With the exception of those joyous, carefree, childhood summers that lasted for years at a stretch, I can’t remember a time in my life when I was happier just going about my business day to day. I loved this summer. And on that note, although the last thing I would ever want to do is make you feel bad, I have to say: if you do not work in education, then you are seriously missing out. How do people work year round? I am not asking this rhetorically; I really don’t understand.
I filled my winter and spring breaks with unprecedented amounts of travel (Egypt, London, Paris, Santa Cruz) and so I decided that during the summer months I would stay put. And I am glad that I did. I attribute my amazing summer to this non-traveling, this living and swimming in and around New York City.
A wonderful thing about New York City is that it can be so many different things to different people. It can even be different things to the same person. It simply doesn’t feel like the same place I moved to nearly a decade ago. Of course the difference I feel isn’t in the city itself, it is in how I use it and enjoy it, and the people I’ve come to know along the way. My New York City is a swimmable world of islands, tidal estuaries, beautiful and historically significant rivers and a very accessible ocean. Yes, it is also concrete, tall buildings, and gridlocked taxis, but this summer, that New York City was relegated to the role of striking backdrop to my view from the water.
New York New Jersey Harbor Estuary
Although New Yorkers refer to Manhattan’s western boundary as the “Hudson River,” it is in fact a tidal estuary from the Battery, at the southern tip of the city, all the way up to Troy, a city about 150 miles north. As a tidal estuary, it is influenced by the river’s freshwater flow, as well as the tides and seawater flowing in from the Atlantic Ocean. The East River, the city’s eastern boundary, isn’t a river at all, but rather a “tidal strait” connecting Upper New York Bay at the south end of the city to Long Island Sound; it is also tidal. The Harlem River is another tidal strait that connects the Hudson with the East River.
These waters also happen to hold great historical significance for the United States. The Hudson River, which for much of our history was the way to get to the interior of the country, acted as a main thoroughfare for commerce, fishing, immigration, freight and passenger travel, and also had strategic importance for the military. Although we rely on the harbor and the river significantly less today, it remains a very busy place, crisscrossed by water-taxis, ferries, sailboats, coast guard and police boats, and massive cruise and cargo ships that barrel through the channels.
I passed many of my summer days on or in these waters, and over time I felt my perspective shift. It was profound, really—a sort of mental flip of negative and positive space, like a prolonged moment of puzzling over an unfamiliar map before the brain recognizes land for land, and water for water.
The thought danced circles in my mind one day as I swam for hours in the Hudson—to a pedestrian, the water outlines the limits of the city, and is an obstacle to be conquered with bridges, tunnels, and ferries. But from a sea-going perspective, with a pair of sea legs, a boat with motor, sail, or paddle, or strong arms and a pair of goggles, it is the land that is the limiting factor.
Smile. On a long swim, thoughts like these have ample time to brew… Standing on shore, you might see the water’s edge as a looking glass, through which is observed another world entirely, a marine world teeming with life, productivity, leisure and purpose. From within that world, submersed in the water or sitting in a boat surrounded by the possibilities of the open water, dry folks on land look a bit trapped, confined as they are to walkways and roads and such…
Emerging from a winter of open water swimming
After shoulder surgery last October, I swam out at Brighton Beach as many weekends as possible over the winter, an experience I outlined in some detail in this post. The springtime warmth killed the cold-water routine—my ten minute swims turned to 20, and then 30 minutes, and by the middle of May, the water was up into the fifties, and I found myself swimming past an hour comfortably. Although I was happy to see more swimmers returning to the beaches, I missed the intensity of the winter routine. But change is good. I appreciate living in a place with such extreme seasons. And summer was amazing.
Summer 2012 Digest
I spent this summer swimming, not writing. Now, faced with a seemingly endless list of experiences I have been mentally writing about for months, I have prepared the following to highlight a collection of my summer days. I have not gone into any real depth here, as many of these experiences warrant posts of their own, and those will come. I have included a small map for each event that shows roughly where it took place. Please do not interpret any lines on maps as official, GPS-generated records of swims. They are, instead, rough estimations of courses and areas that I drew with my finger on my computer’s track-pad.
The Great Hudson River Swim
May 26th, 2012 – 1.6 mile swim
The Great Hudson River Swim is the season opener for NYC Swim, and in some ways marks the beginning of the open water swim season in New York City. After a winter of indoor pool swimming and cold Brighton Beach swims, I enjoyed the opportunity to jump into the Hudson in May with 400 other swimmers. Unfortunately, at only 1.6 miles, it ended just as I was beginning to get into a rhythm and enjoy myself.
