40 Pools

Celebrating a Big Birthday with 40 Swims

Ederle-Burke Swim 2021: Worth the Wait

Location: Battery Park, NY to Sandy Hook, NJ
Distance: 16.1 miles
~Featuring~
Tandem swim partner: Abby
Paddlers: Ilene and Sharon
Crew: Ed and Manami
Boat captain: Sean
Event director: Rondi (New York Open Water)

This swim report starts long before the event date of Wednesday, October 6, 2021: possibly when I got smitten with marathon swimming in 2007; or when I attempted the Ederle Swim on October 20, 2009; or when, sometime in the second half of 2020 on the BQE, Abby and I nonchalantly agreed to seek a 2021 tandem entry for Ederle-Burke, as it’s now known*. (Tandem rules require swimmers to stay within 5 meters of each other at all times and share the same finish time.) We barely discussed it, but I knew that our compatible paces, our quiet reliability, and her unflappable nature would make for a completely different swim than my multisensory experience more than a decade ago. I decided to make this my early 50th birthday present to myself. Neither of us knew on that BQE moment — or when we officially signed up in January 2021, choosing a fast tide in consultation with Rondi — that this swim would also turn out to be Abby’s farewell to New York.

I’m not the most prolific swimmer, but I’ve done a number of marathon swims in the Hudson in the intervening years, some difficult by my standards, all successfully completed. Not before or since my 2009 attempt had I failed to finish an open water event, and this really ate away at me as I ramped up my training. Also in the intervening 12 years, I’d witnessed many others complete Ederle, serving as a boat observer numerous times including for some of the current record-holders and even volunteering as a paddler once. I’ve probably witnessed this swim more than anyone else, ever; such is its allure for me. I found it incredibly humbling to work toward something that hadn’t worked out as hoped without any guarantees for the repeat. (In marathon swimming, even being able to start is not a given!) Happily, I came to feel truly appreciative of the opportunity to try and of the journey involved in training and planning, pandemic complications notwithstanding.

group photo - 9 swimmers all bundled up
The 2009 Ederle Swim field, with Eileen Burke to my right. Like me, she didn’t finish that year, but three of these hardy souls did!

In the months and weeks leading up to this attempt, it was constantly in my thoughts, as in, “I hope I make a full recovery from Covid so I can do the swim.” “I hope I don’t get hit by a car today because that wouldn’t be good for my swim.” “I hope there’s not a hurricane because that could ruin the swim.” (Due to NYOW’s busy schedule, we did not have a backup date.) But actually, doing my longest training swim in crazy rip currents along Fire Island while a September hurricane churned offshore from Canada boosted my confidence immeasurably. Abby was tackling many other swims this summer and fall and had already become stateless in advance of her move to California, so we weren’t training together. Finding adequate pool time in a pandemic required constant hustle, and I felt lonely at times.

This lonely training gave me plenty of time to reflect on “Trudy” Ederle, Eileen Burke, and other strong women who’d influenced my life: especially my aunt Alice Ann, an ardent follower of my exploits, who got taken by cancer in March; and my mother, who supported me at countless swims from her former home base in Poughkeepsie, and who now has Alzheimer’s and lives in a nursing home in Pennsylvania where I hadn’t been able to see her for more than an hour at a time since early 2020. I felt their spirits encouraging me and decided to dedicate my swim to them.

photo of mom and m
2009 – Me and mom before the swim at North Cove.

Revisiting my 2009 race report a few weeks out surfaced some nerves, but I comforted myself with reminders that the 2021 date would be two weeks earlier aka warmer and that the course had been tweaked to be more direct and thus about a mile shorter. Also, I’d have my ace paddler Ilene for escort and Abby with some choice words at the ready if I flagged.

me backstroking and Ilene paddling under the Verrazano
2009 – Ilene and I glide under the Verrazano.

In the days immediately preceding the swim, some of the logistics weren’t totally clear to me, and we had some personnel changes. I tried not to worry, to embrace the mantra of “Shut up and swim.” In other words, quiet the voices in your head and trust your body and your team. Truthfully, everything looked to be shaping up very well: comfortable water and air temperatures, dry conditions beforehand (preserving water quality), negligible or favorable wind, and of course the super-fast tidal assist.

A number of friends came to our boat loading at Pier 40, likewise to see us off at the Battery at the very civilized start time of 10 a.m. (though I’d told them the wrong pier), and later even to watch from south Brooklyn! I was glad to have them as part of the adventure together with our trusty crew and boat support.

group photo
Pier 40 boat loading fun: (l-r) Sharon, Ilene, Lisa Lisa, Neil, me, Abby, Kerith, and John.

