With two miles to go on an 8-mile, open water course, Ellis Merschoff could see the skyline ahead, bobbing above him over the Boston Harbor.
But as the Pasadena resident freestyled through the Atlantic Ocean on August 11, the tide swept him toward one of the many tiny, dotted islands in the ocean.
“I got caught in a pretty stiff head current,” he said. “I was getting worried — you could see the finish, it was two miles away, so you know you just have another hour of swimming ahead of you — and you just can’t break free from the current. It was like a giant sea monster had you by the toe.”
Five swimmers had lost to this tide, as the sweeping strength of the pulling water had proved too much to bear. Confident and sure of himself, though — and fighting with a stubborn, competitive spirit — Merschoff forged ahead, finally breaking free and making his way to the finish line.
Merschoff placed 12th out of 22 solo contestants and four relay swimmers. He had beaten all the relay swimmers and 10 solo swimmers, but what he felt most proud of, he said, is being the oldest man in the 111-year history of the Boston Light Swim to finish the race as a solo contestant.
Charles Casto, a Georgian friend of Merschoffs’ who came to support him, said it had been a remarkable achievement for Merschoff to complete the race at 68.
“To swim the distance in that cold water, with the physical handicaps he has, is a tremendous feat for anyone, let alone someone 68 years old,” Casto said.
The Boston Light Swim was created in 1907, just 10 years after the Boston Marathon for runners. It is the oldest ongoing open water race in the United States, according to Elaine Howley, the vice president of the Massachusetts Open Water Swimming Association, which manages the Boston Light Swim.
Completing the course is a feat that attracts worldwide attention. In this year’s race, held on Saturday, August 11, swimmers from Ireland and Canada, as well as 10 U.S. states, competed. This makes Merschoff’s record-breaking performance on a cold, rainy morning all the more impressive. He shattered a previous record 13 years prior, from a man who had been 67.
“I think it’s something to be applauded for,” Howley said. “We want to acknowledge that it’s not as easy the older you get. Your bones get creaky and sore. … It’s harder to go the distance and to be able to hang in there and do it.”
To even qualify for the race, a swimmer must complete a 2.4-mile or longer open water course the year prior. After that, they may submit an application and enter a pool of applicants, where up to 30 solo and relay swimmers are then chosen by “lottery,” Howley said. Each year, roughly 40 to 50 swimmers are turned away, mostly because the Boston Harbor is crowded, and each swimmer must be accompanied by a boat for safety.
The demand for the race is high, because many use the Boston Light Swim as a launch pad toward the grandest of all open water races: the English Channel, a 21-mile course. So for many contenders, this is the hardest and most challenging open water course in the United States.
Merschoff said the race did feel challenging. In the beginning, his boat — with his two friends and aides, as well as the captain — stopped at the Boston Light at 7:30am. Merschoff jumped into the water as soon as the horn sounded.
“The water was really, really cold,” he said. “It was 68 degrees. And we’re talking no wetsuits, just a speedo and goggles.”
He had to take a minute or two to control his breathing, because it was so cold. Casto, his friend, followed him on the boat, supplying him with Gatorade and snacks when needed. There were other pitfalls, Casto said, notably because Merschoff needed a lot of guidance — he was nearly “blind and deaf” — and they had to help steer him the right way.
Merschoff, though, had grown up around water, and had retired from the Navy. He routinely swam with a group in Pasadena, the Arundel Breakfast Club (ABC), and had qualified for this event with a 7-mile race in Florida. If anything, he was more than prepared.
After triumphing over the tide, Merschoff made it to the finish line after a four-hour, 23-minute swim. He was greeted by the man whose record he had just defeated: Robert McCormack, who had just completed the race at 80 as a relay swimmer (becoming the oldest to finish the race, but as a relay swimmer only).
Bill Shipp, a longtime member of the ABC, said Merschoffs’ victory was impressive because, regardless of age, “it’s not an easy event, and is recognized as one of the hardest.”
“It takes a lot of preparation, it’s not just something you decide on: to jump in and swim eight miles,” Shipp said. “A lot of people attempt swims like that and don’t finish … for him to be the oldest competitor and finish it is really impressive.”
Seven people didn’t complete the race this year, and Howley said that during most years, there is never 100 percent completion.
But for Merschoff, just being in the water and having the support of friends and family is what makes the sport shine.
“I think the greatest pleasure wasn’t in the doing it,” he observed. “In swimming, you are kind of alone and isolated, inside of your own head. And to be out in the Boston Harbor, in cold water, just alone, is a delightful and liberating feeling.”