Sunday, October 19, 2014

Coney Island to Sandy Hook Test Swim with CIBBOWS, 10/18/2014

Preparing for the day at 5:30 am. I'm sharing a small selection of the day's photos here - visit my Flickr for more from the day (with a lot less words) 

I had an interesting adventure yesterday with some of the lovely folks at the Coney Island - Brighton Beach Open Water Swimmers (more commonly known as CIBBOWS). I've served as kayak support for a number of their races along the Coney Island shoreline and I always enjoy volunteering for them, so when I got a message saying that they were looking for kayakers for a special test swim from Coney Island to Sandy Hook, New Jersey, and it turned out that I didn't have anything else planned for the day, I said "Sure!"

When I started doing kayak support for swims (1999 or 2000, not sure exactly), most of the swims were along shorelines, with the biggest one being the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim, a 28.5 mile circumnavigation of Manhattan Island.  Over the last few years, the local swim organizers have been developing a number of new swims. A couple of them were based on historical swims; Rose Pitonof's 1911 swim from East 26th street to the Steeplechase Pier in Coney Island was commemorated in 2011 with the Rose Pitonof Swim, organized by Urban Swim and now an annual event, while the Manhattan Island Foundation's Ederle Swim honors Gertrude Ederle's 1925 achievement in becoming the first woman ever to swim the length of New York's Upper and Lower Harbors, breaking the standing record in the process (the following year she became the first woman to swim the English Channel).

Meanwhile, CIBBOWs continues to run their annual classics, Grimaldo's Mile, (named in honor of the understanding lifeguard who went to bat for the early CIBBOWS crew as they began regularly turning up for open-water swim training at Coney Island, arguing in favor of allowing them to swim outside of the jetties which the lifeguards had previously regarded as the de facto boundaries of the swimming area), and the Aquarium Triple Dip (one mile, five mile, and 10K races with a simultaneous start at the New York Aquarium), while actively developing new swims.

Interestingly, their public entrant in the "Big Swim" category, the Eight Bridges Swim, is not on their "home turf" at all but is rather a spectacular 120-mile seven-day swim down the Hudson, named after the eight bridges that mark each day's segment, beginning with the Rip Van Winkle Bridge in the Catskills and finishing at the Verrazano Narrows Bridge that marks the southern end of the upper NY Harbor. Still, they must stand by Grimaldo's Chair and look out across the lower harbor and say, "Wouldn't it be neat to swim...there?" The most obvious of those would be Breezy Point, which you're looking straight at when you stand on Brighton Beach and look south; it's temptingly close for an experienced open-water swimmer (5K), the currents are fairly straightforward, the point shelters the waters there, and although you are crossing a channel, it's primarily recreational traffic. The organizers deal with the safety issues by simply not making it a race, but a group swim for members; the number of swimmers is limited and swimmers must choose to join one of three "pods", slow, medium, or fast, with the pace of each pod set by the slowest swimmer and runaways returned to their pods by the jetskiers who form part of the safety escort.

Sandy Hook is the other of the two arms that embrace lower NY Harbor, and so naturally that's another tempting destination from Coney Island. It's a MUCH more complicated venture, though, and they still consider it a test swim, working out the kinks. This one, the swimmers are striking out for a destination that's over 10 kilometers away; on the Coney Island to Sandy Hook version that we did on Saturday, they travel across currents that can be flowing any direction from northeast to due south as the water runs out of the Upper Harbor, Raritan Bay, and Sandy Hook bay, all eventually funneling out of the five and a half mile wide mouth of NY Harbor. As the various flows run into each other and over various shoals and sandbars around Sandy Hook, chaotic wave conditions form (we managed to avoid the worst of them this year but if I heard the story right, last year as they crossed the Romer Shoal they got into some stuff that was so rough that the escort boats had to detour while the kayaks took the swimmers though), and before you even get to that of course you have to cross the Ambrose Channel, which feels a little bit like crossing the runway at JFK - big big craft coming in and out and they can't stop and they aren't going to go around you if you get in their way. All in all, when I first heard about this swim, I had reservations - that wasn't why I didn't go with last year's, I think I had a prior commitment, but it just sounded kind of scary.

