By Vladimir Brezina
It was the day of this year’s Ederle Swim, a 17.5 -mile open-water swim from Manhattan to Sandy Hook, New Jersey, organized by NYC Swim. This year’s swim was in fact the centennial swim, since the first successful swim over that course, after a number of failed attempts, occurred a hundred years ago almost to the day, on August 28th, 1913.
My swimmer this year was Barbara Held, from San Diego, California. Having completed her Triple Crown of Open Water Swimming—the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim, the Catalina Channel, and the English Channel—Barbara was looking for new challenges!
It was a near-ideal day from a kayaker’s point of view—cool, overcast, with even a few sprinkles at times, and calm winds and seas. The swimmers may of course see it differently. Barbara did complain afterward about the wind-against-current (:-)) chop that we encountered in the Lower Bay, and the little squishy things—“like implants”—that she swam into there, probably small moon jellyfish. But mercifully none of the other hazards of the harbor—no big floating debris, or buoys, or barges, or container ships.
This was our course, more or less (click to expand the map):
Given the correct timing of the swim relative to the tidal cycle—worked out in advance by Morty Berger of NYC Swim, this is what determines, pretty unforgivingly, the day and hour of the swim—it’s possible to catch a strong ebb current almost all the way down the harbor. (It was interesting to see how many swimmers—guided, of course, by their kayakers and motorboat crews, who should have known better—nevertheless wandered considerably off the course in places, losing the optimal current.) There are just a couple of tricky bits, one at the start and one at the end.
At the start, as the swimmers leave the Battery for the Buttermilk Channel to the east of Governors Island, they are relying on slipping through the narrow time window of slack current between the end of a strong flood current and the beginning of an even stronger ebb current in the East River. If the swim is delayed for some reason and the ebb in the East River has already started (see the blue arrows at the top of the map above), the swimmers will find it difficult, even impossible, to make their way across the current into the Buttermilk Channel. One year the ebb current was already so strong that we had to reroute the swimmer, Liz Fry, on the fly to the west, rather than to the east, of Governors Island. This year, as we made our way across that same stretch of water, we were already beginning to feel the pull of the ebb current. I think we were all relieved to make it safely into the Buttermilk Channel.
At the end of the swim, when the beach of Sandy Hook is already, tantalizingly, in sight, the current changes direction to flow strongly—at two knots or more—across the tip of Sandy Hook. Earlier in the ebb phase of the tidal cycle it flows eastward, and later, as the flood current begins, it flows westward (see the blue and green arrows on the map above). In either case, the swimmers must angle into the current to land optimally on the tip of Sandy Hook. This means that the faster swimmers must swim westward, and the slower swimmers eastward, even as they make progress south.
This feature of the tidal currents has played a significant role in every Ederle Swim that I’ve kayaked with (see here, and here, and here). This year, too, at least three of the slower swimmers failed to counter the flood current that had already started across the tip of Sandy Hook and were swept westward into the lonely wastes of Raritan Bay, to miss Sandy Hook entirely.
But that was more than an hour after Barbara had already finished, fourth overall and just 16 minutes behind the winner, in 4 hours, 56 minutes. A great swim!!
Accompanying a swimmer over almost five hours, there is plenty of opportunity to take photos. Here are some of them (click on any photo to start slideshow).