Since Doug McConnell began doing long swims in 2011 he has only failed to complete two — a 17-hour swim between two Hawaiian islands, and a swim from Nantucket to Martha’s Vineyard attempted in August 2019.
His crew (and his wife) say giving the Hawaiian islands swim another try is off limits. Huge waves made it nearly impossible for the safety boats to even see Mr. McConnell in the water, and the shores filled with volcanic rock bashed for thousands of years by the ocean make it too dangerous to try again.
The Nantucket-to-Vineyard swim, however, is firmly in Mr. McConnell’s sights. He will attempt to turn defeat into victory this month, with a weather window of July 19 to July 22.
To meet Mr. McConnell, 63, on dry land, you do not immediately think extreme athlete. He does not carry the broad shoulders commonly seen in elite swimmers, or the icy stare and lean, hard body of the triathlete. Instead he appears more like the affable Midwesterner he is, more used to sitting in the lead chair as a finance executive.
But appearances on dry land can be deceiving, especially when considering the open water long-distance swimmer. By English Channel Swimming Association rules, which Mr. McConnell adheres to, the swimmer cannot wear a wet suit or anything that either helps buoyancy or shields the body from the elements. The extra pounds he carries around his midsection are key to fighting the extreme cold that sets in during ocean swims of 12 hours or more.
To complete a swim he must go from dry land to dry land, whether swimming the length of Tampa Bay, the English Channel, the Catalina Channel, the Molokai Channel, around Manhattan — all swims Mr. McConnell has successfully completed in the past decade..
Two years ago his attempt to be the first person to swim from Nantucket to Martha’s Vineyard (Deb Taylor Blair and James Pittar have successfully gone the other way), came within a stone’s throw of East Beach. Land was in sight but the current was too strong to finish the job.
Plus, there were all those jellyfish.
“We had some two years ago that were the size of garbage can lids,” Mr. McConnell said on a recent reconnaissance mission to the Vineyard to do some practice swims and check out the currents.
The Lion’s Mane jellyfish kept coming throughout the 10-plus hours in the water, stinging Mr. McConnell with impunity, he said.
This year the swim is scheduled for a month earlier, hoping the cooler waters of July contain fewer jellyfish than the warm waters of August. But Mr. McConnell can handle jellyfish. And he can handle sharks (he wears a shark deterrent). The real issue in 2019 was a miscalculation of currents after the swim was postponed a day because of weather.
“One of the mistakes that we made two years ago was that we were ahead of schedule, like by five miles,” he said.
While being ahead of schedule may not sound like an issue, when navigating the strong currents of Nantucket Sound it means everything.
Swimming from Nantucket to Martha’s Vineyard looks like a relatively straightforward affair when studying a map, even with a swarm of Lion’s Mane jellyfish on your back. But after passing Tuckernuck and Musgeket islands, a powerful southern current kicks in, taking the swimmer off course for about two hours. If timed correctly, however, a northern current rolls in at precisely the correct location to rebound a swimmer back up to the Vineyard and onto dry land by the Edgartown Lighthouse.
In 2019, setting off a day later but at the same time in the morning, Mr. McConnell put himself two hours ahead of the current. In other words, he got sent south too late to benefit from the northern current.
To call the 2019 effort a failure, however, does not tell the whole story. Mr. McConnell swims for a purpose — to raise money for ALS, a disease he has tragic personal experience with. His father and his sister died from ALS, and each swim raises money, with every cent going to the ALS research center at Northwestern University, he said. His 2019 swim brought in over $100,000 in donations.
To date, Mr. McConnnell has raised over $1 million for ALS research. And he does not do this alone. Long distance swimming and raising money is a family affair, with his wife, Susan, and any number of his four children lending a hand.
On the Vineyard this year his crew will also include Deb Blair, Dana Gaines, Eamonn Solway and Spa Tharpe.
Mr. McConnell said the pandemic affected his training this past year, closing down pools or limiting his lane time to about 45 minutes, not nearly long enough for his extensive training regimen. But he was able to complete a swim across Lake Michigan recently, from two Northwestern University campus locations, which brought much-needed attention to his cause, along with limbering up his shoulders.
He is confident he will complete the swim this time. He will be in the water a long time, more than 18,000 strokes (he counts every stroke to help pass the time). But no matter what he meets along the way — currents, jellyfish, exhaustion, boredom — he does know how he will begin: with three butterfly strokes. Although long swims are done with the front crawl, Mr. McConnell swam the butterfly in high school and college.
“It’s an homage to my old teammates and competitors,” he said.
For more information or to contribute to Doug McConnell’s ALS foundation, visit alongswim.org.