At exactly 4:04 am on Saturday morning, at the southern tip of Manhattan, the tide turned. An instant of stillness – though nothing remains still in the water – and then the flood started, rolling from the vast Atlantic up the Hudson. By high tide at 10:09 am, the water level at the Battery was 5.7 feet higher than it had been six hours before.
But by that time I was upriver, flotsam in the current, swimming with the flood.
Along with 218 other finishers I swam the 10.2 km Little Red Lighthouse swim up the Hudson that morning. We started just after 7:30 am at the 79th St. Boat Basin, swam the first five miles or so aiming for the Manhattan stanchion of the George Washington Bridge and the Little Red Lighthouse in its shadow, and then finished up by swimming 1.2 miles past the bridge to the marina at Dyckman St. near the northern tip of the island. I finished in 2:14:10. The winning time was 1:38.
Long distance swims are solitary events, spent mostly with your face underwater. I went out in the second wave and, feeling good in my new sleeveless wetsuit, soon caught many swimmers from the first wave. There may have been a moment, say around 8:30 when I caught a glimpse of what I think was
the tower of St John the Divine at 112th St actually Riverside Church at 121st (thanks Jenny Davidson!), when I may have been near the front of the race – before a bunch of fast swimmers who started behind me surged ahead at the bridge and I finished in a crowd. But I wasn’t there to win.
I’ve never done a long swim in that kind of current before. The flood was behind me, which was better than the alternative but meant that the ocean was crawling up my back all morning. I can’t find a good figure on the web today for Tidal flow in the Hudson estuary, perhaps because it varies too much , but if we estimate a high-ish figure for the Narrows off Manhattan in the middle of the flood of 200,000 cubic feet / second, that means roughly 1.5 million gallons of water / second heading north. Going the same way were me, 217 other swimmers, maybe 30 kayaks, 10-15 larger boats, maybe 20 NYPD zodiacs, and a dozen or so blue-capped “Swim Angels” who joined the race to help anyone in trouble. That’s a lot of flotsam.
All that fast-moving water and debris meant constant if minor turbulence. The wind wasn’t a problem, mostly out of the SSE. But even so I swam through lots of movement: little waves passing upriver, or eddies forming, or wakes from powerboats which left us tasting gasoline. Maybe half-way through, with the Bridge not looking much closer, I started to feel just a little seasick.
That’s happened to me before on a long swim – my crawl stroke has a fair amount of lateral movement, and even in calm water it has a sway to it – but it felt different in the flood. As with last time, I swam my way through disorientation and felt strong by the end – probably could have gone another couple miles up to the Tappen Zee, though pretty soon the tide would have turned against me.
Longs swims combine exertion with meditation. Diana Nyad calls swimming the “ultimate form of sensory deprivation,” and what I remember best is that wordless feeling of flowing with flowing water. Mobilis in mobile, Captain Nemo calls it. For a little while on Saturday I was part of the biggest moving thing in New York. Inside what Tim Morton calls “the mesh,” surrounded by a moving environment that buoys you up but is ultimately hostile to your terrestrial body, swimming seems part fool’s errand and part deep-down encounter with reality. Humans don’t swim like fish or even dolphins; our immersion starts awkwardly, and all our tactics and tools don’t make us aquatic.
But when you’re in the big river, heading upstream with the flood and against the current, and for at least a little while your arms and legs move automatically, machine-like, and you’re progressing upriver with the City on your right and the Palisades on your left, you feel in your slightly disoriented body why “flow” is a good thing to be in.
Nothing last forever — but that was a great swim on the last day of summer 2013!