Swimming with the changing tide

(Photo by Will Dendis)

(Photo by Will Dendis)

In a couple of weeks, swimmers will pass by the Saugerties Lighthouse on their way to New York Harbor. On Wednesday morning, June 18, the 8 Bridges Hudson River Swim will commence with the first stage from the Rip Van Winkle Bridge to the Kingston-Rhinecliff Bridge. Long-distance swimmers will attempt to swim the 18.3 miles from bridge to bridge. This will be the first leg of a seven-day endurance event that finishes at the Verrazano Bridge. To avoid fighting the incoming tide on the way downriver, each day’s swim is timed with the ebb flow. On the 18th, the swim starts at 8:20 a.m. Escorted by kayaks, the fastest swimmers may pass the Lighthouse as early as 10:30 or 11 a.m.

Don’t expect a hoard of swimmers in the water but rather a dedicated few. Each stage is limited to a dozen entrants, and only two or three tackle all seven stages. In its fourth year, the event is already attracting the attention of elite swimmers. Among those taking on the entire 120-mile challenge this year is James Penrose of London, England. In his sixties, Mr. Penrose achieved the Triple Crown of open-water swimming by crossing the English Channel, crossing the Catalina Channel from southern California, and circumnavigating Manhattan Island.

The view from the Saugerties waterfront inspired this challenge. Event-organizer David Barra was at a house in West Camp one summer when he glimpsed the Rip Van Winkle Bridge to the north and the Kingston-Rhinecliff Bridge to the south. Like a mountaineer looks at a peak, he looked at this stretch of river with the eyes of an open-water swimmer and saw a worthy goal. The fact that these and the other six bridges on the Hudson are more or less evenly spaced was practically an invitation to create the multi-day endurance challenge.


Mr. Barra and his fellow marathon swimmers are not the first to swim down the Hudson River. Some of the more notable attempts took place in the early 20th-century. In 1926, lifeguard Lottie Moore Schoemmell swam from Albany to New York City in 57 hours and 11 minutes over an eleven-day period. Day or night, she swam with the ebb, only stopping to sleep when the tide turned against her. To retain heat while swimming in mid-October, she coated herself in automobile grease after running out of sheep lard. She kept fueled with whiskey-soaked sugar lumps. Her support boat had a portable phonograph to play records so she could enjoy some music while swimming. Today, a swimmer would wear a neoprene wetsuit, consume energy gel packs and listen to a waterproof iPod.

In August 1937, Charles Zibelman swam non-stop from Albany to New York City. Nicknamed “Zimmy the Human Fish,” Mr. Zibelman lost his legs at the age of nine in a trolley accident and subsequently made a living on the carnival circuit from exhibition swimming, setting endurance records. The non-stop swim down the Hudson was one of his more famous stunts. He was in the water for 148 consecutive hours, continuing his swim despite the tide. He passed by Saugerties twice. After reaching the village in the morning, he was carried back upstream by an incoming tide in the afternoon and passed by again after sunset. So it was for the entire journey, back and forth with the ebb and flow, floating on his back and smoking cigars while waiting for the tide to turn in his favor.

More recently, in 2004, Christopher Swain swam the entire 315-mile length of the Hudson River from Lake Tear of the Clouds to New York Harbor. The purpose of his swim was to call attention to water quality in the river. He offered a vision: a river that would be drinkable from the headwaters to Troy, and swimmable all the way to the Atlantic Ocean, every single day of the year. In keeping with Swain’s vision, the 8 Bridges event seeks to promote the health and enjoyment of the Hudson River. One of the event partners, Riverkeeper, is working toward this vision of a swimmable Hudson. Every month from May to October, Riverkeeper boat captain John Libscomb collects and analyzes water samples at 74 sites along the tidal Hudson, testing for sewage contamination. Riverkeeper also partners with local volunteers to test major tributaries such as the Esopus Creek. The good news is that the river is getting cleaner. Most sites have acceptable water quality for swimming most of the time, but some hot spots for pollution persist. The bad news is that heavy rainfall often triggers sewage contamination. By monitoring water quality and publishing the results on their website, Riverkeeper is helping to inform the public and call attention to sources of contamination.

The swimmers in the 8 Bridges challenge remind us of the motivation for cleaning up the river along the entire length. Some people express dismay to see anyone swimming in the Hudson River. To them, the river still retains its polluted reputation. They are missing out on the enjoyment of a tremendous natural resource. It helps to have water-lovers championing the cause for a swimmable Hudson to show that the river still belongs to us all, even if we aren’t trying to set any endurance records.