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


By Melanie Wallis

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. All in their late 20s and adventurous, from them 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 swum 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 looked forward to my swim, which took place Sat., July 17.

The swim, called “Cove to Cove,” is one of the shortest out of the seven events held annually by the Manhattan Island Foundation. Started in 1981, the Foundation specializes in organizing open-water events in America and Europe. The Foundation is mostly known for its 28.5-mile Manhattan Island Marathon, which attracts people from all over the world. Anyone over the age of 16 can enter the races, but the Foundation requires proof of swimming ability through participation of past events or a witnessed completion of a one-mile swim in a pool in under an hour. M.I.W.S. 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 from South Cove in Battery Park City to North Cove at the Financial Center.

Since 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.

On the day itself, the weather was sunny and humid. I and 53 other swimmers, of all ages, jumped into the warm, salty water at South Cove at 7 p.m.

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 news that the current was strong that evening. A large crowd of more than 50 spectators joined in the countdown to start of 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 in the top few, even finishing the event first.

I sped off doing crawl. Five minutes into the race, with only a handful of the 53 other swimmers behind me, and most overtaking 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 my Hudson swim.

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 towards the seawall. Luckily the kayaks prevented anyone from going farther out into the river channel, 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 swum 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 or shoreline 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 during my event.

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 as “like being in a spin cycle in a washing machine.”

The new experience of these elements along with my breathlessness, led me to do the whole race on my back, half floating, using my legs only — 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 had more to do with perceived pollution levels in the Hudson than anything else. The water, in fact, was the nicest aspect of the swim, apart from a few jellyfish that stung me around the ankles at the end as I was treading water while waiting to get out. But I am happy to report that I felt no nibbling on my toes from fish. The city of New York Department of Environmental Protection states clearly that the Hudson is clean enough to swim and fish in (although there are recommended restrictions on how many of each type of fish can safely be eaten per month.)

Four days after the race, and I haven’t had an upset stomach, 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 of 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, Aug. 1; The Great Hudson Swim (2.8 miles), Aug. 21; and the Little Red Lighthouse Swim (7.8 miles), Sept. 18. www.nyswim.org.

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