A challenging 9/11 tribute brings a sense of freedom

The swimmers huddle before dawn at Higbee Beach. From left: Jim Clifford, Lelane Rossouw Bancroft, Jason Malick, and Suzanna Dann. Bancroft was the only one to reach Delaware.
The swimmers huddle before dawn at Higbee Beach. From left: Jim Clifford, Lelane Rossouw Bancroft, Jason Malick, and Suzanna Dann. Bancroft was the only one to reach Delaware. (MICHAEL VITEZ / Staff)
Posted: September 13, 2011

Jason Malick has always loved water. For the first 12 years of his life, his family summered in Sweetwater, N.J., near Hammonton, on the Mullica River. The Malicks lived in an old concession stand, which didn't even have plumbing the first few years, and the five brothers got in the habit of bathing in the river. Mom would throw them a bar of Ivory soap. Always Ivory, because it floated.

"We would often come out dirtier than when we went in," said Jason, 29, "because of mud fights at low tide."

Then the family traded up to Avalon, and Jason always swam in the bay and ocean. He was never on a swim team, never learned an efficient stroke. But in his 20s, he began to swim longer and longer distances. Last summer, he swam 15 miles around Cape May island. Earlier this summer, he swam around 7 Mile Island, home to Avalon and Stone Harbor, which took him 14 hours. Slow and steady, he is the tortoise of open-water swimming.

As a 9/11 tribute, Jason came up with the idea of swimming across the Delaware Bay, from Cape May to Cape Henlopen, Del. - about 12 miles as the crow flies. It was done 99 years ago - June 26, 1912 - by a Philadelphia bank clerk, Charles R. Durborow. There was much debate back then over whether such a swim would be possible, because of the swift tides in and out of the bay. Would they carry a swimmer out to sea before he or she could get across? According to newspaper reports, it took Durborow 14 hours, 13 minutes and was lauded at the time, says Jason, who researched it, as the greatest bit of distance swimming.

Jason wanted to try an extraordinary swim in tribute to the men and women who died on that extraordinary day 10 years ago. He put a notice on a swimming website, and three others decided to join him. Their plan was to cross together. "That's symbolic of coming together as a nation," he said.

'Bathwater'

At 6:10 a.m. Sunday, the 10th anniversary of 9/11, the four swimmers held hands on Higbee Beach, just north of Cape May Point. They said a prayer and observed a moment of silence, both to honor the victims of 9/11 and to gather themselves for the epic task ahead.

With only the faintest trace of light in the Eastern sky behind them, they appeared as silhouettes as they waded into the gray sea.

Jason was joined by Suzanna Aguilar Dann, 43, of Chesapeake City, Md., who routinely swims in the Elk River and whose 3-year-old daughter pretends to do freestyle across their kitchen floor. Lelane Roussouw Bancroft, 34, from Cape Town, South Africa, married to a Delaware man and living in Newark, Del., swam as well. Being from the bottom of the world, Lelane is a cold-water swimmer, and when she learned the night before that the water temperature would be 72 degrees, she sneered, "bathwater."

The final swimmer was Jim Clifford, 59, who grew up in Yardley, swam with the Philadelphia Aquatic Club, and now lives in Poolesville, Md. He joined the adventure because he loved the idea of paying tribute to the 9/11 victims and also was interested in a personal test. "See what I got left in the tank," he said.

Jim's wife and son prevailed upon him, late Saturday night, however, to bag the idea as too dangerous. And after starting the swim with the others Sunday, he climbed into the support boat, the Lucky Dog, a 38-foot fishing boat captained by John Hager of Cape May, who was joined by his yellow lab, Gunner.

But after watching the others swim for 30 minutes, Jim announced, "It's killing me," and leaped over the side. Before taking his first few pulls to join the others, he looked back to the support boat and said, "I'll apologize to my wife later."

Bobbing like a cork

At the start, the sea was calm, and the water temperature ideal. Accompanying the swimmers were two fishing boats, the Lucky Dog and Bird Dog, out of Delaware, captained by John McDermott.

Two kayakers also paddled beside the swimmers, and the Bird Dog towed a motorized dingy, which ferried food and water from the fishing boats to the swimmers, who would need to eat and drink at least every hour. Jason had worked hard to plan the event.

