40 Pools

Celebrating a Big Birthday with 40 Swims

Ederle-Burke Swim 2021: Worth the Wait

on January 6, 2022

Location: Battery Park, NY to Sandy Hook, NJ
Distance: 16.1 miles
Tandem swim partner: Abby
Paddlers: Ilene and Sharon
Crew: Ed and Manami
Boat captain: Sean
Event director: Rondi (New York Open Water)

This swim report starts long before the event date of Wednesday, October 6, 2021: possibly when I got smitten with marathon swimming in 2007; or when I attempted the Ederle Swim on October 20, 2009; or when, sometime in the second half of 2020 on the BQE, Abby and I nonchalantly agreed to seek a 2021 tandem entry for Ederle-Burke, as it’s now known*. (Tandem rules require swimmers to stay within 5 meters of each other at all times and share the same finish time.) We barely discussed it, but I knew that our compatible paces, our quiet reliability, and her unflappable nature would make for a completely different swim than my multisensory experience more than a decade ago. I decided to make this my early 50th birthday present to myself. Neither of us knew on that BQE moment — or when we officially signed up in January 2021, choosing a fast tide in consultation with Rondi — that this swim would also turn out to be Abby’s farewell to New York.

I’m not the most prolific swimmer, but I’ve done a number of marathon swims in the Hudson in the intervening years, some difficult by my standards, all successfully completed. Not before or since my 2009 attempt had I failed to finish an open water event, and this really ate away at me as I ramped up my training. Also in the intervening 12 years, I’d witnessed many others complete Ederle, serving as a boat observer numerous times including for some of the current record-holders and even volunteering as a paddler once. I’ve probably witnessed this swim more than anyone else, ever; such is its allure for me. I found it incredibly humbling to work toward something that hadn’t worked out as hoped without any guarantees for the repeat. (In marathon swimming, even being able to start is not a given!) Happily, I came to feel truly appreciative of the opportunity to try and of the journey involved in training and planning, pandemic complications notwithstanding.

group photo - 9 swimmers all bundled up
The 2009 Ederle Swim field, with Eileen Burke to my right. Like me, she didn’t finish that year, but three of these hardy souls did!

In the months and weeks leading up to this attempt, it was constantly in my thoughts, as in, “I hope I make a full recovery from Covid so I can do the swim.” “I hope I don’t get hit by a car today because that wouldn’t be good for my swim.” “I hope there’s not a hurricane because that could ruin the swim.” (Due to NYOW’s busy schedule, we did not have a backup date.) But actually, doing my longest training swim in crazy rip currents along Fire Island while a September hurricane churned offshore from Canada boosted my confidence immeasurably. Abby was tackling many other swims this summer and fall and had already become stateless in advance of her move to California, so we weren’t training together. Finding adequate pool time in a pandemic required constant hustle, and I felt lonely at times.

This lonely training gave me plenty of time to reflect on “Trudy” Ederle, Eileen Burke, and other strong women who’d influenced my life: especially my aunt Alice Ann, an ardent follower of my exploits, who got taken by cancer in March; and my mother, who supported me at countless swims from her former home base in Poughkeepsie, and who now has Alzheimer’s and lives in a nursing home in Pennsylvania where I hadn’t been able to see her for more than an hour at a time since early 2020. I felt their spirits encouraging me and decided to dedicate my swim to them.

photo of mom and m
2009 – Me and mom before the swim at North Cove.

Revisiting my 2009 race report a few weeks out surfaced some nerves, but I comforted myself with reminders that the 2021 date would be two weeks earlier aka warmer and that the course had been tweaked to be more direct and thus about a mile shorter. Also, I’d have my ace paddler Ilene for escort and Abby with some choice words at the ready if I flagged.

me backstroking and Ilene paddling under the Verrazano
2009 – Ilene and I glide under the Verrazano.

