Stage 1: All Action

By Liz Morrish

There’s a lot of preparation that has to happen before an 8 Bridges swimmer hits the water each day. Marathon swimming may be an individual sport, but it requires a whole team of safety boats – the main Launch 5, 2 inflatable RHIBs, an outrider, Agent Orange, two jet skis as well as a kayak escort for each swimmer.

It was reassuring to see the Riverkeeper team on the river. This is a non-profit organization committed to monitoring and campaigning for clean water in the Hudson River. They are fellow travelers with the 8 Bridges team, and they pulled alongside to let everybody know the water quality was excellent, despite recent heavy rains. Together with a 2.1 knot current, this was looking like ideal conditions for our 17 swimmers on Stage 1, the Rip van Winkle Bridge to the Kingston-Rhinecliff Bridge – a distance of 18.3 miles.

A half hourly event is the stroke count – how many strokes per minute the swimmer is taking. This is the surest indicator of the swimmer’s wellbeing. If the stroke count drops, this may be sign the swimmer is tiring or in distress. The count is logged for comparison as Rondi checks in on each swimmer via the kayaker.

The kayak escort ensures the safety of each swimmer and also, organizes the feed bottles so that feeds are given to the swimmer every half hour. Because of this, the kayaker is a central figure to the team. Some pairings of kayaker and swimmer bond to the extent they work together for swims across the USA and beyond. In other cases, swimmers will recommend their kayaker to another swimmer taking on the event the next year.

As we reached the halfway point of the stage, the chop kicked up slightly. It was enough to swamp the kayaker for the lead swimmer. This called for a swift rescue from David Barra’s Agent Orange rescue boat. The kayaker and kayak were retrieved, ferried to the main Launch 5, and the swamped kayak exchanged for a fresh one, not forgetting to transfer the swimmer’s feed bottles. The swimmer was Stephen Rouch of the USA who was way out in front, setting an amazing pace, but perhaps a bit disconcerted at his kayakers’ disappearance. Launch 5 kept pace with him until his escort could be restored.

Shortly after this, the lead passed to Graco Morlan of Mexico but he was overtaken in the last two miles by Rouch who was the first to pass under the Kingston-Rhinecliff bridge. Morlan was a close second, with Flavio Toi of Brazil coming in third. Abby Fairman  (USA) and Marta Izo (Brazil) came in next, followed by Ed Riley (USA).

Some swimmers do well in turbulent conditions, and apparently Graco Morlan is one of them. “He just loves the chop” yelled his kayaker as Morlan powered past. He and Rouch seemed to be racing head to head. Tomorrow will tell if this has depleted their energies. 8 Bridges, is, after all, a phenomenal test of powers of recovery.