Sean Cunningham has been in lots of triathlons, close to 50 during the last 10 years from Florida to New York “and all over New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware,” he said.
But Sunday’s Escape the Cape Triathlon in Lower Township was the first time Cunningham ever started a race by jumping off a boat. And it wasn’t just any boat that Cunningham, of Pitman, Gloucester County, and 1,000 or so other competitors hopped off of into the Delaware Bay. It was the Cape May Lewes Ferry.
That unusual starting line on the ferry line’s biggest boat, the Twin Capes, was a first for almost everyone in the race. Steve Del Monte, the race director who stayed busy after the competition taking compliments on the event from both friends and strangers, said that off-the-boat swimming start was undoubtedly the biggest draw for a race whose existence wasn’t announced until mid-February.
Del Monte, a triathlete himself, has started a race on a boat. He was in the Escape From Alcatraz triathlon this year in San Francisco, where the competitors have started on a boat for more than 30 years. But Del Monte calls the new race — which finished on land at the ferry terminal in Lower Township — the East Coast’s first boat-started race.
And that novelty was nice, but once the race committee had that takeoff set up, Del Monte said safety became the key concern. He had more than 40 lifeguards under contract to keep the swimmers safe, and at least that many volunteers paddling and watching the swimmers.
“Every person who went into the water came out of the water,” Del Monte said. “And that’s the important thing.”
That focus on swimmer safety was reassuring to Erin Reynolds, who figures she has been in about 10 triathlons over the past three years, but doesn’t consider swimming her strongest suit.
“I thought I was going to get jumped on,” said Reynolds, who, along with being Sean Cunningham’s teaching colleague at Pitman High School, is also his fiancee. “But I really appreciated all the lifeguards.”
Cunningham added that the boat start was much more organized than many other triathlon takeoffs he has been part of — and contributed to Sunday’s being the “best saltwater swim I’ve ever been in.”
But another veteran triathlete, Sean Montgomery, said there was lots of talk on the boat Sunday morning about the start taking too long. The racers were sent off the Twin Capes’ deck five people at a time, and “everyone was pretty antsy, pretty anxious to get it going,” he said.
Montgomery lives in Hoboken now, but he’s a lifelong summer visitor to Sea Isle City. He said that once they got in the water, “I think everyone got pretty comfortable. ... There was a really strong current helping (the swimmers toward land), and that contributed to it being a pretty fast swim.”
Still, some people in the first Escape the Cape were more drawn by where it was held than by how it started.
David Craig, a restaurant owner from Cape May, got into the race with his friend, Bob Bonner, from Lower Township’s Villas section. It was Craig’s first triathlon, and Bonner figured it was his first race of this kind in about 20 years. But they wanted to try it because they wanted to support a new, local event, they said.
Craig, whose cheering section included his wife, Kristen, and their children, Matthew, Zeke and Caroline, said the current helped, but the bay was cold. Still, he was ready for it — with help from dousings of ice water that many racers were using to prepare on the boat.
Bonner and Craig had also taken a practice swim in the bay last week to get ready, but Bonner, a teacher in the Lower Cape May district, wasn’t necessarily prepared for the actual entry into the water.
“They said it was 10 feet” from the deck to the bay, “but it seemed a little higher,” he said.
Aside from that different start, the race appeared to be a fairly standard triathlon — although some competitors only did the aquabike combination of swimming and biking. After they got out of the water, the racers got on their bikes and pushed themselves again, for 10 miles or 20, depending on their divisions. When their biking was finished, the triathletes ran — 3.1 miles for some or 5 for others.
And at the end, there was an awards ceremony, on beautiful day with a nice breeze by the bay in Lower Township.
Heath Gehrke, operations director for the ferry line, was one of several officials who welcomed the crowd from the podium.
“We will do it again next year,” he said, drawing a few cheers. “But please, wait until then to jump out of the ferry.”
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