For those who are wondering why…
Why swim in the open water in (and around) New York City?
This post may help clear things up. June was a month filled with experiences I will not soon forget. Indeed, there was never a dull moment. Most notably, perhaps, is the way my New York changed from a hot and dusty a place that I share with large populations of people, rats, mice, cockroaches, and pigeons, to a cool, invigorating world filled with blue crabs, horseshoe crabs, hermit crabs, fiddler crabs, snakes, frogs and tadpoles, giant sea snails, flounders, cormorants, jelly fish, and salps.
I swam in the open water 4-6 times a week in June, so this post is a collection of highlights from the month.
We started heading out to Brighton Beach before work in June, which quickly turned into my favorite way to start a workday.
The rising sun at our backs, we would usually swim towards the Coney Island pier a mile away. The water chilly, but no longer icy-cold, a stop mid-way would remind us that we have truly awesome lives; turning to look back, treading water with our eyes bobbing just above the surface, we took in the light on the beach we left behind, which would have shifted with the rising sun. The sight stretched up into the sky, and all around us, enveloping us in great swaths of colorful reflected light flickering on the surface and on our faces. Looking to each other, we shared it, as it filled us with lightness and smiles. It was routine (we swam most weekday mornings), yet each time the sight of the sunrise behind us was brand new, something like a snowflake—none the same as another.
Our routine looked a little like this: leave Park Slope, Brooklyn around 5:30am, arrive at Brighton at six, in the water and swimming before 6:30am. On most days I drove, so we locked away all but our towels and the car key, which I stuck in my Crocs and buried in the sand. In early June, few people would be around at that hour—the mornings were still cool and the water had a bite. By later in the month, the beach and boardwalk would be filled with Brighton Beach locals (read: Russians) walking, stretching, and taking dips in the ocean. Every morning I wished I had my camera, but couldn’t imagine swimming with it. (I finally did get to bring my camera on the day Louise tried out her new Swim Safety Device.) With a workday ahead of us, our time was limited, so we never lingered in one place too long. By the time we made our return trip from the pier, the sun would be high enough in the sky that it wouldn’t completely blind us. A quick change of clothes under towels by the side of the car, and off we went to work, arriving just about 8am and carrying a bit of a secret with us throughout the day.
CIBBOWS Weekday Swimmers
CIBBOWS folks are easy to find on Saturday and Sunday: 10am at Grimaldo’s chair (directly out from Café Volna and the municipal parking lot, off Brighton 4th street), you can find us collected on beach towels, in and out of the water all day long. Wanting a way for folks to find each other during the week, after a day of emails establishing a common desire among many CIBBOWS, we set up a Google doc (spreadsheet) and Google group to keep the weekday swimmers connected. As far as I know it has worked out nicely and brought folks together. I can’t imagine how anyone did open water swimming before the internet. Interested in joining us? Add your availability to the doc, and join the group!
Swimming Adventures with Friends
Friends, and friends of friends joined us occasionally in June, but none of them ever experienced a normal day at the beach. No, trips with friends, without fail, meant strange and extreme conditions.
Stuart and the cold
Fellow Masters swimmer Stewart came out one weekend to give the open water a try. Unfortunately, the water got colder in June before it got warmer, and Stewart’s introduction to it was a mind-numbingly cold 53 degrees F. For someone with no previous acclimatization to the cold (in fact you could say he is acclimatized to the overly-heated pool), I was very impressed that he followed us in sans-wetsuit– without the least hesitation– and swam along with us. Of course, he hasn’t asked to come back out.
Jen and the chop
Another Masters swimmer, Jen, came out on a particularly choppy, strong current day. It was one of those days when the swimmer two feet away is often obscured by waves, and half of one’s attempts at breathing are welcomed by face-fulls of ocean water. Because the current was so strong, we headed into it, in the opposite direction of the pier, towards the white building a half mile away. Getting there took about 45 minutes, returning took closer to 10. Despite apprehensions about the open water, Jen managed the conditions well. An inspirational athlete who is doing her first Ironman this weekend, you can read about Jen’s journey to Lake Placid on her blog, where she writes about training for endurance sports while managing Type 1 diabetes.
