Janine Serell was the twelfth and final person to finish this year’s 17.5 mile swim from Manhattan to Sandy Hook, a challenge known as the Ederle Swim in honour of Gertrude Ederle who became the first woman to complete it in 1925, aged 18. This is her report.
The swim started with the usual, ‘hurry up and wait’ so that when we finally jumped in there was barely time to adjust my goggles and cap. Consequently, that cap would threaten to pop off constantly for the next 18 miles. You would think that with all the swimming I had done in the last five years I would have mastered all three of the complex pieces of equipment needed for the sport. I’m good with my basic Speedo tank, never have to tug on it or adjust it, and a fresh pair of TYR corrective lens goggles works every time. But those caps: in every open water swim they keep inching up off my head in the hope of escaping. Ah well, always something to improve on.
The start was a bit of a panic for me. I had two irrational fears going into this swim: (1) the Staten Island ferry would run me over or (2) one of those giant cargo ships would become un-moored and run me over. Either way I would wind up on the front page of the Post, something I have always tried to avoid. So the dash to Governors Island with the ferry heading in my direction made me sprint and my stroke rate surged to 70 per minute. That was my plan out the window – I was to start calm and steady.
The swim along Buttermilk Channel was lovely. I settled into a nice rhythm and saw lots of other swimmers and boats. I’ve been in those waters before and it was comfortable, like an old tee shirt, but when that was over it was time to swim to Staten Island. That swim across the channel seemed to have taken forever – in fact it was little more than an hour – but that was the only part of the day that was much longer than expected. I had never before wanted to go to Staten Island. Now, having finally arrived, I’m not sure I’m going back again.
I told Terry my super great kayaker that I wasn’t to have any cookies until I got to the Verrazano Bridge. So when we finally got there not only did we have a cookie but the entire boat crew joined us, thereby cementing the concept that we swim for cookies! From that point on I alternated feeds with cookies and mouthwash (to remove the taste of salt from my mouth). Terry had baked me some delicious cookies and attached a cookie monster to the front of the kayak. We were focused on swimming and fuelled by cookies and Hydra C5 (which I like to call it my yummy expensive sugar water). I don’t really know what’s in it but I’m never hungry when I drink it, it taste good even for seven hours, and my legs and toes have never cramped. In other words, it works!
Right after the bridge I finally caught some fast cold water and I rode the rails. Moving my little T-Rex arms as fast as I could, this was the funnest part of the swim. It lasted maybe 45 minutes and then the winds kicked up. I know those winds, they thwarted me six weeks earlier at 8 Bridges, so I put my head down and swam as best I could but my heart was sinking. I know my capabilities pretty well and it was already going to be tough goal to make the beach but if those winds lasted too long I was probably not going to beat the tide. Luckily I think the winds only lasted 45 minutes or so.
I borrowed a haiku from another swimmer to inspire me: “marathon strategy – just like a 50 – start fast, finish strong and don’t fall apart in between.” The back half of this swim was tough and I fell apart a little; my focus wandered. There are no fixed points to judge progress and I started to doubt I could finish before the tide turned, so I turned to that old faithful fall-back when there’s doubt, the rationalisation of failure. I’ll be happy I told myself as long as I swim longer and further than I ever have before, even if I don’t make the beach. It was a lie, of course. I wanted to succeed and to stand on the beach, even if I had to crawl up it.
Finally, at a feeding, I heard my sister Dana shout from the boat: “I see Jersey!”
OH YEAH, I thought. It’s still really far but its there at last.
I’ve been on this trip three times before as an observer. You see the beach long before you get there and the observers see it before the swimmers but I finally started to see it too. The turning point was my feeding at 2:30pm. During the briefing Morty Berger (the race director) had said the tide would turn around 4pm and it would be fairly abrupt, by which he meant once it turned I would have very little chance of finishing. So I swam harder than I ever have before. I had one hour to make the beach. I could live with not making it if I gave it my all. I never looked up and swam hard. My stroke rate went from 64 to 67 – not bad after five hours. I then had what would be my last feed and I asked Terry to not stop me again as we both thought I could make it. Head down, arms wind-milling, I swam till I saw shells and rocks below me. I finally looked up, I had arrived! I walked to the beach, cried with joy and relief, picked up a couple of shells, hugged Terry and swam back to the boat.
My time: 6:49:01
Things I thought about while swimming for seven hours
What’s the name of the pantone colour of the Atlantic, that subtle shade of green that’s so clear I can see the lines on the jellyfish as we pass by each other?
Why, after this many decades, do I still not know all the words to Thunder Road?
Mantras: some I came up with, others I borrowed, and some were given to me.
And the big question: why do I do this? Because it brings me joy, because I can actually do it, I love swimming in the open water, and overall the open water swim community is a welcoming happy group of grownups who still like to play.