A morning in November of last year, I anxiously awaited the announcement of the 2018 20 Bridges participants. Over the past two years, I had taken on increasingly more challenging swims and I wondered whether I’d be able to qualify for it, one of the Triple Crown swims, the other two being Catalina Channel and the English Channel. I had reservations about my ability to succeed in a swim that is governed by complicated tidal patterns; however, my best swim buddy, on a subway trip to Coney Island for the lovely Triple Dip, persuaded me that I could do it. I gave much consideration to the choice of date when applying. The race is run in June, July, August, and September by New York Open Water (NYOW). My body doesn’t do well in warm water. I studied the historical temperatures in the Hudson for the past three years and decided that my best bet would be June for cooler water.
When I opened the NYOW webpage, my name topped the list of selected swimmers. I squelched a yelp and was forced to maintain my composure during a meeting at work. As soon as it was over, I ran out of my office to call my coach and friend, Patrick, to give him the terrific news. My voice was cracking because I was trying not to cry.
Seven months later, I arrived in New York City with Patrick and my head coach, Linda. They had generously offered to crew for me. This would be the first time a Palm Beach Masters Wahoo swimmer would be attempting a Triple Crown swim and all of us were excited about it. I could never bring accolades to my team based on speed, but I could based on distance. My kayaker would be Lizzy, who quite deftly guided me down the Hudson in last year’s Stage 4 of 8 Bridges. She is not only superbly skilled in the handling of her craft, but she’s also an excellent strategist, a trait that can help a swimmer complete a swim, particularly when the course is quite technical in nature as 20 Bridges’ is. Rondi Davies, one of the RDs for 20 Bridges, has earned a reputation in the marathon swimming world for her thorough understanding of the tidal patterns around Manhattan. Making the tides work for every swimmer in the field, whose speeds can vary widely, is nothing short of astonishing.
20 Bridges is the 28.5 mi (49.5 km) counterclockwise circumnavigation of Manhattan. The swim uses two starting points, Pier A at The Battery or Mill Rock, though only one is used on a particular race date. The June 2018 participants were due to start at Pier A. The start is timed in waves, from slowest to fastest swimmers. From Pier A, the field moves into the East River with its fast flowing north current. Swimmers have to clear Mill Rock by a predetermined time, otherwise the tides will be against them and their probability of success critically diminished. The confluence of the East River, Harlem River, and the Long Island Sound is at Hell’s Gate, aptly named for its turbulent flow, located just west of Mill Rock. Then the swimmers move into the Harlem River, which is warmer, shallower, and whose water quality is poorer than the other rivers. The tide is against the swimmers up to a certain point where the river reverses its flow. The east-west section of the Harlem River, at the northern tip of Manhattan, is the Spuyten Duyvil Creek, which discharges into the vast Hudson. Swimmers would be reaching the Hudson while the tide is going out, therefore taking advantage of a swift south current that carries them back to Pier A. There’s a clencher, though. If the flow of the Hudson is slow due to a weak tide, there is the possibility that the tide will turn before the slowest swimmers reach Pier A. I’ve been in the Hudson when the tide turns: last year during Stage 4 of 8 Bridges. I did not finish. I was pulled out with three miles to go because a strong headwind had slowed my progress and there was no overcoming the incoming tide.
There is incredible beauty in witnessing with one’s body the power of the tides, a force so powerful I can feel only humbled by the water in allowing me to complete a swim safely. I would never be one to proclaim to prevail over a body of water as if water and I were engaged in some kind of struggle. I’ve seen a child start to drown before my nine-year old eyes, I’ve seen sailors fall overboard in the blink of an eye, I’ve lost a family member to the ocean. When I’m in the water I’m a humble visitor seeking to experience nature’s beauty and power. Safe passage is all I ask for. And in the process, I hope to learn something about myself and to be transformed in ways I never imagined. All my journeys through water make me feel alive.