During this year’s swim, I felt unusually strong, like I could have gone on indefinitely. This was meaningful to me, as this was my first swim event since my shoulder surgery last October. Since the surgery, I had not felt this kind of good—no shoulder pain, and a general feeling of physical fitness. It was a great way to start the season.
Sandy Hook Kayak Clinic
June 9th, 2012 — Volunteer swimmer
This amazing day started and ended on the Seastreak ferry between Pier 11 in Manhattan and Sandy Hook, NJ, traveling with Capri, very nearly the course we would swim together in our Ederle relay (see below). We went as volunteer swimmers to a kayak clinic so that newbie swim-support kayakers could practice paddling alongside us. That was fun.
What was more fun were the hours of personal kayaking lessons I also received in the most amazing kayak ever. Clinic organizer, Terry O’Malley, graciously offered up his Greenland replica kayak, taught me some basics, then led me in rolling the boat again and again, using three or four different roll techniques. An unexpected treat, I discovered the joy of sitting in a kayak upside-down, underwater, looking up at the surface, and then twisting my body and positioning my paddle so that I flip back right-side-up.
As the hours passed, I got progressively worse at righting the boat. Unable to roll back upright, I would find myself popping my head up just long enough to take a breath and laugh a little before heading back underwater, sort of the opposite of a turtle stuck on its back (by which I do not mean a turtle walking comfortably on it’s feet —bad analogy, I guess). I enjoyed every moment of my struggle and was only ever worried that a concerned Terry would help me flip the boat upright, and put a premature end to my underwater, upside-down time. It wasn’t until the next day that I figured out why I had gotten worse while practicing. When I couldn’t get out of bed in the morning, I realized just how seriously taxing all that rolling was to my core muscles.
I think I’ve known for a long time that when I find something I love doing, I have a tendency to overdo it—but knowing that never helps me to act sensibly in the moment. I really couldn’t move for a day. Whatever, it was totally worth it.
Terry has what I believe to be essential attributes of a great teacher: overwhelming love and excitement for his subject matter, and a passion for sharing it. I feel very lucky to have found myself on the receiving end of his passion and generosity, as it has enhanced my life and given me another something to get stupidly excited about. Since the day of the clinic, I have been back in Terry’s boat a few times and now plan to go build myself a boat just like it next spring in Oregon!
More to come on this…
Stars and Stripes Aquathlon
June 16th, 2012 – 1.5K swim and 5K run
The aquathlon, a sport pioneered by ocean lifeguards, is a lovely alternative to triathlons for folks who don’t like or have a bicycle, or in my case, aren’t interested in giving up swim training time to cycling. This swim-run race was my first multi-sport event in over a year, and although I do not miss the gear-intense life of a triathlete, I was excited to have a little “transition area” to set up just so. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to indulge that little compulsion because I was stuck in an unmoving Porta-Potty line. If fact, I stood there squirming right through the safety briefing, and ran from it directly into the water to start the race. I almost missed my starting wave.
It was my first time swimming in the Harlem River— an infamously long and boring stretch of the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim. Of course, since I was only in the water for a 1.5K loop at the base of the river, I did not experience the longness or the boringness of it. Out of the water, I threw on my running shoes and a pair of shorts, and took off around the southern tip of the island. Short though it was, the run was a bit painful for this fish. I might have had an easier time of it had I gone to the briefing, because I sprinted nearly a half mile to what I thought was the finish, only to find out there was another mile to go.
I’ve lived in NYC for nearly a decade, but this NYC Swim event was my first time to Randall’s Island. I was surprised to learn later that, according to the city’s website, the island is one of the city’s “main recreation hubs” with a track & field facility, a golf center, nine acres of restored wetlands, a 20-court tennis center, and more than 60 playing fields. Who knew?
Event dates: June 25th to July 2nd, 2012
Stage 3, volunteer – stage 6, 15.7 mile swim – stage 7, volunteer
In its second year, the epic 8 Bridges swim is a seven-day, 120-mile stage swim put on by the legendary David Barra and badass Rondi Davies. This is not hyperbole. I don’t believe you can find better people to put on a more class-act event. With their focus on environmental issues affecting the Hudson River, and love for open water swimming in its pure and simple (EC-style) form, this event is solid.
This year, Grace Van der Byl and Rondi—both extremely speedy swimmers—swam the entire 120 miles. An additional 21 swimmers joined in and swam for one or more stages. Last year I volunteered for stage 5. This year I swam stage 6, and volunteered for stages 3 and 7. Obviously, next year I’ll have to get to know stages 1, 2 and 4. So many numbers!
