Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Crewsing in Louisiana

One of the nicest benefits of swimming -- or of any hobby, really -- is getting to know other knuckleheads who enjoy your particular (or peculiar) interest. I have enjoyed meeting several wonderful, amazing and equally quirky people through the marathon swimmers forum and other websites for wet people. Tim Root was one of my early acquaintances on the marathon swimming forum. He was also registered for the Red River swim and didn't need to twist my arm too hard to talk me into the Pensacola 25K. In fact, he and his wife kindly invited me to join them and their family at their vacation rental home in Pensacola. Sweet! And, if you dig through the blog, you'll find my glowing recap of that weekend. Except for my rotator cuff impingement, it was a fantastic experience and my first official ocean swim race.

So, when Tim asked if Paul and I might like to help crew for his attempt to cross Lake Pontchartrain, it was a Big Easy answer - hell yeah. We hit the road after my swim practice on Wednesday morning and drove through 2 days of rain to get to New Orleans.

It was a pleasant coincidence that Tim's swim happened the weekend of Halloween. Halloween in the French Quarter? Don't mind if I do. It was as interesting as you might expect -- ghouls, gargoyles, vampires, Waldo, an entire chain gang from Orange is the New Black, most major political figures and everything in between. 

I sampled a very, very, very, very ridiculously expensive absinthe cocktail. Contrary to popular myth, there were no flying monkey sightings. It was OK. Mostly tasted like licorice, but with citrusy-herbal notes. For the same cost, I could have had a bottle of wine served by flying monkeys.

We enjoyed working our way through the Quarter and made it back to the hotel well before 10 am. Yup, we're pretty depraved.

On Friday, we dug into some grits and eggs and coffee at our delightful hotel, the Saint Marie, and then made our way to Tim and Amanda's house in Gonzales, a southern suburb of Baton Rouge. We met Tim's delightful parents and his kayakers, Mike and Aaron. Amanda's lobster bisque made a delicious ice breaker for us all before the swim.

We went to bed early so we could get a little bit of sleep before rallying at midnight. My alarm went off 90 minutes after setting it, we loaded the cars and headed for the starting point. 

Tim had quite an entourage: a 52 foot sailboat, 2 highly qualified kayakers and a search and rescue team occupying another motor boat and 2 jet skis. Ke$ha should have it so good. He started swimming in the dark of 3:15 a.m.

It was surprisingly cold. I had thought of bringing my fleece jacket, but then thought that would be overkill. It wouldn't have been. I tried to keep it in perspective and consider it a good acclimation exercise, but I still had to resort to my stocking cap and fuzzy gloves. I was cold.

The kayakers were managing the feeds, so we really didn't have a lot to do on the big sailboat. We tracked Tim's coordinates each half hour and napped a little here and there. I was the designated observer, but since Tim was swimming well behind us in the dark, that was an easy job.

After the sunrise, which was beautiful, things became much more interesting, but not in a good way. The wind had picked up and the waves were getting downright bumpy. Tim said he was getting cold, but still doing OK. The waves just kept getting higher and after another hour or so, Tim told one of his kayakers he was ready to get out. The kayaker then relayed that message to us on his radio.

When Tim made his way to the sailboat, I thought he looked surprisingly good. He said he was cold, but he articulated that perfectly. If you can actually put your lips together and form a coherent sentence, you're not THAT cold - at least not in the throws of hypothermia. The waves were the real issue. Our gigantic sailboat was popping up and splashing down continuously. Tim was getting beat up out there, but he agreed to keep going to the next feed.

I put on my swimsuit, thinking I'd buddy swim with him for awhile. But, I wasn't sure he wanted any assistance, which is totally marathon swimming legal, by the way. I thought I'd wait until he got a little closer to the bridge and then I'd radio his kayakers to see if Tim would like the company.

More than a half hour later, Tim called it and pulled himself up onto one of the jet skis. He made a great effort, there's no shame in his swim at all, but it still stings when the swim isn't finished. Tim was terribly disappointed, but also knew there was no other choice. The weather wasn't getting any better.

With the swim aborted, we regrouped and relaxed on the sailboat, finishing the proposed track to the other side of Lake Pontchartrain. The sun was up and we were finally warm, enjoying the powerful sailboat ride.

We arrived earlier than expected on the other side, which caused some logistical changes. It took awhile for Tim's friends to get their car and drive it to the landing spot, but it was actually nice to just hang out at the marina, checking out the beautiful boats and sitting in the sun.

That evening when we made it back to Tim and Amanda's, we dove into one of the best sushi dinners I've ever had. Who knew sushi out of an old Pizza Hut would be so divine?

The next morning, Paul and I thanked everyone for their kind and generous hospitality and started the 2-day road trip home. Thankfully, it wasn't raining this time. We spent the night with Paul's parents in Springfield, Missouri, and finished the last leg of the journey home the next day.

It was a great trip - full of adventure, time with great people and lessons learned. I told Tim he may need to approach the Pontchartrain swim like any major channel crossing - establishing a weeklong window and having a crew ready to go whenever the weather looks the best. He had his logistics down and a great support team, so I know he can and will do this when the time and weather are right.

Now, I'm focusing on my own training and trying to figure out when I'll get in some cold ocean swim time. Guess I'll put that on my Christmas wish list :-)


  1. Love reading these, Molly, even though I sometimes wonder if it's encouraging the freakshow marathon swimming seems to me to be. ;) I rationalize it in that at least my reality-reading is aspirational. Thanks for writing another inspiring account.

  2. Thanks Sydney. Marathon swimming is TRYING to get freaky, but we have a lot to learn from our CX pedaling cousins. I've introduced the cowbell, but our swim costumes need some work. Swimmers get all uptight about the drag of a tutu and think wearing striped tights is cheating.