By Karen Billing
Carmel Valley open water swimmer Barbara Held has put together another amazing summer of swimming. This summer she swam the 28.5-mile Manhattan Island Marathon, the Strait of Gibraltar and swam a leg of a relay across the English Channel.
“It was a great summer, building my vacation around the swims,” said Held. “It was awesome.”
Held’s accomplishments are fresh off last year’s when, at 56, she broke the record for the oldest woman to swim the Catalina Channel from the island to the mainland. She completed the swim in nine hours, 36 minutes and 53 seconds.
Last year Held completed swims in Maui and South Africa, and did a 24-miler across Tampa Bay in April 2011, but the New York swim was the longest she has ever done.
The Manhattan race has swimmers taking a course through the East River, the Harlem River and the Hudson.
“It’s a great swim, you’re seeing New York from a very different perspective,” said Held, noting the course had her swimming under great bridges, past the Empire State Building, past Yankee Stadium and other NYC landmarks.
On June 18, she completed the New York swim in eight hours, 12 minutes and 29 seconds, and was the 12th person out of the water and third female.
In preparation for her swims, the retired firefighter/paramedic swims year-round with the La Jolla Cove Swim Club. This year she had training for New York by way of the Tampa Bay swim and a trip to Hawaii. She managed to be in Hawaii at the time of the tsunami from the Japan earthquake so she could not get in the water as much as she’d liked — she only got in 41 miles when she’d hoped to hit 50.
After the June 18 race, Held traveled from New York to London and spent a few weeks touring England, Wales, Madrid and Portugal before heading to Tarifa, Spain, the start point for the Gibraltar swim. She waited for the wind to be in her favor on July 31 to take on the 12-mile swim on her own.
She completed the swim in three hours, 17 minutes, making her the fastest American women to swim the strait and the second fastest woman in the world .
“It was spectacular conditions, everything was in my favor: great winds, currents and I got to swim in a straight line,” Held said. “All the stars aligned for me that day.”
The start and finish of the race are in the water as she did not have a Visa to enter Morocco on the other end of the strait. As it is one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world and only 10 miles wide, Held shared the strait with huge shipping boats.
From Spain she went back to England to meet up with her Channel swim teammates. The team, who named themselves “Foireann Snamh Garabaldi,” included two San Diegans, Sabrina Buselt and Joel Barnett, and three swimmers from Ireland, Catherine Sheridan, Kevin Williams and Fionnuala Walsh.
Held was the oldest swimmer in the group.
“Swimming the English Channel is very weather driven,” Held said, noting authorities will not let swimmers do it unless the conditions are right.
Her group was scheduled for the Wednesday, Aug. 10, tide, but they were told it would have to be pushed to that Friday due to the weather. However, it wasn’t certain because the weather was forecast to be just as bad that day.
The group was disappointed and the Irish swimmers headed to the airport but turned around halfway when Held and the others received the final word that they would be allowed to go on Friday morning.
“We swam in terrible conditions, force five winds,” Held said. “It was the choppiest water I’ve ever been in, it was awful. We were all seasick on the boat but it went away when you got in the water.”
The group completed the swim in 13 hours and 52 minutes, each swimmer doing an hour and then rotating. Held swam three legs of the relay, nine miles of the 22-mile crossing.
Held’s summer of swimming took her to seven countries — while she wasn’t able to go into Morocco that day of the strait swim, she did take a ferry to Tangiers the next day and toured around and rode a camel. Training swims in places like a Liverpool dock where the water was filthy and houseboats floated nearby made her appreciate her slice of paradise with the La Jolla Cove.
Held loves swimming these open water stretches all over the world, but admits that it is a very, very expensive hobby. Just to pay for the boat in Gibraltar was $3,500 and the average English Channel swim is about $10,000 when all is said and done, with travel and accommodations.
Held plans to swim the channel solo next August and will then take a rest for awhile — unless she wins the lottery, she jokes.