Six-Foot Swells, Tricky Currents and 21-Hour Swims: the New Yorkers Braving the Hudson River
Originally published in The Uptowner as “Six-Foot Swells, Tricky Currents and 21-Hour Swims: Uptowners and Others Brave the Open Waters”
Eight men and women climbed down the pier by the Inwood Canoe Club and into the Hudson River, warmer on a fall day than the air itself, which barely crept above 60 degrees. They were doing their last swim of the season, plowing a mile downriver to the George Washington Bridge, then back.
They are open water swimmers, who prefer oceans, lakes and rivers with deep waters, waves, tides and currents to swimming pools with clear, filtered water and defined lanes.
“It never goes swimmingly,” said lifetime swimmer Sebastian Moll, 54, one of the eight, about the problems swimmers can face in open water.
The day and time – Sunday, 10 a.m. – had been chosen carefully for the Inwood swim, because the tide in the Hudson would be at slack: the brief window between ebb and flow when currents are at their weakest.
Timing tides and tracking currents and weather are critical to open water swimming, which has grown in popularity, attracting people of all ages, sizes and backgrounds.
Moll thinks the popularity of endurance sports like triathlons has led more people to discover long distance, open-water swimming. He saw how much the sport has grown when he competed in the recent Spuyten Duyvil race – a 6.5-mile swim down the Hudson, finishing at Inwood Hill Park.
“The field of participants is really big – 250 people – and these days the spots run out in no time,” said Moll. A few years ago, similar races only drew around 20 swimmers.
Moll flashed a wide smile during the Sunday swim when he stopped halfway through, floating mid-river between Manhattan and New Jersey. The conditions were perfect – sunny and little wind.
Two kayakers accompanied the swimmers, essential to any open water swim. Without the support team, a Hudson swim would be too unsafe: A lone swimmer is nearly impossible to see in the swells. A bad cramp or sudden loss of energy could be disastrous.
Alex Arévalo, 45, a bartender when he isn’t on the support team, paddled 550 miles alongside swimmers around Manhattan this season. An experienced kayaker, he has accompanied people on some of the most grueling open water events in the world.
“You see what it does to other people,” he said. “You see the happiness in their faces.”
Kathleen Romano, a 72-year-old psychotherapist, is among the swimmers Arévalo has accompanied.
“It’s my church out there,” said Romano, a convert to the sport who lives in Washington Heights. “I think about myself out there in the water. It’s pretty big from that perspective – the water.”
Romano didn’t participate in the Sunday swim but she has done other open water events and is a fixture in the lanes at Riverbank State Park Pool off West 145th Street.
Romano's photo hangs by the pool entrance where she swims every weekday morning.
“She knows all the people up there,” said Abigail Fairman, a marketing director at a New York city law firm, who has competed in open water swims throughout the world. “She’s amazing – and a very strong swimmer.”
Fairman has raced tens, if not hundreds of miles and is preparing for a 20-plus-mile English Channel crossing next year. In 2017, she did the 8 Bridges Hudson River Swim, one of the world's longest marathon swims, starting in the Catskills and finishing in the Narrows in downtown New York City.
“When I saw the George Washington Bridge, it was like coming home,” she said.
Romano started swimming seriously at 49, in the Riverbank pool, which is only four feet deep. “When I couldn’t swim I could walk,” she said. She trained enough to swim one mile, then two, then three.
In 2002, Romano participated in her first open water event. Far from the calm waters of the swimming pool, the race proved a struggle.
“It was a nightmare!” she said.
Undiscouraged, she entered a second race, this one a mile long at Coney Island. “It was that race that won me over," she said. "It was on a wonderful day like this one. I swam towards the Wonder Wheel and the Parachute Jump.”
This past summer, she married Allyson Howard, 59, another swimmer, in a ceremony on Brighton Beach. They first met on the beach at Coney Island.
“She’s a Polar Bear – they don’t swim, they only frolic,” Romano said and smiled. Her wife is a member of the Coney Island Polar Bear Club, winter swimmers whose season runs from November to April.
For open water, it doesn’t matter how old you are, if the water is warm or cold, or the distance long or short. Everyone is welcome.
“It’s such a supportive community,” said Romano, a Vietnam era Navy vet.
Romano once dreamed about doing the 20 Bridges swim – a circumnavigation around Manhattan – but she has more modest goals today.
“Years go by and I’m less interested about pushing my limits,” said Romano, who added that her weekday swims at Riverbank are her “meditation.”
Sebastian Moll can be found in the same pool – but not necessarily in the same lane. “He’s friendly and encouraging – but has such a wide stroke,” Romano said and described him as “albatross-like” when swimming.
“First time we talked, we fought!” Moll said and laughed about his friend when recalling their first meeting. “I was on her turf!”
When he first moved to New York from Germany in the 1990s, no one really wanted to swim in the waterways surrounding the city.
“It was decrepit,” he said, the water and shores filled with litter.
The river was still cleaner in the 1990s than it had been. GE spent more than $1 billion cleaning up the river after dumping carcinogenic PCBs into the water from two upstate manufacturing plants. The cleanup was ordered by the Environmental Protection Agency in 2002 and has included dredging of sediment near the plants.
The agency continues to monitor the river and collected over 8,600 samples for a 2018 report which said water quality is improving, but full recovery remains many years away.
The river is still considered more than clean enough for swimming. The Hudson is again teeming with sea life such as oysters, striped bass, fluke and other fish, seals and other sea animals.
“When I was in a support boat for a swimmer in the Hudson, a big sturgeon leaped by the swimmer and the boat,” said Fairman, who stretches her hands a good three feet, while sitting at At the Wallace, an uptown watering hole not far from Riverbank pool.
Yet, since the perception that the East and Hudson Rivers are still dirty remain, Fairman and other swimmers still get quizzical looks when they talk about their hobby.
“I’ve gotten the usual questions, ‘Have you had your shots?’ ‘Have you ever seen a dead body?’” she said with a laugh.
Some of the big races in the Hudson and around Manhattan start and end uptown. La Marina, a waterfront eatery in Inwood, has hosted many celebratory dinners after races like the Spuyten Duyvil.
After the recent Sunday swim, the shore around La Marina and Inwood Canoe Club next door was alive with swimmers. The eight who had braved the waters at 10 a.m. basked in the fall sun an hour and a half later, wrapped in layers of clothing to fight the chill.
Their smiles said it all, capturing the slogan on an open water swimmer’s T-shirt Romano once saw: “No lanes, no lines, no limits.”