Too wimpy for winter swimming myself, I asked the ever-intrepid Janet to blog about this intriguing temporary pool-ish setup in the Hudson off Manhattan. The write-up is hers, the pictures mine. I admit to a bit of jealousy of the swimmers on this beautiful sunny day but contented myself with my own memories of swimming nearby during warmer conditions.
Configuration: 2 x 25m lanes with boat ramp entry
Fee: Varied with number of events entered
On January 30, the United States Winter Swimming Association staged its 2016 National Championships in the Hudson River. “Winter Swimming” in this context doesn’t just mean swimming in the winter. It’s distinct sport, popular in northern Europe and growing worldwide, in which set distances are contested in near-freezing water in outdoor settings.
The International Winter Swimming Association (IWSA) is to the sport what FINA is to pool swimming. As a safety measure it limits the distances raced in specific temperature ranges (200 meters max for water under 2 degrees Celsius, as the Hudson was on this day). It also sanctions a full schedule of winter swimming competitions around the world. Several of the Hudson River competitors and organizers had just come from an event in China, and others were headed on to England, Sweden, and Latvia before the World Championship in Russia. (For any North American readers interested in trying out winter swimming closer to home, there’s also a competition in Vermont coming up in March!)
Over the past couple of years, I have followed the adventures of friends who travel far and wide for these events, and was always fascinated by the various venues. Many are held in frozen lakes, with a 25-meter-by-2-lane rectangle carefully cut out of ice and a lane-line strung down the middle. Sometimes platforms or walls are built at each end of this rectangle, so that swimmers have something to push off of on starts and turns. (The pool in this excellent video, taken at last year’s championships in Vermont and featuring our local legend Capri, gives a good idea of that style of outdoor pool and conveys the appeal of the sport). In these ice pools, ladders provide a means for entering and exiting the water. There are no dive starts in winter swimming, for the sake of swimmers and of everyone nearby.
Cutting a pool in the ice was not possible in the Hudson—the brackish water was not frozen, and even if by some fluke it had been, strong currents would have made swimming very far out from its banks dangerous. Instead, the organizers devised an ingenious way to have a measured course, near the shoreline where the currents were negligible, with a boat ramp used to safely enter and exit the water. The result, installed near the docks of upper Manhattan restaurant La Marina, looked like a very short open-water course: two lanes, a yellow start buoy, and orange turn-around buoys at 12.5 and 25 meters. At the beginning of the day, the river temp was measured at 34.3 degrees, and there was still some snow on the ground from the previous weekend’s record-breaking blizzard.
For each race, two swimmers entered the water, one per lane. We waded down the boat ramp to the yellow buoy, which ranged from waist high to armpit height as the water level changed with the tidal cycle. For the 25-meter races, we swam to the first orange buoy, touched it, turned around, then swam back to finish with a touch of the yellow buoy. Races of 50 meters and longer used the far orange buoy as the turnaround point, making the course similar to a short-course-meters pool, albeit one without walls to push off or a black line to follow.
Sighting could be an important skill—the lanes were wide enough that several swimmers, including yours truly, found themselves in unexpected places due to currents or just plain crooked swimming. Occasional waves from boat wakes reminded us that we were essentially swimming pool events in an open-water venue. It was pretty cool (no pun intended) the way this event merged the two disciplines.
Six events were offered—25, 50, 100, and 200 meter freestyle, plus 25 and 50 meter breaststroke—as well as a concluding 200-meter 4-person relay. Many of us swam them all, making for a busy day.
The competition was run very efficiently, with a warm staging area inside the restaurant. We were typically sent outside with about 1 or 2 minutes left until the race ahead of us finished—just time enough to make our way down to the boat ramp and take off the outer layers before wading into the cold water. Once done we parka-ed up and hustled back inside, where warm drinks and soup awaited. Plenty of volunteers—many from the wonderful Coney Island Polar Bears, which helped put on this event—kept swimmers safe and ensured that everything ran smoothly.
What was it like, swimming in water that cold? Mostly, I felt the cold intensely while wading in, but once the “Ready go!” command was given, it just felt like swimming. During the latter half of the longest race, the 200 free, I started feeling some painful tingling in my feet, and my fingertips were a bit numb by the end. In all my races, it felt really exhilarating to have been in the water, and that feeling was shared by all the participants—I’ve never seen as many red-cheeked, exuberant people.
Warming up between events was not as difficult as I worried it might be—it was great having a warm indoor refuge so near the water. The restaurant is seasonal, so we had the run of it throughout the day, and its glassed-in portions provided good viewing for the races and plenty of places to curl up in the sunshine between icy dips.
As fun as the swimming was, the other swimmers were the highlight of the day. The winter swimming community is wonderfully friendly, and as a newcomer to the sport I felt embraced and welcomed. As evening gathered and swimming races gave way to socializing and feasting, it was heartwarming to ponder the lengths we go to do the sport we love, and to be reminded once again that the water unites us all, in whatever crazy ways we choose to swim in it.