40 Pools

Celebrating a Big Birthday with 40 Swims

NYC Swim’s Last Summer

Me jumping off ferry boat in New York Harbor.

2006 Governors Island Swim plunge. Photo by David Nager.

At the start of this season, open water swim organization NYC Swim announced that this would be its last full summer of events. The announcement–which I helped write–is decidedly mixed for me, being one of its biggest fans and busiest workers.

I’ve swum and kayaked in every single event these past several years, and I love them all. The swimmer’s view of our great city is unique and eye-opening; it’s given me an education in topics ranging from tidal cycles to combined sewer overflows to women’s sports history. Open water training has also lent new purpose to days spent at the beach, leading to deep friendships with those who luxuriate in the same. I’ve come into contact with like-minded people from all over the world, and I’ve tackled challenges that I never even knew existed. The fact that I’ve swum around Manhattan still makes me smile almost every time I cross a bridge off the island. I truly can’t imagine what my life would be like without NYC Swim.

Just another chilly day at the beach. Photo by Richard Peterson.

As our water gets cleaner, more and more people awaken to the possibilities of our archipelago city. Ruminations about swimming to, or around, various islands in our vicinity are now commonplace. Some of the people I’m lucky to call my friends have pioneered not just new swim courses and records, but marathon-swim safety gear, training techniques, culinary creations, and community-building tools.

My work with NYC Swim also helped me identify professional strengths, leading to a search for more fulfilling full-time work. This transition that took years but recently paid off.

Meanwhile, a lot of thankless work is involved. I’m on the front end–the tip of the iceberg–helping swimmers and volunteers get registered and to the right place at the right time. Qualification requirements, event-day logistics, and Monday morning quarterbacking are some of the areas for which I’ve responded to far too many e-mails to count. As swimming in New York Harbor becomes less of a novelty, the overall level of appreciation goes down. People join us to check off an item on their bucket list rather than to enjoy the experience in and of itself, ignorant of the variables inherent and the fact that sometimes, Mother Nature wins.

The increasing popularity of the waterfront also adds to the challenges for event organizers. Areas that once felt like our own private domains are now so full of life that we can no longer squeeze in. Restaurants, kayak clubs, bike paths, ferry docks, parks, and beaches all compete for the waterfront, both physically and bureaucratically. Storms roll through without regard to our plans and our facilities.

Just like everything in New York, costs are on the rise, and somehow our ranks of volunteers have not been replenished with youngsters. The lack of economic reward and growing time commitment take their toll–and if I feel this way after “only” eight years, I am sure it is even more acute for those who have been involved longer.

Plans for future seasons still remain to be decided. I’m not convinced this is really the last summer, but I’m relieved that for those of us who are most entrenched, our separate conclusions are the same–we need a break. Most of all, I’m grateful to have been along for the ride. Even when I’m off-duty, I’ll be in the water.

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Missing Earl

The news that Captain Earl Sandvik will no longer be out on his boat is still sinking in. Earl died early yesterday morning at his home in New Jersey.

Through helping with NYC Swim events these past five years, I came to know Earl and realize how crucial he was to the safe, successful operation of the swims in New York Harbor. (This obituary tells his story nicely.) I was lucky enough to spend time on his boat, on other boats listening to him on the radio, and in the water under his watchful eye.

“I got swimmers in the water!!!” he would shout into the radio, dropping the r’s in his classic New York accent, as he zipped over to intercept any vessel, large or small, that was encroaching into the swim zone. He considered each and every swimmer to be his personal charge, making sure that all other boaters in range not only knew about the swimmers but kept a safe distance. Earl wouldn’t hesitate to yell at anyone who needed to pay more attention or alter course, myself included, but he always did it with love.

me getting out of the water after a dubious swim adventure

I don't have a picture of me with Earl, so here's something close--me on Earl's boat after climbing aboard in the Harlem River. Photo by Lisa Lisa, 2008.

Some of my favorite memories of Earl include his liaising between the world’s best swimmers and his crew of boaters– two groups that did not exactly see eye to eye–at the NYC Pro Swim off Governors Island, his dogged work during last fall’s Match Race that toppled the records for swimming around Manhattan, his shepherding of my own wrong-way swim adventure around Manhattan starting at 4:45 a.m. by the Brooklyn Bridge, and his helpfulness with my Ederle Swim attempt that came up short due to cold. There’s always plenty to worry about at swims, but with Earl on the job, the worries had less to do with navigational obstacles and waterborne hazards and focused more on personal goals and internal struggles.

I’d like to think that, with his Norwegian heritage and my Swedish background, Earl and I have Viking forebears in common. His last name translates roughly to “sandy bay” or “sandy cove,” and it’s easy to envision him permanently trolling his own bay or cove, squawking on the radio, and keeping an eye out for swimmers in the water.

I know I’ll be expecting to hear from him whenever I use my marine radio. RIP with fair winds and following seas, sweet Earl.

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