Tag Archives: East River

MIMS 2013 – Part 2 – An outsider’s opinion – Start timing & boat availability

Part 1. – An outsider’s opinion – Introduction

Heading down the Hudson toward GW bridge (crop, contrat, resize)

Critical Start Timing and Boat Availability

Timing is critical for MIMS as swimmers and applicants are essentially told, as a MIMS Selection Committee Member points out; “MIMS is timed very precisely – on a specific kind of tide, at a specific point in the cycle – to give everyone a good chance at finishing.” NYCSwim’s selection committee selects and approves the swimmers. For anyone to later imply that some swimmers were too slow is therefore disingenuous. Two swimmers were due to start twenty minutes before the rest of field because of their relatively slow speeds (though both are very experienced marathon swimmers). But all swimmers started late and the swimmer start-waves intervals were compressed.

How late?

Well, 55 minutes for the first wave, 58 minutes for the second wave. Almost an hour later than the adjusted start time, NOT the original schedule start time, over which it was delayed by 75 minutes!

The adjusted start time was a late change time to the start time in the NYCSwim/MIMS schedule which had been available to the swimmers for six months.

The two swimmers who should have been set off early were delayed by 70 minutes. The extra twenty-minute gap that was intended to allow the two slowest approved swimmers make gains on the tide disappeared and the next wave entered the water mere minutes later.

Why did this happen?

MIMS say all of this was because insufficient boats showed up at the start (that there was a shortage of ten boats), as many had been damaged by Hurricane Sandy nine months previously, and some boat owners only discovered problems late.

I have an issue with this explanation, illustrated by a question that every swimmer I’ve spoken with (and also prospective MIMS swimmers, three international race directors, a publisher and a lawyer) has asked in some form:

  • What is the entrance fee primarily for, if not for a boat?

When one pays for an English Channel pilot (or any other major world marathon swim), one signs a contract, one knows that whatever else happens and all other considerations aside, there is a boat and pilot and crew waiting, with an agreed contract, binding and protecting both parties, swimmer and pilot/organisation. If for some reason the boat has a mechanical breakdown and the swim can’t go ahead, or if the weather doesn’t comply, the swimmer is usually not charged other than their association fee and deposit, (subject to the differences between contracts and regions). With many pilots the swimmer doesn’t even pay other than an association fee and deposit until there is certainty that the swim will go ahead. But when a swimmer is accepted into MIMS, they must pay the entire fee on-line immediately.

Does the MIMS fee of $2150 in 2013 not specifically include a boat? I don’t know.

What is NYCSwim’s ongoing discussion and relationship with its pilots?

One MIMS 2013 swimmer wrote to me: “I had to keep my [pilot] in [the] loop about time changes etc, during the tropical rainstorm on Friday, he got no email to say the swim was still on.. he was in contact with me for confirmation”.

That also is a shocking indicator of the poor or non-existent communication procedures to manage the boat availability.

Here’s a quotation from NYCSwim in correspondence with a swimmer, following a direct complaint about this year’s MIMS (yes, the swimmer gave me permission to use this quotation, as others did for any quotation I’ve used):

I know it sounds incredulous that we did not anticipate the boater shortage and the problems that spun from that, however it is the case every year that we do not have enough boaters signed up as the event approaches . . . and then they come out of the woodwork as a result of our final push in the days immediately beforehand. This year, the opposite was happening – we were losing more boats than we were gaining. Boaters who had signed up in the winter expecting that they would be able to get their boats repaired in time found that they were not able to do so due to a huge backlog of repairs needed and limited resources.”

That’s an astonishing admission and NYCSwim’s own words.

That that the best-known marathon race relies on chance to provide boats for the swimmers who have paid significant entry fees and travelled from around the world and that the organisation continues to do so year after year. In an area with over three hundred miles of seafront and boating communities, the organisation is incapable of planning for sufficient boat cover. NYCSwim seems guilty of institutional blindness to its own failings. Every single organisation has problems. Difficult as this is for those caught up in them it is realistic, as no organisation is perfect. But recurring problems that arise because of repeated and unaddressed institutional failings are the real issue here.

