Wednesday, 5 June 2019

28.5 Mile Manhattan 20-Bridges Swim 1st June 2019

The attempt at a circumnavigation swim of Manhattan island was special in so many ways. It helped me close the file on wanting to do this swim since 2012 but so many things kept getting in the way. The result of the swim is that it has enabled me to feel SO much more at ease in New York being able to see the much quieter and more thoughtful spaces that I like to occupy in my mind with when not at work. After being quite down on NYC, I can see how people can cultivate a life here now having done the swim, stayed on the Upper West Side, having visited Governor's island and being taken training to Brighton Beach on Coney Island (many thanks to Arik and Jaimie). Given I work in a big city myself (London), unsurprising that I like to find quiet on vacation days.
Thanks to the generosity of colleagues and clients, this swim also raised over £4200 for Haven House Children’s Hospice in the UK

For this swim, I had enlisted the kayaking skills of all-round swimming California legend and one of my best swim buddies in Dan Simonelli (pic above) who had been my observer on Catalina and fellow completer of SCAR, Arizona in 2015. We were afforded an absolutely top observer/crew and all round great guy in John Humenik who looked after everything on the boat with NYPD fireman Eric (below) at the helm. At the end of the swim, fireman Eric literally gave me his fireman's T-shirt off his back!
It’s worth me, at this juncture, noting that I had updated many vaccinations (MMR 1&2, DTP and Hep A 6 weeks before the swim) plus was prescribed Doxycycline to take pre- and post swim to ward off any potential nasties. 

Our ‘Jump’ was 09:20 and due to the tides the start was held at Mill Rock Island which was half way up the Eastern shore of Manhattan (just off Randall island) which was different to most of the swims starting and finishing at North Cove.

After an early 06:30 registration, some nervous ‘Hellos’ complete with group photo taken above, I finally got the chance to meet the charming Rondi Davies and Dave Barra, we made our way round to the start, John ‘ghosted me up’ using the rubber gloves caked with sun cream and zinc (sudocrem) to prevent any ill effects of the sun. I applied Vaseline where I usually chafe and luckily our diligence paid off as not much chafe or sunburn ensued save for patch on front left shoulder from stubble that one will always get on a long swim. It always seems to get you somewhere no matter how you try and prevent it!

I was in wave 3 out of 5 with the slower swimmers heading off first led by Jessi from Vancouver. The start was a whistle and we all jumped out off our boats into the cold <60f (ca. 15c in British money) water to get the party started. The first hour was a tough battle without the pull of the tide (in fact the remnants of the ebb were hitting us head on) and constantly needing to pee but didn’t want to stop so battled on and tried ones best to cope whilst moving!

After the first feed post the first hour, you could now feel the current helping to push the swimmer up the Harlem and many of the 20 Bridges came thick and fast with one of the group who started 10mins after me (Israeli swimmer) Avishag, absolutely leathering it past me like a rocket. That made me want to raise my stroke rate so I upped the game and got stuck in. We were being swept along and although the water was brisk it wasn’t totally unmanageable given the time of year and being the 'earliest ever in the season' swim in history of Manhattan swimming. Given the tow we were getting from the current, at the next feed I joked to paddler Dan ‘Even a sodding plastic bag could swim this’ and he came back with ‘yeah - even a condom!!’. We overtook Ger Devin from Ireland and Jessi from Canada during  this stretch - it was obvious who they were as their kayakers had small Irish and Canadian flags flying from poles at the stern of their kayaks respectively.

There was one doubt though in my mind that kept nagging me as I had forgotten to bring my lucky duck (!) who turns up to all swims and events usually sitting on the bow of the boat (on my Channels) or kayak taking the conditions head first. I was hoping that wouldn't be my undoing but one stroke of luck I counted was my new shiny union jack swim cap presented to me from a few kind colleagues at work. I consoled myself that would mitigate the duck staying at home. I had fretted pre-swim that the unique tight fit of swim caps can be very personal but amazingly this one worked a treat so will be getting another outing next month in the US.

