New York City
........Spring 2010

Hudson River Swim Marathon Kayak Support

A man in Manhattan's South Cove counted down from 29 to 20. About 10 swimmers jumped at the same time with a loud splash into the water. First the water was just a big whirl of arms, heads, and foam, but slowly the orange swim caps start showing, and the numbers on them become distinguishable. We kayakers have to find "our" swimmer. Each kayaker has a swim partner he/she is responsible for, who we can find by the number on their swim caps.
About two weeks ago, the N.Y. Kayaker online discussion group asked for kayakers willing to function as swim support for the Manhattan Marathon Swim. We kayakers have to paddle 28.5 miles around the island of Manhattan. It is really a marathon distance, although the current will help! We have to paddle along three different rivers: first a short distance on the Hudson, second along the East River, next the Harlem River, and finally back along the Hudson. All three are tidal rivers. To progress successfully on a circumnavigation of Manhattan, one has to pay close attention to the tides.
About a year ago, I looked from the Carl Schurz Park onto Hell's Gate. I was wondering how to get through this inferno with a sea kayak. It looked to me more like a series of class IV rapids. I posted that question on the discussion list. I knew from postings that New York kayakers circumnavigate the city regularly. I was told knowing the tides and going with the current is the secret for success. Indeed, I cannot even see Hell's Gate when we pass through the area, only the look-out above the Park reminds me that I am at the spot.
Like most marathon events in N.Y.C. this one is well planned. The organizers have secured all the necessary permits from the Coast Guard and the NYPD. On Thursday (7 July 2005), the terror alert level was raised to orange. I had to travel from New Jersey into the city by train. It meant I had to pass by hundreds of police men and military personnel with German shepherds who looked at everyone with deepest suspicion, assuming they could be a potential terrorist. That evening the kayak support group was meeting. We watched a PowerPoint which showed the entire 28.5 mile paddle as a video. We will have to paddle under 20 bridges, pass several ferry terminals and the Circle Line, and deal with the private "cigarette boats" which zoom through the area. If our swimmers request it, we can feed them from the kayak. The Marathon can take up to 10 hours; the last swimmers are fished out of the river after 12 hours, no matter where they are at this point.
I start doubting if I will be able to spend so much time in my kayak without stretching and even using the bathroom. Something else is bothering me. I have to car top my kayak into Manhattan, but I've never driven my car in this crazy traffic! But I have a solution, at least for going INTO the city. Saturday mornings around 5:30 a.m., the traffic through the Holland Tunnel is very low, and there are enough parking spaces available around the Downtown Boathouse. On my way out, I will need a lot more time. But I enjoyed the drive, because it turned out that even the taxis had some kind of respect when they tried to pass me with my long boat on top. "She must be crazy, better stay away from that car" must have been the thought on many minds around me. So I had a relaxing drive out of the city too.
Each swimmer had his/her own team, consisting of a motor boat and a kayaker. Everything has a matching number; I have #113. My swimmer is Raquel from Mexico City, where she teaches English at a university. After her start in the second group, I try to find the number 113 in the whirling chaos. There she is. I wait a little bit until the group of swimmers start spreading out more so we can approach our swimmer without hindering anyone.
It was difficult to get acquainted with our swimmers; we had to contact them from a distance and then find the right rhythm, tempo and needs of the swimmer. Finally Raquel told me “Lady, I need you on my right side.” My name was much too strange for her. But I immediately realized what the problem was, she was breathing on her right side, so she could not see me when her head came out of the water. This is one of the reasons why the kayak support is so important; a swimmer can only see a distance of about one meter. The area around Manhattan is dotted with the remains of the old harbor constructions which lay just under or above the waterline, depending on the tides. Swimmers are also very difficult to spot from boats. Motorboats have bad exhaust fumes which would affect the swimmer if their teams would stay close.
I observe how Raquel's coach provides her with food and drinks. They have to use a long pole with a little basket to get it to her. It would be much easier to do it from the kayak since we are closer and she can just reach out with her hand. Also, she can get my attention much easier. Only a few hand signs are needed to help correct her course and get each other's attention.
