A strong September sun warms my bare back as I stand on the edge of a small motorboat. I check the fit of my wax earplugs, pull on my silicon cap and leap in. Water drips from my goggles as I surface to reveal a view few swimmers ever enjoy. To the north, downtown Manhattan rises like a forest above Governor’s Island. A little over a mile to the west, the verdigris figure of Liberty looks out across a dozen ferry routes.
“Ready when you are,” Jaimie Monahan shouts from her kayak. The New Yorker and accomplished ocean swimmer would normally be in my position. Today she has agreed to guide my entry into a historic, unlikely and — now — buoyant Manhattan swimming scene. Her partner, Arik Thormahlen, pilots our support, while bemused officers in a police boat are ready to act as chaperone. I turn to face north and begin a steady crawl.
I have no idea how long it will take to swim from Red Hook in Brooklyn to the landmark Pepsi-Cola sign in Queens, a distance of a little over six miles. In the choppy Buttermilk Channel, I’ll dodge ferries that include a bright yellow shuttle for the nearby Ikea. I’ll then swim up the East River, under the Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Williamsburg Bridges, following Manhattan’s eastern shore for about 80 city blocks.
I have swum in a glacial pool in the Himalayas, between Greek islands, and in the punishing Pacific surf off Acapulco. I was so fond of wading into bone-chilling lakes and seas as a child that it became a running joke in my family to point at large roadside puddles and suggest: “Swim, Simon?”
But it had never occurred to me to swim in New York, a city I’ve visited more than any other.
“I think most people here don’t even think about the fact they’re surrounded by water, but there’s a growing group of us who know about it and make use of it,” Monahan, who is 40, told me early the morning before my swim. We were driving out of Manhattan, where she has lived and worked in recruitment for 20 years, for a sunrise dip at the beach on Coney Island. Every Friday, a hardy gang of “dippers” gathers there in the shadow of the rickety rollercoasters.
Now Manhattan, a land of skyscrapers that for decades looked upwards — and inwards to the verdant folly of Central Park — is rediscovering its island identity. Monahan tells me kayak clubs are thriving. Ferry services multiply as weary subway riders stay aboveground.
The borough’s first “beach” is due to open in 2022 on a former salt store and garbage truck depot on the Hudson. There are plans for a floating swimming pool in the East River. Yet swimming here had never occurred to Monahan, either. As a child, her father, a former NYPD detective, remembered leaping from the Spuyten Duyvil rail bridge, which links Manhattan’s northern tip to the Bronx. But Jaimie, who grew up in Ossining, further up the Hudson, only ever swam in pools, becoming a talented racer. A triathlon in San Francisco 12 years ago was an awakening. “It was so strange to be in salt water with the waves,” she recalls. “But it was so invigorating and I couldn’t stop.”
Monahan is now a veteran of big swims around the world, including the English Channel and frigid races among icebergs in Antarctica. Last year she completed six “marathon” swims (usually defined as at least 10km or 6.2 miles) on six continents in 16 days, surviving jellyfish in Egypt and insufferably hot water in Colombia. But she’s most at home in New York.
As I settle into a steady pace in the East River, bubbles arc from my thumbs as I thrust each arm forwards. With each breath, a vivid, shifting cityscape floods my goggles. To my left, I can make out the World Trade Center as it rises from a thicket of downtown skyscrapers. On the Brooklyn side, I swim for the length of several Olympic pools alongside a giant liner docked at the cruise terminal. Later, luxury apartment blocks announce Williamsburg.
The view would have been very different in 1915, when Robert Dowling was the first person to swim all the way around Manhattan. Fuelled by “beef juice” and chocolate, the 18-year-old took almost 14 hours to complete the 28-and-a-half-mile anticlockwise loop. He swam down the Hudson, up the East River, and across the Harlem River, which cuts off the finger of Manhattan. In 1926, Gertrude Ederle, a New Yorker who trained in Manhattan, became the first woman to swim the Channel. The butcher’s daughter returned to the city as an American hero. But in a country where few could swim at all, such feats were considered to be as freakish as moonwalks. Ederle, as well as Rose Pitonof, another American ocean swimmer of the era, both also dabbled as vaudeville performers.