I’ve been asked, “what would you have done differently without the benefit of hindsight“?

I think people can see the obvious answer to that. It’s MIMS2013 that has demonstrated to the global swimming community that NYCSwim didn’t have a process to ensure sufficient boats. That the substantial fee, paid in the year before the swim, wasn’t actually ensuring a boat per swimmer. None of the fee was later allocated to hire any additional boats at a late date, which would have seemed entirely possible given the lack of procedures and on-going checks for sufficient boat cover. It’s not hindsight to NYCSwim that they’ve relied on chance to provide boat cover for the swimmer’s who have paid such substantial fees, in-toto, well in advance of the swim.

One swimmer told me that, had they have known of the problem, they would and could have provided their own boat cover at short notice, something that maybe no other swimmer could have arranged, but also demonstrating the possibility and the willingness of at least some swimmers to adjust to a situation, had they know of the problem in advance.

Given also the substantial amount raised from entry fees (forty Soloists plus two relay teams) that would have been raised from the fees1, (not including fuel surcharges which previously have been $125), had a procedure been in place to check ongoing boat availability, there should have been sufficient resources to provide backup boat cover. That is, if an organisation was willing to spend the money it had received to provide for which swimmers actually thought they were paying.

NYCSwim has pointed out that due to heavy rainfall the previous day, tidal currents were affected. One swimmer reported that their pilot, with nineteen years of MIMS experience said that the rains of the previous day had shortened the swim window in the East River. The same pilot is reported as saying that even had the swim started on time, many swimmers would not have made it. So the conditions were challenging anyway, without virtually ensuring non-completion by the lack of boat cover and late start.

As another swimmer pointed out to me, NYCSwim are the locals, understanding and planning are part of their remit. This expands the question of the purpose of the fee. Since it isn’t for a definite boat, as we now know, isn’t it partly for local knowledge also? In the English (or Catalina or Gibraltar or Tsugaru or North or Maui or Cooke Channels), swimmers are paying pilots for a boat and expert knowledge. Expert knowledge doesn’t guarantee certainty that something will happen, sometimes it’s to say something won’t or shouldn’t happen. Did either happen at MIMS 2013?

Should one feel like absolving NYCSwim of these issues (the lack of boat cover, the rain and changing currents) as something they couldn’t have known or have planned for because natural events are unpredictable, the same was said by NYCSwim in response to a late start in 2009.  Yes, it’s the case that some swimmers have previously been caught by tides due to a late start. NYCswim have made mistakes, as we all do and how they respond to rectify those mistakes is the true measure of the organisation.

In 2012 I was previously asked to NOT cover my negative comments of MIMS 2012 on my blog by a member of the Selection Committee, and to send my concerns to them. There was no response to the issues I raised privately (though none were as serious as this year’s events). This avenue was used again this year as this Selection Committee member had seen it acceptable to step outside the Selection remit. Some swimmers from this year who have submitted detailed complaints to members of the NYCSwim selection committee have gone unrewarded with any answer. Given this is not the task of the Selection Committee, obviously, the reason I consider noteworthy is specifically because the community often operates on and trades in friendship and relationships. Some have said they have received an apology from NYCSwim and a virtual (but not categorical) guarantee of a place in next year’s MIMS (at the full price).

We’ll leave Part Two with a reframing of the critical point: MIMS entrants pay, well in advance, a significant entry fee and complete a comprehensive entry process. They assume, in common with all other marathon swims, that this fee includes a boat (and of course a pilot). They also assume it includes local expertise. The events of MIMS 2013 would seem to indicate otherwise.

*

In Part Three, I’ll look at the problems of shared boats and water contamination on the day.

*

While an extra cost would have made swimmers unhappy, it would have been less of a burden than another entry fee plus future flights and accommodation for those who might wish to attempt MIMS again.

 

IMG_2617Donal in mid Harlem.resized

MIMS 2012 – Part 4 – The East and Harlem Rivers

Swimming past the Empire State Building

For the three people who asked for this, sorry for the delay, it’s been a busy few weeks, Stephen Redmond and Channel swimmers are far more important.