In the days immediately preceding the swim, some of the logistics weren’t totally clear to me, and we had some personnel changes. I tried not to worry, to embrace the mantra of “Shut up and swim.” In other words, quiet the voices in your head and trust your body and your team. Truthfully, everything looked to be shaping up very well: comfortable water and air temperatures, dry conditions beforehand (preserving water quality), negligible or favorable wind, and of course the super-fast tidal assist.

A number of friends came to our boat loading at Pier 40, likewise to see us off at the Battery at the very civilized start time of 10 a.m. (though I’d told them the wrong pier), and later even to watch from south Brooklyn! I was glad to have them as part of the adventure together with our trusty crew and boat support.

group photo
Pier 40 boat loading fun: (l-r) Sharon, Ilene, Lisa Lisa, Neil, me, Abby, Kerith, and John.

So, finally, the swim? In all honesty, we got off easy. For all that I’d built up in my head, it was anticlimactic in terms of difficulty. In terms of fun, it topped the charts; I ended up feeling happy that I hadn’t finished in 2009 because our day was so awesome!

There was light chop in the harbor as we took off from the Battery and swam through Buttermilk Channel and then past the Statue of Liberty. Abby and I weren’t totally in synch, and I was struggling a bit trying to see her on one side and Ilene on the other. Ilene and I conferred at the first feed and agreed that she’d keep me on track so I could just shut up and swim.

On a work field trip in August I’d learned about a harbor cam. I sent the link out before the swim hoping that people would be able to see us on the live feed. It worked! The operator even zoomed in on our curious flotilla, and my young nephews in California watched us swimming as they got ready for school. One of them observed, “Hannah’s famous!”

harbor cam screen shot - US Army Corps of Engineers boat, tug and barge, and us
Thanks to Matt for this still from the harbor cam as we passed between large vessels.

Around the time of this screen grab, we had to halt for a few minutes to allow the tug and barge to pass. I got cold and crampy during this pause and didn’t really warm up for another hour or so. It was during this cold stretch that I thought most about Ederle and her famous response, “What for?” when asked during her English Channel swim if by chance she wanted to stop.

The water was free of debris much of the way, save for a patch off Bay Ridge that included a Christmas tree! In contrast to my 2009 swim, it also seemed very quiet. Instead of noises from boats and construction, Gustav Holst’s “Jupiter: The Bringer of Jollity” was my mental soundtrack. (Listen to it here, particularly around 1:45 and 3:00; it’s a piece I’d grown fond of thanks to listening to WQXR while working from home). What we did have were swarm upon swarm of nonstinging jellyfish, making for chunky-style water sometimes more jelly than liquid. We’d hit a clear patch every now and then, and I’d think we’d finally gotten through the jellies, only to encounter even more a few strokes later.

The Verrazano-Narrows Bridge is a huge part of the course’s allure for me, and I loved having company at this moment. “Jupiter” practically blasted in my head as Abby and I backstroked under the elegant arch with our paddlers alongside. I was so focused on staying in synch that I didn’t even notice the giant ship passing in the other direction.

photo: Verrazano, shop, kayaks, support boats
Thanks to Kerith for this shoreside pic of us approaching the bridge and a ship I didn’t even see.

After the bridge we hit the choppiest water of the day. It had a somewhat hypnotic effect on me, though I did still pay attention to Ilene’s directions. When she told me to turn to close a gap, I dutifully swam sideways with my head down and ran right into what I thought was a mermaid. Truly, that was my first thought. Only the colorful nail polish on Abby’s toes sparked the realization that mermaids don’t have toes and therefore it must be Abby – who practically qualifies as a mermaid.

We got into a good rhythm from that point on – Abby having completed her requisite hours-long warm-up – and continued cruising past more buoys, islands, and lighthouses. Though slowing a bit, the current was still giving us a helpful boost.

