Manhattan Island Marathon Swim

July 3, 2004
Low water at the Battery: 3:50 am -0.7'
High water at the Battery: 9:43 am +4.9'
Full Moon: July 2, 2004

The first time I paddled up the East River – in a canoe back in 1992 -- people on shore just stared. In 1992 you were considered crazy to paddle - much less swim - New York City waters. That year only 7 brave souls did the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim. But in 2004, when over 100 swimmers participated in the MIMS, it didn’t even make the newspapers.

The MIMS is sponsored by the Manhattan Island Foundation, a non-profit organization that provides recreational swimming programs for City kids and works to connect New Yorkers to their aquatic environment in the best possible way – by getting them to jump in the river and swim. In 2004 the Foundation was responsible for bringing over 3,500 swimmers to the Hudson, Harlem and East Rivers.

For the 28.5-mile MIMS, 24 solo swimmers and 12 relay teams circled the Island counterclockwise, starting at South Cove by Battery Park City. Each swimmer was accompanied by a volunteer kayaker and a powerboat to ensure their survival in the treacherous NYC waterways. I was assigned to Liquid Assets, a six-person relay team sponsored by the high- powered investment banking firm Goldman Sachs.

There were 4 other corporate relay teams vying for Wall Street bragging rights: Lehman Brothers, CSFB Red, CSFB Blue and UBS. Each firm had enlisted ringers and scoured their ranks around the world to build teams made up of world-class swimmers, triathletes, former NCAA stars and Olympians. But even more important than bragging rights, the Goldman Sachs team was swimming to benefit charity and raised over $6,000 for the Manhattan Island Foundation and Right to Play, a charity that uses sport and play to enhance child development for disadvantaged children in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Race day began at 6:00 am, with the kayakers mustering at the Downtown Boathouse while powerboaters, support crews and relay swimmers gathered at North Cove by the World Financial Center. Solo swimmers and first-leg relay swimmers gathered at the starting line at South Cove, where they tried to stay loose in the cool shade along the Hudson.

Semi-organized chaos prevailed in the hour leading up to the start as kayakers, powerboaters and swimmers searched each other out along the seawall.
Carlos Arena was the Goldman team captain and first-leg swimmer. I paddled up to the seawall at North Cove and shouted, “Carlos!” and found him standing along the rail. At 8:05 am Carlos set off in the second wave with the other corporate relay teams, swimming south on the Hudson toward the Battery.

The start was a frenzy of swimmers, kayakers and powerboaters jockeying for position on the open water. Carlos stroked powerfully to the front of both waves, passing all but one solo swimmer as he rounded the Battery and moved into the strong East River current. Carlos swam for Mexico in the Pan American Games, World Championships and Atlanta Olympics, and was a member of the University of Texas 1996 NCAA Championship team.

At 8:50 am Nikki Dryden jumped into the East River to take the 2d leg for the Goldman team. (Each member of the 6-person corporate relay teams swam 45 minutes on his or her 1st leg and 30 minutes on 2nd and 3rd legs.) Nikki was an NCAA All-American and member of the Canadian national team at the 1992 & 1996 Olympics and 1994 Worlds, and was now studying public-interest law at Brooklyn Law School.

By 9:05 Nikki and the other corporate relays were at 23rd Street, at the front of the pack, contending with fast currents, big standing waves and chaotic cross-chop and boat wakes on the East River. The wind blew from the north, against the current.
The relay teams made their second change near the north end of Roosevelt Island. The Goldman team’s 3rd leg swimmer was Justin Ward, Captain of the Duke University 2003 swim team. By 10:05 Justin was past the footbridge and laboring against the current between Randall's Island and 106th St. Manhattan. The water was flat and the July sun beginning to blaze. Powerboaters and kayakers were crowded together and moving slowly against the current, with motorboat exhaust filling the hot, still air. One of the problems of kayak escorting is that your breathing zone often coincides with a thick cloud of fumes from the accompanying powerboat fleet. As one kayaker put it:
“I really like doing this stuff - but these fumes from those powerboats! They should not be allowed to constantly idle in front of us - or so nearby. My whole goal half way thru the race that day was to not get poisoned - stay away from those powerboats. I set up angles to keep the swimmer in one spot - and still try to keep the powerboats as far away from us as possible because of the fumes. At one point in the midtown on the Hudson, I had so many powerboats idling constantly infront --- hour after hour--I felt like I was literally going to pass out. I thought. This is great. If I pass out-- I'm capsized- I'll just drown because folks would think I would just do a wet-exit....”
South of the Triboro Bridge, Justin passed to Goldman’s 4th-leg swimmer, Ken Baron, an Ironman triathlete. After slogging against the current Ken finally reached the Harlem River at the end of his leg,. At 11:05 Jacqueline Woo started the 5th leg for the Goldman team underneath the Willis Avenue Bridge, where the current was beginning to turn to the north. Jac does triathlons for fun and represented Hong Kong in the 1996 Olympics and World Championships.

