If you can swim that, I’ve got a bridge for you

Photos by Tom McGann After the race, David Leslie posed for a photo with his wife Celest, right, son Brooks and Janet Clancy at Beekman Beer Garden Beach Club at the South Street Seaport, where awards were handed out to top finishers.
Photos by Tom McGann
After the race, David Leslie posed for a photo with his wife Celest, right, son Brooks and Janet Clancy at Beekman Beer Garden Beach Club at the South Street Seaport, where awards were handed out to top finishers.

BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | It had been awhile since I had swum in one of New York City’s major waterways — in an organized event, or in any other way, for that matter.

I had done the Great Hudson River Swim (a 2.8-miler from 79th St. to the Chelsea Piers) several times before — and miraculously never drowned. I always finished near the end of the pack.

I think this year that particular race was rained out. But NYC SWIM, which organizes an annual series of river and harbor races, also offers the Brooklyn Bridge Swim, a 1K. Ending my H2O hiatus, I decided to “take the plunge,” and signed up online.

I figured this would be a piece of cake. I don’t swim a whole lot — I try to do a half hour of laps once a week, just to keep in shape, and it’s good for my lower back. But if I could do a 2.8-mile swim three times before and survive, I was sure I could do a 1K, which is only about six-tenths of 1 mile, easily.

But I had to do a 1-mile qualifying swim at the McBurney YMCA, on W. 14th St. — 33 laps, in a 25-yard pool, a total of 1,650 yards. I came in at 55 minutes. But I then learned (I hadn’t seen anything posted on the Web site) that the minimum requirement is 45 minutes because there is a window in which the swimmers must finish before the tide changes. NYC SWIM gave me one more chance, and this time I went all-out, only crawl, all the way, and clocked in with time to spare, at 40 minutes.

It was now about a week before the race, so I told myself I’d try to hit the pool a few more times to get in top Michael Phelps-like shape. Of course, I only ended up swimming about 10 minutes the evening right before the race. But that was O.K. I didn’t want to be too tired out there.

What to eat the night before the race to give me some energy? I knew that runners always carbo-loaded on pasta and beer before the New York Marathon. Again, somehow I just didn’t seem to have any time to even boil water to make pasta. So I figured I would buy, hmm — donuts! I bought a half dozen, and popped a couple that night. And I also went off my lite beer “diet” and chugged a real, actual beer, since I figured, I needed the extra calories.

The race start was sometime after 9 a.m. on Sun., July 7. After getting up early that morning, I packed the bare necessities that I would need — MetroCard, an ID card, a bit of money ($20), a baseball cap for the sun after the race — in a small knapsack. Wearing my swimsuit under my shorts, I biked to the subway, then rode the 4 train to Borough Hall, and then biked down to Brooklyn Bridge Park, under the Manhattan Bridge, where the swimmers were already assembling and getting ready.

I locked my bike to a fence, then went and checked in. Our bags were tagged and would be vanned over to Manhattan for us.

Looks like the swimmers’ ship came in: Volunteers handed out Brooklyn Bridge Swim swag after the race.
Looks like the swimmers’ ship came in: Volunteers handed out Brooklyn Bridge Swim swag after the race.

Two women, one on either side of me, with black magic markers, drew a pair of 545’s (my official number) on each of my shoulders. At a table I picked up a neon-green latex swim cap with 545 written on it, and also a velcro ankle strap with a little orange box. When I emerged from the water on the other side, an NYC SWIM volunteer would take this box and click it off, recording my finish time.

I sat on the grass and stripped off my T-shirt, shorts, socks and sneakers, and tried to fasten my ankle thing on so that it wasn’t either too tight or too loose.

This new grassy park was a beautiful setting in which to stretch and warm up. This particular point of land seemed to be one of the few places in the city that oppressively hot weekend where you could actually feel a breeze.

There had been an online “webinar” about the race and the course that we were advised to watch beforehand, but of course, again, I somehow didn’t have any time for that, either. But, luckily, David Leslie — the well-known East Village activist and former daredevil / performance artist — was swimming in the race, and he gave me some pointers as we stood there in our Speedos. He pointed out the series of large red buoys that had been put out in the river to mark our way.

Basically, he said, he was going to try to avoid getting kicked in the face — which is a problem he had experienced swimming this race the year before.

