After successfully completing the Rottnest Channel Swim in February I started looking for other swims to do this year; Rottnest was my “big” swim for the year, but I still wanted to look at doing something challenging to keep me focused on training through the summer.
After hearing good things about Swim the Suck last year it was quickly added to my calendar, however while it is only slightly shorter than Rottnest (10 miles versus 12 miles), as a current assisted river swim it is likely to be considerably easier than the Rottnest’s ocean conditions, so I was still hankering for something that would stretch me a little more.
The Boston Light Swim (BLS) was an interesting contender; it is a “shorter” swim at 8 miles but the typical water temperature for the swim is in the low 60’s and all of my long swims to date have been in the low 70’s, so training for a cooler swim would have been a great goal. The cutoff time (5 hours) is kind of tight for my speed, but after asking around on the Marathon Swimmers Forum (MSF) I was more confident I could make it and resolved to sign up for it. Unfortunately it turns out the BLS is extremely popular and has a very limited number of slots, it was booked out within 15 minutes of the registration link going live, so I was back to looking for a swim.
The MSF is a great resource for both hearing about and researching swims, and fellow forum member Jason Malick had posted on the MSF about a swim he was organizing for the first time this year, a 15 mile trip around Cape May (the tip of the Jersey Shore) that he’d dubbed the Cape Circumnavigation Challenge or C3 for short. Not long after I failed to get into BLS, Jason posted that there was only one slot left for C3 so I jumped on it.
This swim was in my comfort zone temperature wise, however as with Boston Light I was concerned with the cutoff time. In this case the C3 cutoff was 9 hours, and my Rottnest Channel swim of 12 miles was done in 9h 10m. I knew that the C3 swim was designed to take advantage of the tidal currents, however quantifying their effect on my ability to complete the swim is difficult when no one besides Jason had ever done the swim. Nonetheless after corresponding with Jason over email I was somewhat reassured that would be able to finish the swim. The only final wrinkle to getting prepared was discovering at the last minute that Jason was following the New York Swim rule of not allowing jammers as legal swim wear.
I’ve swum in jammers since shortly after I picked up swimming back in 2009; as a result I am a lovely pasty white color between my knees and waist. After picking up my first pair of swim briefs since high school and using them for my final long practice I quickly discovered that for me briefs are very uncomfortable around the legs and I really need to be more careful applying sunscreen to those now exposed pasty white portions of my legs. I went with Plan B and grabbed a square leg suit which was a bit more comfortable around my legs and resolved to be more diligent with the sunscreen application on the day of the race.
Jason had booked a large house on Cape May as an option for accommodation for swimmers who did not want to stay in hotels. As this seemed like a great opportunity to meet other swimmers I jumped at the opportunity. After arriving in Cape May on Friday afternoon I met up with my fellow housemates and after getting settled we walked the couple of blocks to the beach and had a quick swim. The water was delightfully warm (low 70’s) as advertised and the ocean looked lovely and flat, pretty much ideal conditions for a swim.
Jason had also organized for all swimmers and kayakers to go on an evening cruise – a commercial tourist operation that just happened to follow the path of the swim (with a slight pause for dolphin/whale/porpoise spotting). The course could roughly be divided into three sections – the canal/harbor (which actually constituted around half the distance), the Atlantic Ocean section from harbor to the corner with the Cape May lighthouse, and then the home stretch up the Delaware Bay side of the cape. Watching the currents in the canal/harbor section of the course was very reassuring and suggested that that section of the course would be as easy as advertised. It was also great to meet my kayaker and have a chat before the actual swim; I’d been given a heads up from another swimmer that my kayaker was very experienced with escorting swimmers which goes a long way to reducing stress on the swim.
The start/finish was on a small beach right near the canal inlet on the Delaware Bay side of the Cape, with the start timed to go a few hours before the end of the ebb tide, theoretically allowing the swimmers to ride the current through the canal, and then have neutral or favorable currents for the ocean legs back to the finish. We got out to the start around 5:45am, registered and loaded up the kayaks with our various supplies. As with Rottnest I neglected to factor in the possibility of wind at the start and was quite cold waiting, getting in the water at 7am for the start was in fact quite a relief.
The currents in the canal/harbor section of the course delivered as promised and I was positively whipped along at ~3 mile/hour pace. There were a few places where the water was so shallow that you could touch the bottom but swimming this first section was a pleasure and almost felt like cheating.
My kayaker and I cleared the harbor around the 3 hour mark and started down the second section of the course along the Atlantic Coast side of the cape. Because of the length of the harbor inlet we were quite far from the shore so there wasn’t a lot to look at, though on occasion I was able to recognize some of the larger buildings from the tour the evening before. The conditions here were quite choppy (unlike the calm conditions of the previous afternoon) and I was grateful for all the time I spent swimming in Aquatic Park in similar conditions. It felt like I was swimming slower in the chop, but the lack of close reference points made it hard to tell, looking at the GPS track after the fact shows we were still making good time.
Where the Atlantic and Delaware Bay coastlines of the Cape meet there is a feature called the “rips” that had been pointed out on cruise the night before. I have to confess I’d not paid too much attention to it at the time, but it turns the particular pattern of currents and geography there combine to form standing waves that run perpendicular to the shore line rather than parallel to it. At this point the kayakers were faced with the equivalent of doing a surf entry, and my kayaker wisely shot off to get into clear water as quickly as possible so he would not capsize. I switched to breast stroke so I could keep an eye on him and made it through the “rips” section ok. From a swimmers perspective it wasn’t particularly dangerous but it was definitely tricky for the kayakers and support boats. A number of swimmers who were making fine progress were pulled at that point by the local Coastguard who did not feel comfortable letting them and their kayakers navigate it.
For me the hardest part of any swim is the generally the 3rd quarter, I’m generally upbeat after making halfway but go into a little funk after realizing I have that same distance to go. Once I’m in the last quarter I get a “home stretch” bump and am generally pretty good to the finish. In this particular swim I was feeling the home stretch high after we cleared the “rips” and was looking forward to enjoying the rest of the swim. The ocean however had other things to say on the matter and I discovered I was swimming against the current for this section. In particular every time we got to a pier I felt like I was parked in one of those infinite pools – which given the event was sponsored by Endless Pools seemed like some cruel joke.
There were only a few miles to go, and I could actually see the inlet marking the finish line so I was not going to give in; it was a matter of knuckling down and just cranking it out. I avoided looking to the finish between feed breaks as on a previous swim I’d experienced the illusion of the end not appearing to move closer and it had been a bit of a morale killer. When I took my last feed break though and was able to see that the finish buoy was only half a mile away I was pretty happy as I finally knew I had the swim in the bag.
I ended up 10th out of the finishers in 7 hours 17 minutes and was very happy with the swim. In some ways I would say this was harder than Rottnest for me, despite being 2 hours shorter because of the choppy conditions on the ocean legs of the swim, though I may have been in better shape for Rottnest.
At least as much fun as actually doing the swim was the opportunity to meet many other swimmers, some of whom I knew from the Marathon Swimmers Forum. This was my first “big” event in the US, all my other major ocean swims had previously been in Australia so I had not met many other marathon swimmers over here other than those in San Francisco. It was great to put faces to names, make new friends and spend a lot of time talking about our shared passion.
Big thanks to my awesome kayaker David Logan who provided the right amount of encouragement and was great at sticking with me despite the challenging conditions. Thanks also to all the other volunteers who make events like this possible.
I’m very glad Jason decided to share this swim with the rest of the community through this event, and if he puts it on again (I hope he does) I would heartily recommend it.