By Vladimir Brezina
NYC Swim‘s Ederle Swim, the ~17-mile open-water swim through New York Harbor between Manhattan and Sandy Hook, NJ, has become very popular. This year, there have been no fewer than three of them. And each one set a new record.
First, in June 2011, Liz Fry swam from Manhattan to Sandy Hook and back, becoming the first swimmer ever to complete a double Ederle Swim—and, in the process, setting records for both individual directions as well.
And now, Round Three! Last Sunday we had the main, yearly Ederle Swim for multiple swimmers—19 swimmers started—but in the other direction, from Sandy Hook to Manhattan. The winner of this race was looking to beat Liz’s other individual record!
Click on the track (and any photo) to open it in a new tab or window. The red numbers on the track mark the locations of the sections below; the blue arrows indicate (very roughly) the relevant tidal current directions.
The day began in predawn darkness and cold at Manhattan’s North Cove, as everyone—swimmers, crews, observers, kayakers, and, rather awkwardly, kayaks—were loaded onto their support motorboats to be transported to Sandy Hook. Our boat was the M & M II.
The hour-long boat ride through the harbor allowed those of us on deck—Janet was trapped down in the cabin by my kayak blocking the passage—to watch the magnificent colors of the dawn and sunrise as they crept over the harbor. (I’ve already posted photos from the boat ride here.) On the other hand, we did get rather wet from the cold spray from wind-against-current chop in the Lower Bay flying over the boat…
(The late-season water was, however, warm—when measured at various points along the course of the swim, consistently in the upper 60s. And it felt even warmer in contrast to the cool air.)
1. Start of the swim. The swim began on the eastern side of Sandy Hook just south of the tip. The swimmers swam from their boats to the beach and then started in five waves, ten minutes apart, between ~7:45 and ~8:30 a.m. There was some confusion about which wave Janet actually started in and so I did not see her start—or get photos!—and did not find her in the water until she was almost past the tip of Sandy Hook.
But she was swimming directly north! Off the tip of Sandy Hook, the tidal current floods from east to west, and it starts early, while the current elsewhere in the harbor is still ebbing. Indeed, there was already strong westward current across the tip of Sandy Hook… The plan had been, therefore, to swim (as shown by the purple line on the map above) at first sharply to the northeast to counter this current and reach, hopefully, water where the flood current had a more northerly component.
If I had been with Janet right from the start, we might have done more of that. Many other swimmers did. I could see them—their motorboats gleaming white in the sun, their colorful kayaks, and beside them, sometimes even a tiny purple dot splashing in the blue water—far to the east. On the other hand, other swimmers had failed, or had not tried, to counter the current and were now far to the west. Soon after leaving Sandy Hook, the field was spread over a huge expanse of water.
2. So we found ourselves pushed west by the current, and passed Romer Shoal Light at some distance to the west of it, not close by as planned. But we did angle into the current to minimize the westward drift—it was necessary to continue to do that almost the whole way through the Lower Bay—and steer a middle course between the swimmers to the east and west of us.
And, more by luck than good judgment, that turned out to be for the best. In particular, the swimmers who at the start had gone aggressively east fell more and more behind—probably the current to the east of us, out in the Ambrose Channel, was not yet flooding strongly, but was slack or even still ebbing slightly.
And so, at this point, Janet was in the lead! Except for a couple of swimmers just to the west of us, nobody, even from the earlier waves, was near.
But there was still a long way to go!
3. All around, there was just endless water, clear and sunlit looking down but becoming deep blue into the distance, with here and there a lone white motorboat. Above, a blue sky, with scattered clouds not yet blocking the warm sunshine. The visibility was tremendous. Far ahead, tiny on the horizon, was the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, and beyond that, Manhattan. This truly was open water!
4. Gradually our course converged with the Ambrose Channel and we began to feel its stronger flood current accelerating us forward. Finally, we passed the green buoy marking the northern end of the Ambrose Channel.
5. Now it was on to the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. It had been in sight from the start of the swim, across the whole of the Lower Bay, getting bigger only frustratingly slowly. But finally we reached it! I saw Janet swim on her back and look up at the underside as we passed under it.
By this time, three other swimmers had overtaken us—one on the right and two on the left of us, so I did not think that they had better current. They were simply swimming faster… it happens.
6. Just past the bridge, the current was pushing us toward a huge orange tanker, the Eagle Baltimore—the first of many vessels anchored in the Upper Bay that we had to maneuver around. We went around the back of the Eagle Baltimore…
7. … before gradually crossing the shipping channel to the Brooklyn side of the harbor. Fortunately there was no traffic just then. I could hear on the VHF radio that some of the swimmers behind us had an interesting time when they attempted to cross the channel…
Now the famous skyline of Manhattan was ahead, in unobstructed sight across the Upper Bay!