The participants would be sent out in five, staggered waves, to try to avoid a massive jam-up — and more kicked faces than a Jackie Chan movie. Leslie had decided he was going to do breaststroke at certain points, so he could better see the swimmers around him.

I had been seeded number 366 out of around 375 swimmers, and not surprisingly, had been stuck in the fifth and final wave. I told myself I would use my pathetically low seeding as motivation, and would prove the world — or at least NYC SWIM — wrong.

Nate, an NYC SWIM volunteer, who would also be in the race, explained the course to all of us. The trains roaring overhead on the Manhattan Bridge didn’t help things, as Nate had to keep pausing giving the instructions until they had passed.

We would swim out, round the first buoy on our left, then keep the string of red buoys that followed on our right as we swam toward the Brooklyn Bridge, then would hang a right at a yellow buoy and then swim across the river under the bridge, and — if we were all lucky — finish on the Manhattan side.

As we stood listening, an enormous scow came motoring up the river, quickly followed by the Circle Line. I envisioned having to tread water while waiting for humongous boats to pass by me. A woman asked if boat traffic on the river would be halted during the race, and Nate answered, yes. “Thank you! Excellent question!” I thought to myself.

We next lined up in a big semicircle on the lawn, and I was toward the end. The swimmers were all races, all ages, slightly more men than women. A nice English guy in my group, who was standing with the help of arm braces, was missing most of one leg. He said he was in finance and did triathalons.

Before long, we were moving down a light-blue rubbery rug and entering the river. It was 72 degrees, we had been told, not cold at all. There were fairly big rocks, about the size of footballs, underfoot as we waded in. I dove forward a bit, just to get past these rocks.

I was at the head of our wave as we were all lined up and ready to go. I faintly heard the countdown start, “…14, 13, 12… .” Between “2” and “1,” I just went for it, and suddenly I was swimming in the East River. I did the crawl out toward the first buoy, then did a bit of breaststroke just to see where I was heading. It felt great to round the first buoy.

My goggles luckily weren’t leaking, but they seemed sort of fogged up. Maybe it was the grayish glare off the water, I’m not sure. But somehow, I didn’t feel like I could see exactly where the surface of the water was when my head was going in and out of the river — and, well, I got a little nervous. So I did the breaststroke for a while. But I was a little concerned about that, too, because it’s a slow stroke, and I thought I might run out of gas if I just kept breaststroking.

Each wave of swimmers had a “swim angel” assigned to them. This was basically a good swimmer who would be nearby to help out. As I neared the second buoy, our swim angel was coaching a woman around it, and I was gaining on them. Meanwhile another female swimmer was trying to edge by them on the inside of the buoy. I breaststroked back toward Brooklyn a bit to get out of this traffic jam and round the buoy.

I just tried to keep calm, keep swimming. But, at some point, the realization hit me: “This isn’t like swimming laps in the pool. There are no pool walls out here to ‘bounce’ off — to put my hand on and then spring off with my feet to head back the other way. And there’s no pool floor to put my feet down on.”

Maybe it was because this time, I really had the sense of being out in the middle of the river — farther away from shore. Also, in the Hudson River Swim, there was always some current, to some extent, sweeping us downstream. One year, I don’t think anyone even had to swim a stroke — the current alone would have carried us all the way to Chelsea Piers.

But there was no current helping us along as we stroked our way down toward the Brooklyn Bridge.

In addition to swim angels, there was also a flotilla of kayaks manned by volunteers and some motorboats flanking us, including a Police Department harbor unit.

After I rounded the yellow buoy and started heading for Manhattan, I began to feel a bit relieved. It was cool swimming beneath the Brooklyn Bridge — actually we were just north of it. But what was really cool was the water, literally, and that’s what I enjoyed most — being in that refreshing liquid medium. Hey, this is how they used to cool off in the old days — O.K., admittedly they didn’t swim all the way across the river.

I’ve seen a couple of brief reports on this race (by writers who I assume weren’t actually crazy enough to swim in it, like me) and they all focus, to varying degrees, on the “poop factor.” That is, how clean is the water, and is there sewage in it? My understanding is that the rivers are pretty clean nowadays, but that if there’s a heavy rain, the city’s combined sewer system (for both rainwater and sewage) gets overloaded, and, well, the poop pours right out into the rivers. If it had been rainy before the race, or if water quality was iffy, the swimmers were advised to take an antibiotic afterward.

