce. (More on their involvement is below.)
The beautiful and historic Harbor View Hotel jumped on board in so many ways. Owner Bernard Chiu was all in from the beginning and offered his newly renovated hotel as the meeting place for those celebrating the swim throughout the day and then for the following Landing Party and Press Release. Bernard also donated his 32-foot Boston Whaler named Chill for the event. And then to top it all off, Bernard and his family made a significant donation to ALS Research. Who would have known that a hotel could have a personality. The whole staff, along with guests and supporters, met us as we walked up the hill from the Edgartown Lighthouse. (There will be a landing party in Barrington, Illinois and that is soon to be announced.)
Coverage and Fundraising
For the first time ever, we had a news reporter on the A Long Swim team. Will Sennott of the Vineyard Gazette jumped at the idea. He is fresh out of journalism school at UMass, though I doubt that an assignment like this one was part of the curriculum there. Will is a first-rate young man, and it was great fun to have him aboard.
After the swim Will was highlighted on NPR:
I think he experienced this adventure to the fullest and he wrote an extensive article in the Martha’s Vineyard Gazette which you can read here.
As Will mentions in his piece, A Long Swim is all about raising money for ALS research. We believe that using a niche sport like open water and marathon-distance swimming to support a niche disease is a creative way to bring awareness and funding, and our aspirations were met once again. Ocean swimming will never be called a spectator sport, but the excitement of open water swimming when combined with social media gave us a tremendous opportunity.
While we still have donations coming in, we think we raised over $100,000 for ALS research with this swim. What was different with this swim was that we worked with a community in what is our 2nd home, Martha’s Vineyard. Never before has a community embraced one of our swims like this one. I wish I could describe the excitement we felt as we stepped off our boats one by one and heard the cheers from the front porch of the Harbor View Hotel. I was humbled as we all walked up onto the porch and were met by a throng of supporters and donors which was followed by a Landing Party and Press Conference. The complete press conference may be seen on the A Long Swim Facebook page here.
Wait Until Next Year
And speaking of opportunity, the fact that we didn’t land this swim according to English Channel rules, which requires that a swim start on dry land and end on dry land, opens a door for us to go back and try it again. Our swim will be considered our practice run for a 2020 attempt. We all learned a lot and can apply that to be smarter and more effective the next time, all while we bring more swimmers, supporters, donors, and awareness to ALS. While so many marathon swims have been “claimed,” this one was just waiting for someone to figure it out … by A Long Swim.
Another thing we proved is that a Nantucket to Martha’s Vineyard swim can gain a lot of notice and notoriety, which makes it a perfect opportunity for corporate sponsors. Keep that thought, as we will be fleshing out some ideas on that score in the coming months.
I’ll close by reminding you of why we swim and when we’ll stop. We swim to raise funds and awareness for ALS Research. We won’t stop until, one day, we will be met on the beach by an ALS survivor. #TheCureIsOutThere
All the best,
Below are photos of the article in the Martha’s Vineyard Gazette.