This was my frame of mind when my coaches and I met Lizzy and our race observer, JC, at Pier 25, our muster point. I was happy and relaxed, but I was worried about several factors. Temperature was first and foremost. Warm water is my bane. The water temperature at The Battery had been approximately 69°F (20.6°C) all week. I had hoped for at least 65°F (18.3°C). In addition, NYC was undergoing a heat wave. The high was expected to be 91°F (32.8°C). My second worry was the slow-moving Hudson. Tides were not expected to be strong; therefore, the flow south would not be as fast as originally expected. My third worry was the wind. It was forecast to blow from the south or south southeast, peaking between 1400 and 1500 at 11 mph (17.7 kph). A headwind in an already slow-moving Hudson would make for even slower progress. However, after Chesapeake earlier in June, where I swam against strong currents throughout the race, I felt confident that I had prepared well for the challenge of 20 Bridges.
A dear friend had advised to break up the swim thus: East River, Harlem River, and Hudson River, with the objective to get off whatever river I was swimming in and move on to the next one. Intermediate goals in such a long race are helpful. I had defined challenges to be overcome for each river. For the East River, the challenge was to reach Mill Rock before 1130, the time indicated by the RD. For the Harlem River, to make progress against the tide and to endure the higher water temperature. For the Hudson River, to endure the relentless beating of the headwind and to make it to Pier A before the tide turned. I did not expect an easy swim.
After Coach Linda covered my whole body in Baby Butt Paste (40% zinc oxide!) and we listened to RD Dave Barra’s safety briefing, Lizzy took my feed bottles and extra gear and headed down the pier ramp. Kayakers and their crafts would be shuttled by the vessel Launch 5 to Pier A, where they would put to water and wait for the swimmers. Swimmers and crews boarded their respective escort boats in numeric order due to limited dock space at Pier 25. My crew hooted and hollered at the sight of our boat, Hookers. She was a comfortable two-decker fishing boat. I immediately considered Captain Ron and First Mate Edwin to be Lizzy’s and my bodyguards.
We motored down to Pier A, where many escort boats hung about. The kayaks were already on the water. Soon the first wave was called. We were in the second wave, but somehow missed the call for me to come over to the starting line, so Tobey, a member of the safety crew, zipped over in her jet ski and beckoned me to hop on to the platform she was towing. I said goodbye to my crew and jumped in the water. I always enjoy that first contact before a long swim. It’s the start of an intimate relationship that will last for hours and I feel excitement in not knowing how it will evolve, just like falling in love. I was pleasantly surprised at how cool the water felt. I broke the surface laughing. I was extremely happy to be in New York Harbor and told Tobey so. She gave me very valuable information during the short ride to the start line. The most important was that the start and finish were marked by the north corner pilings of Pier A. I slid off the platform and rendezvoused with Lizzy. The four swimmers in Wave 2 now present, we promptly took off at 0920.
We started rounding The Battery in a counterclockwise direction, only to be stopped by the safety crew. No sooner had I lifted my head, the Staten Island Ferry blasted its loud horn and slipped out of her berth. A friend from Staten Island later called her a ‘big stupid lumbering orange boat [that] screws up everybody’s plans.’ I had a big laugh at his remark, though at the time, even though she was indeed making me late, I was in awe of watching so closely such a large vessel crossing my path so swiftly.
Once cleared, Lizzy and I continued rounding The Battery until we reached the East River. Lizzy was positioned on my left, between Manhattan and me. Hookers was behind me, off to my right, ever watchful. I was truly enjoying the fast ride with the current. My tracker later indicated a maximum speed of 5.83 mph (9.39 kph). I was trying to make the best of that fantastic push, since I had a date with Mill Rock at 1130. I was so focused on my swim, I didn’t notice a hydroplane took off right next to us. I only found out when I looked at the pictures Coach Linda had taken. I passed under the Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Williamsburg bridges so quickly, I realized that after being mesmerized by the technical aspects of the swim, perhaps I had failed to consider the alluring visual aspects. The ever-changing landscape was a feast for the eyes. I continued swimming in a fantastic groove, though I noticed the current speed had decreased. Past the United Nations building, we stayed between Manhattan and Roosevelt Island, passing under the Queensboro Bridge. The current sped up again in this narrow passage. Clear of Roosevelt Island, I could see FDR Drive on my left and ahead of me, Mill Rock on my right. Suddenly, I felt like I was passing through a gauntlet. This must be Hell’s Gate, I thought. The swift flow of the East River had emptied into a boiling cauldron. At the confluence of the East River, the Harlem River, and the Long Island Sound, water seemed to slap me from every direction. I felt the strongest waves hitting me broadsides from the east, those waves would ricochet off the river wall at FDR Drive and hit me broadsides from the west, but not as hard. I powered through the melee, knowing it would be short-lived. Lizzy, interestingly, seemed to be floating above it all, unperturbed. I was in awe of her.