But soon Manhattan, like the Channel, became a magnet for masochists. Since the 1980s, the New York loop has been part of the “triple crown” of ocean swims, along with the 20.1-mile route between Catalina Island and the Southern California coast, and the English Channel (21 miles). Oliver Wilkinson, an Australian vet, set the current Manhattan record of five hours 44 minutes in 2011.
Monahan has completed the circuit more than a dozen times, and swam for 20 hours during a rare double loop in 2017. She plans to swim a record 16 single loops during 2020. And she’ll rarely be alone; eight organised group circumnavigations are scheduled for the coming summer. Shorter, more accessible, events include the two-mile swim around Governor’s Island, organised by Coney Island Brighton Beach Open Water Swimmers, a 2.2-mile route form Liberty Island to Manhattan run by Urban Swim, and several events on the beaches of Coney Island.
Early Manhattan swimmers recall emerging from the water coated in oil and muck. The biggest among my fears has been getting sick. Until recently, the East River has been abused perhaps more than any other metropolitan waterway. Once a source of fish for native tribes, it became an industrial artery as the city grew under colonial rule. When it was a front line in the revolutionary war, the British tossed dead bodies overboard from their miserable prisoner ships at Brooklyn.
The river then became a sewer — a toxic canal polluted almost to the point of combustibility. In a 1997 episode of Seinfeld, Kramer swims in the river to escape the crowds at his pool. “You’re swimming in the East River!” Jerry tells him after discovering why he smells so bad. “The most heavily trafficked, overly contaminated waterway on the Eastern Seaboard. How could you swim in that water!”
“Some do still get very surprised when they see me,” Monahan says.
“I remember one lady putting her dog’s face through a fence, pointing at you, and saying ‘look at her!’ ” Arik recalls. I feel like a lost whale during my own swim, as families pause to take photos as they stroll in the parks shaped from old Brooklyn piers. But I don’t encounter a single slick or bit of rubbish.
Environmental laws and projects have reversed the tide of filth. Monahan was stunned last summer to encounter a turtle close to the East River heliport. Whale sightings — mostly humpbacks — are rising, while the Billion Oyster Project is restoring New York’s historic lost oyster reefs. A harbour water quality report concluded last year that “no one in our lifetime has seen it as clean and healthy”.
Running out of steam was my other concern. I haven’t even completed half a marathon before today and have struggled to hit the 10km weekly total Monahan prescribed. But I’ve still clocked up more than 50 miles over the summer — in crowded lidos, dingy council pools and cold swimming lakes outside London. I haven’t had a lesson since I failed my silver award aged about nine. In a lake outside Girona, I get some overdue advice from Emma Snowsill, a friend of a friend and the 2008 Olympic triathlon champion. It turned out I had been slightly crossing my arms in front of me as I reached for each stroke. Widening them, I immediately feel more efficient.
According to New York tradition, I flip on to my back as I pass under the bridges of the East River, feeling like jetsam as I gaze up at 19th-century steel. I appreciate the respite but am not tiring yet. I tread water every half an hour or so while Monahan hands me an energy drink. Rules for ratified open water swims are strict: no wetsuits (I’m relieved that the water is a pleasant 20 degrees) and no hanging on to boats to feed.
The bridges also give me a reference as I’m pushed by the tide. The East River isn’t a river at all but a tidal channel; its flow reverses often, while the current changes as it narrows and bends. At times it doubles my normal pace. The pay-off is rough water, particularly at the entry to the river. For a mile or so I’m tossed about like a cork, my body wrenched in ways I haven’t felt before. Waves smash into my face as I turn my head to breathe, forcing water into my throat.
