Elaine Kornbau Howley - Around Absecon Island

Absecon Island circumnavigation

35 km (21.7 miles)

13 hours, 37 minutes on 28 May 2019

Observed and documented by Susan Kirk

Contents

Swimmer

  • Name: Elaine Kornbau Howley
  • Gender: female
  • Age on swim date: 41
  • Nationality: United States
  • Resides: Waltham, Massachusetts

Support Personnel

  • Capt. Stewart Rosen - pilot
  • Mark Howley - crew chief, lead kayak
  • Jen Fay - feeder, backup kayak
  • Susan Kirk - observer

Escort Vessel: Metamorphosis (Gardner’s Basin Marina, Atlantic City)


Swim Parameters

  • Category: Solo, nonstop, unassisted.
  • Rules: MSF Rules of Marathon Swimming, without exception or modification.
  • Equipment used: textile swimsuit, cap, goggles, sunscreen, zinc oxide, vaseline

Route Definition

Clockwise around Absecon Island, beginning at Gardner’s Basin on Absecon Inlet at the north end of Absecon Island. Turn southwest and swim past Atlantic City, Ventnor City, Margate, and Longport. Hard right turn at the bottom of the island into Great Egg Harbor Inlet and continue on into the back bay. Follow intercoastal waterway northeast toward Atlantic City. Hard right turn into Absecon inlet and finish at Gardner’s Basin.

  • Body of Water: Atlantic Ocean, Back Bay, Great Egg Harbor Bay
  • Route Type: circumnavigation
  • Start & Finish Location: Gardner’s Basin (39.377368, -74.420790)
  • Minimum Route Distance: 35 km (21.7 miles)

History


Swim Data

  • Start: 28 May 2019, 04:08:18 (America/New_York, UTC-4).
  • Finish: 28 May 2019, 17:45:27
  • Elapsed: 13 hours, 37 minutes, 9 seconds.

Summary of Conditions

Feature Min Max
Water Temp (F) 61 70
Air Temp (F) 64 68
Wind (mph) 4 18

GPS Track

Trackpoint frequency: 5 minutes. Download raw data (CSV).

Speed Plot

Nutrition: UCAN + Ultima, occasional PB&J sandwich.


Observer Log

Downloads: Original, Typed


Narrative

by Elaine Kornbau Howley

As a kid growing up in a New Jersey suburb of Philadelphia about an hour northwest of Atlantic City, I was always well aware of the ocean. Our neighbors across the street had a summer home in Avalon on Seven Mile Island, one of the 11 barrier islands that buffer mainland New Jersey from the worst the Atlantic Ocean can conjure up. Those neighbors also had an old, diabetic tomcat who got two insulin injections every day for years. In the summer when they would head down to Avalon for their vacation, they’d leave crusty, grumpy Charles the cat behind in Stratford, and my father—also a severe, insulin-dependent Type 1 diabetic—would look after him. In exchange for several weeks of good care for their cat, the Baneys would give my family their Avalon home for a full week. And for me—an avowed summer’s child—that week was sacred.

It’s amazing how much you can learn in just a week when you devote hours on end to a specific task. And in Avalon, my task was to never leave the ocean. My brother and I would play in the waves all day long, body surfing and learning how to read incoming sets, how to navigate shore break, and how to stay comfortable in cool water while wearing nothing but a swimsuit (and cotton t-shirt for sun protection—we’re a little on the pasty side). My understanding of open water and my deep love of the ocean was forged a week at a time in Avalon over the course of many years, and I will forever consider those home waters. I don’t think I’ll ever have the words to adequately express my gratitude to the Baneys and my dad for making those blissful weeks happen.

Fast forward to sophomore year of college at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. After a difficult year on the freshman crew team, I decided to try my luck walking onto the swim team. It was a wise gamble, shifting from playing on top of the water to being back in it, and one of the rewards I earned for this brave move was meeting Jackie and Judy, twins on the swim team who also hailed from New Jersey. Their parents had a summer home on Long Beach Island, another of the barrier islands, and they both worked as lifeguards on the ocean.