I have a far more complete post for this epic event brewing. Spoiler alert: at the end of stage 6, after having swum the 15.7 miles from the Tapan Zee bridge to the George Washington bridge alongside my good friend Louise, and with Terry O’Malley’s expert kayak support, I felt physically strong and a bit euphoric. Nine months after shoulder surgery and I was swimming better than I ever had. In that moment, as I swam under the shadow of the George Washington Bridge, I decided I would swim around Manhattan next year and I asked Terry to be my kayaker. I have since been accepted into the event, so Terry and I have plans for June 8th, 2013!
Statue of Liberty Swim
June 29th, 2012 – volunteer
I spent this Friday afternoon and evening volunteering for the Statue of Liberty Swim, another NYC Swim event. I walked away from the experience with a more complete understanding of the mammoth amount of work that goes into planning an event like this. Between organizing multiple check-ins for swimmers and their guests (ferry bracelets, event bracelets, timing chips…), first on Manhattan and then on Liberty Island, ferrying swimmers and guests to and from Liberty Island, arranging and managing kayakers, boaters and volunteers, and coordinating with Liberty Island personnel to take over the island once the public had departed (in addition to all of the planning and preparation that went on before the day)—it was an impressive feat of organization.
Being on the water that bright summer evening, taking the passenger ferry –which I haven’t done since I was too young to remember doing it—and spending the afternoon and evening hanging out under the lady felt like a perfectly lovely way to spend a Friday evening. I have done a bit of thinking about her relevance in the life of my family (see this post), and she stands facing my Brooklyn apartment of seven years, so I appreciated this swim event in her shadow.
Volunteering on the final stage of 8 Bridges three days later, I crossed her path again, and I was overwhelmed by the contrasting enormity of her significance, simplicity of her gesture, and our growing familiarity. Perspective shifting.
Aquaphor NYC Triathlon Relay
July 8th, 2012 – Relay team with mom and brother
My mom and brother and I did the Aquaphor NYC Triathlon as a relay. The swim was under 20 minutes and not much to write home about (except I might send a postcard about the dead fish I saw floating down the river while I waited for my start), but the whole experience was a blast.
The relay corner of the transition area was full of good-old childlike enthusiasm— my favorite kind. There may have been teams in there really trying to win, but I didn’t notice them. Most folks were laughing and cheering and generally enjoying the excitement of the day. Capri was even there as part of a relay team. I had no idea she’d be there, although at this point I suppose I should just assume that she will show up wherever I go that involves swimming in the open water. (Click photos to see much larger)
July 22nd, 2012 – swim support kayaker
My local open water swimming club, Coney Island Brighton Beach Open Water Swimmers (CIBBOWS) puts on the Grimaldo’s Mile swim annually. The race, named for Grimaldo Medrano, a lifeguard and early CIBBOWS supporter, covers the mile between the pier at Coney Island and Brighton 1st street. It is the stretch of shoreline I know the best in New York, as I have swum it on countless mornings with my fellow CIBBOWS.
I participated in this year’s event as kayak support—a first for me. As this race is short, kayakers are not used to escort individual swimmers, but rather to help direct the mass of swimmers as they navigate around potential hazards, and in this case, to point the way towards the finish, as swimmers were all-but blinded by the sun. Because kayakers come from all over, with varying levels of experience in kayaking and in supporting swimmers, it is a challenging task to organize the group. I found that communicating with other kayakers as we worked to keep the swimmers safe was a stressful and challenging job. It was my first time seeing an event from this particular perspective, and I walked away feeling like it was something every swimmer should do at some point. The more we know about the experiences of the people who come out to support us in our swims, the better able we are to work with them efficiently, and of course to appreciate what they do for us.
Jamaica Bay Kayaking
July 22nd, 2012 – 12-mile paddle around Jamaica Bay, Brooklyn and Queens
Clever one that he is, Terry O’Malley planned ahead to combine a morning of swim-support with an afternoon of recreational paddling. After Grimaldo’s Mile, we drove to nearby Jamaica Bay with Rosanna Loveccio and Gary Gryzbek. From the old sea-plane launch at Floyd Bennett Field, we embarked on what turned out to be a very challenging 12-mile paddle.
Terry brought the “skin boat” for me, and I was excited to take it for a real spin. But the wind was strong and I had to fight my kayak not to head directly into it (called weathercocking), as it was apparently designed to do (for seal-hunting purposes). The experience completely drained me: There was wind and there was chop, I didn’t eat enough before the paddle, and I failed to reapply sunscreen after Grimaldo’s. It was a real fight to the finish. I loved it.