Anyway, we continued moving northwards and we passed the Yankees stadium on the right and I continued to hold most of the chasing pack (starting at later times) well at bay. We passed a shack on the left which looked like one of the coolest residences on the island:

Then the super humble Anna-Carin (Ocean’s 7 first female) caught us up with another swimmer both turning over their arms in quite a rapid stroke rate but we cracked on and she never really managed to get past us the whole race thanks to Dan’s expert kayaking and me trying to get my head down.

Rounding the top of the northern part of Manhattan island gave the swimmer a huge sense of achievement having clicked off ca. 1/4 of the endeavour and all of a sudden after passing the ‘C’ representing Columbia Uni (above), the next thing I knew the swimmer and Kayaker basically got jettisoned at pace thru a rail bridge (looking East below) into the temperate (5 degree warmer) Hudson. As we were 'whooshed' under the rail bridge into the Hudson I let out a massive yell of excitement - this was sensational - both warm, fast and now non-salty!

We could then see the George Washington Bridge (GWB) reveal itself (below) spanning the brackish Hudson in all it’s iconic majesty. I just felt this overwhelming sense of privilege to be able to be here to do this with Dan by my side and gunning for the triple crown. I didn't want to be anywhere else and found it really easy to stay in the moment for a change.

The flow from the previous days rains in the Hudson allowed us to fly down to the GWB in 30 mins from the top of the northern part of the island and now the enormity of the swim started to kick in with a plethora or sky-scrapers (what’s the plural?) WAY further down in the far distance. This was a low point for me and probably due to giving it too many beans in the Harlem river trying to chase Avishag and fending off Anna! I did, however, take the opportunity to do a few turns of backstroke under the GWB which is a customary rite of passage!

Gradually we made progress and eased our way down the Western shore and some sights became familiar given the walks we had done having stayed on W 88th Street on the Upper West Side. I was convinced I was swimming slowly and flailing around but we had long dropped any chasing swimmers and Dan reassured we were averaging 3.5-4.5 knots. That made me feel mildly more positive.

(All under control - thumbs up Shez if want flat coke on next feed?!)

We were cracking along nicely and I was beginning to think this was an absolute breeze given the 4 hours taken so far (as I could count them feeding only once per hour) but then we hit the parallel with 40th street and the chop from the wind over tide, boats, helicopters, yachts, tugs (you-name-it) kicked up the water creating a very random rhythm. I generally like it when it properly kicks off and this reminded me of swimming a double Bala 10km in Wales a few years before which almost got cancelled. The only trouble this time was that there was no consistency in the waves coming at you. I couldn't look up to sight as kept getting mouthfuls of water so I resigned myself for letting paddler Dan sight for me so got my head down, endured and properly got stuck into what was coming at me. I was in my element. I caught up a couple of other swimmers who went of in earlier groups and was told by John that the chop would last to just after the battery close to the southern-most end. Water temp was no issue but huge ferry boats and the like were bearing down on us constantly. I didn’t have to worry as I knew Dan was all over it and looked relaxed as only a Californian man can in such a situation. I duly informed him at the next feed wanting to prize a smile that ‘I like it rough’ and ‘love it when it kicks off’ drew a grin. 

I knew we were within 20mins of the southernmost end after going past the North Cove marina where registration earlier on took place but could now see the Freedom Tower standing proudly over us. Very humbling experience indeed. John took the cracking pic above from the comfort of the support boat.

We were close to rounding the southernmost end where the Staten-island ferry comes in and heard loads of hoots of ferry horns and Dan told me to stop dead in your tracks ‘do you need to pee as this is a good time?!’  We were now back in more tidal seawater rather than the brackish Hudson and the temperature dropped back below 60f within a few meters and it stopped me so quickly in my tacks that I couldn’t muster up a pee whilst we spent 30 seconds treading water much to my frustration. The tide was still 45-60mins from turning so in effect we had arrived too quickly knowing that we'd be taking some ebbing current head on.

