Perseverance Swim — Father’s Day 2020

Submitted photo/Herve Hamon
Herve Hamon, seen here in 2019, completed a 17-mile swim in the Choptank River on June 21.

CAMBRIDGE — It all started with a vision: What would it feel like to swim the length of the Choptank River, from its mouth at Tilghman Island, back to Cambridge, all 17 miles of it as the seagulls fly?
This, of course, required training and discipline, building up strength and lasting longer in the water; with the Y closing on March 16, it also meant swimming at Hambrooks Bay since March 17, when the water was a balmy 50 degrees at first.

But finally, with 53 miles of river swimming in the first two weeks of June, and a five-hour “qualifier” swim in Hambrooks Bay on June 14, the training was complete.
On June 21, I met with my outstanding crew (Raleigh Hood, Victoria Coles and their son Jasper) at their house on Todds Point bright and early. By 7:30 a.m., we had motored across the river on their boat “Striper” and were setting up to do an in-water start in front of the marina of Tilghman Island Narrows.

As we were crossing the river, I was thinking of those I was dedicating this swim to on this Father’s Day: All the fathers who suffered through the pandemic, and were persevering through tough economic hardship, and the courage and perseverance of the African-American community of the Eastern Shore. I was letting their spirit take over my soul.
Clouds were wild, almost dramatic, the fog was lifting up, and clearly we were going to need some luck not to be caught in a storm, but off we went at 7:56 a.m.

The first four to five hours were mostly against the outgoing tide coming from Cambridge, but we were skirting the northern coast of the Choptank, in the shallower waters sea nettles have a predilection for, close to Nelson and Holland Points.
It took all of five minutes for me to start getting stung; I did wear a protective lycra long-sleeved shirt, but when the creatures insisted on sticking to my forehead, I was defenseless. I knew I had no choice, and this was going to happen for at least the next 10 hours or more.

One of the most meaningful targets was Benoni Point, about eight miles from the start, which we reached around noon. Victoria and Jasper were alternating who was kayaking right next to me, while Raleigh was positioning the boat in the distance, at regular intervals, and at locations of “feeding,” an essential part of marathon swimming which cannot be completed without a strict regimen of re-hydration and fuel (boiled eggs, peanut butter sandwiches – a true gourmet meal when soaked in river water). After each re-fueling, the swim pace picks up — until the very end when no matter how much food or drink, the arms don’t want to lift anymore.

A Benoni Point, we added to the adventure a little bit of beaching. As I was resuming the swim on course, I ran out of water, the floor of the river, with sharp rocks, coming to a couple of inches under the surface — and I am more than a couple of inches deep!
So even though my local nickname is Le Tuna, for a combination of roundness and speed in the water (a name my son Patrick gave me a few years ago while swimming to Oxford) I now felt like a beached whale, requiring my kayaker to pull me away, trying to not scrape too much on the river floor. But we made it back to the much nicer, sea-nettles infested, deeper waters where I could resume my pace. “All downhill” from here, said Raleigh.

Jasper swam with me as I was getting across the Tred Avon River, the one that leads to Oxford. He was my star distance swimmer when I was coaching the High School Swim Team last winter, and having him in the water with me, on what was my fifth hour of swimming, was truly inspirational. We looked like two dolphins.
I felt the high of going stroke for stroke with him, and we killed that portion of the swim. Victoria joined me as well for about 400 yards, taking a break from her awesome kayaker skills.

Then came the famed Chlora Point, with its deep trough of 80 feet and major currents. Luckily, the tide had turned since 11:30 a.m., and the positive push was strong. But better not linger in this type of narrows that remind us all about the strength of the water. Storms were around us, with dark skies in the distance, but the sky remained blue overhead, like a good omen.
My nemesis (there will always be one) was Howell Point, which looks so deceivingly close to Chlora Point, and yet is 2.5 miles away. Looking up and not seeing the landscape change plays with your head, and this was the moment I had to draw on every ounce of inspiration from all the people who have gone through the pandemic and economic hardship, as well as the courage of the Eastern Shore African-American community. They wouldn’t quit, so why should I?

“Home stretch“ called my boat captain and my kayaker. And yes, the houses on the bluff of Cambridge’s Riverside Drive were looking at me, but I could feel that despite the feedings, now at a much shorter intervals, the energy needed to lift my arms up and perform a decent freestyle stroke was running out.
The tank was getting empty. Luckily, the open water swimming community, and the CMS athletes are a wonderful support group, and to my utter joy, I saw a little boat come by, and two swimmers getting ready to jump in.

Michael Keene and Victoria Windmiller were there to escort me to the finish. They provided a much needed boost of mental energy, and as I was plowing through the water in cadence with them, I was forgetting how long I still had to go to the finish.
Of course, by now I was an aging dolphin, with a 2:26/100y pace, with both of them doing breaststroke as not demoralize me, or pass me too quickly (I think I saw Tori blowing bubbles while she waited for me every so often!) But their smiles and cheers meant so much.

Finally, the end of the rock jetty of Hambrooks Bay, the last 1,000 yards to the boat ramp. A quick stop to finish the last of my Gatorade, review the exact location of the finish, and hope that nothing cramps up just before the triumphal moment of stepping out of the water.
At 7:30 p.m., I arrived at the boat ramp of Gerry Boyle Park at Great Marsh (Gerry would have been proud !) to the cheers of my lovely wife and a few more CMS friends, who waited several hours for this moment.
The vision was fulfilled. Eleven and a half hours in the water including all the replenishment breaks, 10 hours 4 minutes of pure swimming time, and the satisfaction to be able to say, “I swam from Tilghman Island to Cambridge at age 58.”

My thanks to my outstanding crew who I could have never done this without, deepest gratitude to Michael and Tori for pulling me into the finish, and the Orliks and Stewarts for making my coming out of the water so special.