I'm back in the wilds of Charm City, having spent a few days in Connecticut, primarily to participate in the St. Vincent Medical Center Foundation's 2010 "Swim Across the Sound". This annual race – which starts in Port Jefferson, Long Island, traverses 15.5 miles across Long Island Sound and ends in Bridgeport, Connecticut – raises money to benefit cancer patients who have fallen on tough times, providing such things as cancer treatment, free breast-cancer screenings...even help with monthly bills.
Most of the competitors participate in relay teams (though there are a few solo swimmers) and rotate in shifts of anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes each (I do not swim in the race myself, but rather drive one of the escort boats that provides support to the swimmers). Our team – comprised of six swimmers – placed 20th overall out of a field of approximately 56; more importantly, however, we collectively raised over $10,000 to benefit the cause.
HOW I GOT INVOLVED
I first participated in the Swim Across the Sound in August 2008. My uncle, Carl, had by that point been volunteering the use of his boat – Concentricity, a 39-foot Hatteras sport-fisherman – as an escort vessel for several years, each year campaigning for me to join him for the Big Day. But life always seemed to get in the way of my making the five-hour drive to Connecticut, where he lives, and committing a few days to the effort.
All of that changed, however, in March 2007, when I was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. Despite the race falling in the midst of a six-month sentence of aggressive chemotherapy, I nevertheless planned to make the trek that August. Unfortunately, it was not to be, as an infection that left me hospitalized for three days threw off my treatment cycle so that, rather than feeling my (relative) best the day of the Swim, I wound up taking treatment a few days beforehand – which left me completely bottomed-out by race day.
I finished chemo that September, and to this day (knock wood), I remain in the clear, over three years out from diagnosis. But having successfully (albeit narrowly) maintained my hold on life, I was determined to never forget the fact and, going forward, to do whatever I could, whenever I could, to help those still putting up the fight. And so, the following summer, I did everything I could to make the time to help out with the Swim, as I have continued to do ever since.
The Swim Across the Sound is generally held on the first Saturday in August. Beyond fund-raising, my own part of the trip begins on the preceding Thursday, when I drive from Baltimore to Orange, Connecticut. I make every effort to get there no later than mid-afternoon, so that Carl and I can drive to New Haven for a lunch of my favorite pizza in the world at The Original Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana, where the pizzas are still made in the same coal-fired oven as when the place opened in 1925. That night, the swimmers, boat captains and crew attend the Swim Across the Sound sign-in/dinner presentation at the Holiday Inn Bridgeport. For more than half of his 13 years with the Swim, Carl has hosted the same team, led by Kim Russo. Each year presents a couple of new faces, but most of the team (at least in the time I've been involved) remains the same, making the whole event that much more personal and enjoyable for me.
On Friday morning, we load up our gear and head back to Bridgeport, where Carl keeps the boat. For the second year in a row, we were joined by Kim's 11-year-old son, Will. The three of us then run the boat across the Sound to Danfords Marina in "Port Jeff", where we spend the remainder of the day prepping the boat – hanging our numbers, scrubbing the decks, topping off the freshwater tank, and so forth – for Saturday's swim. We spend the night aboard at Danfords, conveniently located adjacent to the Bridgeport/Port Jefferson ferry, which delivers all the swimmers from the mainland first thing the following morning.
This year's Friday night in Port Jeff was particularly fun, as we were joined for dinner by zine-stalwart Ken Bausert, publisher of The Ken Chronicles, and his wife, Ro, who live about an hour from the town. After innumerable e-mail exchanges (many of which focused on our mutual appreciation for the music of Warren Zevon), it was fun to finally meet Ken in person; he and Carl were able to connect as well, both being lifelong gearheads. The five of us enjoyed a fine dinner at Pasta Pasta, followed by ice cream and a short walk around town before parting ways.
DAY THREE – RACE DAY
The ferry delivered the swimmers shortly after 7:30 a.m. This year's record-setting field of approximately 286 swimmers then descended upon the marina, breaking out into their respective teams/vessels.
It's a slow and steady ride to the starting point on the beach just beyond the mouth of the harbor as everyone files out of Danfords. In addition to the 56 escort boats were approximately 45 guide boats (which establish and maintain the field perimeter throughout the day), 15 specialty boats (including committee, medical and media), and roughly 20 law enforcement boats, for a total of approximately 130 vessels.
Once in place, the starting swimmer for each team swims to the shoreline for the start of the race. Complicating things this year was the fact that many other swimmers, once their own boats were in place, jumped in the water to "warm up", making it difficult for other boats still filing in to find a good position without running over anyone in the water, or running into other boats, and, thus, a much more chaotic 9:00 a.m. start than usual. Once the proverbial "dust" settled, however, it was business as usual – with the swimmers taking 15-minute relays in the water, while Carl and I traded off one-hour shifts at the helm. Mercifully, there weren't the vast fields of jellyfish that plagued swimmers the first year I was there. Consequently, the large bottle of white vinegar we had brought to treat any potential stings later went back home, thankfully, unopened. Moreover, we enjoyed perfect weather – warm, with clear, sunny skies, and just enough breeze to keep things from getting too uncomfortably hot. The water temperature was in the low 70s. It still makes for a long day, though, as we are keeping pace with swimmers. Our job on the bridge essentially involves engaging and disengaging the transmissions every few seconds so as to keep the swimmers from getting too far ahead of the boat, but not so far back as to force the swimmers to inhale clouds of exhaust from the twin 671 TIB diesel engines every time they take a breath.
Around 5:00 p.m. we reached our destination: Captain's Cove Seaport, located on Bridgeport's Black Rock Harbor. There, all of "Carl's Angels" – Kim, Laina, Fran, Laurie, Katie and Kevin – finished the last few hundred feet of the race together.
After they all had retrieved their belongings a short while later, Carl and I enjoyed a celebratory beer on the boat before driving it back to its home a few miles away. Once she was securely moored and everything stowed, we drove (on land) back to Captain's Cove for the awards presentation and to have our picture taken with the team. But rather than fight the crowds for the by that time pretty-well-picked-over food, Carl suggested we duck out early for dinner at – surprise – Frank Pepe's Fairfield location.
"That is, if you don't mind Pepe's again," Carl said.
Needless to say, no arm-twisting was necessary.
"Carl's Angels" placed 20th overall in a field of 56. "We may never win," Carl laughs, "but we are always the best-looking." Most importantly, though, the team collectively raised more than $10,000 to help St. Vincent's Medical Center Foundation help people in their greatest hour of need. And while this year's race might be over, that need continues, and it's not too late to donate, if you are so inclined. Thanks to everyone for your support, and the Powers willing, we will all be back next year to do it again!