And then it was 10:22 a.m. and Go-time. Through sheer laziness, rather than Machiavellian scheming I’d underestimated my 1500m time in the application process (not the first time I’ve done something similar) so I was off in the second wave, after the slowest swimmers in the first wave, with Ciarán and George in the penultimate wave behind me with a two-minute break between waves. (Have I mentioned I’m a lazy person in denial by the way? True, I just hide it by doing stupid stuff).
We’d been directed to swim across the Cove to hold a line about 15 metres out from the far corner, and our kayakers would pick us up from our race numbers.
(The fourth and fastest wave getting started. Waves three and two are visible out in the water.)
As soon as I started kicking, my feet cramped. Oh for feck sake.
I’m a swimmer, cramps usually means only one thing only, forget all your bananas and potassium deficiencies; cramps mean dehydration. And with my feeds on the main boat, (like everyone else’s) my first feed/liquid wasn’t scheduled for an hour after I started. Nothing to be done, keep going, if things go okay, I might stop after we pick up the boat and get a drink.
And I also immediately felt like I was slipping behind, even though I’d sandbagged my 1500m time. The bastards! The horrible bastards had all underestimated times, the same as me!
We passed the Governor’s Island ferry and then a Stop was called. With less than ten minutes swum we had to stop for a Staten Island Ferry to pass, allowing the following group to catch up. The wait wasn’t too long though and we were off again, passing within minutes to the east side of the island and therefore entering the East river and the strong tidal current of a flood tide pushing us north at a rate of two to three knots.
On Thursday, Dee and I had made a point of looking at the early stretch from the Brooklyn Bridge and the Staten Island Ferry and walking along the bank south from the Brooklyn Bridge. I’d seen big bow waves from the traffic, especially the regular fast East River Ferries wash in all directions but I’d thought it was manageable.
It was, but not easily. The towers of lower Manhattan whizzed by but the swimming was horrible, I was tossed and flipped and spun like water on a hot skillet, no predicting a pattern, no immediate view because of the bow wave disruptions. We passed under the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges, too rough to flip onto my back and I caught myself thinking “I hate this”. Well under an hour swimming and I was not having fun. The bastards. The horrible, horrible horrible bastards had all told me I’d have great fun. May they die roaring, as we say in Ireland.
I told myself to stop, that I couldn’t afford to think about hating the swim so early. It was however quite acceptable to just really dislike it. So I just disliked it instead.
Alrighty then, let’s get on with this.
The speed at which we (there were swimmers and kayakers within limited low level vision) passed Lower Manhattan’s towers was astonishing, even with the rough irregular chop.
Breathe left, skyscraper, three strokes breathe right, Brooklyn, three strokes, breathe left, completely different skyscraper.
A normal stroke cycle from breathing left until I breathe left again would take about eight seconds and propel me maybe nine metres (guessing) in flat unmoving water. It’s a useful rule of thumb for a long swim that a stroke takes 1 second and covers 1 metre. It’s not that accurate and varies by swimmer but it allows a swimmer a rough calculation of how many strokes were taken over the course of marathon swim (for example 40,000 strokes for a Channel crossing).
Instead, because of our slight distance and low viewpoint and parallax and foreshortening of vision, it felt like every six strokes took me two hundred metres. South Port heliport (a landing helicopter momentarily making me wonder if Rescue 117 had found me again), the Beeckman building, Verizon, all shot past, the city seeming like a Lego town, and quickly moving beside and behind me.
Passing the Manhattan Bridge the water improved very slowly as we aimed almost east and closing with the bank beside FDR Drive to heighten the sense of speed. There were still bow waves but they were no longer a constant shifting interference pattern, it was possible to grab a break from the pounding. We picked up Dee and Captain Joe, Captain of my support boat the Reel Passion just around this point and as I passed under the Williamsburg Bridge, it was calm enough to flip for a few metres of backstroke in the shadows underneath, a tip happily stolen from Evan.
About three hundred metres before the Williamsburg Bridge the river again shifted toward the northeast and the water continued calming. When I look at some pictures it’s very different from a Force Three or Four blow. A Force Three blow at sea would cause something vaguely similar but instead of whitecaps that would manifest at sea, the actual water surface was calm with only slight ripples caused by wind on the actual surface, The movement was all coming from the irregular bow waves of upstream and downstream craft, and some from the jostling and repositioning pilots boats. The waves came from all directions, some bow waves washing over you and then reflecting back off the seawall from the opposite direction. Three or four or five waves could reach you at the same time, from different directions and almost all with no warning unless you happened to see one as you were breathing to that side. And no warning for the head and following waves.
And with all this was diesel in the water. The water was slightly murky but clear. The expected salinity from Brighton Beach hadn’t materialised but instead was a constant strong taste of diesel in the water, causing my mouth to shrivel. This is another of the details of long swims unknown to casual that we forget about and yet which all swimmers hate.
My first feed was after an hour and I was past the Williamsburg Bridge, further out from the bank again. The foot cramps hadn’t gotten worse, Brian waved my new God-Bottle at me (thanks to Alan Clack), and I grabbed it. 750 ml of single concentrate Maxim at ambient temperature. I opened it and flipped to my back drinking and still kicking forward. All the contents finished quickly, I flipped back and continued, by now we’d left the higher towers of Lower Manhattan behind.
Not too long, maybe ten minutes after the first feed a nagging concern was alleviated when I urinated for the first time. I have never been seriously afflicted by an extended inability to urinate while swimming but I know from friends such as Liam Maher’s English Channel Solo and others, that it is always a possibility, and it can cause great pain for the swimmer and even ruin swims.
I don’t know what building I was passing, it was medium height and nondescript in New York terms, when the seal broke and I experienced what I instantly thought of as piss-bliss, excuse the language, but the less prosaic details of swims are as essential to understand. I emptied my bladder … and kept emptying. It went on until my bladder felt like a plastic bottle from which liquid had been squeezed from without letting air in, first the incredible relief, then a somewhat long pleasant sensation and then a reversal, a growing sense of vacuum contracting my insides. And all the while, keeping swimming. If you are offended, this is not the sport for you, I am not the writer for you. There is a reality in these mundane biological actions that occasionally goes beyond the forgettable actions of land. We all know this, and we all pretend otherwise.
By now the water had finally calmed sufficiently to start to derive some sense of enjoyment.
Next instalment, the remaining Eat River, Hell Gate and the Harlem River.
- MIMS 2012 (loneswimmer.com)
- MIMS Feed Schedule (loneswimmer.com)
- HOWTO: Marathon and Channel Swimming Swimmer and Crew Checklist (loneswimmer.com)