Thursday, July 19, 2012

Happiness is.....

...swimming from Cape Cod to Martha’s Vineyard with the help of wonderful strangers and family.

Who knew?

(Left to right: Mike, Karen, Kate, Mark, Dave, me, Rob, Linda and Brian. Mack is taking the picture.)

The morning was clear and calm, and we could even see the finish line when we got to our starting beach, but only just barely. Martha’s Vineyard looked like a single brushstroke of green on the horizon. The island was the definition of “yonder.” Our on-water team consisted of two motor boats and two kayaks and eight people, one of whom was Rob’s niece Kate Powell. Kate makes everything better wherever she goes. Our land team was one person: Fifi Burton, a mover and shaker extraordinaire who would turn 88 a few days after our swim. We were so set.
“Are you the ones swimming to Martha’s Vineyard?” asked the wide-eyed teenaged lifeguard at the Menauhant Yacht Club on Cape Cod.
“Yes. Me and my husband,” I said, pointing to Rob.
“Wow,” he said, a huge grin on his face. “Good luck!”
They say you can’t go home again. But this place where Rob spent his childhood summers and which felt as much like home to him as any place he had ever lived, welcomed him back with open arms. Those arms easily stretched wide enough for me, too, no questions asked. Even the sea clamed and warmed herself for our arrival. But this swim wasn’t just about looking back. We had to involve strangers and acquaintances of acquaintances, who all became as close as old friends by the time the day was over. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The idea of swimming from Menauhant on Cape Cod to Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard – 6.5 miles of current and creature-filled filled sea – took hold of Rob’s imagination last year when his friend Liza Gregory posted an article about a couple of Menauhanters who swam from Nobska Point to West Chop, a much shorter distance between Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard with fewer current issues. That point was a natural choice for a crossing, but Rob remembered standing as a kid on the beach in Menauhant and looking toward Martha’s Vineyard and wanting to cross that body of water in that place somehow.
“I didn’t necessarily think about swimming it, but I wanted to get over there,” Rob said.