As we approached the Bay Ridge Flats we rather suddenly caught up to one of the swimmers ahead of us, as we both maneuvered through the area of colliding currents where the ocean water flooding in from the Lower Bay meets the water of the Hudson River.
Where the waters met, there was a striking, unusually well-marked boundary—such as we’ve seen throughout New York Harbor ever since Hurricane Irene—between the clear blue ocean water and the muddy, yellow-brown Hudson River water. (The boundary is clearly visible in the two photos above.) Trapped all along the boundary were floating logs, tree branches, plastic bottles, and other debris that Janet had to swim through carefully. In her account of the swim, Janet comments:
There were places where the water was doing interesting things (probably when we passed through channels or where various rivers/oceans were meeting up). One minute I would be in a space where the water was all cool and flowing quickly in one direction, only to suddenly pass into a section of warmer water that seemed to be bouncing against itself chaotically. The water really seemed alive around me.
This was certainly one such place!
Apropos of things in the water, Janet mentions “little translucent jellyfish friends swimming along with me at several points throughout the race.” Actually, not just little friendly jellyfish—in the Lower Bay we passed close to at least one specimen of Lion’s Mane, Cyanea capillata, the big orange-purple jellyfish common in these waters in the late summer and fall…
Passing by big cargo ships is really cool, and I got to swim right next to a couple that were anchored. They’re so huge! I kept thinking, where else would I get to share the water with these monsters? It made me appreciate the fact that I was swimming through NYC harbor.
And also something that one doesn’t quite appreciate from a kayak:
Boats can be really noisy underwater—as we neared Manhattan things got louder and louder. But the Staten Island ferry topped them all. Most boats whir or whine; it sounded like a clanky jackhammer. Still, cool to see such a recognizable icon chugging by.
Throughout the swim, Janet had been feeding every 30 minutes. And in this respect, as in others, she was determined to enjoy her swim… She had brought along a delicious variety of flavored teas, purees, and home-made snacks, and she had constructed elaborate, colorful charts to instruct her crew how to vary her menu from one feeding to the next. She was the envy of all other swimmers!
All this time, under the puffy white clouds, the skyline of Manhattan was slowly but surely getting closer. Janet:
I had seen pictures of Manhattan Island taken from far away, where its skyscrapers just seem to rise magically up out of the water, but seeing it in person and from in the water was amazing.
9. We reached Governors Island and, across the channel, the Statue of Liberty. I took a number of photos to document the iconic scene…
10. Now only the crossing to Manhattan remained. The water between Governors Island and the Battery was rough—a number of swimmers complained of it—due to an increasing southerly wind and the rebounding wakes from the dense boat traffic criss-crossing this area, some of which the M & M II had to intercept and head off.
11. And then we were there! Manhattan’s South Cove, in which the finish was to have been, was off-limits due to the rough water that had prevented the finish-line pontoon from being installed. So instead, Janet swam along the Battery Park wall across the mouth of South Cove, and was done! You have to imagine the crowds cheering on the wall behind me as I took this photo:
Janet’s time was 5 hours, 55 minutes, and 43 seconds. She was the third swimmer to finish, but when the different starting times of the swimmers in different waves were allowed for, she ended up fifth overall.
Evan Morrison won the race with a time of 5 hours, 24 minutes, and 52 seconds. He decisively beat Liz Fry’s Sandy Hook-to-Manhattan record of 6 hours, 6 minutes, and 1 second. (Remember, though, that Liz’s time was handicapped by the fact that it was part of her double Ederle Swim, not optimized for either individual direction.)
So the Sandy Hook-to-Manhattan record of 5:24:52 now belongs to Evan Morrison, while the Manhattan-to-Sandy Hook record of 4:01:07 belongs to Lance Ogren. The difference between the two times reflects, in large part, the different speeds of the flood and ebb currents in the harbor. When kayaking, too, the trip from Manhattan to Sandy Hook is at least an hour faster than the trip back.
Janet had a great swim on this day! Not only fast, but happy! She was determined to fully enjoy her swim—something that Evan Morrison, the winner, found enviable in his account of his own swim. I leave the last word to Janet:
… the entire time I was also constantly taking in and loving everything around me—the blue-and-puffy-clouded sky, the undulation of the waves, the feeling of being surrounded and supported by the water. I waved to the Romer Shoal Lighthouse and the Statue of Liberty as I passed by, blew a kiss to the VZ bridge as I backstroked under it, and was excited by the ever-nearing skyline of Manhattan. The whole swim was simply joyful, and was the kind of peak athletic experience where the more energy I expended, the more I felt like I had to give.
- More of my photos from the swim are here.
- Photos by other participants—kayaker Bonnie Frogma and swimmer Capri “Princess Polar Bear” Djatiasmoro, who carried a camera with her to take photos as she swam—are here and here.
- Janet’s account of her swim is here.
- News items about the swim and Evan Morrison’s win are here and here.
- Finally, Evan has posted an eloquent reflection on his experience, as contrasted with Janet’s, during the swim.