by Janet Harris
Friday shortly after 4am I met up with other NYC-based swimmers to travel upstate to swim in Stage 5 of 8 Bridges. It was a morning with some complicated event logistics. Swimmers, kayakers, and the smaller support vessels launched from three different locations before converging under Bear Mountain Bridge at splash time, and cars were parked at yet a fourth place near the finish. Rondi’s shuttle van plan to get everyone where we needed to go worked to perfection, and is just one example of the ways the organizers tweak this event to make it better every year. My kayaker for the day was Terry, who has worked with 8 Bridges from the beginning, and I was looking forward to enjoying her experience and easy camaraderie on the river.
The swimmers rode the main support boat, Launch 5, upriver from Ossining, and we were treated to a reverse preview of nearly the entire 19+ mile course. It was a beautiful morning, and I enjoyed the view from the bow of the boat while chilling out with friends. I felt peaceful, confident, and ready to take on the challenges the day would bring.
Once Launch 5 was under the bridge, Dave pulled alongside on Agent Orange and boarded the boat for a brief safety briefing and course preview. He had just come from doing the same for the kayakers, who were entering the river from the west and paddling downstream towards the bridge. Soon we were in the water and off. Under the bridge away from shore the current was still flooding—I was one of the first off the boat and had floated back a bit during the brief interval before the start—but once underway we moved to the far western shore, hugging the shoreline and enjoying an eddying current that took us swiftly downstream.
It was fun swimming so close to shore—seeing wooded areas, rocky outcroppings, and houses passing by so quickly made it feel like we were making good progress. Once or twice I had to scull along because of rocks under me, but that was ok. I used to get creeped out by underwater outcroppings and the possibility of touching things underneath me, but the lake swimming I’ve done the past few seasons has made me braver. Now I think it’s interesting to swim in depths where you can see the bottom. That close to shore, I could also feel the vibrations of approaching freight trains, whose tracks ran right by the water—it was really cool to see and hear them zoom by at such speed
I was feeling good, the water was a little warm but still comfortable, and the sun was occasionally peeking out from the clouds. The river seemed busy, with boats zipping by out in the channel and a big barge floating slowly upriver. At one of my first feeds, my kayaker explained to me that a passing boat had been on fire, and that Launch 5 had taken on its passengers until help arrived. We watched a fire boat racing up to the scene while I stopped to feed.
I was loving the day, feeling exuberant, and playing games by making anagrams from the branding on the side of Terry’s kayak (WILDERNESS SYSTEMS). LET’S SWIM! ENDLESS SWIMS! DENSE SWIRLS in the water? Are those YEW TREES or MYRTLES on shore? I hoped to avoid any MESSY WRENS or SLIMY NEWTS.
Around 2h30 into the swim I started feeling sick to my stomach. For some reason I didn’t want to tell my kayaker, but she cottoned on when I started requesting just water for some feeds and telling her I didn’t want to eat any more solid foods. The nausea, which persisted during the rest of my swim, was a new experience for me, and a surprising one, since I have always used quite a variety of feeds and never before had a problem. One of my goals for the day was to be proactive at solving problem on the water, working to fix things that could be fixed instead of simply trying to endure them. I started thinking about what I could do to improve matters. I drank more water for the next few feeds, thinking that maybe my carbs-to-water ratio was off, and dropped the more substantial feeds (milk, sticky rice concoctions) from my rotation.
The current was beginning to change, and we soon headed out into the channel to take advantage of the increasing ebb. Here our progress was faster, but less apparent because onshore landmarks were further away. I liked being in the cooler water away from shore with a bit more movement in it. At one feed Terry asked me if I could feel the south wind picking up—I couldn’t feel the wind per se, but knew that the sort of wind-against current chop we were experiencing meant that it was blowing stronger. (The fact that she was having to paddle a little harder, and that the front of her kayak was occasionally out of the water, also clued me in).
Meanwhile I was still having stomach issues, and they were getting worse. I was feeling weak and little chilled, and my stroke count had decreased. I needed more calories, but was simply unable to take in much at each feed. Somewhere between 5 and 6 hours I discussed getting out with Terry and she asked me if I wanted to get out right now, or a little later. I decided that I could swim a bit more. At this point I was feeling such an aversion to putting anything else in my stomach that I wanted to swim away from the kayak whenever she held up a feed bottle. I decided to force the issue by gulping down as much of my gatorade/water mixture as I could. That had the expected result, and I felt a little better for about a half-hour.
Although I knew I wasn’t swimming very strong at this point, I was still enjoying being in the water. Large hawks were soaring overhead, and I wondered if some of them were bald eagles. As a volunteer on Launch 5 during the previous stage, I had seen lots of fish jumping out of the water. I saw splashes around and imagined they were made by curious fish leaping up for a closer look at us. During one feed, Terry told me that one jumped right behind me, but I missed it. Occasionally I saw movements under the water, and wondered what the creatures might be below me. I was hoping to see a big sturgeon.
We passed Ossining marina, where we had started our day, on the left, and the Tappen Zee was looming far ahead. We continued making progress, and at one point Terry told me we had an hour until the flood current started, and that if I stroked hard she thought I could make it. I imagined myself consisting of just arms and legs, with no queasy stomach in between, and tried to move my limbs as strongly and deliberately as I could. Tobey on the jet ski came by and hovered close for a while, and I saw a boatload of other swimmers who had called it a day being ferried up to Launch 5. They cheered me on as they passed, and I waved back.
At this point I knew it was becoming more and more unlikely that I would make the bridge by the time the current turned. Unlike previous stages, where swimmers can creep along shore after the flood starts, construction zones for the new Tappen Zee bridge mean that Stage 5 swimmers must finish near the shipping channel, where the current is strongest. The south wind would probably hasten the onset of the flood, and although I was still plodding along I was far from my best swimming self at the moment. All this passed through my mind, but in truth I wasn’t much concerned at this point with whether I finished or not. All I wanted was to feel better. I reasoned that if I was feeling this bad, I might as well feel bad in the water (where there was plenty of room to puke) as on a crowded boat, so I just kept stroking along.
At about 8h45 in, we were still a little less than two miles from the bridge when Sean’s RHIB motored up beside us. Janine told us that lightning had been spotted and that the field was being evacuated. I think I was too out of it at this point to feel either disappointment or relief. My kayaker and I climbed aboard, and we picked up a few more swimmers and another kayaker before going ashore. We were reunited with the rest of the swimmers and our bags at Tarrytown marina. Once out of the water, I slowly did start to feel better, and eventually was able to eat some of the food I’d packed for after the swim, which perked me up even more. Some scary weather followed our exit from the river. Kudos to Dave and Rondi for making the call to pull us, and to them and the boaters and volunteers for getting all the swimmers and kayakers off the river and out of harm’s way.
I was very happy to hear that the two swimmers who have made all the previous stages, Paige and Cheryl, were able to make it to the bridge before the bad weather set in. They were the only two of the fifteen of us who started who were able to finish the stage. Another swimmer, Steve Gruenwald, was closer to the bridge than I and seemingly had a good chance of finishing—I had seen his kayaker pass by me about a half hour before we were pulled, and he was looking really strong. Others hung tough for hours in some challenging conditions and met their personal goals or found new confidence for future events. Jim Braddock, for one, told me after the swim that it was his longest to date. Despite the abrupt end, there was lots of good to take home from the day on the river.
Once I felt better physically, I was able to look back on my day and feel pleased with my efforts. I took away plenty of positives, learned some things that I can put to use in future swim adventures, and once again got to enjoy the glorious experience of swimming in the Hudson—a win-win-win day after all!