We rounded the point and it was majestic looking up the south eastern part with the trio of ‘BMW’ bridges (Brooklyn, Manhattan and Williamsburg) all within sight. The chop was now really bad, the water was bl00dy freezing and we were stopped in our tracks by the remnants of the outgoing tide. The chop was coming from all angles including some weird under-tows. I began to feel disheartened and cold to the bone with frozen hands and forearms having borne the brunt of the kicking we were getting in the chop which was showing no signs of abating. I did begin to wonder whether I would actually get the job done. Feeds had now switched from carb powder to flat coke which raised spirits somewhat and we battled on through the violently unpredictable water and under-currents clicking off the miles.

(Passed the Brooklyn Bridge in the background - even creating a bow wave with my head if you look closely!)

Eventually we rounded the Williamsburg bridge and made the left turn up the Eastern side of the island, the water calmed down and we now had the tide in our favour feeling the gentle push behind. Dan expertly navigated the fastest course possible but pointed out that my ‘stroke rate had markedly slowed’ (I did warn them I didn't appreciate comments on stroke rate before the swim!). I was feeling very cold and informed him that my forearms and hands felt cramped up frozen solid where I just couldn’t relax them. I felt pretty beaten up having to constantly squeeze my goggles into my face so they didn't get swept away and was secretly glad that this swim was no ‘gimmie’. I was deeply regretting making the comment about the plastic bag being able to do it! I was convinced that there might be someone who wouldn’t get it done given the water temperatures but evidently the extensive screening process for this earliest ever attempt at Manhattan works as everyone made it as the field was littered with cold water practitioners!

The finish was now in sight and with every arm pull the current seemed to power us along, past other swimmers following Dan on the paddles who tried to find the smallest advantage in the fast water. The last mile seemed like we totally blasted back up to Mill rock and before you knew it we went past the imaginary finish line, a hooter went off and I was informed to stop swimming. It was over. Round of applause, hollering and waving from whoever was around. Relief, joy and deep sense of accomplishment as I scrambled back onto the support boat (on the 2nd attempt) and whole body cramping like mad. 

I looked over and saw the safety boat captained by Dave Barra and thought how safe and well organised this day was from start to finish with everyone on radios, NYPD on the water and nothing left to chance. Dan came over and said ‘great job Man’ and I got changed and drank hot water during a particualrly bumpy & nauseating boat right back to North Cove Marina. I realised we had overtaken a few other swimmers in the latter stages but didn't know till later that I had come 8th overall and 3rd male home with a time I would have died for - 7 hours 52 mins! (Rondi later informed me the current we had on the day was about average).

Completing this swim allowed me to earn the right to label myself as the 210th ‘Triple Crowner’ alongside the 20 other Brits who had gone on the journey before me.

You can read more about that here:

In conclusion this is a great swim and I would definitely recommend that UK aspirants choose first swim of the season as I really couldn't bear the thought of doing this in heat and warm water - makes me feel ill just thinking about it. Many will come and not give this swim the respect it deserves. The southern section on West- and East sides present a real threat of chop and all swimmers felt pretty beaten up afterwards. The views of the city are breathtaking but I wouldn't want to do it being a right-side breather only which is worth bearing in mind. Luckily, I am left-dominant on breathing. This swim is exceptionally well run and the safety boats were literally everywhere including race officials, NYPD constantly interacting on the radio with ferries etc. These are busy waterways after all. Highly recommended.

Question is, will I return for the 40 Bridges? Always fancied the sightseeing tour at night!

1 comment:

  1. With you all the way on the left dominant breathing, Shez! I'm really glad I got to take in the island.Huge well done, GB no.21! Exceptional swimming.Many congratulations.