It gets calmer as I enter a long open stretch after the Williamsburg Bridge, past the Lego-brick blocks of Stuyvesant Town. The Midtown skyscrapers soon dominate, behind the green modernist slab of the United Nations building. Later that day, world leaders would gather for the General Assembly and the East River would be emptied of private traffic. Interest in Manhattan’s water may have grown, but you can’t just do a Kramer and jump in. As well as getting a police escort, Monahan has cleared my swim with the harbour authorities and Coast Guard.
Soon my rhythm is broken by whooping as I approach the southern tip of Roosevelt Island. I stop and raise my head just after the Pepsi sign. “You did it!” Monahan shouts. Thanks to the tides and the brackish buoyancy of the East River, the clock stops at 1 hour and 45 minutes — at least an hour faster than I could have managed otherwise. My heart still races and I feel slightly giddy, if elated, as I clamber back into the boat. A few glassfuls of the East River swill in my stomach as we motor to shore. With Monahan’s help, I’ve joined a still small but flourishing club — and gained a new perspective on a city I thought I knew.
Group round-Manhattan swims, and other long-distance routes) are organised by New York Open Water. Urban Swim (urbanswim.org) organise the 2.2m Liberty-Manhattan swim as well as other, much longer, events. The Coney Island Brighton Beach Open Water Swimmers organises the Governor’s Island swim and others. To follow Jaimie Monahan’s exploits, see jaimiemonahan.com
Festive and New Year’s Day dips around the world
Loony Dook, Edinburgh
This charity swim, just north of Edinburgh and in the shadow of the Forth Bridges, is known for its fancy dress and party atmosphere. “Dookers” parade down South Queensferry High Street, led by the drummers of the Noise Committee before launching themselves into the freezing Firth of Forth. A bracing antidote to the Hogmanay hangover. Entry is £12; spectators free. edinburghshogmanay.com
Coney Island Polar Bear Plunge, New York
Founded in 1903, the Coney Island Polar Bear Club claims to be the oldest winter bathing club in the US. Members are renowned for braving the chilly Atlantic waters around Coney Island every Sunday from November to April. But on January 1, the club welcomes all comers for a celebratory dip off Coney Island beach. The chief “polar bear” gathers participants by blowing a conch shell before they plunge into the waves. Donations of $25 are encouraged; polarbearclub.org
The Dutch tradition of “Nieuwjaarsduik” or “new year’s dive” began in Zandvoort, west of Amsterdam, in 1960 and was boosted by sponsorship from soup brand Unox. Today at least 25,000 people plunge into 5C water at 60 locations along the Dutch coast each New Year’s Day. Scheveningen beach in The Hague is the most popular spot, attracting about 10,000 swimmers who pour into the sea wearing bright orange Unox-branded bobble hats. The brand also provides special edition canned pea soup for each participant as a post-dip warmer. Entry costs €3; denhaag.com
Sant Sebastià, Barcelona
Plunging into warmer Mediterranean waters of around 14C, the residents of Barcelona will be kicking off 2020 with the “Primer Bany de l’Any” — the “first bath of the year”. Organised by the Barcelona Athletics Swimming Club, this free midday dip takes place on the Sant Sebastià beach in front of their clubhouse. cnab.cat
Alcatraz Swim, San Francisco
For an athletic start to the new year, more than 100 swimmers jump from Alcatraz Island into the San Francisco Bay in the early morning of January 1 for South End Rowing Club’s annual Alcatraz swim, which has been going on for nearly half a century. In 11-degree waters, swimmers cover about 1.25 miles, from the island to Aquatic Park on the San Francisco shoreline, the fastest of them completing the event in 20 minutes. The swim is only open to members of the rowing club (membership starts from $139) or the Dolphin Club (which offers swimming, rowing and handball), but anyone can be a spectator or volunteer. serc.com; dolphinclub.org