John and the fog
The first day that our Masters coach John came out for a swim, it was so foggy that it was difficult to see even 20 feet away. I was skeptical about getting in at all, but we found that we could see the shore, if we stayed relatively close in. We decided to swim back-and-forth between the two nearest jetties, keeping our eyes on shore—no need to swim farther as there was nothing to see, and it seemed perhaps too easy to get lost at sea. It was really surreal. The waves kept knocking us off-course a little, and since we had no visual indication of it, we repeatedly found ourselves swimming perpendicular to, and directly into one another. After finding shore and re-establishing our direction, we would continue on, laughing over the absurdity of the whole thing. When a jetty would come into view ahead of us (about 20 feet before we reached it) we would swim just a little closer, then turn around and swim back to the jetty behind us. On one occasion, after having seen the jetty, I was knocked by a wave and started swimming directly out to sea. After a short swim, in quick succession, I looked up and could no longer see the jetty, looked to the right to get a visual on the shore, saw nothing but white and felt my stomach drop to the bottom of the ocean. Continuing to circle around, I of course found the shore, and John, directly behind me.
Peter and the… boardwalk murder and crime-scene beach full of abandoned personal belongings and trash
That’s right, you didn’t read that wrong. This was a tragic story (WSJ, NYTimes) for those involved, as a young woman lost her life in what appeared to be a random shooting into the crowd on the boardwalk at Brighton Beach one hot Thursday evening. But it was also an unfortunate way to introduce Peter, a friend of a friend from London, to swimming in New York. In NYC for the week on a business trip, our mutual friend Nick connected Peter with me, so he could see something other than Times Square on his trip, and get in a nice open water swim. In the car, driving through Brooklyn, Laura read the news from her phone: a murder had taken place the previous night at Brighton Beach, right exactly where we were headed. So strange.
We arrived at the beach, changed into our suits and greased up in the parking lot, and walked up onto the boardwalk where we found it roped off to the left and guarded by two sleepy-looking cops, presumably on duty through the night. The strangest part of the scene was the beach itself. It was completely covered with garbarge and personal stuff—as in, you couldn’t really see the sand. A little embarrassed, I noticed us trying to reassure Peter: “it’s not usually like this,” and “no really, our beach isn’t usually covered in trash.” We walked down to the water, hypothesizing: the beach-combing vehicles must not have combed as they usually do, most likely because it was still a crime scene. In addition, it looked like more than trash, as if people had heard gunshots, jumped up from their beach stuff and left it behind in a rush to get away.
The sun was rising; the water was inviting; and if you could ignore the cops and the ropes and the trash, it was a beautiful morning at Brighton Beach. Peter seemed to enjoy his swim to the Coney Island Pier quite a lot. When we stepped out of the water the beach-combing vehicles had arrived—they are big, tanklike things that leave freshly raked sand in their path. As we left the beach, we watched, a little puzzeled still by the whole thing, as the tanks erased– in big strokes– the signs of chaos, and senseless murder. Welcome to New York. It’s not usually like this, really.
Cold Spring Harbor race report
Laura and I drove out to Huntington Long Island for a 2-mile race in Cold Spring Harbor. It was a sweet event, with lots of local kids competing in shorter races. Well organized and full of enthusiastic volunteers, the race was certainly worth the trip out. Cold Spring Harbor is beautiful. In addition, it was a nice opportunity to push hard for 53 minutes—an aspect of training that I have neglected since switching from Masters to Brighton Beach mornings. Having swum 6 miles the day before at Lake Minnewaska, we weren’t sure how up for a push our bodies would be. We swam hard, and although we did not see each other for most of the race, we stepped out of the water only seconds apart. Due to the charmingly small field, we took 2nd and 3rd place in our age group behind one speedy Ms. Abigail Fairman.
Swept out to sea? Narrowly avoided.
A walk through Manhattan Beach? Unfortunately yes.
The ocean was table-top flat and silky smooth, like a country lake on a quiet day. It was 6am at Brighton Beach and Laura and I had never seen it so calm. I don’t remember why, but we decided it would be a good morning to explore beyond the white building, which marks the usual turn around for CIBBOWS heading in the opposite direction of the pier. (One loop from Grimaldo’s chair to the pier, back to the white building, and then back to Grimaldo’s chair is 5K. We know that loop well. But we had heard folks talking about the “Super Loop,” a 10K which includes swimming past the white building to Manhattan Beach. On this day we decided to check out the bottom of that loop.) The water was so still that it stole all of our attention, or at least that’s what I tell myself when I try to figure out why we didn’t notice how quickly we were moving. I felt the current when we stopped in front of the first unfamiliar beach we encountered, and asked Laura, “are you concerned about fighting the current on the way back?” She smiled knowingly and nodded yes. Looking ahead, I saw the building she was looking at, the one I call the “triangle building,” which we usually see from miles away in the other direction. “You want to keep swimming until we get to that building, don’t you?” I asked. Same smile, same nod. So we kept swimming.