(Last minute course charting to "over there" with our kayakers Mark and Dave. Not only are currents a problem best avoided to the extent possible, but ferries and other boats would be a dnager.)
The child went on to become a nationally rank college swimmer specializing in the 200 butterfly. He took up open water swimming after a ten year break from the water and proceeded to excel at races in lakes, rivers, bays and oceans. But his family had sold the summer home in Menauhant, and we hadn’t been back to Cape Cod for anything other than funerals since he started the open water phase of his life.
I never swam growing up, but it looked like fun when Rob did it, so I joined him and gradually worked my way up to longer distances. So when Rob said he wanted to do this swim, I said “me too.” We started planning in 2011. We knew we needed to pick a good day with favorable tides and we needed escort boats and kayaks and a place to stay and a Coast Guard permit. Planning for the swim turned into a second hobby. (Training for the swim I don’t even want to think about. Thousands of laps in an over-heated 25 yard pool. Ick.)
Since Rob is faster, our swim would be like two solo swims and we needed two boats and two kayaks. And the captains and paddlers had to be experienced. This stretch of water is where the Vineyard Sound and Nantucket Sound meet in a big swirling mess. There could be cross currents up to four knots and there were shallow areas that could kick up big waves. And there were sharks. Okay, the sharks were further east and north, but still. They were the big ones.
I live to research, and luckily I easily found a Cape Cod kayaking forum and posted my request for information and possible assistance. I got some replies along the lines of “sounds like a great adventure” and “are you crazy!” But I got our first member of the team, Mark Stephens, who was extremely experienced in the waters all around Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard. He suggested we get a copy of Eldridge’s Tide Book which we did and then spent weeks pouring over. We learned the difference between spring and neap and ebb and flood tides and were able to pick a good week, that of July 9th, when the window of slack tide wouldn’t be in the middle of the night or at 6am. No one was swimming in the dark.
We still needed boats, but felt confident to go ahead and apply for our Coast Guard permit. It was becoming real. Then I mentioned the swim to open water swimming pioneer Lynne Cox, and she had a friend on Martha’s Vineyard who might have a line on a boat. Sure enough, Michael Wooley found captain Brian Peltier for us and we were halfway there. (By that way, I owe the Coast Guard a big shout out. They were very professional and friendly and even a little excited about the swim.)
To get us the rest of the way, Rob starting poking around in his memories and came up with Fifi Burton’s name, the matriarch of Menauhant. She offered up her youngest son, Mike, and we had our second boat. Our first kayaker then recruited a second, Dave Briggs, a worldly waterman, and we were all set. Everyone seemed excited about the adventure. Our job now was just to keep our fingers firmly crossed for good weather. We started checking water temperature websites in June when the sound was 55 degrees. Gulp.
Now we just had to finish training, which included three open water races in two weeks, the longest of which was almost five miles in challenging conditions. We were as ready as we could be, but we were still apprehensive about the anticipated rough conditions which can make a 6.5 mile swim into an eight mile or longer swim. And the cold. I was worried about the cold. I was prepared to wear a wetsuit, but I really didn’t want to.
With Kate on board, it was already a family swim. The three of us had done crazy athletic endeavors before, and I would trust Kate with my life, and more importantly Rob’s, so I was glad to have her along. But the unexpected pleasure came when Linda Calmes Jones opened her house to us.
Emails flew, and we picked the actual date, July 11th, once we saw the weather looked good. We packed up the car, kissed the dogs and pointed ourselves north. The day before we left, a great white shark was spotted in Chatham, which was north of where we were planning to swim, but still a little unsettling. We joked about it a lot to keep the nerves at bay and because it made us feel tough. You can’t even start a swim like this if you don’t feel tough.
After meeting Kate in Boston and relieving the city of a goodly amount of sangria and ice cream, we all headed for the Cape. It was an easy drive to Fifi’s house with an easy stop for flowers and a card for her upcoming birthday. It was a joy to watch Rob reminisce with Fifi about all the people they knew. It was even more fun to watch Fifi use her power to order Kate – who she could easily see was the youngest – to fetch things for her. After an enjoyable hour of crazy stories, we strolled down to the beach of Rob’s childhood and got in for a shake-out swim. The water was gently rolling. It had to be the nicest water I have ever been in. Friendly. There is something about very clear salt water that is neither warm nor cold that is both soothing and energizing. We all were having a good time when I nearly ran into Rob talking to a guy we knew from Charlottesville, George Sampson. Rob knew he also vacationed at Menauhant, but what were the odds? George ended up coming to see us off on our swim. Things were going so well, it was as if the universe was rolling out the red carpet.
Now if this were a movie, it would be time to cue the ominous music. But nope, things just continued as if guided by an invisible loving hand.
We dried off and headed to Linda’s house where we would be staying. Linda is Rob’s now-dead father’s second wife. We never had much of a relationship with her, and on this trip we saw how much we had been missing. She became a new member of the family.
We killed Tuesday with errands and more ice cream and sitting around. We touched base by phone with our captains and kayakers. Wednesday morning we filled our bottle with our sports drinks and packed our bags and headed for the beach at 8:30am. Our starting point is called the baby beach in Menauhant parlance. Not too intimidating.
Kayaker Dave was the first one there, then Mark came soon after. Brian and Mike pulled up to the dock in their boats and we met Karen Kukolich who would be on Brian’s boat and who could have well captained her own boat as gifted as she was about all things aquatic. (Although she is far too young, she reminded me of my Aunt Shirley, one of the most competent and loving women I have ever known.) Mike brought his nephew Mack, a bright and friendly teenager, and we introduced everyone and divvied up our bottles and clothes and then it was time. Several folks come to see us off in addition to Fifi. Mrs. Carr, who along with her husband bought Rob’s family’s beach house, Jeff Gwynn, who had swim from Nobska Point and West Chop, Jeff’s wife, George, and a few happy and curious other people we didn’t know.
Rob and I kissed each other twice – once for ourselves and once because Fifi called for an encore - put on our goggles and walked into the glassy water and started swimming.  Two hours and forty minutes later, Rob walked out. 55 minutes after him, so did I. Time disappeared for me during most of my swim, and I just felt enveloped by love. Love of swimming, love of the ocean, love of all the people involved old and new, just love. I know it sounds sappy, but it’s what it was. Until the end of course when the island didn’t want to let me come ashore. (The currrents kicked up as we knew they would, but it was still a little bit of a shock.) But if it hadn’t gotten hard, I might have felt a little cheated. The best part for me was when Mike brought his boat over and I got to see Rob and Kate. Mike helped Brian and Karen fend off the boats and ferries that were aiming for me.

Everyone was so amazing, and I want to go back. I want to swim in that water as much as I can. I know it will not always be that friendly, but I want to get to know it. I want to get to know it like family. I want to learn more from the people who helped us. I want to do something, anything for them. It was home.
Rob said the swim was all he could have hoped for and that the week we spent on the Cape was more than he could have hoped for. And that week would never have happened if we hadn’t decided to do the swim which started out so scary in our minds when we were planning and ended up so sweet. Life moves in funny ways, just like water.
Now is the strange time. The lonely time after all the effort. It took eight people to get us across that water and I will always feel bound to them. I hope they don’t mind.
And I feel even more connected to my husband and his past and who and what made him. It was a big crazy goal to do what we did and we were rewarded. Now to pay it back somehow.
Thank you to everyone, from the bottom of my heart. I can see that we’re home.

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