I met a bunch of English Channel alumni and aspirants in April 2011 in Malta, where I completed my first 6-hour swim. There I was, the lone American among mostly Brits, learning to tackle the cold and persevere through the mental games and physical pain of swimming farther than it seems like one should. The question I got most often (after, “Did you just say boo-eey?”) was: “So Caitlin, do you want to swim the English Channel?” I always gave the same, simple answer:
“I don’t know. I’ve never even seen it.”
I live on an island. My home is surrounded by waters I have not swum. Sure, I might like to swim the English Channel some day, but it isn’t calling me like the tidal waters surrounding Manhattan: the Hudson, East River, and New York Harbor. These are my waters, not only because I bike across the bridges and gaze at the boat traffic daily, but because it was these waters that signaled the end of my great grandparents’ long passage from Russia. Sailing into the harbor, they must have felt relief; I would like to think that optimism filled their anticipation when the seemingly endless open sea gave way to land, followed by the appearance of a tiny statue in the distance. Could they have taken their eyes off her, “Lady Liberty,” as she grew to a magnificent size with their approach to Ellis Island just on the other side? Certainly they were not imagining me, a great-granddaughter looking out over the harbor and the Statue of Liberty from my Brooklyn apartment a hundred years later, picturing them on their arrival.
Although I know that my great-grandparents and their children (my great-aunts and uncles) came from someplace– small towns in Russia, in fact, where they had lived for generations before fleeing the Czar– in many ways I see my family as beginning then, at the turn of the century, in boats arriving in New York Harbor. According to my dad, any family members who survived the Czar were lost in the Holocaust. There are no records of them, nor ancestral homes to visit. My family tree as I know it begins in Manhattan where my great grandparents set down roots. And when I imagine those metaphorical roots being fed for a hundred years by this actual tidal estuary, I’m not terribly surprised that it is to these New York City waters that I am drawn — with goggles and cap.
On many occasions, I have biked south along the western edge of Brooklyn, flanked by the busy Belt Parkway on one side, and the wild New York Harbor waters on the other: the Upper Bay, Narrows, and the expansive Lower Bay. I also have sailed these waters in a small boat, from Dead Horse Bay, past Brighton Beach, Coney Island, and Breezy Point, to arrive at Sandy Hook, New Jersey. By bike or by boat, I am drawn to the sight of the massive Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, and the image that plays in my head is of a young Gertrude Ederle (my hero!) in 1925, swimming her unprecedented 21-mile crossing from Lower Manhattan to Sandy Hook, nearly 40 years before the bridge was built, and just a year before she would travel to France to become the first woman to conquer the English Channel.
I may want to swim the English Channel some day, but first I would like to swim around Manhattan. And I would like to swim from the Battery to Sandy Hook, as Ederle did. I will be applying to do these swims with NYC Swim in the future, but it will not be easy to get in. I’ve been told that an English Channel swim under my belt would make me a stronger candidate.
But don’t they understand? I’ll get around to attempting foreign iconic channel crossings. First, I need to swim my own waters.
Stay tuned for a post about my first trip to Dover Harbor (last month), which just happened to be immediately followed by my first trip to France. My experiences crewing for other swimmers in July is up next.
Great post, Caitlin. I felt the same way about MIMS vs. the E.C., but for reasons I’ve never been able to articulate very well. Something about it just captures the imagination. “You swam around Manhattan? Wait…Manhattan is an island?” Good luck with your quest…
This post is pretty awesome, and that pic is an amazing piece of family history. I’ve done a ton of work on my genealogy on both sides (both of which go way back) which has concretely shaped my outlook on a number of things. Pictures like that are like little treasure troves. It is an alien, but totally understandable take you have, in regards to your own family’s history, as well as on the influence it has to your swimming desires. Best of luck with the NYC Swim app process!
Caitlin (can you trace the migration of given names in your family from Russian to Irish?) your post resonates strongly with me as well. I agree entirely with your philosophical reasons for exploring your home waters before foreign waters. The main impediment for large numbers of NY swimmers following your advice is the many and arduous hoops through which one must jump to gain admission to MIMS.
After reading Marcia Cleveland’s book “Dover Solo” in the mid-90s I was left with no great desire to swim the English Channel. It sounded far more like a Job than a Joy.