Somewhere in the East River section I saw a boat coming up on my right with an Irish Tricolour flying above the cabin. I guessed this had to be Ciarán’s wife Margaret’s innovation (as it so proved). So the third wave had certainly caught me due to the Hold at the Staten island Ferry. Nothing to be done except swim.

UN Building

We had passed a couple of river bends and within ten minutes entered a wider stretch of river aiming north toward United Nations Plaza. After passing under the United Nations buildings, the river narrowed between the west bank and Roosevelt Island, and we were squeezed northwards like wet soap between giant concrete hands, speed unabated, passing under the Queensboro Bridge, one of the last I was to recognise, and the sounds of the traffic overhead as I flipped to backstroke again, sixteen strokes before emerging back into the sunlight and forward.

The spires of midtown Manhattan, notably the Empire State and the beautiful Chrysler building, the one building in New York I had wanted to see for myself for many years, slipped away into the past and the behind.

I thought about Christopher Priest’s mind-bending novel Inverted World, where a city on rails is always moving toward the horizon, striving for The Optimum, time compressing and slowing in front of the city and diluting and speeding up in the past. I never know what book will come to me when I’m swimming, but it seems to happen like songs come to other swimmers, but almost all are welcome and never hang around annoying me like songs. Here I was, not Helward Mann, the book’s protagonist, but just a man, swimming up into the Future, my arms the rails I must pull myself along, the Optimum always in front of me, never quite catching it.

All this time a few of us seemed, from my vantage at least, to be jockeying for position. I could pas a swimmer, get ten metres on them only to see them do the same on the other side five or ten minutes later. With a long swim ahead, there was no sprinting to put clear water between us, everyone settled into their long strokes. Since we were all wearing the same fluorescent pink RCN caps, sometimes I was sure it was the same person, at other times I seemed to randomly assign a name. Was that Graham from Jersey? Am I still just behind Genevieve from Canada? Is that George? Is that Elvis?

Ciaran and boat

At around two hours we passed Gracie Mansion and entered Hell Gate, the confluence of three rivers Harlem, East and Long Island, and so named from a corruption of the Dutch (because of the shipping lost there) and now an area for the swim that would see the blazing progress begin to slow, and an area often notoriously choppy. My second feed was good again and a quick glance while I was feeding and facing backwards while kicking showed Ciarán’s boat just behind. I don’t waste time on looking where I’m going, except inadvertent fraction-of-second glances from the top of a wavelet. It’s worse than pointless as it slows the swimmer however momentarily and being long-sighted without prescription googles meant I would gain no valuable information.

Crossing Hell Gate

Hell Gate progressed slowly, but it was not the trial I’d expected, where and when I’d expected to possibly have to put the hammer down in the third hour for anything up to an hour. I had my third feed before I crossed it, my feed plan calling for larger feeds on the hour for the first two hours, then a feed after 30 minutes for the next two feeds, until three hours had elapsed, and then changing to feed every 20 minutes, reducing time spent feeding in the early stages when there wasn’t as much to be gained from it. Of course that plan had been written in cool Ireland, though I amended liquid amounts once we realised the heat would be a factor, but only increasing the volume by 50 ml for the twenty-minute feeds. Every time I looked Dee was there on the stern on the gunnals, watching, looking intent but with everything in control, calling Brian in for feed bottles, occasionally taking a photo. I wondered what Brian thought. Apart from the words shouted from South Cove, no further word had escaped my lips. I’m not a smiler when I swim (unlike Gábor). Brian gave me the bottle. I fed, I swam on. When he spoke I looked at him and nodded from behind my dark Vanquishers if I thought it necessary, which wasn’t much. Business. I must have looked like Mr. Grumpy.

During these hours I flipped between feeling good, and feeling everyone was passing me and with everything out of my control beyond turning over my stroke. It was a huge distance to have travelled in a short two hours, quite an average training distance. Bridges had passed of different heights and widths, whose names I no longer knew nor could remember their locations.