Hearing them talk about their work, I was reminded of my summer jaunts to Avalon and how I’d never once seen a woman working as a lifeguard there. Always lean, blonde, surfer dudes and burly men. Even as a kid, I knew that was messed up. Jackie and Judy reminded me of the burning desire I’d once held of someday becoming a lifeguard on the Jersey shore, and before the swim season had ended, I was already on my way to becoming the newest member of the Long Beach Township Beach Patrol.

Over the next four summers, I spent every day watching the water and learning its patterns. I tracked the daily movements of our local pod of dolphins—head south in the morning for breakfast and back north in the evening for bedtime. I learned a lot more about shore break and the perils of digging holes in the sand, how beach umbrellas can become dangerous projectiles, and how lost children will nearly always be found one beach downwind from where they were last seen.

I swam in the sea every day and learned her many moods. And I even managed my first marathon swim without even knowing what that was. I swam about 12 miles along the length of the island one day while supported by two fellow guards in the inflatable rescue boat. The sea lice got to be too much before I managed the whole 18-mile length of the island, and it was anything but an official marathon swim—I reckon I probably touched the boat plenty and when the sea lice got really bad I slipped on a rash guard to try to prevent more bites. But it was an eye-opening, affirming experience that I tucked away in the back of my brain.

Finally, in 2006, I participated in the 8-mile Boston Light Swim event for the very first time. Officially my first marathon swim, I was scared to death training for it. I felt like I might be getting in over my head. But the swim itself went off without a hitch. I had an extraordinary day and was hooked on this obscure sport that turned out to be an actual thing, and soon memories of my happiest times on the Jersey shore bubbled back up to consciousness. I knew I needed to swim there someday.

I vaguely remembered hearing about a race that went around Absecon Island—yet another of New Jersey’s many barrier islands, situated halfway between Avalon and LBI. At 22 miles, that race seemed a stretch from the eight I’d just completed, but not completely beyond the pale now that I was a marathon swimmer, and so I looked into it. I was distinctly disappointed to learn that not only had it been a stop on the FINA Grand Prix circuit reserved for pro marathon swimmers (who knew THAT was a thing?!) but that the 2006 edition of the event had been its last. So, I backburnered the idea and moved on to other adventures.

But life has a funny way of reminding us of what our purpose is. In March 2018, I spent a delightful hour speaking with Marilyn DiLascio, better known to marathon swimmers as Marilyn Bell, AKA the first woman to swim around Absecon Island, the first across Lake Ontario, and first woman across the frigid Strait of Juan de Fuca. She had participated in the first race around Absecon Island in 1954, which had been staged as part of the centennial celebration of the founding of Atlantic City, America’s once favorite—if perennially down-on-its-luck—seaside resort. I was interviewing her for a story I was writing for Outdoor Swimmer magazine about the history of the swim around Absecon Island, and her tale rekindled my desire to swim it myself.

I knew that both Jaimie Monahan and JC Malik had swum solo around the island in previous summers and both had been supported by Captain Stewart Rosen, an Atlantic City–based charter boat captain aboard his exquisite vessel, the Metamorphosis. I reached out to him and was astounded by how organized and professional he was and how well he knew the water and the tides. We selected September 14, 2018 as the date for my solo attempt.

But then Hurricane Florence began forming in the Caribbean, and by September 10, we knew it was looking like a very dicey proposition for the swim to take place. We opted to postpone the swim, and it turned out to be the right decision. Parts of the Jersey shore saw dangerous swell and significant beach erosion. I was disappointed not to have had a big swim in 2018, but that’s marathon swimming. Momma Nature is always in the driver’s seat.