Terry explains the four hour trek: “We were not at a particularly good point in the tide cycle for any sort of current assist, and were dealing with substantial quartering headwinds for the outbound long leg. The portion of the paddle where the wind could have been beneficial was a short leg and in a crowded channel. The long return leg saw the winds back at left rear quartering up to the funky channel crossing.”
I have wanted to explore Jamaica Bay for years, as it is something I’ve seen from planes leaving and returning to JFK, and from the Cross Bay Boulevard when driving out to the Rockaways. According to the New York Harbor Parks website, the bay is a wildlife refuge containing a variety of rare native habitats. These include a salt marsh, woods, fresh and brackish water ponds, and an open expanse of bay. The bay is also a bird sanctuary with over 330 species of birds. We saw some birds, but didn’t see the native reptiles, amphibians, small mammals, horseshoe crabs, and more than 60 species of butterfly that also call Jamaica bay their home. Surrounded by urban industrial and residential areas, it is impressive that this area is as protected as it is.
Manhattan Island Marathon Swim Relay
August 4th, 2012 – boat observer
I spent the day as boat observer for a 4-person relay team, the Charybdis, who were circling the island of Manhattan for the second year in a row. It was a great chance to see the course I will swim in 2013, and to spend the day with a bunch of good-natured, cheerful swimmers.
Around the island, the scenery went from dramatic sky-scrappers, to natural beauty, to run-down, to dramatic natural beauty, and back to sky-scrappers. Even though I had heard stories of the endless Harlem River, I was still surprised at how endless it seemed. The Spuyten-Duyvil bridge opening up to the beautiful, expansive Hudson was a very welcome sight.
What’s a boat observer?
As a boat observer, my job was to take notes on the day (swimmer stroke count, times in and out of the water, etc.), and also to make sure the swimmers adhered to the rules of the race. Every race that NYC Swim runs in which individual swimmers are escorted by boats, includes race observers. Similarly, swimmers crossing the English Channel or Catalina Channel will be accompanied by an observer provided by the local sanctioning body (such as the CS&PF, and the CCSA). It is a simple process, but an important one for record keeping purposes, especially when records are being broken. I’m not sure when the process officially started, but providing testimony about exactly what took place during a swim has been contested at least as early as Gertrude Ederle’s historic crossing of the English Channel in 1926. She was the first woman to swim the Channel, the sixth person to do it, she broke all previous records for the speed of her crossing, and she did not claim those titles/records without a fight. (A great account of this story is in The Great Swim, by Gavin Mortimer)
August 18, 2012 – 17.5 mile, 2-person relay swim with Capri
Speaking of Gertrude Ederle, last winter, while still very much recovering from my shoulder surgery, Capri asked me to join her as her relay partner for the Ederle race. That was a no-brainer for me, as I have wanted to do the swim for some time. As I wasn’t committing to any long solo swims in the 2012 season (I did not yet know how well my recovery would go), this seemed a perfect opportunity. We named ourselves C&C at Sea, and that was just the beginning of a lovely swimming friendship (see above: Sandy Hook Kayak Clinic, Aquathlon, 8 Bridges).
Check-in for Ederle took place in something of a downpour. It was humorous, until it was a little cold waiting around for the start. We had no idea what an amazingly beautiful day it would soon become. In fact, conditions were perfect for the swim.
After jumping off of the rib at the Battery and heading for Governors Island, Terry fell into place next to me and I barely looked up again until I was nearly to the Verazzano Bridge. I really should have looked around a bit more, but I was in a pretty good groove and so it didn’t really occur to me. I suppose that is one of the potential downsides to having such great boat and kayak escorts; it was easy to swim without taking the time to experience where I was, at least for the first leg. Capri and I switched off every two hours, which, in retrospect, may have been a mistake, as it limited the number of times we got in and out of the water—some of the fun of doing a relay. We finished in 5 hours and 32 minutes.
The last hour, in which I swam into Sandy Hook, seemed to last a day. I saw the beach right in front of me but no matter how hard I swam, it didn’t seem to get any closer. That illusion wasn’t helped by my crew yelling, “only ½ mile to go!” and Terry suggesting that I sprint to pull ahead of a swimmer off to our right. A sprinted half-mile should take me about 10 minutes in a pool. After an hour, I thought I was losing my mind. When I did finally arrive at the Hook, I swam right up onto the shore, like a beached whale. It was a fantastic feeling to get there, and then to rejoin Capri on the boat and celebrate together. It really was a perfect kind of day. C&C at Sea just needs a new adventure to plan for next season…
Thursday night, August 30th – 2 mile swim, Brighton Beach to Coney Island return
Ever since crewing for my friend Scott on his English Channel swim, in which he swam the first 6 hours in the inky-black night, I have wanted to try night swimming. On a Thursday night in September, I swam with 9 other CIBBOWS to the pier and back under an almost full moon. It was a phenomenal experience, and one of my all time favorite swims.
