Stage 5: ’The Beast’ – Bear Mountain to Tappan Zee Bridge, 19.8 miles.

By Liz Morrish

Rondi Davies and David Barra have devised this challenge of swimming a marathon of between 13.2 and 19.8 miles per day, fast enough to beat the flood tide. At the end of Stage 4 there were 9 swimmers with qualifying finishes – all determined to keep the dream alive. It was now Tuesday, and the swimmers have had a day’s rest. How would that suit them? Would it help, or hinder recovery?

Recovery is both physical and mental. Monday was a day without the scorching of skin or the cramping of muscles. Some went in search of a massage, or rested by the hotel pool. Others sought refuge from the anxiety of reaching the finish line, and went shopping or sightseeing. West Point Military Academy and Woodbury Commons retail outlet were popular search items on phones at breakfast time. But there are also dangers in having a fallow day – would the claims of normal life intrude on the focus required for 8 Bridges? Were the swimmers prepared for the massive challenge ahead in Stage 5: The Beast?

This was where plans to keep pace with a rival swimmer are eclipsed by thoughts of how to ensure a finish. It would be a long day of swimming, and the 6am splashtime meant there would be several hours of swimming against the flood tide, initially. Should the swimmer go all out at the start, or save energy for the push towards the Tappan Zee Bridge. There was due to be only 5 hours and 36 minutes of ebb tide, and the swimmers had to rely on kayakers to sense when that flow began. Everyone had been up around 3am today, and the lack of sun, and the boat ride up to Bear Mountain, meant that some were shivering even before entering the water. This, together with the prospect of spending up to 10 hours in the water, offered a daunting prospect.

Swimmers have different personal routines before splashtime. There are a lot of fist bumps and well-wishing. Ed Riley and Abby Fairman perform their own version of the New Zealand haka – butting heads while growling “three more, three more, three more”. Ed has another unusual custom, which is to pick up some small trophy from the previous day’s swim, and offer it as a tribute to the river before the next. Today he was stroking a smooth heart-shaped stone as he jumped into the Mighty Hudson from Launch 5.

Splash was at 6.15am after a glorious trip up river from Ossining to Bear Mountain illuminated by the rising sun. Entering on flood tide, the swimmers tracked straight towards the west shore and hugged the rocks to stay out of the current as far as possible. The calm water meant they made excellent progress and by 8.45 were passing Indian Point, picking up a southerly headwind as they rounded it. The waters are warmer here by 5-7F, as this is a nuclear power facility. We were shadowed by Sergeant Munoz and his deputy aboard Rockland Country Sherriff’s patrol launch who made friendly enquiries about the swim and helped keep us safe from river traffic. Not so welcoming were the security detail from the power plant – keen to make sure we kept our distance from the reactors. An AWACS plane made several passes overhead.

As we passed Verplanck Point, some lively chop kicked up, along with a crosswind. On top of a red marker buoy were sitting a host of cormorants (I understand the correct collective noun is ‘a gulp’). This told us two significant things: the river is getting cleaner year on year, and the ebb tide was with us at last. The swimmers were in a good position to let it pull them right into the bridge.

Stephen Rouch swam the whole distance out in front, as he has for most of the previous days, but the chasing pack of Marta Izo, Flavio Toi, Abby Fairman, Jamie Tout, Graco Morlan, Katrin Walter, Ed Riley and Devon Clifford was tighter than usual. Everyone was putting their whole energy into today’s stage. This is where the training started to pay off. As the swimmers entered the fjord leading up to the bridge, a crosswind activated a moderately strong chop which ensured all swimmers were a little shaky at the finish. All of our 9 contending 7 Stagers conquered The Beast, which means the Hall of Fame may have to widen its doors in 2017. Particularly delighted were Steve Gruenwald and Harry Finger who had been concerned about Stage 5. We should mention, too, an excellent successful stage by Eric Schall.

The day ended earlier than anticipated. The calm waters early on, and the fast ebb current meant swimmers were carried through the Tappan Zee stanchions well ahead of the 10 hour window. Each swimmer could turn and look down the river where the skyscrapers of Manhattan were just visible. Our swimmers know they are close to their goal now.