Seven Days and 120 Miles to Go
TRIAL RUN Janet Harris tests the Hudson River currents near the Rip Van Winkle Bridge in Catskill, N.Y., in preparation for the seven-day 8 Bridges Swim, which heads south to New York City.
By SUZANNE SATALINE
THE journey of 120 miles begins with a single stroke, but the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu never swam in the mighty Hudson.
David Barra peered over the edge of a pontoon boat drifting north in the steady current flowing past the Rip Van Winkle Bridge here. His friend, Janet Harris, had jumped in to swim south. Her arms slid deep into the hazel murk. She stroked faster, but her body stayed in place, a 5-foot-10 minnow caught in the Hudson’s liquid net.
It reminded Mr. Barra of when he was trapped in a similar aquatic treadmill for five hours when swimming from Catalina Island to mainland California. That was after his boat crew spied a shark. “All I was thinking at that point was, ‘Bourbon,’ ” he said.
Mr. Barra, 46, of High Falls, N.Y., has been testing the Hudson’s power for his newest adventure, what he’s calling the 8 Bridges Hudson River Swim. On Friday, he plans to head south from the Rip Van Winkle Bridge, finishing seven days and 120 miles later at the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. He’ll be joined each day by other athletes as they paddle as many as 20 miles together, from one Hudson crossing to the next, before resting and restarting the next day. The swim is a fund-raiser for three nonprofit organizations.
During the last heyday of marathon swimming, the 1920s, newspapers offered prize money for channel crossings and swimmers wore costumes made of wool. Now, as open-water swimming enjoys a renaissance, amateur swimmers again are flooding the nation’s waterways. This year, 900 lake, river and sea swimming events will be held in the United States, up from 220 in 1999, said Steven Munatones, a California coach who is considered the top open-water-swimming expert. English Channel boat captains are taking bookings three years in advance for the best slots.
That wave of enthusiasm is rolling through New York City, where new or revived races are scheduled most summer weekends. In August, six competitors will try a 17-mile swim from the shores of Kips Bay in Manhattan to Coney Island in Brooklyn, a route that 17-year-oldRose Pitonof breast-stroked 100 years ago, to the cheers of 50,000 spectators, according to news coverage at the time. Deanne Draeger, the organizer of this year’s event, swam the course solo last year.
The Manhattan Island Marathon Swim, a 28.5-mile circumnavigation held each June, has sold out its spots in less than two hours the last few years, says Morty Berger, founder ofNYC Swim, which organizes the event (and charges solo swimmers $1,775 each to race up one side of Manhattan’s isle and down the other). Thirty-four solo swimmers competed in this year’s race, held June 18. With demand high, NYC Swim created a second date in July mostly for relay teams.
Meanwhile, Coney Island Brighton Beach Open Water Swimmers — a nonprofit group also known as Cibbows, plans to offer a new 10-kilometer race in Brooklyn on Sept. 11. Money raised will help offset the costs of other races and future projects, including a beachside clubhouse where swimmers may shower and warm up, said Cristian Vergara, the executive director. Part of the 8 Bridges proceeds will go to the nonprofit.
What explains the revival of a sport last popular when couples danced the Charleston? Marathon swimming gained prestige when the International Olympic Committee included a 10K event at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Many sports — including beach volleyball, tae kwon do and snowboarding — have seen a surge in amateur interest after gaining Olympic designation, said Mr. Munatones, who is helping organizers of the 10K swim at the 2012 London Games.
“There is a basic human need to challenge yourself in going from Point A to Point B,” he said. “Now there are events that challenge you. It’s basically putting chocolate cake in front of a hungry man.”
For Mr. Barra, the reason is more metaphysical. “The free spirits want to be outdoors, and have a relationship with a body of water,” he said. “You don’t have a relationship with a chlorine box.”
Another lure could be the sense that there is more clean water in which to swim. The nation’s Clean Water Act has rescued many harbors from toxic deaths. The Hudson is certainly healthier than during the 1960s and supports a wealth of fish and other animals. Mr. Barra and his 8 Bridges crew will pass cormorants, ospreys and bald eagles that perch in trees along the water. They’ll swim over blue crab, striped bass, river herring and huge sturgeon lurking deep below. “It’s every bit as much a wilderness as the Serengeti,” said John Lipscomb, patrol boat captain for Riverkeeper, a nonprofit clean-water advocacy group in Ossining that will receive some of the money raised by the swim. Launch 5, an environmental and boating safety charity, also will benefit.