Contrary to Jason's hopes, however, the group of four soon split up. Jason, at 6-foot-2, 220 pounds, has a barrel chest and the longest reach, but clearly the most inefficient stroke. He was taking 70 pulls per minute, compared to about 50 for the other three, and he was falling behind. The Lucky Dog and kayaker Jeff Wildonger, 31, of Newark, Del., stayed with Jason. The others followed the trio.

Because of tides and currents, all four swimmers had trouble leaving Cape May Point. By mid-morning, Jason had swum 41/2 miles, according to the Lucky Dog's computers, but he was only 3.3 miles from Higbee Beach, where the swimmers had started.

Soon enough, however, they were all out in the middle of the bay, and the Cape May Ferry was bearing down on them. Jason had alerted all of the necessary authorities of this swim, and the Lucky Dog captain got on his radio to remind the ferry captain: "We have a swimmer behind us. Not sure you know about him."

"Gotcha good there," the ferry radioed back. "We'll give you plenty of room."

And the ferry pivoted, swinging wide of Jason.

Five hours in, scratchy with sea lice, skin turning red from the sun, still six miles from Cape Henlopen, Jason Malick just kept pulling and pulling, bobbing like a cork.

He was in the zone.

After 6 hours, 20 minutes, he treaded water to grab some sustenance.

What was he thinking about?

"Finishing."

'Like a washing machine'

By 1:30 p.m., more than seven hours in, Jason was smack in the middle of the shipping channel, giant tankers crossing his path.

Jason, who lives in Wilmington, worked for Wilmington Trust bank until he was laid off in March after a merger. He wrote to the founder of Endless Pools, in Aston, telling him about himself, the 9/11 tribute he was planning, and his dream of swimming the English Channel next September, and Jason had a job in a week. He works out daily in the demo pools at company headquarters.

But now Jason found himself in an endless pool of a completely different magnitude.

He kept swimming but went nowhere.

Because the channel was so deep, and the tide so strong, Jason swam and swam but couldn't seem to break free, to get out of the channel, to get any closer to the beach. Everyone on board the boats and kayaks wondered whether the pull out to sea was even stronger because of all the storms of late.

"It's like a washing machine out here," the Lucky Dog captain said.

The three other swimmers, maybe a mile to the northwest, were having the same trouble. The captain of the Bird Dog radioed, "We're swimming uphill."

Hour after hour passed, and Jason kept pulling, but in vain. He was being swept out to sea. By 3 p.m., he found himself in the ocean, in four- and five-foot swells, the swimming much rougher. He swam and swam for the sandy shore but couldn't get any closer than 21/2 miles. He just drifted south, past Cape Henlopen, past Lewes and Rehoboth and Dewey.

About 3:30 p.m., Jim and Suzanna, with the other boat, called it quits. Suzannna began suffering horrible cramps. But Lelane simply refused to quit. She was exhausted, and said to herself, "OK, sharks, come get me," but somehow she broke through the tide, and after 10 hours, 8 minutes of swimming, she staggered onto Rehoboth Beach.

She raised her arms like  Rocky at the Art Museum and then wrote in the sand, "We swam from New Jersey for world peace," and signed all four names.

Sense of freedom

Jason, still swimming, got word that Lelane had made it, that Suzanna and Jim had stopped.

He was now off the coast of Ocean City, Md., still three miles from the beach. The Lucky Dog, which never left his side, had gone 19 miles since leaving Cape May, meaning that Jason also had swum that far.

After 10 hours, 19 minutes, at 4:39 p.m., Jason rolled back into the boat.

"I would have gone another six hours if I thought it would do any good," he said. And he meant it. "But I was going nowhere."

His hands were shriveled like prunes, his face and back sunburned, but as he put on dry clothes, he did not look at all tired or like a man who had just battled the sea from dawn to nearly dusk.

He obviously was disappointed, and sat quietly for a while. But later, once the whole crew had reassembled for the trip back to Cape May, Jim convinced him the swim had been a great success for all.

"We swam a long way for a long time," Jim said, "and felt an enormous sense of freedom. I call that a great day."


Contact staff writer Michael Vitez at 215-854-5639 or mvitez@phillynews.com or on Twitter @michaelvitez

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