Volume 17 • Issue 9 / July 23 - 29, 2004


No, it’s not crazy to swim in the Hudson

By Melanie Wallis

Photos by Steven Davy
The author walks the ganway after finishing the half-mile swim at North Cove.
Moms always worry. Hence, I was not surprised at my mother’s reaction of fear and horror when I announced, during my weekly call home to England, my plan to do a half-mile swim in the Hudson.

The reaction of my fearless friends, however, surprised me. As they are all in their late twenties and adventurous, I was expecting a pat on the back for my bravery at least. Instead, I was declared mad several times and asked why on earth I should want to swim in the murky Hudson.

I love swimming. I’ve swam from an early age and my favorite swimming environment is in the sea, so to swim in the Hudson not only seemed a great thing to say that I’ve done, but an interesting alternative to swimming off a beach. Despite the lack of encouragement and warnings, I was looking forward to my swim last Saturday.

The swim, called “Cove to Cove,” is one of the shortest out of the seven events held by the Manhattan Island Foundation. Started in 1981, the foundation specializes in organizing open water events in America and Europe, including its 28.5 mile Manhattan Island Marathon. The events are the only time that the public is allowed to swim in the Hudson, with the foundation getting clearance from the Coast Guard and N.Y.P.D. harbor patrol.

The route for my half-mile swim was in Battery Park City, from South Cove, to North Cove at the World Financial Center.

As the distance was reasonably short I wasn’t worried about whether I had the stamina for such an event and consequently did no training, apart from my qualifying one-mile swim in a pool.

I jumped into the warm, salty water at South Cove at 7 p.m. with 53 other swimmers.

The foundation tries to time the races with the tides, to make sure the current is going in the right direction. My confidence was soaring with the news that the current was strong that evening. A large crowd of more than 50 spectators joined in the countdown to start off the swim.

With the current on my side and the encouragement of the crowd, I began to believe there was a chance that I could be among the top few finishing the event.

I sped off doing crawl. Five minutes into the race, with only a handful of the 53 other swimmers behind me, I realized I would be lucky not to finish last. My initial vigor had left me breathless and it seemed the strong current was counteracted by the choppy water. I had completely underestimated the Hudson.

There are three elements that are different from swimming in a tidal river as opposed to off a beach or in a pool.

First, your navigational ability is marred. You feel disorientated. I found myself swimming toward the wall that lines the esplanade. Luckily, the kayaks prevented anyone from going out into the main river, where there was a lot of water traffic, causing the chop. Because of the water’s vastness, it’s difficult to monitor how far you’ve swam from one moment to the next; at times it feels like you haven’t moved forward at all, which is psychologically draining.

The second aspect is the depth of the water. There is no shallow end to rest and get your breath. In the Hudson, the only way you can rest is to float, which is difficult if the water is rough, as it was last Saturday.

The third element was the roughness of the water. Spikes of water engulf you. I couldn’t do my crawl stroke in such conditions. Scott Willet, 42, who has been doing the foundation events since 1985, including the Manhattan Island Marathon, describes swimming in the Hudson to “being in a spin cycle in a washing machine.”

The new experience of these elements, along with my breathlessness, led me to do almost the whole race on my back, half floating, using my legs only. I was the only one to do it in such a way.

I’m happy to say I wasn’t quite last, though. I came in at 13 minutes and 35 seconds. 48th place. The fastest person was Louis Deleon, who came in at 7 minutes and 54 seconds.

The overall experience was fun and inspiring — it inspired me to get fit. I would like to do another event armed with my newfound knowledge of tidal river conditions.

As for my friends’ concerns, it seems they’ve more to do with perceived pollution levels in the Hudson than anything else. The water, in fact, was the nicest aspect of the swim. Despite the lack of visibility in the brown cloudy water, I came across no solid debris and at just over 70 degrees, it was pleasant. As I treaded water waiting to get out at the North Cove finishing point, I was stung by jellyfish around the ankles, but I felt no fish nibbling at my toes. The city’s Department of Environmental Protection says the Hudson is clean enough to swim and fish in.

A week after the race, and I haven’t had an upset stomach or such even though I did swallow a few mouthfuls of the water.

The river swims are organized by Manhattan Island Foundation. Anyone over the age of 16 can enter but proof of swimming ability either through participation in past events or a witnessed one-mile swim in a pool in under an hour is required. Registration prices range from $30 to $100, depending on length and how early you apply. There are three swims left in the season: the Park to Park One Miler, August 1; The Great Hudson Swim (2.8 miles), August 21; and the Little Red Lighthouse Swim (7.8 miles), September 18. www.nyswim.org.

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