We rescheduled the swim for May 28, 2019, the Tuesday after Memorial Day. Weekday on-water traffic tends to be lighter than on the weekends, and with the limited tidal windows available to us, that was the only one that would work for me. And by leaving it until Tuesday, we could get a later jump on the swim, launching at 4 a.m. instead of the midnight start we’d have had in 2018.

With the weather looking good, we reported to the marina at about 3 a.m. on Tuesday, May 28. My crew consisted of my husband Mark (crew chief and lead kayaker), Jen Fay (feeder and relief kayaker) and Susan Kirk (observer). I went to high school with Jen, and she was on the swim team with me there. She lives now in the town where we went to high school, so it was relatively “easy” for her to come join us for the adventure. This was her first marathon swim event, but as a marathon runner herself and mom of four young boys, she knew exactly how to handle everything we threw at her.

At a few minutes past 4 a.m., greased up and very nervous, I jumped off the dock at Gardner’s Basin Marina in Atlantic City. It sits at the north end of Absecon Island, on Absecon Inlet, near Harrah’s Casino. The water was glassy calm, dark, and cool. At about 61 degrees, it wasn’t frigid, but I was happy to get moving and capitalize on the outgoing tide.

For the first 45 minutes, I ticked through the mental check list that I think most marathon swimmers have. This was not my first rodeo by a long shot, but there’s always the nerves and the question of ‘what am I forgetting?’ As we skimmed along the northern edge of the island, I enjoyed looking at the lights of the big hotels and casinos and wondered how many fortunes were being won or lost at that very moment as I quietly slipped past in the dark.

We made the turn into the ocean and I could see the Ferris wheel on Steel Pier. Back in the day, Steel Pier had hosted a world-famous high-diving horse attraction. Nowadays, they offer helicopter rides and a variety of other amusements. The Ferris wheel, though still, played an endless loop of flashing lights. The pretty patterns took my mind off the task at hand.

As we approached the pier, I realized that the sun had come up and turned around to see a glorious pink sunrise behind me. So far, we’d gotten a calm, clear day and a near-cloudless sky. Things were looking good.

But conditions soon changed. About three hours into the swim, the wind began picking up and thick clouds rolled in. Captain Stu had said his biggest concern was the threat of thunderstorms predicted for about 11 a.m., and I wondered what time it was. With the clouds overhead, it was hard to estimate, but I figured it was probably somewhere between 7 and 8 a.m. The threat of storms would be with us for some time yet.

So, I swam. And swam. And watched the high rises and hotels give way to more familiar Jersey shore properties—cottages and the odd McMansion overlooking the powder white sand. It was fun to take a tour of Atlantic City, Ventnor City, and Margate, but I was looking for something specific. I was looking for Lucy.

One of the wonderful things about New Jersey is its love of the quirky—and the bigger and weirder the better. And Margate is home to one of the best of these offerings—a ginormous grey elephant built in 1882 called Lucy. She used to be a hotel. Now she’s just a tourist attraction. And when Marilyn swam the race in 1954 at age 16, she wasn’t aware of Lucy. She had told me about seeing Lucy for the first time mid-swim. “I was swimming down the [ocean side of the island]. I was getting close to Margate and remember looking and seeing this enormous elephant on the beach. I started to say to Gus [Ryder, her trainer], ‘Oh, my God, there’s an elephant!’ But I caught myself and put my head back in the water. I didn’t talk to him because I was afraid he was going to think I was hallucinating and he’d pull me out. I knew that was always a possibility, that swimmers could hallucinate. I don’t think in all my swimming career that I ever did hallucinate—that was the only time.”

When Marilyn told me that story, it triggered another memory of when I was a kid, of going to Margate to visit my brother’s godparents, Cassie and Charlie, and the trip we took to see Lucy. I didn’t remember Lucy well. But I was determined to see her again. So, I kept looking. Meanwhile, the wind and surf kept rising, and before I knew it, we were dealing with some pretty lousy conditions.