So, finally, the swim? In all honesty, we got off easy. For all that I’d built up in my head, it was anticlimactic in terms of difficulty. In terms of fun, it topped the charts; I ended up feeling happy that I hadn’t finished in 2009 because our day was so awesome!

There was light chop in the harbor as we took off from the Battery and swam through Buttermilk Channel and then past the Statue of Liberty. Abby and I weren’t totally in synch, and I was struggling a bit trying to see her on one side and Ilene on the other. Ilene and I conferred at the first feed and agreed that she’d keep me on track so I could just shut up and swim.

On a work field trip in August I’d learned about a harbor cam. I sent the link out before the swim hoping that people would be able to see us on the live feed. It worked! The operator even zoomed in on our curious flotilla, and my young nephews in California watched us swimming as they got ready for school. One of them observed, “Hannah’s famous!”

harbor cam screen shot - US Army Corps of Engineers boat, tug and barge, and us
Thanks to Matt for this still from the harbor cam as we passed between large vessels.

Around the time of this screen grab, we had to halt for a few minutes to allow the tug and barge to pass. I got cold and crampy during this pause and didn’t really warm up for another hour or so. It was during this cold stretch that I thought most about Ederle and her famous response, “What for?” when asked during her English Channel swim if by chance she wanted to stop.

The water was free of debris much of the way, save for a patch off Bay Ridge that included a Christmas tree! In contrast to my 2009 swim, it also seemed very quiet. Instead of noises from boats and construction, Gustav Holst’s “Jupiter: The Bringer of Jollity” was my mental soundtrack. (Listen to it here, particularly around 1:45 and 3:00; it’s a piece I’d grown fond of thanks to listening to WQXR while working from home). What we did have were swarm upon swarm of nonstinging jellyfish, making for chunky-style water sometimes more jelly than liquid. We’d hit a clear patch every now and then, and I’d think we’d finally gotten through the jellies, only to encounter even more a few strokes later.

The Verrazano-Narrows Bridge is a huge part of the course’s allure for me, and I loved having company at this moment. “Jupiter” practically blasted in my head as Abby and I backstroked under the elegant arch with our paddlers alongside. I was so focused on staying in synch that I didn’t even notice the giant ship passing in the other direction.

photo: Verrazano, shop, kayaks, support boats
Thanks to Kerith for this shoreside pic of us approaching the bridge and a ship I didn’t even see.

After the bridge we hit the choppiest water of the day. It had a somewhat hypnotic effect on me, though I did still pay attention to Ilene’s directions. When she told me to turn to close a gap, I dutifully swam sideways with my head down and ran right into what I thought was a mermaid. Truly, that was my first thought. Only the colorful nail polish on Abby’s toes sparked the realization that mermaids don’t have toes and therefore it must be Abby – who practically qualifies as a mermaid.

We got into a good rhythm from that point on – Abby having completed her requisite hours-long warm-up – and continued cruising past more buoys, islands, and lighthouses. Though slowing a bit, the current was still giving us a helpful boost.

Sandy Hook Channel is always a challenge. As we approached, we were getting somewhat conflicting information about our ETA. When offered an extra feed just in case, I was glad to accept and then put my head back down, shut up, and swim.

This may sound silly but the finish I’d worked toward for so long came unexpectedly. The water was murky, and the depth changed from 20 feet to 1 foot within about one stroke, so I touched bottom before I saw it. Were we really there? I caught a tiny wave to push me in and upright and kicked out a final leg cramp to stand on the beach! Our finish time was just under 5:00 hours, much shorter than my 2009 attempt.

While Manami captured video footage from the boat, Ed had swum in to photograph the moment and deliver Abby’s traditional finish beverage: a shandy! (She is such a fan that her phone would always try to auto-correct the spelling of our destination to Shandy Hook.) She and I both drank up. An experienced channel crosser, she directed me to choose a souvenir shell.

Hannah and Abby with shandies, Sharon and Ilene in kayaks in the background
Shandy Hook finish!

From there it was back onto the boats, kayaks and all, and then to a marina where crew and boats alike exited the water. Also pulling out there were fishermen we’d passed at the start of our day. All of this took place without shivering or other issues. (I mistakenly left my shell on a picnic table we used when changing.) From there we rode in cars to Atlantic Highlands, rehydrated some more, and sat on the upper deck of the fast ferry back to Manhattan. Passing under the bridge once again filled me with awe. It always will.

Abby left for California the next day, and now I’m about to reach the birthday I used as my excuse for the swim. Visiting the Gertrude Ederle Recreation Center recently reminded me of my debt to this incredible trailblazer. We are fortunate to be surrounded by swimmable waters and such a supportive swim community.