I carry a VHF radio on my deck and can follow the entire conversations among all the boats, and the announcements from the NYPD. Sadly enough, I forgot to bring extra batteries, so my entertainment is over after 3.5 hours.
After we get used to each other's accents, Raquel begins to trust me and feel more secure through my presence. It is her first marathon, and for me the first time that I work as a swim support on a long distance swim like this one. I try to pace her a little bit by staying with my bow about one foot ahead of her. But I have to make sure she is not affected by my bow wave. On the other hand, under no circumstances should she touch my boat, which would disqualify her immediately.
Every time we float under one of the 20 bridges, New Yorkers crossing them wave and encourage the swimmers. A few times, we are directed to the opposite side of the East River, because either the Circle Line or a tourist boat want to pass. One time the organizers get upset because the teams are not moving towards the west shore of the river. It sounded like “which side are you talking about? The right side or the right side?" Answers like "the other side is the right side" just coaxed some jokes about the "right and right.” I was cracking up. Another time the police were threatening to stop the entire marathon everyone didn't immediately moved to the other/right side. A discussion began between two boats about whether Ken would bring onions and cheese to their party. I never found out, because my radio stopped working.
After about 3 hours, I start wondering if one of the support boats might have a bathroom. Male kayakers usually have easy solutions for that problem. We women have to deal with it in a different way. I began to ask. Two of the boats didn't know what I was talking about. Did I ask for a toilette instead of a bathroom? Another boat is passing us slowly; they finally came to my rescue. I tell Raquel that I have to take care of business. Five minutes later I am back beside her.
We were warned ahead of time that there was a standing wave up to four-foot high close to one of the bridges. I never saw that wave, but it seems to develop only when the wind is against the direction of the current. We had perfect weather. The Marathon began around 9:00 a.m. Around 3:30 p.m. we were moving towards the intersection between the Harlem and Hudson Rivers, a few miles north of the George Washington Bridge. We have to pass under a low train bridge which is opened for our event. Right ahead of us, on the west bank of the Hudson River above the Palisade Mountains, a threatening dark wall of clouds had developed. I can see the first lightning bolts. Not so good! Wind gusts hit us right in the face .
When I am paddling alone, this is when I immediately pull out. But my VHF radio doesn't work. I am anxious. Raquel and I arrive at the Hudson. We are immediately hit by three to four-foot waves caused by wind, outgoing tide, and the intersection of the two rivers! I am afraid for Raquel, but she moves with constant pace and confidence through the water. Later she told me that she didn't have any problems, probably because she moved much lower through the water. As a kayaker, I am more exposed to the elements. About an hour earlier I had removed my spray skirt because of the
90° temperature. I regretted that now. I did not really want to come into any contact with the river water. The day before it had rained in N.Y.C. and the water was declared unsafe. All swimmers had to sign a release form.
At this point, a warning is broadcasted, everybody had to get out of the water. Raquel is taken back into the motor boat. But what about me? We are in the middle of the Hudson, which is between two and three miles wide at this point. The captain agrees to tow my boat back to the South Cove. The wind picks up and it starts to rain. The marathon is discontinued for the day. Raquel was very disappointed! She cannot afford to come to N.Y.C. another time. She was at a good spot, and had a good chance to finish second or third. The marathon was held again later that year, but by then I was back living in Ohio.
In about 20 minutes we completed the last eight miles left of the marathon. What was in it for me? I received two cool T-shirts and a dent in the bottom of my Honda Hybrid. I also found out that it is no problem to do the circumnavigation. At times, we moved at a speed of seven miles per hour through the water. I had to slow down quite a bit. A kayaker is still faster than a swimmer. I got to know quite a number of real nice New Yorkers. I learned that the Boathouse is a place where people can rent a kayak or take a lesson to paddle on the Hudson River. I also learned that kayaking is a great way to see the skyline of NYC from the water!