Prior to the swim, Captain Stu and I had agreed that if the waves topped two feet, we’d pull the plug. But by this point, we had all invested several hours and a lot of hope and energy into the endeavor, and while the waves likely had crept close to or above two feet, we carried on. If we could make it to the turn, the wind would cease being as big an issue.

Then came the dolphins. That was fun. They were hard to see, but it felt like I was reconnecting with old friends. When I worked on LBI, my captain would sometimes come down to relieve me on the stand when he saw the dolphins headed my way. He’d send me out into the water with the paddleboard where I could be closer to them. I’d race out to be near them as they glided past. I thought of those treasured moments as my crew pointed out the pod going by, and I finally spied a dorsal fin over the messy, disorganized waves. “Hello, friend. Thank you for your support.”

The dolphin interlude made clear that the wind and surf was getting worse, but we pressed on. I needed to get at least to Lucy before we called it quits, right?

After what felt like years, I finally caught sight of Lucy, and she was even more beautiful than I expected or remembered. I also became aware that as the wind had been increasing, life was getting harder for my kayakers. I could see Jen battling the waves and hoped she was OK. It had also started to rain—big pelting drops.

A little later, Jen and Mark switched in the kayak again, and I could see that Mark was having difficulty keeping up with me, such was the wind in his face. This is about when I began losing sight of both the boat and the kayak for moments at a time because of the big swell we were battling.

I’ll admit, I began to fervently hope for lightning. I was working harder than I had expected and harder than I had on a swim in a long time. The last big swim I’d done was in 2017—the 36-mile END- WET river race. That event had great conditions and a healthy 1 mph current with me, so it swam more like a 22-miler in a pool. This swim was nothing like that, and while it felt good to challenge myself, I also feared I didn’t have enough power and strength to see me to the end of the island and the turn at Longport. Given the direction of the wind out of the southwest, I figured if I could just make it into the intercostal waterway, we’d be sheltered enough by the island to render the wind mostly harmless. But did I have the two to three hours left of hard swimming I needed to make it there, and would I catch the tide? I’ve gotten slower over the years and I wasn’t sure I had the wherewithal I’d need.

But we soldiered on. The wind was relentless, but bit by bit, we charted our progress against the houses on shore. Finally, we made the turn. The inlet was also sloppy and disorganized, but after another 30 minutes or so of struggle, at last we were in the lee of the island and I’d made it before the tide turn. Relief.

When I’d worked on the beach patrol, being stationed on the back bay beach had been reserved as a punishment for tardiness or some other transgression. But in this context, finding myself in the back bay felt like a huge reward.

The intercostal waterway was warmer, ranging between 65 and 71 degrees, and very calm. We did have to make the turn into the wind again for the “Miracle Mile,” a mile- long alley of water that scoots between a row of opulent homes and a huge patch of sea grass, and it was during that point that my shoulder really started to hurt.

I’ve had twinges and aches on a swim before, but never pain. I’ve been lucky with my shoulders over so many years of long, hard swimming. This was a scary feeling. When we made the turn out of the wind at the end of the “Miracle Mile” the pain in the front of my shoulder was so intense, I really began to worry. Although I knew I was about 2/3rds of the way to the finish, I wasn’t sure what was happening in my shoulder and whether I could hang in there for the last few miles. I guess I began doing the swim equivalent of limping. I also asked for Advil. Lots of Advil. But Susan, being a retired pharmacist, knew better than to give it to me, and the crew cajoled me to try changing my stroke up (marginal improvement) and to slow down a bit. I’d been so worried about making the tide that I’d been pushing harder than maybe I needed to. Jen told me I’d made the last checkpoint, so I didn’t need to worry about fighting an ocean treadmill later on. I could take a moment to just breathe if I needed it.

So I did. And that little rest and stretch helped enormously. Everything still hurt, but a little bit of Tylenol and seeing a few bystanders cheering me on helped a lot.