Donal in the Harlem river

The real beginning to the Harlem river is at Ward Island Bridge. As we closed on it I realised Reel Passion was slightly wide and right of the bridge’s left stanchion heading under the main span. I kept left forcing them to readjust and I passed the left stanchion within arm reach. As I exited I saw a large industrial digger out of my left eye and as I did the water quality changed like entering a sluice. It had previously been good once the first hour’s constant diesel slicks had passed but now it tasted … nasty. Evan described it as industrial, and I felt it tasted like the stale dishwater mixed with an oily tang, a failed vintage.

Minutes later, the bridge still visible behind me, the sides closer and surrounded by mundane post-industrial landscape, Ciarán’s boat appeared right behind Reel Passion and moved quickly up beside it. Crossing Hell Gate I’d caught and left a swimmer, it seemed, who had previously been ahead. I’d had a better line I’d felt, through the decisions of my kayaker and crew. Now Ciarán was doing the same to me. His boat disappeared behind Reel Passion’s outline, he was moving much faster than me.

The next feed came, now onto the twenty-minute interval feeds, and I checked and Ciaran was forty to fifty metres behind. I switched breathing doing a minute of right-side-only breathing allowing me up my rate slightly, then reverting to bilateral breathing and kept this up for some time, maybe until the next feed. It wasn’t a sprint or anywhere near it, but an increase of pressure.

And then I got confused. All the way up the east side, the Sun had been over my right shoulder, then it moved to over my left shoulder. I began to think I was approaching the sharp swing west of the river. I was wrong, and the Sun back moved again over some time. A tower appeared in the distance. I swam toward it and the river continued moving north according to the Sun, even allowing for time elapsed.

Kayaker Brian and Donal in mid Harlem, all going well

Time passed, bridges passed, many bridges. With twenty minutes feeds I lost track of the former and had no idea of the latter. I remembered reading how Evan had felt his arms starting to ache and therefore worried at three hours. I couldn’t remember where he said he was, I was guessing Spuyten Duyvil. Just thinking about it first made me worry that my shoulders would get sore. But I’d take a few prophylactic Ibuprofen before the start and everything felt fine. Then it was the thinking about it that bothered me slightly. So i stopped thinking about it.

Not actually the Vulcan Academy of Science

The field has spread, I had no swimmer within 50 metres of most of this time. Progress felt slow, by which I mean normal. Something loomed again, it turned out to be a building I immediately thought of the Vulcan Academy of Science, looming over the east bank. Brian left for his break at the Boathouse. I was surprised because I thought we’d already passed that point. Dee was preparing to feed me when he reappeared, both Brian and Reel Passion almost always on my right hand side where I’d requested them to suit my preferred breathing and better vision. Though I wasn’t aware of it at the time, the GPS seems to shows this as being the slowest section of the race. I saw a big Target and Marshalls in a crook of the East bank and as I passed them, I was finally certain I was heading west into Spuyten Duyvil.

Lower Manhattan from the Staten Island ferry, Battery Park (left) to the Ferry Terminal (right), the first 10 minutes of the course

MIMS 2012 – Part 1 – Three Rivers

New York maps show Manhattan Island plumbing a line from north to south, bounded by three rivers, the East and Harlem rivers circumscribe the east curve of Gotham with the East River swerving out and around lower Manhattan, up through Hell Gate and the confluence of the East and Harlem rivers and the Long Island Sound, and then the Harlem river arcs back northwest and cuts through the gash of Spuyten Duyvil, and bludgeons into the Hudson, which delineates the long straight west side of the island, arriving back at the southern tip.

It’s all a convenient and anthropocentric lie of course.

In reality there is only one river, the impressive Hudson, following an 167 mile fjord down from far up New York state, the East and Harlem rivers are just tidal straits (like the Kenmare River in Ireland is just a Bay). And there is the Atlantic, and the island is actually aligned closer to a southwest/northeast axis.