When I did MIMS for the first time in 2002 (in those halcyon days when you could get in weeks, even months, after registration opened) it really was a completely joyful experience. I did it as a tourist, rather than racer. We stopped frequently to document with pix against iconic backdrops. I loved being UNDER the Brooklyn Bridge so much that I swam back several times, against the current, to spend more time and get more fotos there. Passing the BMW bridges in rapid succession so early in the swim gave an encouraging sense of progress. Then there were the skyscrapers of midtown, Randall’s Island, the 59th Street Bridge (Feelin groovy) and the anticipated thrill of going through Hell Gate. Constant variety and stimulus.
I was last in the field by a goodly distance by the time we entered the Harlem River. At times, the Harlem is an unaesthetic industrial wasteland. But the compensations include:
Landmarks like Yankee Stadium (boo) and the giant History Channel sign.
9 bridges to swim to and under – more helpful markers of progress
MIMS becomes a RACE – Since the channel is narrow, I could clearly see how far ahead other swimmers were by the positions of their accompanying powerboats (though the confined space also means you can’t escape the fumes and taste of their exhaust.) Since I love racing, striving to overtake as many as possible gave me a keen sense of purpose.
Then the Columbia boathouse, Baker Field, Spuyten Duyvil (Spittin’ Devil) and into the Hudson.
Water conditions changed dramatically in the Hudson, big messy swells from a 20-knot headwinds colliding with an ebb current. So I had to adapt to that.
All these diversions and changes in environment and conditions make a daylong swim much more interesting, at times even riveting.
I swam an English Channel relay with Dave Barra and Willie Miller two years ago and the contrast between the visual and experiential interest of MIMS and the lack of same in the Channel could not be more stark. I enormously enjoyed crossing the Channel with two great friends, but feel that doing it solo would be unbearably tedious. And then there’s the necessity of decamping the Hudson Valley during its most glorious time of year for 10 days or more in dreary Dover.
But that’s just me. Many people would argue strenuously and I respect their different view.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts Terry.
My given name actually comes from my Dad’s love of Dylan Thomas. His wife was Caitlin. My mom may have some Scottish blood in her, but I can’t trace my name there.
PS: I neglected to mention that my paternal grandparents, James Laughlin and Mary Mulligan sailed into NY Harbor in 1906 (separate arrivals, they met in NY). Until reading your post I hadn’t made the connection with my own swims there.
Yikes! I was wrong. My mom has corrected me about the origin of my given name: Caitlin. While this post is about my dad’s side of the family, my mom’s response here tells a little about her side:
“I had always loved reading Dylan Thomas and Michael* and I listened together to “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” read by him ….he had an astoundingly appealing voice and we listened a few times. It was as I was learning more about him that I learned of the wonderful name of his wife Caitlin. It became even more appealing to me because of the Irish connection (my mother’s mother’s people were Scotch-Irish and left Ireland under duress because they were Protestants…in fact they started at least one congregation in the South somewhere…Presbyterians I think….I have all that somewhere if accuracy is important) Also the fact that Caitlin is the Welsh version of Cathrine which is connected (at least in my mind) to Kathleen, and lastly the connection of the name Caitlin to Lynn….my favorite aunt.”
*Michael is my dad
*Kathleen is my mom’s best friend since childhood
Nice post, Caitlin! I also think MIMS sounds like more fun than the English Channel. For all the reasons Terry mentioned, plus a family reason of my own: My husband is from Jersey, and my in-laws are LOUD. I’m pretty sure I’ll be able to hear them cheering the whole way.
Caitlin: I completely understand how you feel! That is why I swam from near my apartment in Manhattan, NY to Coney Island, Brooklyn in 2010. I found an article about about a 17 year old girl, Rose Pitonof, who did that swim in 1911 (breast stroke…before the “overhand” stroke was well established) and knew immediately that that was what I wanted to do. A group of swimmers did the swim this year to celebrate the centennial, and hopefully more will be doing it again in 2012. http://rosepitonofswim.com/ Favorite parts: swimming under bridges, and touching Steeplechase Pier at the end. :)
DD Thanks for the heads-up on this swim. I’ve subscribed for info updates and marked my calendar for Aug 18 2012.
Glad to hear it! I will keep you posted.
I loved your article about the family. See the baby sister that your grandmother Ceil (actually Cecilia sp?) was sitting next to in the picture….that was her sister Ethel. Ethel Pomerantz Scheer was my mother! I can help fill in some gaps about the Pomerantz side of the family, if you like.