As we got closer to the north end of the island, I could see the high rises and casinos coming closer into view again and the water temperature began to fall. I knew we were nearing a crucial part of the swim—the point where Captain Stu would need to go around Venice Park, a tiny island between the mainland and Absecon Island, while I and the kayaker would take the shallow, and low-bridge-blocked waterway that hugged the back of Absecon Island. I knew we would be separated from the main boat for about a mile, and with the current pushing me, I figured we’d be out of eyesight for about 20 to 30 minutes. Captain Stu handed Mark a marine radio and off we went. (Apparently, they forgot to hand off the tracker, and for that, dear blip watchers, we apologize.)

That Venice Park section was a little gross—shallow and grassy with some trash, but also full of terrapin turtles. They popped their heads up to look at us then snatched them back under the water to swim away from the weird creatures invading their quiet sanctuary. We cruised through that section gliding under two very low bridges that had just barely enough clearance for Mark in the kayak—if he’d put his arms all the way up, he could have just about reached the underside of the roadway.

Then the narrow waterway let out into a seagrass field. Finding the path we needed to follow wasn’t exactly straightforward and Mark radioed for guidance. We could see the Borgata, and headed toward it, skirting the not- quite island of seagrass in between us and it. We could soon see the boat again, and we finally caught up with them in the shadow of the Borgata.

Reunited, we made the final turn into Absecon Inlet. The water was back down to 61 degrees and we found ourselves swimming straight into a heavy headwind again—a final insult to injury. My shoulder screamed in protest, but by then I could see the Brigantine Bridge, which Marilyn had told me was the hardest point on the swim for her. She wasn’t kidding! We encountered some confused currents under and around the bridge, and for about five minutes I felt like I was swimming for my life. I finally broke through whatever it was and we skidded out the other side, aiming directly for Gardner’s Basin Marina less than a mile dead ahead. That last 30 minutes or so was super challenging, but slowly, the cement pier next to the marina drew closer and I soon noticed that there were people up there. Lots of people.

And they were my people. My mom and her boyfriend had come down from Massachusetts to see the finish, (which was a big deal on many levels, not least of which was this was the first big swim my mother has witnessed) and they had called several of my mom’s friends from her New Jersey life to come out to cheer me home, too. They were so excited to see me, even as I limped into port.

I finally reached the dock, and let loose a torrent of swear words. Completely spent, I took a moment to breathe, and rested my forehead on the dock, so grateful for its solid existence. We’d done it. It was harder than I’d expected. But it was beautiful and truly a return to my home waters.

There’s a lot of history swirling around for me with this swim. Not just my own personal history, but my connection to Marilyn Bell and her connection back to the woman I tend to think of as Swimmer Zero for women in marathon swimming, Gertrude Ederle. Ederle was the ceremonial starter for the 1954 event, and she took a keen interest in young Marilyn Bell, fresh- faced and down from Canada for her first marathon swim. Marilyn told me that the importance of this history was not lost on her at the time, despite her young age. “The coolest thing was I did have a conversation with her,” Marilyn told me. “She was very interested that this was my first marathon and she was very encouraging.” Ederle told her that she’d have to try the Channel someday, and Marilyn took that advice the following summer, crossing from France to England in 14 hours and 36 minutes on July 31,1955 at age 17, claiming the record for youngest swimmer to make it across.

Marilyn told me she’d recently discovered another box of mementos and press clippings that she thought had been lost to the ages, and sifting through it, she discovered multiple telegrams from Ederle wishing her luck and then congratulating her on her Channel swim. A generous soul, Marilyn similarly took an opportunity to pay it forward when I told her I’d be doing the around Atlantic City swim—she enthusiastically wished me well, too. I thought a lot about her encouraging emails during the swim, and a message I received afterwards congratulating me will stay with me forever; I have printed it out hung it on my office wall for those moments when the going gets tough.


Photos

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Video

Elaine Kornbau Howley - Around Absecon Island from MSF on Vimeo.