The kayakers who have gone came back with stories of a challenging but well-run day, though, so this year I didn't hesitate when I got that email - for all the reasons I just gave, kayaking across the Lower Harbor is a pretty rare occurrence for all but the most ambitious, but it's also spectacular, and to have the chance to take swimmers across? The Manhattan Island Marathon Swim was always one of my favorites to volunteer for back when my boat was in Manhattan just because it's such a feat, and this had the same wow factor to it.

It was a hideously early start - five a.m., and as you can see from the first photo, it really was "oh-dark thirty" - but with the forecast for the day showing a small craft advisory with winds gusting to 25 kts, that actually worked out really well - we'd gone over and been brought back and were back on shore in Brooklyn long before things kicked up. The waves were pretty good-sized when we launched (I don't think I've ever done what I would quite consider a surf launch at Coney Island before but this time I did not turn down a helpful shove out) but either they settled down as the sun came up - or they just stopped seeming so big once I could see 'em. Also may have been a factor of getting used to the boat - clubmate Larry is another big fan of CIBBOWS and volunteers for them a lot (in fact when I was the kayak organizer for the Grimaldo's Mile this year he was a huge help), and sometimes lets me borrow one of his boats when Eri (another frequent CIBBOWS volunteer) isn't; Eri was in fact in on this one and was the one who told me they needed kayakers, but she was volunteering on one of the support boats this time as she's a less experienced paddler and this one needs some really solid skills, so Larry's spare boat was open for me, making the whole thing work. He has 2 Tchaikas, which are really nice little boats that put the lie to the common belief that a sea kayak under sixteen feet long can't keep up, great boat for a small to medium paddler. I'm pushing the limits of that boat at my size but it's worked well enough for me and I expected that that was what I would be paddling, but then Larry told me that one of the footpegs in his spare Tchaika was broken and how would I like to use his newly-acquired Epic 16 instead?

Sounded great except that one fairly good rule of thumb for kayakers is "Don't try a new boat for the first time for a long trip" - sometimes you'll run into a boat that just doesn't agree with your body type (I've only run into this once but that once, it was profound - the boat was the Anas Acuta - lovely lovely boat, beloved of many paddlers, but I got into one once and within five minutes my hip joints were screaming for mercy) - but given the choice between taking that gamble and dealing with a missing footpeg, I decided to take the gamble, figuring if worse came to absolute worst, I was sort of a spare kayaker for the relay team (they had me and Larry) and bailing out would be an option. Worked out fine, I would say it felt a bit less stable than my Romany, and it took me a little while to get accustomed to the steering (it's got a rudder that is meant to be used, I'm accustomed to ruddering on my surfski but it took a little while to get it through my head that I should steer with the rudder in a decked boat) - anyways, to get back to the point of things, getting settled in the new boat may also have been part of why the waves seemed bigger at first.

The swimmers started from the beach on Coney Island at 6:30 am - the sun was not up yet and the swimmers were wearing lightsticks, but you could barely tell them apart. I got in as close to shore as I could without getting involuntarily surfed back in - still really hard to see but I did manage to guess the right swimmer.

Larry and I were accompanying a three-person relay team - Phyllis was their starting swimmer. It was too early and a little too rough for my camera to focus but it looked pretty neat with Phyllis swimming along with her glowsticks past the Parachute Jump with dawn's early light finally coming up so...

Absolutely gorgeous sunrise, shortly after 7.

Phyllis stroking along smoothly, chasing Larry down the harbor

After an hour and twenty minutes during which Phyllis barely missed a stroke except to sip some water and liquid nutrients, Capri (Polar Bear Princess, the day's race organizer, and the relay team's boat volunteer) called on the radio to let me know that it was time for the switch. Phyllis swam over and boarded the Karen II, and then Spence, our second swimmer, jumped in and set to work. He's a big rangy guy and we moved on towards the Ambrose Channel (see the freighter in the distance?) at a good clip.

Not too long after that, I got a surprise call on the radio that a second swimmer was going to be joining us. It was Shara, who was slated to swim the third leg; it turned out that she had gotten terribly seasick on board the Karen II, the waves weren't crazy but they were enough to set a slow-moving boat to rocking heavily and it was too much for her. I guess she'd consulted with Capri and they decided that she might do better joining Spence in the water. 

