In Calm Boston Waters, A Record Is Shattered
A Reporter’s Notebook
ELAINE HOWLEY AND HER SWIMMING PARTNER, GREG O’CONNOR, waded into the ink of 61-degree water. The tide was low, there was a new moon, and it was 3:41 a.m.
They were greased up with zinc oxide and Vaseline, glow sticks hung from her straps and his cap, and they cut through the glass of Dorchester Bay. Elaine’s husband, Mark, cruised alongside in a kayak that looked like a Turkish bazaar with the florescence of still more glow sticks. Otherwise, the harbor was dark and still.
Only four times in history had swimmers crossed from Southie to Little Brewster Island and back. The first time was in 1913. The first woman to do it was a 17-year-old from Medford, in 1935, and the last person to do it was Jim Doty, the legendary 18-time Boston Light swimmer who finished a double crossing in 1969, with a record time of 9:30.
On they came Thursday, past Thompson Island, past Spectacle Island and then toward Long Island and the Long Island Bridge. Behind us, Boston’s skyline beamed. They were swimming on the tide. It was going out, and if they made it to Little Brewster on time, they’d take advantage of the tide coming in on the way back.
Every 45 minutes, Greg and Elaine would swim over to the escort boat to “feed,” as they call it, a quaint description that brings to mind images of farm animals in their stalls. Burning up 800 to 1,500 calories per hour put them at a deficit they badly needed to cut. Elaine had bananas and peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches for solids. Greg stuck to liquids.
They swam east into sunrise above America’s first lighthouse, which emerged from sea smoke and fog on a surface so smooth the swimmers made their own wake, their arms and shoulders reflected in the water. You could imagine a polished floor of the Atlantic all the way to Spain.
OUT THEY STEPPED ONTO THE SHINGLE BEACH OF LITTLE BREWSTER, three and a half hours into their swim. The rules of swimming double crossings require swimmers to step out of the water, however briefly, to make land before their return swim. They stayed no more than seven minutes. Greg was shivering and needed to get back into the water. Elaine picked up a rock, handed it to me and then stepped back into the water. The temperature had dropped to 59.
They were on a record-setting pace, favored by extraordinarily propitious conditions. When the ferry from Hingham to Boston sped by, it created the only three waves they would experience in the whole swim. No waves, no wind, no opposing currents — only the cold water.
Past the Civil War Fort at George’s Island, past the dragon-back humps of drumlins on Rainsford Island and on to Long Island, where, at the turn under the bridge, Boston’s skyline thrust itself into view, a sight for sore shoulders.
The ferries were now flying commuters toward docks in Boston, lobster boats and sportsmen were cruising, and jets were putting down at Logan. And stroke after stroke, Elaine “Beer Baby” Howley and Greg O’Connor, the athletic advertisement for carrying a little extra around the middle, were speeding toward L Street.
Their return time was almost the same as their time out to Little Brewster. They finished in a stunning 7:07:48. They had shattered the record by a full two hours and 20 minutes.
Cold to the core, and in the best tradition of open-water swimmers, they headed off for cold beer, cheeseburgers and French fries, where they toasted to making history.