Just as quickly as the turbulence had started, it disappeared into stillness. This swim was not only rich in visuals, but in sensory experiences. I found myself engaged with the water in a way I’ve never been. Clear of Hell’s Gate, I had reached my first objective: I was out of the East River and in the Harlem River. Using the timing of my feeds as an estimate, I reckoned I’d reached Mill Rock on time. I stopped for a feed and heard Coach Linda shouting encouragement. I did so every half hour and Coach Linda never failed to cheer. It made me happy. I quickly glanced around me and noticed the field had collapsed. There were many swimmers, kayaks, and support boats. I pictured a picnic at the park, since the Harlem was so still. We got underway. It was a slow going. I was now swimming against the current of the Harlem, so Lizzy kept me close to the wall in order to avoid the faster water. North of Ward’s Island Bridge we moved right. The current was flowing north again. The water was probably the dirtiest I’ve ever swum in, but it wasn’t as bad as I expected, perhaps because I’ve worked at a few wastewater treatment plants. The river did not smell like wastewater, so I was pleased. Later I heard some swimmers had spotted dead rats, but I didn’t. That was a blessing; I would’ve screamed. Even with its slow flow and warmer water temperature, the Harlem is entertaining because many of its bridges are close together: Triborough, Willis Avenue, Third Avenue, Park Avenue, Madison Avenue, 145th Street, and Macombs Dam. Most carried vehicular traffic and one carried rail traffic. They have low clearances and except for the Triborough Bridge, a center support, which Lizzy and I always passed on its left side. The passage was sometimes so narrow, I could smell the creosote that covered the pilings. Clear of the Macombs Dam Bridge, there’s quite a ways without any bridges. I the distance I could spot three tall bridges: High, Alexander Hamilton, and Washington. On our left we had the Harlem River Speedway. It was here where my feeds started to feel too warm. Lizzy must’ve read my mind, because she offered to get fresh and icy feeds from Hookers. The next feed, past the tall bridges, tasted phenomenal. The river widened and we continued our rhythmic sojourn, enjoying the gentle push of the current. We passed a boathouse on our left, which I would’ve loved to investigate, the University Heights Bridge, and an industrial area also on our left. I felt excitement as we reached the northern end of Manhattan and turned west into Spuyten Duyvil Creek and under the Broadway Bridge. Ahead of me were a rock cliff with a giant white ‘C’ for Columbia University and two familiar bridges, which I’d gotten to know from a distance during the Spuyten Duyvil 10K last September. The Hudson lay beyond those two bridges. I swam under the Henry Hudson Bridge. Approaching the Spuyten Duyvil Bridge, Lizzy and I stayed to our left and passed under the deck with the lowest clearance of the day. Hookers went to the right, where the railroad bridge was swung open.
And there it was in front of us: the Mighty Hudson in all its glory. I had no scheduled feed, but I stopped to hoot and holler. I’d gotten off the Harlem and now I’d been reunited with the Hudson. A glance over its choppy waters told me that, as I had expected, it would be a challenging passage. Lizzy, who always had the right words at the right moment, informed me that I’d been swimming for five hours. In my mind, I expected to be swimming for another four or five. I got underway. As we turned the corner to join the southern flow of the river, I felt the effect of the headwind. It would be tough, not as tough as swimming in the whitecaps of last year’s Stage 4, but tough enough. The George Washington Bridge stood tall ahead of me. At my next feed, Lizzy informed me that my coaches would jump in with me to pace me for a bit. That was a welcome news, because no sooner I put my head down, I threw up my feed. That was a first, but I was so happy to have my coaches in the water that I chalked it up to a fluke and kept on swimming. When I saw Coach Patrick next to me, I could’ve sworn the river had turned him into a playful dolphin. He swam with pure joy through the unrelenting chop. At some point he and Coach Linda traded places. She sliced through the water and I could tell she was holding back, because she’s so much faster than me. I felt only gratefulness to these two people, who so generously had devoted a weekend of their lives to accompany me on this journey. Coach Linda exited the water past the George Washington Bridge. I peered at the Little Red Lighthouse, but at that point my stroke was falling apart. My left biceps hurt. My stomach was not well. During the next feed, I could only get down a couple of sips, but they too came right back up. Lizzy asked me if I was feeling well, and after telling her that my stomach was bothering me, I asked her to tell my crew to dilute my feeds to fifty percent. It was an idea that came out of the blue, since I’d never been in such a situation. I resumed my toil, ever mindful of my stroke and trying to make it better. At the next feed, Lizzy handed me the diluted formula. I felt she’d given me an elixir from the gods. I drank it all. It stayed down. I immediately felt better. I resumed my swimming to find that my stroke had returned. I was in business again.
