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.