Results, 1913-present: https://www.nyopenwater.org/historical-ederle-swim-results/

*

From swim organizer New York Open Water:
The swim is named for two pioneering women in the sport of marathon swimming. Gertrude “Trudy” Ederle swam this course in 1925 in 7 hours and 11 minutes. According to family lore, her nephew Bob described this swim as a “midnight frolic,” and a “warm-up” for her swim across the English Channel. The following year, Ederle became the first woman to swim the English Channel on August 6, 1926 in 14 hours and 36 minutes.

Eighty-five years later, an energetic teacher named Eileen Burke jumped into the water off Battery Park on a raw October morning, and stood on the shores of Sandy Hook 5 hours and 45 minutes later. Eileen was drawn to this swim’s history, the challenge of swimming such a distance in October, and like Trudy Ederle, use it to train for the channel. While Eileen didn’t make it to the shores of France in 2012, she harnessed the disappointment to become the first woman to swim the 20-mile P2P swim across Cape Cod Bay.

In 2013, Eileen was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. She did not let the pain of chemotherapy get in the way of her dedication to her family and the open water community. She participated in a relay swim around Manhattan with her swimming partner and friend Mo Siegel in 2014, served on the board of the Coney Island Brighton Beach Open Water Swimmers (CIBBOWS), and was a constant volunteer and smiling face at CIBBOWS and NYC Swim events.

On October 3, 2015, Eileen passed away peacefully at home, leaving behind her beloved husband David, a daughter Ann Marie, and a large hole in the open water swimming community. We hope that this swim will continue to serve her legacy as a friend and mentor to all swimmers.

screen shot of our course tracker
Screen shot of our course tracker, which was on Sharon’s kayak.
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Not a Pool: Onteora Lake

Onteora Lake, looking north

If you find yourself in Ulster County looking for a lake to swim that’s not Minnewaska, here’s the spot: Onteora Lake, a few miles west of Kingston. I met three NYOW swimmers here one Saturday morning at the end of a short June vacation in the area, and another swimmer happened to be already in the water when we started. Other than us human vessels, human-powered fishing boats and slow-moving electric ones were the only other craft in the lake. The fishers mostly hugged the shore, leaving the middle clear for swimming. We stuck together and switched off between easy swimming and upping the effort for set numbers of strokes. Phew.

Onteora Lake looking south, with fishing boats

This skinny, kilometer-long lake must have heated up due to recent warm temps; it’s less than 20 feet deep. We could see flowers along the edges and some interesting bird life. Part of Bluestone Wild Forest (in the Catskills), it felt quite remote except for the sounds of the the nearby highway at the south end. It was also quite silty both to taste and in my bathing suit, turning my post-swim shower briefly into a mudbath.

Should any nonswimming companions join you, they can hike or bike on trails around the lake and beyond. Parking is easy in a lot off the highway or farther in the same access road right by the lake. We left our things by a picnic table and no one paid them any mind. There’s no schedule or lifeguard, meaning you can come and go as you please — a particularly important feature during this darn pandemic.

 

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Not a Pool: TWA Hotel

rooftop pool with TWA logo and runway view

TWA Hotel pool. Photos by Gordon Gebert unless otherwise noted.

As the temperature drops this fall, I’m thinking fondly of a summertime outing taken with my coworkers on a hot day this past July. We were treated to a tour of the new TWA Hotel and the magnificent public spaces within the old TWA Terminal at JFK Airport. Our day ended with a long lunch and plenty of time for dunking up on the rooftop pool deck.

The pool is shallow and short so I didn’t even attempt to swim a lap. Rather, it’s a nice place to hang out and watch things flying around the airport and Jamaica Bay National Wildlife Refuge, which in our case included birds, a gigantic swarm of dragon flies, and airplanes (seen but magically not heard).

Our tour guide told us that the pool would be open year round, though some aspects of the heating plan had yet to be determined. I’d be curious to check it out in the winter, especially if the deck also has some warm spots.

Day visitors are welcome for a fee, but there are no locker rooms and you have to leave a long list of personal items with security, making the whole experience a bit awkward. We loved the spaces and the views, had some bumps with the service just like the New York Times critic, and all agreed we’d go back in a heartbeat.

Here are some more views of the pool area and the rest of the property from this wonderfully memorable day.

table set with pool-themed accessories

Our lunch table complete with pool-themed accessories and TWA wings. Note that everything on the deck is white and there is no shade. We weren’t sure if this was because the project wasn’t completed or they don’t want guests to overstay their welcome up there. (This photo is mine.)