Mr. Lipscomb said the Hudson’s cleanliness varies significantly, depending on the day, location and rainfall. A water-sampling study that Riverkeeper conducted in May, a particularly rainy month, found that 80 percent of the test sites did not meet federal clean water swimming guidelines because they were tainted with untreated sewage. “There are many days when the water quality is acceptable, in general,” Mr. Lipscomb said. “But on many days, it’s not.”
He said the organization does not make recommendations about swimming safety.
State officials ensure water quality for swimming only at designated public bathing areas, said Lori Severino, spokeswoman for the State Department of Environmental Conservation. The department tests the water in lakes, rivers and streams, but not frequently enough to ensure bathing safety, Ms. Severino said.
Mr. Barra is unfazed. As a teenager growing up in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, he was a lifeguard at Manhattan Beach and met his wife at Coney Island. They moved to the New Paltz area in 1988 after what Mr. Barra calls “the alternate side of the street parking meltdown,” when he was unable to find his car for five days. He co-owns a marble and granite fabrication business.
After swimming in shorter races for 10 years, Mr. Barra decided he was “Channel ready.” Last year he circled Manhattan, swam the 21 miles from Catalina to the mainland, churned 24 miles across Tampa Bay, accompanied humpbacked whales during a 10-mile jaunt near Maui and freestyled for 17.5 miles from Battery Park to Sandy Hook, N.J. In September, he battled raging currents for 3 of the 14 ½ hours it took him to cross the English Channel, akin to a 30-mile journey. For each swim he followed English Channel rules: a traditional polyester suit, one cap and goggles. No wetsuits allowed.
His wife, Clare Kelly-Barra, does not find her husband’s goals odd. “Its like he’s getting a Ph.D. in swimming,” said Ms. Kelly-Barra, a swimmer of shorter distances. “He’s doing his doctoral work.”
To make it through the 8 Bridges swim, Mr. Barra and his team must master the unusual Hudson currents. Because the river is a tidal estuary, with water flowing both upstream and down, he said, “you have great advantages when the tide is with you and severe disadvantages when the tide is against you.”
At times, swimmers may plod at a half-mile an hour — or speed along at an average of 3 miles per hour. “That just makes it more glorious,” he said.
With the swimmer Rondi Davies, a Manhattan geologist and a winner of several city races, Mr. Barra has calculated ebb tides and flood tides against the speed of each of the 16 swimmers taking part. Mr. Barra said he had been reading “mind-numbing papers on tides and currents and sediment concentrations.”
“My brain hurts when I think about it,” he added.
To get in shape for the swim, Mr. Barra has been training up to 50,000 yards — about 28 ½ miles — weekly, mostly in the river and a local pool, but also at Brighton Beach in Brooklyn. One weekday, he joined other swimmers there for a two-mile jaunt.
When he is immersed, his stroke is supple and efficient. Broad and muscular, he does not crawl so much as stretch over the waves.
“The environmental part is important, but quite frankly, I would want to do the swim if it was a toxic waste site,” he said driving home from the beach. He is excited about traveling from fresh water to salt water, from his adult home to his boyhood haunts. And he is taken with “the whole idea of spending a week swimming toward the ocean.”
Here are some upcoming open-water swims in the New York area.
JULY 17 Grimaldo’s Mile, sponsored by Cibbows.
8 a.m. Brooklyn.
JULY 23 32nd Annual T. John Carey 1-Mile, 6:30 p.m., sponsored by Ocean City Lifeguard Associations, Ocean City, N.J.
JULY 30 2011 Island Beach Two Mile Swim. Sponsored by the Town of Greenwich, Conn., and the Greenwich Swim Committee. 8:30 a.m.
AUG. 6 Coney Island Aquarium 5K and 1 mile swim, Brooklyn, N.Y., 7 a.m. Sponsored by Cibbows.
SEPT. 10 Governors Island Swim, 2 miles, 2:48 p.m., sponsored by NYC Swim
John Marshall Mantel for The New York Times
Participants in the 2007 Manhattan Island Marathon Swim.