We stopped just shy of the building and found we were moving quite fast. When we turned to swim back, we swam for about a minute before we realized that we were not moving at all. In somewhat-serious mode, I suggested we swim angled toward shore, which was big rocks, but better than getting pulled past the building and out toward Breezy Point. Angled in and swimming hard, we still made no progress. A little more serious, I announced that we should swim directly in. We were only about 20 yards from shore (which should be a leisurely 20-second swim), but it took us a good 5 minutes to get in, swimming as hard as we could much of the time. It was the first time I had felt anything like that, although I’d read about swimmers caught in currents plenty. That first push back to shore was a bit spooky, but once at the rocks, we were in a position to climb out if we needed to—it was earlier than most people are at work, so there would be no one around, but by no means were we at risk of getting lost somewhere remote. So for the next half-hour, we laughed as we fought the current and swam 15 yards at a time, as close to shore as we could. We could have continued swimming like this and made it back to Brighton Beach eventually. We were making slow but steady progress, and the tide would change at some point. But this was a pre-work swim, and we didn’t have extra time to battle currents for hours. So when we got as far back as Manhattan Beach, we climbed out and walked. Dripping in our suits, caps, and goggles, we wound through the residential neighborhood where folks in business suits were headed to work, and parents led children to school. Yeah. We got some looks. We are that awesome.
My new New York: full of wildlife
It was indeed a month of critters. Although I didn’t get photos of all that I encountered in June, below is a sampling. (Noteworthy and missing: cormorant who appeared many mornings directly in front of me, blue crabs with their big, flat swimming legs swimming just feet below me, big camouflaged flounder, and tiny fish at Lake Minnewaska that ram themselves into your outstretched hand again and again, trying to take a bite.)
The salps were particularly intriguing. The day they showed up, they showed up by the millions. Laura and I swam in what felt like an ocean full of jellybeans (thank you Jenna Jerman for the analogy). When we hit the things with our hands, which we did with every pull, they felt hard to the touch. Not knowing what they were, it felt icky and made the swim not-awesome. They were still in a long string at this point. When we scooped them up, they fell apart in our hands. The more mature ones were about the size of kiwis, and looked a little like a transparent, peeled plumb tomatoes. After spending some time inspecting them on the beach with the help of some locals, Laura took a cup-full to work with her and got on the Google. Not jellyfish at all, but salps. Later early morning swims with Salps were no longer icky, as we knew with whom we were swimming so intimately.
The salp, a smallish, barrel-shaped organism that resembles a kind of streamlined jellyfish, gets everything it needs from the ocean waters to feed and propel itself. And, scientists believe its waste material may actually help remove carbon dioxide (CO2) from the upper ocean and the atmosphere. (The Salp: Nature’s Near-Perfect Little Engine. Science Daily)
And some scientific articles about salps for those who want to know more: about their amazing filtration abilities, about their jet-propelled swimming technique.
There is, of course, more to say about June. But enough is enough, right? I will do my best, in the future, not to wait until the end of a month to cram the entirety of it into one post. I’m still finding the rhythm here, and have found it to be challenging to both live a busy, swimming-filled life, and write comprehensively about it. Baby steps.
Hey, saw this and thought you might dig it, if you didn’t already see it yourself:
Thanks Bernie! I appreciate you sending this along. Pretty crazy stuff! Diana Nyad is in a league of her own.
It sounds like an adventure, ocean swimming filled month! I hope you continue swimming in August, I would love to come out with you. Love reading your posts! Thank you for sharing.
Good luck at Placid!!! You will rock it. You have trained so hard. You are an inspiration indeed. And yes, we will swim in August and you are invited any time. I’ll be thinking about you this weekend!
Hey there! Do you know any good places to swim at night in NYC? What are the chances of getting tickets at Brighton Beach if swimming past 6pm?
I’ve swum at Brighton at night once w no problem, but I don’t know anything about ticketing swimmers or how often ( if at all?) they do it. I don’t have any other NYC night swimming experience yet. Let me know if you find good night swimming spots!
Hi, I love your Blog, and more interested in your camera u used underwater. Do you have a name or link?
Glad you are enjoying my blog!
I really really love my camera. However, the first one I had got water damage and died and I had been taking really good care of it, or so I thought. Amazon.com replaced it w the new model free shipping and no questions asked. I highly recommend buying from them.
(I’m in the UK at the moment so the link may be UK specific)
Lumix Panasonic DMC-TS3
Waterproof to 40ft
Loved your blog! It looks like you had an awesome summer. I always wanted to do open-ocean swimming on a daily basis, but I live all the way in Manhattan. I sometimes think that I should say the-hell-with-it and just jump in the Hudson River and do my daily swims there.