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Double the Fun in Boston Harbor

by Laura S. Jones, Staff Writer

Swimmers know Boston is about more than marathons, chowder and the Red Sox. It’s also about the Boston Light Swim. And if the efforts of Elaine Kornbau Howley and Greg O’Connor pay off, swimming the Boston Light Double will soon be one of the great marathon swims in the country.

On Thursday, August 12, 2010, Howley, 32, of Waltham, Mass., and O’Connor, 42, of Natick, Mass., launched their plan to increase participation in New England open water swimming by smashing a 41-year-old record for the fastest 16 mile double crossing of the Boston Harbor. The swim was only the second time a woman completed the course and the first ever tandem solo swim in Boston Harbor. U. S. Masters Swimming officially sanctioned the event. Fred Knight, a long-time veteran of the annual eight-mile “single crossing” Boston Light event, acted as observer of the record-breaking swim and certified that all Channel Rules were followed, which means that the swimmers did not wear wetsuits and did not make contact with any support vessel.

O’Connor and Howley swam from the mainland out to the Boston Lighthouse on Little Brewster Island where they got out onto dry sand in accordance with Channel rules for double crossings and spoke to the lighthouse keeper. Then it was back to South Boston for a total time of 7 hours 7 minutes and 48 seconds, demolishing the previous record of 2 hours and 23 minutes set by local open water swimming legend James Doty on September 22, 1969.

Both swimmers are members of New England Masters. O’Connor is race director for the Boston Light Swim, held annually in August, and Howley is also involved in organizing that race. Additionally, Howley is a Triple Crown finisher (Catalina Channel, English Channel, and around Manhattan Island) and a contributing writer for SWIMMER magazine. O’Connor began his open water career with the Great Chesapeake Bay Swim several years ago, then quickly graduated to Key West and the Kingdom Swim in Northern Vermont and completed the Catalina Channel on September 29th.

The problem facing New England open water swimming’s efforts to grow, Howley says, is that the Boston Light Swim, the region’s premier event, has to turn swimmers away who want to do the eight mile race because the venue can only accommodate about 25 solo swimmers and ten relays. So “we wanted to expand access and awareness. We want to develop an organization for the Boston Harbor like the Catalina Channel has. We want to help swimmers and provide access to good pilots.” The bonus, she says, is that “we like to do these things too!”

O’Connor agreed, saying that they decided to do this swim with the “intention of growing New England open water swimming and expanding the type of races the Boston Light organization offers. But we had to test it out before the organization offered it as a sanctioned solo swim.” Howley adds: “We were the guinea pigs on this one." As for preparation, Howley says that she is always in a “state of training” but that she averaged 20,000 – 40,000 yards a week in preparation for the swim. Next summer she is hoping to do a swim around Long Beach Island in New Jersey, which is 44 miles. O’Connor put in similar yardage and trains primarily in a lake west of Boston with some other open water swimmers, avoiding the pool as much as he can in the warm months.

O’Connor and Howley began their historic swim from the beach in South Boston in 59 degree water at about 3:45 a.m. in clear and calm conditions on Thursday, August 12th. They planned the start time to capitalize on the favorable outgoing tide on the way out to the lighthouse and then the incoming tide on the return leg. They swam next to each other the whole time, about 10 – 15 yards apart. “And it was just magic out there,” says Howley. “It was like a giant pool; the harbor was so flat. We had such an awesome time.” O’Connor agrees: “The conditions were ideal; the water was fast and flat.”

There were high and low points for each swimmer, as there is in any event of this type. “I got grease on the inside of my goggles – such a rookie mistake. And the first hour in the dark was a little dicey as we had to figure out where each other was,” Howley explains, but things quickly found a rhythm. For O’Connor, “the water was very dark when we got in, and it got colder as we got to the lighthouse. I couldn’t stop shivering when I got out, but on the way back in we hit warmer patches. I commented to the observer that it felt like bathwater. He took the temperature and came back and said it was 64 degrees.” O’Connor’s favorite part of the swim was sunrise. This was the first swim he had done that began in the dark. “I spent a good five minutes swimming with my head up watching the orange ball that was the sun rise over the islands.” “And when we finished,” Howley said chuckling at the memory, “there were a bunch of patrons on the beach and a guy asked us what we did. We told him, and he looked at us like we had three heads each.”

O’Connor got hooked on the Boston Light swim because he loved the venue so much. “You pass seven islands and they act as your markers instead of buoys so it’s just beautiful.” Then, as he explains, “I just got sucked into helping with the race, then became race director.” He plans to continue as race director and is now committed to helping the organization grow as much as possible and opening up opportunities for other swimmers. He also wants to incorporate the Boston Light organization and get non-profit status. In addition to the 16-mile solo double crossing, he hopes to add more solo options of different lengths and maybe additional races.

So it’s official. Boston Harbor is clean, clear, and “open for business.” New England is an open water swimming destination worthy of your consideration. A USMS sanctioned sixteen-mile cold-water swim on the East Coast is an excellent addition to American marathon swimming.

WBUR reporter David Boeri reported live from the support boat on the morning of the swim.

Visit bostonlightswim.org for more information.

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