Open Water

Going the Extra 0.7 Mile

Seaweed and popsicle sticks in Rhode Island

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While I may not be the speediest of swimmers, I do have stamina. At the end of several mile-long swims in my four years of competing in open-water swimming, I’ve been convinced I could go further. And it wasn’t just the adrenalin talking.

I recently completed my longest swim ever and my first "crossing" - from Newport to Jamestown across Rhode Island's Narragansett Bay. It was a 1.7-mile swim, a fundraiser for the Save the Bay Foundation. I nearly went the extra mile.

It was a glorious morning, sunny and warm, and the water was cool enough so that I was comfortable in my full wetsuit. The Bay was salty and relatively clear, and my visibility extended beyond the end of my outstretched arms.

The organizers called this a swim, rather than a race, and the difference was evident from the confusion at the start to the rustic method – involving popsicle sticks – that they used to measure our time.

At the pre-race safety briefing, we were told that a horn would signal 5 minutes to the start. However, when the warning horn sounded, many of the swimmers took off immediately. I wasn’t in the water yet and was unaware that the race had unintentionally begun! I put on my swim cap, strolled down to the Bay’s edge, posed for a photo, and looked for the yellow line that was supposed to mark the starting point.

To my shock, nearly the entire first wave of swimmers in which I belonged had already departed. The false start by a few had created a domino effect.

By the time I reached the start, kayakers were lining the water for the second wave (the first wave was for individual swimmers without escorts). Soon after I heard another horn – and the second wave was off. Panic struck: What if I was to get whacked by one of those oars?

But soon I was ahead of most of the kayaks and I realized I would be fine. I finally turned my focus to actually swimming.

The crossing is alongside the Pell Bridge, which links Newport to Jamestown. The bridge – with its two arched towers evoking a much smaller Verrazano-Narrows Bridge – was to my left. It was a great measuring stick.

It seemed to take forever to reach the first arch. I was swimming alongside a red kayak that was supporting a swimmer four or five strokes behind me. It was handy having the kayaks around – I could use them as my sight and avoid lifting my head too often to spot my destination, which can result in lost time.

Just before the halfway point, we swam into huge patches of seaweed. This was heavy-duty, cord-like seaweed that appeared suddenly on the surface in huge clumps. One clump was so dense it prevented me from breathing to my side. I had to keep my head out of the water, so I tried to breast-stroke through it to no avail – it was too thick. The seaweed weighed on my legs as well. Another swimmer lifted his arm out of the water draped in the stuff, mirroring my own struggle.

We hit another patch a few meters ahead, resulting in more dog-paddling, but eventually we were in the clear.

With several hundred meters to go, I spotted the two large balloons marking the finish line. I wondered if I was within my target time of finishing in about one hour. Swimming times can vary greatly due to currents, but that had been my pace for a practice swim the previous weekend in Long Island, and I’d also done 3-kilometers in one hour in the pool recently (3K is longer than 1.7 miles, but I added the extra distance to compensate for pushing off the wall during turns, which helps cover ground).

At the finish, I passed through the two balloons, and this is where the popsicle sticks came in. I was given a stick with a number for my finishing position. After trudging through the shallow water toward the beach, I was told to hand the stick to another person who wrote my race number on it. With that information, and some timing device not visible to me, the organizers determined each swimmer’s time – down to the seconds. Assuming, of course, we’d all started together.

My husband Gregg timed my swim at about 1 hour and one minute. According to the popsicle stick method, my time was 1:03:44.