We strapped on glow sticks and took to the water, naturally grouping up in 2s and 3s. In retrospect, we should have had a more thorough buddy system worked out beforehand.
What was so phenomenal about this swim in the dark, was the light. The sky was black, but with each breath to the left, I saw a blazing full moon. With each breath to the right, Coney Island—lit up, flashing and glowing. And with each stroke below me, the black water came brightly alive with millions of bioluminescent and phosphorescent bits. I found myself taking strange zig-zaggy strokes, just to agitate more jellies and see them glow. I was pretty much laughing into the water the whole way to the pier.
At the pier, we chattered like excited schoolchildren, and were surely a surprising sight to the folks enjoying a full-moon stroll down the dock. Eventually, we saw a collection cops in their golf-cart sized vehicles headed our way. When they took a hard left onto the pier, we hauled ass back towards Brighton. The whole swim back, I was planning my navy-seal escape from the water. I would hide my glow stick and slither out undetected. To my great disappointment, they had lost interest by then and were not waiting for us when we got out. Instead, we were welcomed back to the beach with chewy fruit candy by our beach-guardian Hsi-Ling, who had been following us with a glowing white board the whole time.
Red Hook Pool
End of June until Labor Day – M-Fr 7-8:30am
I began every weekday morning (7-8:30am) swimming laps in the Red Hook pool—bright, slightly chilly, and 44 awkward yards (a great write-up of this WPA pool can be found on the 40 Pools blog). I came to love my mornings in Red Hook, and felt a real sense of loss when the summer came to an end. Also, not only was it an enjoyable and invigorating way to start the day, it came with a bit of friendly competition.
Enthusiastic city parks employees diligently recorded our daily yardage, congratulated us on swimming far on any given day, and kept us abreast of the various awards we would win if we swam certain distances by pre-set dates. In addition to the opportunity to represent Red Hook in a relay at the annual Lap Swim Awards ceremony, I walked away with a trophy, a T-shirt, and a mug featuring a picture of the pool, which I will certainly gaze at longingly as I sip hot drinks through the winter. (See this 40 Pools post about the award ceremony).
It’s difficult to find words to describe how much I love this pool. It’s just a pool. The lanes and edges are awkward. The lap-swimming hours are limited. But every workout ended with me trying to squeeze in just a few more laps. I never wanted to leave. The cool water, the open air, and the long lengths made me happy in a way that pool swimming usually does not.
Little Red Lighthouse
September 22nd, 2012 – 10.2K swim
The Great Hudson River Swim and the Little Red Lighthouse Swim bookend the NYC Swim season. The Little Red course has changed slightly over the years. This year, it was a 10.2K swim. In seeded waves, 299 swimmers departed from the 79th Street Boat Basin and swam up the Hudson River toward La Marina, just north of the Cloisters in the Inwood neighborhood of Manhattan.
This was the longest non-escorted swim I have ever done. It took me 2 hours and 20 minutes to finish, but there was no kayaker following me to provide food at regular intervals. Kayakers and support boats roamed the course to make sure that swimmers were safe, but each of us was responsible for our own food. I had two mint-chocolate Gu’s in my cap, and a bottle of coconut water that I trailed behind me. (I attached the bottle to some rubbery goggle-strap cord and attached that to a race belt I have from triathlon days).
Waiting for the race to start, I questioned the drink strapped to my waist, as I saw no one else with more than a Gu or two in their cap. However, when the race was over, many people I spoke to reported having a difficult time in the race, even though many of them were accomplished distance swimmers for whom this should have been easy. I may be wrong, but I’m going to attribute this to a lack of calories. The race was much longer than it had been in previous years, due to the relative weakness of the tidal assist, so many veterans of the race did not bring food at all, or very little. I think that the calories and liquids I carried, dragged, and consumed along the way were why this race just felt like another beautiful day on the Hudson.
Alright, I’m going to stop here. Did you really read this far? You must be a friend of mine. Thank you. I’ve got to get better at writing and posting as things happen… a good goal for 2013.
A few sources:
Hudson River: http://www.hudsonriver.com/hudson-river-history
Randall’s Island: http://www.nycgovparks.org/parks/randallsislandpark
Jamaica Bay: http://www.nyharborparks.org/visit/jaba.html