At the halfway point, I started backstroking, and this made me feel even more relaxed, since it was a comfortable stroke, and I felt like I was moving along at a pretty good clip.

I would do some crawl, breaststroke a bit, then switch back to the backstroke. I was sort of doing my own medley out there.

Suddenly, though, the current kicked in. Someone in a boat to my left started yelling at me that I was drifting upriver. So, I swam on an angle to my left. “Come over here!” someone shouted. I thought it was from the boat. But then a swim angel — a guy, not a woman — to my right, said to swim toward him.

“Just head straight for the middle of those two red buoys!” Tom, the swim angel, explained. Naturally, my blue-tinted swim goggles had turned the red buoys, on the Manhattan shore, into a brown blur, and I could barely make them out. Thanks, Speedo!

So now I tried to put on a little speed. I did the crawl more. I had plenty left in the tank. I would survive — now it was time to go for it.

As we neared the bridge’s massive western stone stanchion, I became more aware of other swimmers splashing near me. The current flowing upriver started to feel stronger. As we steered around the stanchion, it became darker as we swam into the bridge’s shadow. I also thought I could feel the water swirling a bit more here. Perhaps there were eddies created by the bridge’s tower.

I tried to turn on the jets and finish with a strong kick. But it seemed that everyone had the same idea. A big woman in front of me was kicking furiously. Suddenly, a smaller woman in a wetsuit was darting on my right — and passing me as I slowed down due to the woman in front of me. Cheater!!! Wetsuits add buoyancy.

My hand clunked into something solid. Was it the East River bulkhead? The finish line? No, it was a kayaker.

“Hard right!” he barked at me like a drill sergeant.

And then I found myself hitting a sandy slope underwater, like some half-blind amphibian crawling ashore. I had finally made it to “Scott Stringer Memorial Beach,” a key feature of the borough president’s Blueway plan.

Now I was being hustled up the beach, and a volunteer was unstrapping and taking the timer thingy off my ankle.

Next, a friendly volunteer handed me some flip-flops. They were pretty flimsy, and mine broke almost instantaneously — but I appreciated the gesture. Barefoot, I tromped down past the former fish market’s historic Tin House to Pier 17, where the winners would be announced. We were given some good swag, including a maroon T-shirt and a light backpack, both with the Brooklyn Bridge Swim logo.

The first-place finisher was Luane Rowe, 24, from Sydney, Australia — a nation of great swimmers — who finished in a blistering 12 minutes and 38 seconds. Awards were also given for top finishers in their age categories. There was at least one person in their 80s.

It felt like I had been splashing around out there for at least 40 minutes. But when I checked the results online later, I was surprised to see that I had finished in 21:23, only about 9 minutes slower than “Aquagirl” Rowe. Also, I was happy to see that I had come in 201st place, out of a field of 371 — right in the middle of the pack. All right! I felt like I was a real swimmer. I could hang.

Two swimmers didn’t finish, and were pulled out of the water.

As we were waiting to rinse off at an outdoor shower, David Leslie introduced me to a couple of his “aqua friends,” who happened to be standing right in front of me in line, fellow East Villagers Bill Morrison and Laurie Olinder. They had, in fact, introduced Leslie to the Brooklyn Bridge Swim three years ago.

The multitalented Olinder designed the original logo for the East Village’s HOWL! Festival and is a founding member of the RIDGE Theater. Morrison is an indie filmmaker.

I asked Leslie — who I somehow beat by 15 seconds — about his experience in this year’s bridge swim, his third.

“It’s something that I had always fantasized and visualized many times when standing down in DUMBO on the edge of the river,” he said. “I used to have a studio there and we’d go down and hang out under the bridge. I’d say, ‘I can make it across… . I think I can make it, I think I can make it.’

“When I found out from Bill Morrison that they were doing organized swims, I had to get involved.”

Leslie said he was proud that he had shaved six minutes off his time from last year, and that he also dropped 18 pounds while training for three months for this year’s swim.

He said he really enjoyed the mix of swimmers, young and old, in shape or overweight, men and women.

“It’s a great equalizer,” he said.

Looking forward to 2014, he added, “I’m certain I can improve it next year. I want to knock two or three minutes off my time.”

Funny, that’s the same thing I was thinking.