Sandy Hook Channel is always a challenge. As we approached, we were getting somewhat conflicting information about our ETA. When offered an extra feed just in case, I was glad to accept and then put my head back down, shut up, and swim.

This may sound silly but the finish I’d worked toward for so long came unexpectedly. The water was murky, and the depth changed from 20 feet to 1 foot within about one stroke, so I touched bottom before I saw it. Were we really there? I caught a tiny wave to push me in and upright and kicked out a final leg cramp to stand on the beach! Our finish time was just under 5:00 hours, much shorter than my 2009 attempt.

While Manami captured video footage from the boat, Ed had swum in to photograph the moment and deliver Abby’s traditional finish beverage: a shandy! (She is such a fan that her phone would always try to auto-correct the spelling of our destination to Shandy Hook.) She and I both drank up. An experienced channel crosser, she directed me to choose a souvenir shell.

Hannah and Abby with shandies, Sharon and Ilene in kayaks in the background
Shandy Hook finish!

From there it was back onto the boats, kayaks and all, and then to a marina where crew and boats alike exited the water. Also pulling out there were fishermen we’d passed at the start of our day. All of this took place without shivering or other issues. (I mistakenly left my shell on a picnic table we used when changing.) From there we rode in cars to Atlantic Highlands, rehydrated some more, and sat on the upper deck of the fast ferry back to Manhattan. Passing under the bridge once again filled me with awe. It always will.

Abby left for California the next day, and now I’m about to reach the birthday I used as my excuse for the swim. Visiting the Gertrude Ederle Recreation Center recently reminded me of my debt to this incredible trailblazer. We are fortunate to be surrounded by swimmable waters and such a supportive swim community.

Results, 1913-present: https://www.nyopenwater.org/historical-ederle-swim-results/


From swim organizer New York Open Water:
The swim is named for two pioneering women in the sport of marathon swimming. Gertrude “Trudy” Ederle swam this course in 1925 in 7 hours and 11 minutes. According to family lore, her nephew Bob described this swim as a “midnight frolic,” and a “warm-up” for her swim across the English Channel. The following year, Ederle became the first woman to swim the English Channel on August 6, 1926 in 14 hours and 36 minutes.

Eighty-five years later, an energetic teacher named Eileen Burke jumped into the water off Battery Park on a raw October morning, and stood on the shores of Sandy Hook 5 hours and 45 minutes later. Eileen was drawn to this swim’s history, the challenge of swimming such a distance in October, and like Trudy Ederle, use it to train for the channel. While Eileen didn’t make it to the shores of France in 2012, she harnessed the disappointment to become the first woman to swim the 20-mile P2P swim across Cape Cod Bay.

In 2013, Eileen was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. She did not let the pain of chemotherapy get in the way of her dedication to her family and the open water community. She participated in a relay swim around Manhattan with her swimming partner and friend Mo Siegel in 2014, served on the board of the Coney Island Brighton Beach Open Water Swimmers (CIBBOWS), and was a constant volunteer and smiling face at CIBBOWS and NYC Swim events.

On October 3, 2015, Eileen passed away peacefully at home, leaving behind her beloved husband David, a daughter Ann Marie, and a large hole in the open water swimming community. We hope that this swim will continue to serve her legacy as a friend and mentor to all swimmers.

screen shot of our course tracker
Screen shot of our course tracker, which was on Sharon’s kayak.

6 responses to “Ederle-Burke Swim 2021: Worth the Wait

  1. David Cohen says:

    Dear Hannah,
    Your swim adventures are a treasure to read, even for us couch potatoes. They are so rich in details and personal asides.
    Best wishes for the New Year.
    David Cohen (Gateway school camping program.)

  2. Sylvia Mueller says:

    Congratulations! What an accomplishment! I love reading your posts, your writing really conveys the experience. Happy New Year. Sylvia

  3. Trudy Hutter says:

    What a wonderful read. I’m so happy I was able to be a spectator for both of
    those swims. You’re awesome!

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