Summer must be coming.
Leaf buds on the trees – daffodils poking up through the snow –
And the annual planning for the local open-water swimming race series has commenced.
Yes – there’s an organization that runs a series of open-water swims right here in the Hudson. It’s cleaner now than it’s been in years! I’ve been a participant for the last few years – I volunteer as a kayak escort for a number of them (the classic Manhattan circumnavigation swim is always my hands-down favorite – the fact that these people can do this blows me away every year, that’s a 28-mile swim with no rest breaks in water that can get fairly choppy). I actually swim a couple of the shorter ones, too.
They are a blast. I’ve talked in a couple of posts about how powerful the Hudson is, and that’s speaking as a kayaker. As a swimmer, you feel even smaller. Toylike. My first swim was the shortest one they run, the Cove-to-Cove Half Mile. Half a mile, no big deal, I’ve swum much further than that in a pool. The first year I thought of jumping in & doing it, it was drizzly, a lot of the swimmers dropped out (being the shortest it draws a lot of first-timers & they’re the ones who tend to drop out if it isn’t perfect beach weather), and the water was so calm, I looked at the course, which finishes at the marina right in front of the Winter Garden (which is right in front of where the WTC was for non-NY readers) and starts at a little cove (designed to “give the impression” of a marina – thank goodness our waterfront planners have at least gotten past the idea that the river is just some sort of scenery) half a mile south, and I thought “Hey, I could do that”.
So the next year, I escorted the earlier of the 2 races – the cove-to-cove is always the 2nd of a pair, probably because it would be entirely too much hassle to deal with all the pre-race planning & logistics for a race that the winners knock off in something like 10 minutes (if that), and then I parked my kayak on a dock at the marina, stripped down to my swimsuit, grabbed my goggles, got my arm marked with a big “1” (last name starts with “A”, that’s all) in permanent marker (I like that you get marked in permanent marker ‘cause unless you really scrub hard, it takes a couple of showers to go away, and every time somebody asks what the fading traces of that mark are you can casually say “Oh yes, that was from the swimming race I did in the Hudson last weekend” and watch the jaws drop), and hoofed it on down to the put-in. We all got in, I worked my way to the back (I’d watched enough starts to know that things get a little frenzied as all those seriously competitive swimmers fight for the early lead & that starting in the back of the pack might lose you a few places but will save you getting trampled by the people who actually want to win), the countdown went, and off we all went.
Well – it was a little spooky, really. I’m not afraid to swim in open water – I grew up in Hawaii after all – and I knew the distance was something I could handle. But the fact is, most of my distance swimming has been done in pools, and since I never competed and never learned a flip-turn, I use a touch-turn, which does give you a very regular split-second break. Also, in Hawaii, the water is clear & you can see the bottom. There was something very different & unsettling about swimming in the murkygreen water of the Hudson, where you can’t see the bottom, and the other swimmers and kayaks are looming into and out of view in a spooky way, and there’s nothing to touch down on until the ladder at the finish line.
To make things even more interesting, it was not placid that time. It was, in fact, really choppy, in the very criss-crossy patternless way of water confused by winds and boat wakes converging & bouncing off of the seawall. I could feel myself starting to stiffen up as my confidence started to decline – and of course when you stiffen up in water & start to fight it, your energy drains out fast.
My plan for the race had been to do the crawl stroke, switching off to breast stroke if I found I needed it. Well, here I was barely off the starting line & feeling myself weirding out a bit. Time to go to breast stroke.
I made about 3 strokes & then a big wave came up & smacked me right in the face right at the moment I’d come up for air. And then another, and another.
Chain of thoughts in my head went something like this:
OK, so much for that plan. Yikes. Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea. Maybe I needed to train more. Maybe I should pull out. Oh God, North Cove’s so far away. I don’t know if I can make it. Maybe I should…oh. Look. Isn’t that a wooden kayak over there? Heck. Yes it is. Yep, it’s HS (one of the people I really like paddling with) in his Guillemot. Dang. Can’t wimp out in front of him. I’d never live it down. Chill. Breathe. Smile & wave at HS. Hi HS. Look, isn’t this fun? Good girl. Relax. OK, now swim, damn you. Crawl stroke. Do it. You know how to swim. Swim swim swim…
Hey…look, I’m past the first building. And now I’m passing that tree, and another tree, and…hey, this isn’t so bad. Hey, this is kind of fun. These waves? They’re not that big, and if you just go along with what they want to do they just kind of bounce you up & down. I feel like a cork. Swim swim up we go. Swim swim back down. It’s like the water’s playing with me. OK – this is really cool.
Being a kayak escort has been fun, too. The swimmers really appreciate our being there, it’s a nice day on the water with a bunch of other paddlers, and it’s a good feeling to help people do something they love. Plus it’s just plain fun, watching all those people swimming along in the Hudson. There are some incredible swimmers that participate. Nice folks.
Yes – I’ve definitely enjoyed participating in a lot of these swims, on both sides of the waterline.
But there have also been some bad times. The kayaks & support boats are there to protect the swimmers.It’s an important job, it needs to be done right, and it can actually be rather dangerous when the current’s running fast & every pier becomes a potential “strainer” – a place where swimmers & paddlers alike can be trapped by the current. As the swims have been getting more and more popular, the burden that lands on the shoulders of the all-volunteer kayak escorts has been getting heavier and heavier. Certain recurring problems never seem to change, and the expectations seem to keep getting higher. Earlier start times, more swims, an alarming willingness, at one race last year, to expect paddlers to set out during a severe weather alert – and a lot of pressure on the regular kayak coordinators (one part-time paid person and a few race-day on-water coordinators who are all volunteers) to somehow make it all work. There’s also an alarming faith that somehow everything just will keep working because it always has in the past.
The rumblings were pretty loud last year.
Within the last month or so, the situation has really come to a head. As one of the volunteer coordinators, I’ve let myself get stuck in the middle of things. I’m such a sucker. I was approached for advice & guidance as though I still had even the limited influence I used to have when I was a partner in one of the local outfitters. I’m a great one for wanting to help out as much as I can. Especially when flattered that way.
However, this time – I just don’t have the solution for them. And I’m already pretty much maxed as far as personal resources (time, energy, dedication, drive) right now because of budget season and monthly close at work. I did agree to do a bit of a writeup of my thoughts on where things have been going on – but then there was a round of emails among the paid & volunteer coordinators today, and as I told them what I’d agreed to & others shared – it occurred to me that all I’d be doing was restating the same problems I’ve heard reiterated again and again and again.
Makes me sad that this has somehow turned from something I’ve always done purely for fun into something that’s putting me, and a number of other people I like, under a lot of pressure.
We’ll see how it all works out.