Sludge Splashing and Loving It
One Brave Woman's Swim in the Hudson River
By Tracy L. Ziemer
August 1, 2002
I swam in the Hudson last week for the first time. I thoroughly
That is, once I got over the initial horror of it. The race
start was delayed because a wayward log mysteriously floated
across the start line. And I got entangled in twigs, flotsam
and an ice cream sandwich wrapper. Still, it was one of my
most amazing New York moments in the four years I've lived
on the Upper West Site of my adopted town.
I left the safety of my pool behind and took a dip in the
Hudson River for the first time late last month as a swimmer
in the half-mile Cove to Cove Race. The competition started
at the South Cove in Battery Park City and finished at the
North Cove Yacht Club at the World Financial Center. I entered
the race because I sort of had to. As an entrant in the New
York City Triathlon on Aug. 18, I needed to meet the requirement
of completing an open-water swim prior to that event.
But I completed the race because I discovered swimming in
the Hudson turned out to be a decidedly different experience.
Normally, even New York neophytes know to avoid bodily exposure
to the Hudson River, General Electric and others' personal
garbage can and toilet for years. "But the Hudson is
cleaner," everyone says. Sure, but no one ever says it's
clean. And therein lies the problem. While my body felt ready
to do the physical act of swimming, my mind was preoccupied
with thoughts of PCBs, corpses wearing cement shoes and three-eyed
For weeks, I had endured the good-natured ribbing. "Swim
in the sludge yet?" and "I'm sure it'll be fine.
You weren't ever hoping to have children, were you?"
I tried to convince a friend to come to the race and wait
for me at the finish line with a bottle of Lysol disinfectant
and a scrub brush. "We can recreate that scene from 'Silkwood,'"
I said. She was having no part of it.
So there I was on a Sunday, hardly believing for a second
I was standing in Lower Manhattan wearing nothing more than
a bathing suit. The first wave of the 118 total swimmers splashed
away through South Cove, and I walked the gangplank to await
my turn to jump in as part of the second wave. The tight,
bright yellow race swim cap made my head smell like a balloon
and was already making me sweat on this 84-degree day.
At the side of the dock, about 4 feet below the surface,
I surveyed the watery scene below me. Debris and flotsam and
jetsam, oh my. I took a breath, held my goggles and jumped.
The water was cool and salty. When I resurfaced, the first
thing I saw above the choppy waves was the Statue of Liberty,
standing tall in the distance.
The starting horn blared and off I went. The river was the
murky green color of an Army uniform and was about as transparent.
I couldn't see a thing in the turbid water beyond my extended
hand. A few strokes in, my fingers got entangled with a twig.
I pried it loose and then encountered an ice cream sandwich
wrapper as it wafted by underwater.
To calm my mind and turn my attention away from the goings-on
below the surface, I focused on the skyline of Lower Manhattan
that was slowly gliding by me with each stroke: the Regatta,
Liberty Terrace, Liberty House, Hudson Tower, Gateway Plaza.
The sun twinkled off the buildings' windows. People stood
on the esplanade, cheering us on. Ferries and other boats
buzzed by on my left as I plowed forward. Stroke, breathe,
Then, somewhere between worrying about the growing size of
the waves and whether the current was going to slam me into
the seawall, I realized what a remarkable vantage point I
had in this river that was as rough, unpredictable and exhilarating
as the city itself.
The view from the top of the Empire State Building has always
made me marvel at the city's compactness and the collective
magnificence of its architecture. The view from the Hudson
River -- a few feet below terra firma -- emphasized the individual
size, strength and detail of some of the buildings that give
Manhattan its character. It seemed as though they were growing
from the pavement right above me. I felt in awe and about
as tiny as the floating cigarette butt I had to flick out
of my path.
Rounding the turn into North Cove toward the finish line,
I couldn't believe I'd done it: I'd conquered the dangerous
beast of the Hudson. Then I glanced up and saw the glassy
and gorgeous Winter Garden, still intact after the events
of last September.
I was humbled again.
Copyright 2002 Manhattan Media
top of page