At 11:50 Pat Leary started the 6th leg just north of Yankee Stadium. The Harlem River was moving nicely 2 hours after high tide, and a gentle breeze from the north brought relief from the building and the promise of a tailwind on the Hudson. At 12:05 Pat was swimming strong, enjoying a steady northward current in the Harlem River underneath the I-95 bridge.

Carlos started his second leg around the 207th St. MTA shop. Carlos was stroking powerfully, boosted by a 2-knot current, and was now regaining ground lost to the UBS and CSFB corporate relays.

At 1:05 Nikki started her 2d leg just north of Dyckman Street on a slack Hudson River. Carlos had swam through Spuyten Duyvel. We moved offshore to take advantage of the north breeze and the soon-to-be-moving current. By the time Justin started his 2d leg just north of the George Washington Bridge the current was moving well and the Goldman team has pulled almost even with CSFB and UBS.

After a strong leg by Justin Ken started his 2d leg around 135th Street at 2:05, swimming mid- channel in the Hudson as the current continued to gain power. A few jellyfish floated by but no stings were reported.

Jac started her 2d leg around 96th Street, with traffic steadily building on the Hudson as we approached midtown. With Navy ships and luxury liners in port and security high, the Coast Guard ordered all swimmers to stay near mid-channel in the Hudson around 42nd Street. The waters were patrolled by the NYPD and Coast Guard attack boats with machine guns mounted fore and aft, and the Hudson was crowded with huge barges, countless ferries, pleasure boats, jet skiis, tugboats, ocean liners, Circle Lines, kayaks and swimmers, with helicopters and airplanes buzzing overhead. Jac is fortunately oblivious to the madness on the River, focusing only on my kayak and her stroke.

At 3:05 Jac passed the baton to Pat at 38th Street. A huge barge pushed by tugboats churned south downriver, squeezing between the Manhattan shoreline and the swimmers. After it passed the NYPD directed the swimmers to hug the Manhattan shore, forcing Pat to swim at right angles to our destination. The Statute of Liberty and the finish line came into view as Pat stroked down the Hudson. Goldman, CSFB and UBS were neck and neck coming into the homestretch.

At 3:35 Carlos jumped into the Hudson around Canal Street for the final leg. The current was moving fast to the south and Carlos was stroking hard, but UBS and CSFB were keeping pace. Around the Downtown Boathouse the Corporate Relay teams passed Mallory Cook, who at 18 was the youngest swimmer in the MIMS and who, until that time, was leading the corporate relays even though she was swimming solo.

The water was choppy and chaotic around the Battery Park seawall coming into the finish line at South Cove. Carlos was swimming strong, with CSFB about 50 yards in front and UBS just a 2 or 3 yards behind.

Each time Carlos lifted his head to breath I screamed to him to swim faster. “UBS IS RIGHT BEHIND!! GO!! GIVE IT EVERYTHING YOU GOT!!” Carlos nodded and kicked it into high gear, swimming hard along the seawall. Carlos make the turn into South Cove with his lead intact, and after 7 hours and 46 minutes Carlos touched the dock at South Cove 6 seconds ahead of UBS. 2004 MIMS Results

Carlos stumbled up the ladder while the Reel Nice and the rest of the Goldman team motored off to North Cove, leaving me to make my own way back upriver to the Downtown Boathouse against the current and the wind. Although we were told before the MIMS that our motorboaters would help us back to DTBH, most of the kayakers were abandoned at South Cove, and together struggled back to the DTBH, fighting the north wind and the 2-knot current on the Hudson.

After 9 nonstop hours in our boats the additional 35 minutes of strenuous paddling in rough chop and ferry traffic was extremely unwelcome, but we persevered. After much swearing into the wind and dodging ferries we made it back to the DTBH for a well- earned trip to the portapotty.

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