The rivers are convenient names and fictions to please mapmakers and give us humans that sense of control over the world we endlessly seek. Changing an island’s direction from reality to fiction gives us power over the world. Swimming around the same island may be another way of attempting to achieve a similar result. If you know why I swim, please tell me.

Dee & I landed in New York three days before MIMS 2012, in the middle of the first heat wave of the year, the sun above the city hammering us onto the streets with temperatures in the high thirties (97°F). It abated slightly over the next couple of days, bringing thunder storms, one of the potential difficulties with MIMS which can force delays or even stop the swim.

It’s not Sandycove. Brighton Beach, Coney Island, and some assembled MIMS and CIBBOWS swimmers

On Thursday Dee and I walked the Brooklyn Bridge, everyone else looking at the astonishing cityscape, and I mainly focusing on the East River below, watching the high volume of traffic.

Lower East River from Brooklyn Bridge ; East River & Staten Island ferries, FDNY & NYPD boats, commercial and leisure craft, all throwing wakes, and this was NOT the busier Saturday morning of the race

On Friday morning Magnificent Seven swimmer Ciarán Byrne, myself, and our crews met some of the MIMS Soloists and some CIBBOWS swimmers at their regular open water location of Brighton Beach. CIBBOWS is one of the world centres of Channel swimming, with Dover, La Jolla, London’s Serpentine, Chicago, Perth … and of course Sandycove. We met such luminaries as Dave Barra, (fastest Triple Crown ever and Director for 8 Bridges), Jim Fitzpatrick from California (once swam 700,00 yards in 30 days in training) and the remarkable Forrest Nelson and more.

Ciaran and Donal at Brighton Beach, partners in swimming crime

The water temperature was about 21° C, in the realms of “imaginary” until that point, and Ciarán and I swam an easy 45 minutes punctuated by some chatting. Very warm, (but not unbearably so we were relived to discover, as we’d been worried it would be too warm for us cold-water swimmers).

We were also relieved to discover that we both still knew how to swim, a ridiculous but perennial concern for swimmers coming off taper, all rationale, evidence and history to the contrary notwithstanding.

And very salty, similar to the English Channel’s one-percent salinity increase over our more open and exposed side of the Atlantic, where the water has more freedom than the bays and Sounds of New York to become more dilute.

Thunderstorms on Fifth Avenue

The forecast for Saturday had the thunder storms passed by Friday evening after the mandatory final briefing, when we’d met more of this year’s MIMS Soloists, of whom this year there would be a total of 38 swimmers.

Taking Back the Rivers 2012

A quick recap for those of you not familiar with MIMS, it’s NYCSwim‘s flagship event, and has been run annually as a race since 1993 1982, the island having first having been circumnavigated by Robert Downing in 1914 in under 14 hours (using a different course) and swum by many famous marathon swimmers since then. It typically runs in late June, and entries open in November, the available slots usually filling with swimmers from around the world within minutes, all of whom must already have completed at least a six-hour swim in the preceding 24 months. If I was to use my English Channel Solo as a qualification, it had to be this year or never and there would be very few Solo swimmers there without marathon experience, (a couple only having a single 6 hour qualification swim). No-one would be a beginner.

And it’s a race. With Argentina’s 2012 Parana swim cancelled for this year due to inclement weather, it would be one of the longest swim races in the world, with the record standing since seven-times World Champion Shelley Taylor Smith swam it in 5 hours 45 minutes, (only 15 minutes slower than the computer-estimated fastest possible time), in 1995, my friend Evan Morrison, a much better and faster swimmer than I, was second last year in 7:31, and other friends Eddie Irwin, Gábor Molnar and Ned Denison from the Sandycove club have previously successfully swum it.

With a later start this year than usual because of tides, the earlier online briefings were punctuated with warnings of increased traffic because of conflicting events on the rivers on the same day, and because we would be out there later in the day, and therefore winds on the Hudson would also be stronger and the water more choppy, and yet another boating event had been announced for the East river, adding to events of which we’d already been informed.

Lower Manhattan from the Staten Island ferry, Battery Park (left) to the Ferry Terminal (right) and the Brooklyn Bridge, the first 20 minutes of the course