If Ray Gandy finishes what he’ll be starting this weekend, he might not become a household name, but he’ll be in the type of company reserved for the best of the best.
Gandy, a 49-year-old Coventry resident who grew up in West Virginia but moved to Warwick in the early 1980s, is planning on doing what most would deem impossible.
Beginning on Saturday morning, Gandy and friend Elaine Howley, of Boston, will try to swim all of upper and lower Narragansett Bay, and then return to their starting point. In total, it’s 50 miles of continuous swimming. Gandy expects it to take between 25 and 30 hours. If either of them completes it – and they both expect to – it will be tied for the 10th longest open-water ocean swim ever, according to The Daily News of Open Water Swimming.
But that’s not the only reason Gandy and Howley are doing this.
They’re doing it for a much larger cause – to raise money for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society (LLS) – as it’s a charity close to both their hearts.
Gandy’s wife, Donna, was diagnosed with Chronic Myelogeneous Leukemia in 1992 and Howley, when she was 8, lost her 3-year-old sister to Leukemia.
Both Gandy and Howley are accomplished open-water swimmers, and when Gandy conceived the idea of creating this swim, it was a chance to put a notch in their belts while generating money for an important cause.
“We have this connection with Leukemia,” Gandy said. “I told her what I was trying to do, and I asked her if she wanted to do it as well. She said yes. It’s evolved into this event that’s coming up.”
The swim has already raised more than $7,500, and Gandy expects that number to climb to at least $10,000. The money is coming from people who sponsor and dedicate each mile of the swim to someone who has endured some kind of struggle in their lives. While Gandy and Howley are out on the water, those stories will be read to them to help keep them motivated.
Prior to this swim, Gandy had already raised another $10,000 through his previous swims.
“It just kind of came naturally that if I’m going to go do something crazy, maybe I can raise money and try to help others too,” Gandy said.
Gandy’s list of past swims is extensive, and nothing short of remarkable.
He grew up swimming and was a nationally ranked junior swimmer. He swam competitively at Clarion State College, now Clarion University of Pennsylvania.
From that point on, he gave up the sport, not swimming again for nearly two decades until he began doing some pool swimming again.
A friend of his invited him to watch the Save the Bay Swim, which is held every year from Newport to Jamestown. It piqued his interest and, in 2001, he tried it for himself.
He got hooked. He started doing as many swims as he could, of varying distances, ranging from swims at Lake Champlain to the Long Island Sound to Tampa Bay to St. George’s.
His most noted accomplishment came last year, when he circumnavigated Conanicut Island, or Jamestown, twice consecutively. Nobody had ever even done it once. The 41.2-mile swim took him more than 20 hours, and he was recognized by the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame for setting two world records.
To date, the Jamestown swim was his longest ever. The Narragansett Bay swim, however, will be close to nine miles longer.
It will also have one of the same obstacles that he faced during his Jamestown swim – the Beavertail area, where the current will be the worst.
Gandy expects to reach that point about 10 hours into the swim.
“That’s probably the coldest water and the toughest water conditions,” Gandy said. “Anything can happen elsewhere – there can be wind and waves – but down there it could be a little bit worse off than other places in the bay.”
He remembers his experience there last year. That, coupled with the actual magnitude of what he’s trying to accomplish, present the biggest hurdles.
“Getting in, it’s overwhelming when you try to stop and think about what you’re attempting,” he said. “I was very overwhelmed last year when I jumped in for Jamestown. In fact, I thought I was going to quit after the first three hours. I was cold, I was uncomfortable, I was fighting Beaver Tail. I had just finished a live interview on TV and it was all so overwhelming. It took a while to calm down.”
Yet, he made it through, as he seemingly always does. But it’s never easy, and he doesn’t do it alone.
On all of his open water swims, Gandy has a crew that remains in a boat next to him the entire way through. His crew is composed of friends and family, and it has multiple responsibilities.
There is the threat of boats in the area, which the crew has to be always on the look out for. The biggest duty of the crew, though, is to keep Gandy nourished.
“Every half hour, my boat signals to me that it’s time for a feeding,” Gandy said. “I swim over to the boat and they throw a line in that has three bottles, typically.”
The first of those bottles is a high-calorie carbohydrate mix, which his body can easily convert into energy. The second bottle typically has water or another liquid to keep him hydrated, while the third has a mouthwash that he uses to prevent problems his mouth, lips or throat could have due to the salt water.
All in all, he tries to take in at least 500 calories an hour. In his Jamestown swim, he had over 10,000 calories.
His crew keeps an eye on that intake and also looks for irregularities. If his stroke rate – the number of strokes he takes per minute – goes down, they know he needs more energy and they act accordingly.
“We all have energy stores in our body that kind of run out after about two or three hours,” Gandy said. “You see marathon runners collapsing and things like that. They call that hitting the wall. I never want to hit the wall. I never want to run out of energy.”
There was one time, in particular, where Gandy came close to that wall. He was swimming the English Channel, considered to be among the most difficult open-water swims in the world, in 2009.
His goal was to try to double-cross the channel, which would have made him the first person ever to accomplish that feat on his first attempt.
Instead, he was only able to cross the channel once.
“I really learned a lot swimming the English Channel,” he said. “I struggled to just get the one crossing in. Afterwards, I was disappointed at first, but I’m very pleased to have swum the English Channel. There’s been a lot more people that have climbed Mount Everest than have swum the English Channel just once.”
Though he’s proud of that accomplishment – he became the first and only Rhode Islander to swim the channel – it has also become a huge motivating factor in his swimming.
“There’s unfinished business,” Gandy said. “I need to get back there and complete my double. I think there have only been about 22 people that have done it, and I want to get back there and do it. That’s my goal.”
Getting to the point where that goal is attainable is a big reason why Gandy has taken on such long swims. He won’t be able to swim the channel again until 2012, and he has been gearing all of his swims toward getting himself in shape for that day.
It’s come with a price. After both the swim on the English Channel and his swim around Jamestown, Gandy has seen vivid hallucinations. After the Jamestown swim, he was taken to the hospital and treated for rhabdomyolysis, which is a condition that happens when the muscles are so broken down that they release an enzyme that, in high volumes, could be toxic to the kidneys.
Gandy turned out fine, and suffered no ill effects going forward. He is usually back to normal the following day in fact, even climbing the Cliffs of Dover the day after he swam the English Channel.
“It’s not like I’m out for a few days,” Gandy said. “I feel actually fine, quite frankly.”
Beginning Saturday morning, though, Gandy will put his body through its toughest test yet.
He and Howley will start off at Warwick’s Chelo’s Waterfront Bar and Grille, located at 1 Masthead Drive. The public is encouraged to come at 8:30 a.m., and Gandy will welcome everyone at 8:45. At 9 a.m., Howley will began her swim – which will be the longest of her career as well. Her previous long is the English Channel, which she completed a week before Gandy.
Once the clock strikes 10, Gandy will start his swim. The hope is that both of them will return to Chelo’s between 12 and 3 p.m. on Sunday afternoon.
If it all goes well, there will be more long-distance open-water swims in Gandy’s future, including a run at his biggest goal – the double-cross of the English Channel.
“I don’t know where it will all end,” Gandy said. “I don’t know how far I can push myself. I don’t know what this is going to entail for me physically.”
If anyone wants to watch the event, there will be video streaming available at www.5050swimchallenge.com. There will also be live GPS tracking on the website.
Also at 5050swimchallenge are instructions on how to donate to the LLS. Any donation is appreciated.
To learn more about Gandy, visit his website at www.rayswims.com.