Governors Island New York 28 July 2012

Swimmers on the island after registration

The last Saturday in July and the last of my swim adventures in New York City was due to take place. The location was Governors Island just off the southern tip of Manhattan in New York Harbour. The swim was around a large portion of the island over a distance of two miles (or 3.2 km).

The island has an interesting history as it was a key army base up until the 1960s. After then the US Coast Guard used it for a base until the late 1990s. It was transferred to the City of New York in 2001 and is now open to the public on weekends and holidays between May and September each year. Access to the island is via a free ferry from either Brooklyn Bridge, or next to the Staten Island Ferry on Manhattan. There is even a public high school in the island now. What an amazing place to go to school.

I approached the swim with a mixture of sadness and excitement. Sadness because I was coming to the end of my time in New York City. The excitement was about the challenge of a long swim in tricky conditions in New York Harbour. I had put in plenty of miles in the pool in preparation, doing around two and a half miles several mornings a week at Sunset Park Pool. I had swum longer swims in Australia over the last summer, so I knew that I could do the distance. The only question was how fast would I do it?

NYC Swim offer a webinair to provide information to the swimmers in the week preceding the swim. I made sure I listened in to it, as I had found that they offer useful information, especially when you have not swum the course previously. Morty, the host of the session told us about the swim and that it would start at Fort William and finish at Pier 101 with swimmers swimming counter-clockwise around the island. He then explained about the currents during the swim.

The swim was scheduled to start at 11.15am at which time the tide goes from ebb to flood. The tide would be moving slowly down towards the harbour entrance at the start of the swim at around half a knot or so. However, as swimmers turned into Buttermilk Channel on the Brooklyn side of the island, the flood tide should assist the swimmers at around one knot. So in theory there would be a slight push for swimmers during the swim. Of course the earlier waves would get the least assistance, and the last waves should get the most.

We arrived at Whitehall Subway after a short trip on the R train from our temporary home in Brooklyn. After a short ferry ride we were on the island, and lining up to get our timing chips and swim caps. I was in the second wave this time, once again in a pink cap. The waves were seeded from fastest to slowest, so my efforts at Brooklyn Bridge had been rewarded with a lower seeding. I am impressed with the amount of swimmer identification for these swims. The caps have the swimmer number written on it twice, and we were also marked on our upper arm and shoulder-blade.

By the time all this had finished we still had over an hour to wait for the swimmer briefing. Luckily the day was cool and overcast, so it was pleasant on the lawn, stretching, chatting or just resting. Several folks talked to me about the blog and told me how much they enjoyed reading it (always good to get feedback).

Once again we were lined up in our waves in numeric order. This time it was more important because we would have to board a ferry in wave order so that we could be transported to the start line. The idea was that we would jump off the ferry for the in-water start. We boarded the yellow ferry and then went around to Fort William where the yellow start line awaited us. After what seemed an eternity, the green capped first wave finally exited the ferry to claps and cheers. As soon as they started we were next.

The start line, the ferry we jumped off, and the mist over the city

Those ferries are higher in the water than they seem, and it was a fun leap into the warm harbour water. The warm up today would be a short 30 metre swim to the start line. We lined up waiting for the hooter. I had noticed that there was a fair bit of chop at the start line. Soon enough our wave had started. I had drifted to the rear of the wave as I was feeling a bit sluggish for some reason. As I started I soon realised that it would take me a while to get into stride, so I concentrated on trying to keep near other swimmers and to make sure I swam as far from the island sea wall as possible. I was not swimming to my normal standard, I felt slow and lethargic, and other swimmers were out-pacing me. I knew this would be a long swim so I concentrated on my technique to deal with the choppy water. I did have time to admire the Statue of Liberty in the distance.

Swimmers in the water, and the Staten Island Ferry going past

As we swam around the southern side of the island the chop disappeared and we were swimming in clear calm water. I was by myself wider out from the island than the others in my wave that I could see. I wanted to stay wide at this point so that I could get safely around the jetties on the next corner. It was good to swim in calm water again, and I noticed that my rhythm started to return. Perhaps I had been pushing myself too hard in the pool, or maybe I had been indulging too much in New York’s fantastic variety of restaurants and bars.