Mile after mile Lizzy and I continued our journey toward The Battery. Boat traffic had increased; I could tell by the wakes. I could also tell when boats were close by the underwater whine of their motors. Several times I spied Captain Ron repositioning Hookers so as to shield us. Otherwise, he’d stay behind me on my right, ever so watchful. I was grateful for his protection. The Hudson was slowing down. After the throwing up episode I had lost my feed count, so I didn’t know exactly how long I’d been swimming. Having stayed Downtown, in a room with a view of the Hudson and watching the sunsets for two days, I could tell the time was around 1800 when I reached the Chelsea Piers. Downtown looked deceptively close and the thought that the course closed at 1930 loomed large in my mind. The Hudson would continue to slow down and the tide would turn. All my sensory input pointed to another showdown with the Hudson. I was not depressed, however. I didn’t feel sorry for the fact that after swimming for who knows how many hours, the possibility of failure was real, but unlike other swims where I’ve been tortured by that kind of thought, now I wasn’t. I had promised to myself and all the people behind me, who were indeed many, that I would swim my heart out.
Lizzy and I pressed on and reached Downtown, now closer to the Manhattan shore. The Freedom Tower stood ahead. We had reached the New Jersey ferry terminal when Tobey approached Lizzy in her jet ski. Trouble, I thought. They conferred for a while. Lizzy handed me a feed and while I drank she informed me that the tide was going to turn soon. Her words washed over me. Then she said, ‘You gotta give it all you got.’ I asked her how far I had to go and she indicated a building with a conical roof. I wanted to judge the distance, not to look at the building as a sight mark, but to gauge how hard I could swim without losing speed. ‘Okay,’ I said and put my head down and swam as hard as I could along the seawall of The Battery. Nothing hurt, to my surprise. Tobey had positioned her jet ski on my right. Lizzy stayed as close to the wall as she could. I thought about many people while I was sprinting toward the finish: my kids, my sister, my friends, my teammates, my coaches on Hookers. I was swimming my heart out for me and for them, but success came down to the Hudson and me. The Hudson had to let me pass and I had to press on. As we moved along the wall, people watched me with curiosity and started walking along with me. I was surprised I hadn’t let down. After a few slight turns of the wall, I could see Pier A. Not until I passed the pilings I had any certainty of making it.
I stopped swimming when I heard a blast and the loud cheering of spectators on Pier A. I hung my head back, breathing hard, and laughed. It felt surreal. I made it. Lizzy made it. Hookers made it. The Hudson had taken me on a ride that started at 3.29 mph (5.29 kph) and finished at 0.76 mph (1.23 kph). I did beat the tide. I swam over to Lizzy and shook her hand. I happily accepted a ride on the jet ski platform from Tobey back to Hookers. Captain Ron and First Mate Edwin helped me up the ladder. My crew was ecstatic. Yes, we’d all made it. It was a great day.
Of the sixteen swimmers who took to the waters of Manhattan, fourteen finished. Nine earned their Triple Crowns. To swim among such accomplished swimmers is humbling. I am grateful to NYOW for the opportunity to give this swim a go and for putting together such well-run and safe event, to my family and many friends for their unwavering support and positive encouragement, and specially to my crew. Lizzy’s kayaking skills are unparalleled. As a bonus, she could read my mind. My coaches were an inexhaustible source of encouragement and cheer throughout the day. During my darkest time, they were at the ready for me. Captain Ron, who was on his first 20 Bridges, and his First Mate Edwin, kept Lizzy and me safe. They were truly our bodyguards. JC documented all the goings of an eventful day. Because of all these wonderful and generous people, I had the experience of a lifetime.
As for the Hudson and I, well, I think we’re pals now.