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Crossing long island sound

Bruce Olinder shares a family open water swimming tale from Long Island Sound

Did you ever stand on the shore of a body of water, look over to another land mass and wonder if you could swim across? This happened to my brother-in-law, Bill Morrison, who looked from his house in Northville, New York across the Long Island Sound to Connecticut. Since the distance is about 20 miles, he had to find some others with the same vision. Strangely, he found five others, who were not only willing, but were all close relatives.
On August 6, 2011, the six swimmers swam a relay from Mattituck, New York, on Long Island to the lighthouse on Falkner Island, 17 miles across Long Island Sound in Madison, Connecticut. At 6 am on Saturday, all swimmers boarded the good ship “Joanie”, a 25′ fishing boat, which was piloted by Captain James with First Mate Brian. The ship slipped out of the Mattituck harbor as the sun rose over the sleepy estuary.
Bill Morrison (45), the first swimmer, entered the water from Mattituck Beach and swam north for 30 minutes as the other swimmers cheered him on. The conditions were ideal, a slight overcast, deterring sunburn, a very pleasant water temperature of 74 degrees, and a slight wind, creating moderate chop. Next, Bill’s wife, Laurie Olinder (52) jumped into the water and did a floating high five with Bill. Bill climbed back into the boat, and Laurie started her 30 minute leg. He was followed by Laurie’s brother, Bruce Olinder (60), his niece, Willy Somma (39), her father, Bob Somma (66), and his wife, Wendy Thaxter (64). Laurie had artistically prepared signs that announced 15 minutes left and 5 minutes left, so each swimmer could gauge his progress. The sign was held aloft, and amidst great cheering and encouragement, the message was sent to the swimmers. With the aid of a friendly tide, the progress was remarkable.
All family members were averaging 30 minute miles, a blistering pace! At mile six, each swimmer had swum one 30 minute leg, and then disaster struck! At 9:30am, Bill Morrison had just started his second leg, when Captain James discovered that the hydraulic steering mechanism on the outboard twin engine V6 “Joanie” was completely inoperative! As Bill continued to swim further and further from the boat, towards Connecticut, James and Brian muscled the engines and were able to pick up Bill. After much discussion of the paltry alternatives, the group was forced to return to the harbor and end the swim.
However, this was a family that was not to be deterred. With the wonderful cooperation of Captain James, another ship was secured, the 65′ Captain Bob IV. The new spacious ship included luxurious amenities such as a head! After motoring out 6 miles to the spot where the swim had been scuttled, the journey across the Sound was resumed. However, 3 hours had been lost, and it was a nervous race against time to reach the mainland before dark and before disabling fatigue.
The second leg brought new weather conditions. The sun came out and the wind died completely, so the water was as smooth as glass. This made swimming much easier and all the swimmers were able to get into a rhythm as they progressed to their hoped for destination: Hammonasset State Park in Madison, Connecticut. Doing open water swimming, 10 miles from the nearest land mass provides an entirely unique perspective on life. Since there is no visible shore, you get a real feeling of infinity. You don’t get closer to anything and you don’t get any further away, even though you are moving at a steady pace. It is a very calming feeling.

When our venture was described to others, the first question asked by 90% of the questioners was, aren’t you afraid of sharks? Despite this universal fear, it was the furthest concern from my mind. “Jaws” has captured an uncanny, elemental fear. However, the last confirmed shark attack on Long Island Sound was……………never!
With the aid of various navigation devices, including iPhones, an iPad, a GPS, a nautical chart, tracking on Apple Maps and MapMyRun, the slow advancement was followed. Between legs, much needed human fuel was provided by tuna fish sandwiches, PB&J, Gatorade, and crackers. Bob Somma ably fulfilled the task of keeping a sharp eye on the swimmers. In the vast ocean, it is very easy to lose track of where the swimmer is. Bob knew this very well, as he is a veteran of many long distance swims including relays circumnavigating Manhattan, crossing the English Channel and swimming from San Pedro to Catalina Island in Southern California. His contributions were much appreciated.
Somehow, miles 8 to 16 seemed to really drag. Why did New York look so close and Connecticut seem so far away? The swimmers looked so small in the immense ocean, and it felt like we were not getting closer at all.
As Willy swam her second leg, she let out a blood curdling scream, “Ahhhhkkkk, I saw a big red thing! A jellyfish!” Indeed, we had come across the home of the dreaded jellies. They were about 8 inches in diameter, hung down about 2 feet and were bright red, and were very scary looking. Luckily, there were no serious stingings, except when Wendy was climbing up the ladder to re-enter the boat and she was brazenly stung on the arms and shoulders. Fortunately, the sting quickly dissipated, and Wendy was fine.

The third leg brought about another totally different set of wind and water conditions. This time the wind picked up to 5 or 10 knots and the tide started going out to sea. Luckily, this was all in our favor, producing an amazing situation where the 2-3 foot swells pushed us in our intended direction and enabled us to effortlessly bodysurf the waves as we seemingly sped towards Connecticut. However, at about 5 pm, we started to worry.
We looked ahead at the perpetually far away land mass and determined that we had almost 6 miles to go to reach our destination and its beautiful sandy beach. Yes, we could make it, but we would be swimming in the dark and wouldn’t get home before midnight.
More importantly, we would miss our dinner reservations back in Mattituck, NY at the beautiful, harbor side Old Mill Inn, for our Victory Dinner. To our great fortune we looked ahead and saw a very small island with a lighthouse, which we determined to be Falkner Island. The lighthouse, we later found out, was built in 1804 and was commissioned by Thomas Jefferson. Maybe we could land at the island, we thought. After all, it is Connecticut, and we don’t need to make ourselves miserable. This family’s motivation is having fun, not a Type A goal achievement.

As we pondered the alternatives, Willy was in the water, and we tried to communicate our ever changing plans. We yelled, “Willy, swim left! No, Willy, swim right! No, Willy, stop there, we are having a meeting.” She must have thought we had totally lost it.
With our new plan, we approached Falkner with remarkable speed. It was Bill’s turn to make landfall and we used binoculars to determine the conditions of the landing. Was it inhabited? Was there a sandy beach? Was there any threatening flora or fauna? Bill seemed confident and powered through the final leg. The landing was all rock, but he managed to crawl ashore, stand upon a boulder and raise his arms in triumph as all those aboard ship cheered in celebration.
After a long voyage back to Mattituck on the slow moving Captain Bob IV, the exhausted party sailed into harbor and found the Old Mill Inn, which was conveniently located on the water, right next to where the ship was docked. The fancy, but air-conditioned interior dining room was rejected in favor of the steamy outside patio with plastic tables and intermittent rain.
A quick ordering brought beer, Bloody Mary’s, spicy mussels, linguine and clams, and hamburgers. As it began to rain, our wonderful waitress offered to seat us inside. We declined and she said, “Right, you’ve been in the water all day, so what’s a little rain?”