Worked like a charm. Within a few minutes she felt well enough to take a few sips from the food bottle I still had from Phyllis. At this point I was VERY glad that the Epic 16 and I were getting along well - Shara is another strong swimmer but she just didn't have big rangy Spence's speed, so Larry took him and I stayed with her. It was actually particularly fun watching her because I think she's one of the happiest-looking swimmers I've ever seen. Don't know if she just has a naturally cheerful swimming face or if she was particularly happy to be off the boat -- could've been the latter because when Capri hailed me on the radio again ten minutes later to ask if she was ready to re-board, she grimaced and said "I don't EVER want to get back on that boat!" -- I relayed the message back and we were given permission to carry on. 

Capri did call her back on board about half an hour before her official start time, and I caught back up with Larry and Spence. Spence was doing an admirable job of closing the distance between himself and the solo swimmers out ahead of us, it wasn't a race but we were still having fun yelling "Go get those guys!" and Spence was having fun trying to catch 'em. We were closing in on the Ambrose Channel when he began to get too cold - I think he had maybe just a couple more minutes in his swim but his teeth were chattering and he decided it was time to get back on the boat. 

Shara was of course very happy to get back in as she'd gotten quite seasick again, and she was closing the distance to the Ambrose Channel quite nicely when, unfortunately for her, we saw three container ships heading north up the channel towards us. After a bit of discussion, the decision was made to pull all three of us onto the Karen II (she was an excellent swim support boat, being a dive boat with a big, sturdy, easy to negotiate swim ladder and a big open back deck with plenty of space for both kayaks) and motor across the channel. 

The loading needed to happen pretty fast; it was quite choppy here and being worried about having one of the steel-pipe rungs come down on Larry's lovely shiny red boat, I decided that instead of manuevering the boat to the ladder, I would just jump out nearby and swim to the ladder (our skipper cracked us up at this point, I told them what I was going to do, I said it was because I was worried about damaging the boat and without a pause he said "Oh, don't worry about my boat!" - the Karen II is a big sturdy vessel and a carbon fiber kayak was about as likely to do damage as an eggshell so we all started laughing and I said "It's Larry's boat I'm worried about!"). Larry followed with a little more elegance and then our captain put the boat in gear and we zipped on across the channel well in advance of the three big container ships. At this point Capri and the captain decided that as long as we were all on board, we would continue on to just past the Romer Shoal light, as the ebb was quite strong and we had already been carried pretty far down towards the mouth of the harbor - with this swim, the concern is being swept out into Atlantic, and we could see large breakers to the south that we definitely didn't want to get mixed up with. Our skipper was great, btw, been running dive boats for a long time (including a 6-year stint with the NYPD scuba division) and knows the Sandy Hook area very well. When we got into those areas I mentioned earlier where the currents get very confusing for one unfamiliar with the area, he gave Capri good clear directions and points of reference to relay to us. Really, really helpful!

Once we passed the lighthouse, we were ready to go again. I decided to jump into the water again to take care of, er, some personal business (there was a head on the boat but I was wearing a Farmer Jane and I was going to have to take off all of my gear and then put it all back on again and it was SO much easier to just jump back in the water) and just have them throw my boat in after me. Unfortunately in the process of scrambling back in, I managed to pull the wrist strap and float off of my camera, so I didn't take too many more pictures after that, but eventually I just couldn't resist the "god rays with swimmer and kayaker" shot. 

As we made the final approach to Sandy Hook, Shara started feeling bad about her teammates sitting on the boat waiting for her while she finished the swim, so she asked me to invite them to join her if they wanted to. Phyllis jumped in right away, Spence waited until we were a little closer, and then the three swam together most of the rest of the way.  

Phyllis had an arm that started to bother her and decided that close was good enough, but Shara and Spence swam on in to the beach together - a successful swim! 

I couldn't resist running off then and catching one of those lovely waves that were sweeping along diagonally to the shore - Epic 16 surfs very nicely - and then I made my way back to the boat for the ride back to Coney Island. Several of us adjourned to Tom's on the Coney Island boardwalk for lunch, and then Eri gave me a ride home - thank goodness for that, after a cheeseburger, fries, and a beer I could barely keep my eyes open there at Tom's and I just couldn't get home fast enough.
And again - repeating in case you missed it at the start - of COURSE I took more pictures than this, too many for a blog post. visit my Flickr album for the full set. 


Baydog said...

I am but a lowly worm, bound to the soil from which I come. Amazing feat by swimmers and paddlers alike.

bonnie said...

Especially the swimmers. They were amazing!