The Statue of Liberty through the mist

We turned into ButterMilk Channel and I could just see Brooklyn through the mist and low cloud. I was looking forward to this part of the race, as I was expecting that the tide would provide a great deal of assistance. I decided to head out closer to the buoys in an attempt to get more current to help me. I noticed three other swimmers in my wave doing the same thing, so I quickly got onto their feet and tried to keep up. After several minutes I found that I had dropped off the back of this pack, and so I had to make a decision. Would I try to keep up, or should I just try to enjoy the rest of the swim. I decided to enjoy the swim and fairly quickly the pack of four were about twenty metres in front of me and pulling away.

I knew that there were two green navigation markers just before the finish line. As we approached the second one, I could see the finish line, and I resolved to myself that I would swim hard to get back onto the heels of the pack of four. So I put my head down, kicked hard and really pulled hard through the water.

Approaching the finish line with the city in the backgound

I caught the back of the pack, and I noticed that two of them were wearing wetsuits. I thought I would just sit there for a short while and get my breath back. If I had enough energy left I would try to get past them. I managed to get past three of the pack fairly easily, but the pack leader was proving more difficult. I was swimming beside her, and I just could not move ahead.

The finish line required us to make a hard left turn and head under a gantry to the pontoon attached to Pier 101. I wanted to get past this swimmer before we got to the gantry as it was a narrow channel. For the last thirty metres or so I sprinted and I got past her. I was amazed at how much speed I was generating. I swam hard all the way to the pontoon, and climbed up the steps several metres ahead of the pack. I had got to the finish line before them.

The finish line with the pontoon

As I walked over the timing mat and received my medal, I realised that the swim had taken quite a bit out of me. It was good to have that tired feeling, knowing that I had swum hard and also enjoyed the journey. I had made it.

Collected my goody bag, even though I knew the contents having packed them on Thursday evening, and picked up my t-shirt. I shared my observations of the swim with fellow swimmers, and we had all enjoyed the challenge. It was a long swim, even with the assistance of the current, and the chop from the wind and the passing ferry craft made it just that little more tricky.

I soon realised that the swim had run into problems as the last wave could not start. It seemed that at the start line there was an eddy and this wave of swimmers had difficulty reaching the bouys to begin. I also learned that the organisers have a window of forty minutes to get all the swimmers into the water before the tides make it too difficult. I felt sorry for that wave, but at least some of them were taken down to the first corner and managed to swim part of the course.

My time of just under forty nine minutes placed me 69th overall out of the 271 swimmers who completed the event. I was placed 12th in my age group out of thirty swimmers. Not my best achievement on this trip, but still quite good, and a satisfying result.

To the NYC Swim team, you are awesome. You have so much to organise for these swims and you do it so well. Most swimmers would not even see the effort that you put in, and that is an indication of how succesful you are at doing this. I have also realised that open water swimming is a very niche sport here, and the season is so short.

And so now I must return home to Sydney, taking with me many happy memories and a sense of gratitude for the adventures that open water swimming has provided me so far. I am already dreaming of entering the Little Red Lighthouse swim sometime in the future.

2 Comments on “Governors Island New York 28 July 2012

  1. Hi Greg,
    Congratulations – another excellent swim report. It sounds like you’re swimming the Bondi-Fit way.

    When you say warm, what is the water temp? And when you say clear, do you mean Sydney Harbour clear?

    You’re missing some fun Friday squads with Spot. He’s in his element, rabbiting on about why Magnussen only managed second in the 100 free in London.

    All fun in the pool.

    I haven’t been doing ocean training (no westsuit and too cold) but the surf has been gi-normous. A dead hump-back whale washed into the rock pool at Bilgola and had to be chopped up and disposed of because it couldn’t be re-floated and sent back out to sea.

    Enjoy the rest of the holiday and see you soon.


    • The water is around 75F which is just under 24C. As for clear yes clear like Sydney Harbour. You could not see more than around 1.5m.

      I have been back to training this week….

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