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My First Solo Marathon Swim

Lessons learned from a great Cape Cod swim

Laura Jones | October 17, 2012

One of the best parts of organizing your own swim is that the start is a low-key affair. No one is sprinting. There are no bullhorns. You just walk into the water when you’re good and ready. Sure, there is a bit more planning involved than when you sign up for someone else’s event, but that planning can be great fun.

Cape Cod to Martha’s Vineyard

The morning of July 11, 2012 was clear and calm, and we could barely see Martha’s Vineyard on the horizon. The island looked like a single brushstroke of green on the blue water.

“Are you the ones swimming to Martha’s Vineyard?” asked a wide-eyed teenage lifeguard.

“Yes. Me and my husband,” I said, pointing to Rob.

“Wow,” he said, a huge grin on his face. “Good luck!”

There is just nothing like impressing a teenager with braces to make your 47-year-old self feel cool. And, to paraphrase the old adage, if you feel cool, you swim cool.

Swimming the 6.4 miles from Falmouth on Cape Cod to Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard took hold of Rob’s imagination last year. Being at my core a 5-year-old who never wants to be left out, I said “Me, too!” So we started planning.

The area we were going to cross—a patch of water where the Vineyard and Nantucket Sounds meet in a big swirling mess— was known for currents of up to 4 knots, shallow shoals that could kick up big waves, and lots of boat traffic. The key would be to pick a good couple of days based on the tides and currents and hope for good weather in that window. Otherwise, we would be pushed either to Providence or into the great white sharks hanging out with the seals in Chatham. We also needed experienced escort boat captains and kayakers, as well as a place to stay and a Coast Guard permit and a feeding system. Getting all those items in place turned into a second hobby. It was made even more complicated by the fact we live 600 miles away and, since Rob is substantially faster, that our swim would be two solo swims and we would need two of everything.

Through a Cape Cod kayaking forum, I found our kayakers. Thanks to marathon swimming veteran Lynne Cox and an old family friend of Rob’s, we found our boat captains. We had an official team, and everyone seemed excited if also a bit skeptical about the adventure. They all encouraged us to get a copy of "Eldridge’s Tide Book," which is the most valuable book ever made. Or it was for us. From it, we learned the difference between spring and neap and ebb and flood tides and were able to pick a good week when the brief slack tide would be at a civilized hour and the maximum cross current would only be two knots.

So by the time we got to the beach on July 11, the hard part was over, and the swim itself was magical. The water was 74 degrees and felt so friendly. Our crew functioned flawlessly, kept us safe, and cheered us on. Jellyfish were our only issue, and even they weren’t too bad, although at one point I kept thinking I had one in my suit. The perfect conditions lasted until the last hour when the wind kicked up and the current seemed determined to keep me away from shore. Even then it felt more like a dance than a battle.

Top 10 Things I Learned

This swim taught me so much about life and love and limits and people. But that stuff is too sappy to share. Here are 10 pieces of semi-practical advice, plus one extra, that I hope will help anyone considering their first marathon swim:

  1. Know the water, how it moves and what’s in it.
  2. Neap tides are your friend. Spring tides are not.
  3. Get good people to help; be creative as you search for them (use the USMS Forums), and be willing to pay something, even if it is just beer or dinner.
  4. Get a Coast Guard permit.
  5. Boats are scarier than sharks.
  6. You will have overwhelming feelings of gratitude for your crew in the middle of the swim and for weeks afterwards. You will love them more than your family. It’s okay.
  7. Make your own luck.
  8. Get lucky.
  9. Half orange-flavored HEED and half orange-flavored Gatorade goes down pretty easy.
  10. Learn how to pee when you are treading water.
  11. Round up some children to watch you start. They don’t know these swims are done all the time and they will make you feel like a rockstar.

Another Awesome Cape Cod Swim: Plymouth to Provincetown

On August 21, USMS swimmers Janet HarrisDave Barra, Greg O’Connor and Eileen Burke crossed the Cape Cod Bay from Plymouth to Provincetown, an amazing jaunt of 20 miles. They apparently had lovely conditions, too. Harris wrote a terrific three part piece on the USMS forums about her experience. It should be required reading for all open water swimmers trying to go a little longer.

USMS Wave Seperator

About the Author—Laura Jones

Laura S. Jones, a lawyer by training, has written about sports, health, and science for a variety of publications since 2001. She's also the author of a short story collection, "Breaking and Entering," published in 2011. Jones is an avid, although not speedy, open water swimmer and particularly enjoys 5K and 10K ocean swims with her much faster husband, Rob. She'll occasionally humble herself with a 400IM or 500 free in a pool meet, and a triathlon or two.

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