Swimmers conquer 20 miles from Plymouth to Provincetown

Greg O’Connor rested in Provincetown on Tuesday after nearly 10½ hours in the water.
Greg O’Connor rested in Provincetown on Tuesday after nearly 10½ hours in the water.JULIA CUMES FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE/Globe Freelance

Hours before dawn Tuesday, five people waded into the waters off White Horse Beach in Plymouth and began swimming toward Provincetown, a 20-mile swim they hope will become the prototype for a new marathon swim event.

Each member left in intervals starting at 2:40 a.m. and made their way to Herring Cove in Provincetown sometime after 1 p.m. Eileen Burke, an Orleans native, was the first swimmer to leave Plymouth and finished in 11 hours and 10 minutes.

Also in the water were Mo Siegel, Janet Harris, and David Barra, all of New York, and Greg O’Connor of Boston. Barra organizes the 8 Bridges swim in the Hudson River, and O’Connor is the organizer for the Boston Light Swim, an 8-mile course around several of the inner Boston Harbor islands.


O’Connor started last at 3:50 a.m. and made it to Provincetown in 10 hours and 22 minutes.

“It was nice, I was enjoying myself,” he said, adding that the first hour was the hardest of the entire swim. “I’d say, ‘I don’t think I can, I want to quit.’ It happens all the time. I just have to push through the first hour.”

Before yesterday’s triumphant swim, many had attempted the same route, but only one had succeeded battling the Cape Cod current. Russell Chaffee of Sayre, Pa., was 41 when he completed the swim in 14 hours and 40 minutes in 1968.

The swimmers followed the rules set up for those who want to swim the English Channel: They were allowed to wear a swimsuit, cap, and goggles, but could not have any assistance during the swim other than an escort boat. Swimmers were given food at regular intervals, and were not allowed to touch the boat or crew during the swim.

Nutrition can be troublesome for the swimmers. Burke, who is 49 and has been open-water swimming since her 20s, said nutrition is what had kept her from completing the English Channel swim, but that her husband was “absolutely supportive” of her swim Tuesday.


O’Connor, 43, said he only consumed drinks made of protein, carbohydrates, and electrolytes during the swim. “You feel awesome for a little while, but as soon as the adrenaline washes out, you’re completely drained,” he said.

“We just wanted to prove that it could be done,” Burke said, adding that the conditions were favorable, with calm water and winds. The water reached 72 degrees at its warmest points and slipped to the low 60s in the coldest.

O’Connor said a marathon route is still in the planning stage, and work needs to be done before it is set up.

An exhausted O’Connor said there was no time for celebration of their remarkable feat, “just sleep and food.”

Sarah N. Mattero can be reached at sarah.mattero@