Record-breaking Mass. woman swims Rockland Breakwater without wet suit — again

Posted Aug. 29, 2009, at 7:11 p.m.

ROCKLAND, Maine — It was cold. It was long. The spectators were shivering and soaked to the bone, courtesy of a northeaster blowing in ahead of Tropical Depression Danny.

But for the 41 participants of the fourth annual Rockland Breakwater Swim, the Saturday morning race was worth every moment of chilly paddling.

Swimmers in the open-water Masters Swimming race stroked along the breakwater to the lighthouse for either 1½ or three miles, most clad in wet suits but a few relishing the challenge posed by the 60-degree water on their skin. The oldest swimmer was 70, said race founder and director Douglas Roth of Union.

“With Masters Swimming, you’re getting older, but you feel like you’re still in the saddle,” he said. “You’re still an athlete. You’re still living a vigorous life and trying to improve yourself. It makes you feel good. You’re out there practicing, and challenging yourself. It gives you a very satisfying feeling about your life.”

One swimmer with a satisfied feeling about her race, and her recent string of successful open-water swimming challenges was Elaine Howley of Waltham, Mass., who finished the longer race with no wet suit. She was the first person ever to do so and still is the only woman who has, Roth said.

“It makes it much easier to swim with a wet suit,” Roth said. “Jumping in that water without one requires a huge amount of fortitude and a lot of people just can’t do it. It’s that cold.”

But that’s not even Howley’s greatest claim to swimming fortitude. She swam the English Channel three weeks ago — a distance that is 21 miles as the crow flies, but which likely stretched out to about 30 as the tides and winds buffeted her off course. Since last summer, the 31-year-old Howley also completed the 21-mile Catalina Channel swim and the 28.5-mile Manhattan Island swim.

All of these open-water miles were logged without a wet suit, by the way.

This puts Howley in a very elite echelon of swimmers who have completed the so-called Triple Crown of open-water swimming — she’s only the 33rd person to ever complete all three.

“She is a swimming celebrity in New England,” Roth said. “To us, she’s like a hometown swimmer.”

After her Rockland race, Howley looked happy and rested as she refueled at the Black Bull Tavern in Rockland — as if her chilly three-mile swim was just a victory lap.

Which in a way, it was, she said.

“I love being in the ocean. It’s a place I feel really at home,” she said. “I feel really lucky I’m capable of doing these sorts of things.”

Swimming in the open water is humbling, Howley said.

“It really makes you aware of your limitations and makes you want to expand them,” she said.

The former college backstroker started open-water swimming in 2006 with the eight-mile Boston Light Swim and “got hooked,” she said.

Some of her experiences in the ocean have been extra challenging — she was stung twice by jellyfish in the English Channel and swam through a kelp bed at midnight in the Catalina swim.

But the benefits far outweigh those moments, Howley said.

“I saw bioluminescence in the water [in the Catalina Channel]. That’s the coolest thing in the world,” she said.

The Rockland Breakwater race is one of her favorite events.

“It’s a really safe, really well-run race,” Howley said. “And it’s away from the hubbub.”

According to Roth, all but three swimmers finished the race, and no one suffered from hypothermia. One swimmer had a cramp at the very end of the race, but there were no other complications, he said. Organizers did make one concession to the choppy seas and bad weather — shortening the course to avoid swimming on the Penobscot Bay side of the breakwater.

Otherwise, it was business as usual.

“I knew the swimmers would do fine. They’re some of the strongest people we have in the state. They’re strong, healthy people,” Roth said. “They’re capable of taking care of themselves in the water.”

For more information about Master Swimming in Maine, visit the Web site www.mainemasters.org.

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