"Connie" on the tarmac

Architect Eero Saarinen’s creation as seen from the pool area atop one of the new hotel wings, with the “Connie” lounge inside a plane salvaged from the Honduran jungle.

three of us in the sun

Nothing says a good day at work like a pool huddle with some of your favorite coworkers. Thanks to Michael for the pic!

lobby lounge

The entire terminal is now public space, open to hotel guests and visitors alike. There’s even free wifi! Check out the beautiful former departure lounge.

departure lounge

Another view of the terminal, in all its sweeping glory.

white walls, red carpet, tunnel with a light at the end

The light at the end of the tunnel: a fantastic promenade sans harried travelers.

curvaceous concrete and bike rack

Curvaceous concrete and bike rack at the terminal entrance. (This photo is by yours truly.)

group photo in stripy room

Let’s hear it for this great team! (Photo by tour guide Kelly.)

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Not a Pool: Mirror Lake

whitewater in the lock

HOW MUCH FUN would it be to swim here?!

During a recent vacation in the Adirondacks, I was disappointed to have to stay in my kayak — rather than swimming — when going through the small-craft lock leading to Lower Saranac Lake, but I had some good swims in Mirror Lake in the town of Lake Placid.

Mirror Lake is one of very few easily accessible Adirondack lakes dedicated to human-powered craft, and it has the added attraction of a marked .6-mile-long course for swimmers and rowers. (The Lake Placid Ironman course is two full loops — 2.4 miles — so this is a very popular training spot for triathletes.) This impressive display of swim infrastructure consists of several rows of straight, taut underwater cables and myriad colored floats on the surface. Much as I Googled, I couldn’t find details about how the course was installed, equipment involved, maintenance required, and other questions that floated into my inquiring mind while swimming.

I visited twice, both times in the late afternoon, and could count on one hand the number of swimmers also using the course. Yes, I did run headfirst into a black-cap-wearing person in a full-body wetsuit with no swim buoy, but that was more a consequence of our differing understandings of where we were supposed to be swimming than my not not being able to see him. I never did figure out if you are supposed to circle around the underwater cable, as if it were a black line on the bottom of the pool, or use the floats like lane lines and keep them to your right at all times. Suffice it to say that I did more sighting in my second swim just in case another Neoprene-wearing lake creature and I were on a collision course.

With hopes that this post adds to Google’s infobase for Adirondack-bound swimmers, here are some photos of this lovely lake.

blue skies and puffy clouds above Mirror Lake

That’s the town of Lake Placid on the left (west) and fancy private boathouses on the right. If you zoom in, you’ll see the yellow buoys marking the .6-mile swim course — the “lanes” square off at the end here on the lower right and then head off into the distance toward the middle left. The orange buoy is attached to another swimmer peeling off the course. Other views along the way include private hotel beaches in town, understated luxe houses, and loads and loads of mountains. Photos by Neil.

The other end of the swim course, as seen from the lake’s northwest edge on the 2.7-mile ring road, which makes for a nice post-swim walk — particularly when the clouds are this dramatic.

view of the lake from farther back

Here’s another view of the swim course in the distance including the beachside pier that can be used for access from the town’s lifeguarded beach. There are bathrooms and vending machines here during open hours. Many open water swimmers seemed to prefer entering from the spot where this photo was taken, which is also a boat launch. Note that if you don’t like sharing the water with paddleboarders, this may not be the lake for you.

me and my buoy

That’s me and my buoy, a model of visibility, at the same, southern end of the course.

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8 Bridges Stage 4

On June 11, I had the pleasure of swimming Stage 4 of the 2019 8 Bridges Hudson River Swim, aka the Highlands, from the Newburgh-Beacon Bridge to the Bear Mountain Bridge. Though I had company out there, I tried to focus on my own swim. If you’re interested in reading about it, please jump over to the 8 Bridges blog for my write-up, My Own Private Hudson. See also this compilation of screen shots from the GPS tracker thanks to my friend Hank.

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Winter Swimming in England

Thanks to Zoe (pictured at right alongside the Dart) for offering to report on swim conditions from her recent trip. With its year-round outdoor swim culture, England is high on my list of places to covet.

photo: Zoe feeling good after her Boxing Day swim in the River Dart.

Hannah’s suggestion that I visit some outdoor “lidos” during my Christmastime trip to England inspired me to seek out swimming during my vacation. While I didn’t end up swimming in an outdoor lido per se, I had two great swimming experiences.

Lido pronounced “lai-do” is British for swimming pool. Before my arrival in London (from New York), I did some research on winter outdoor lidos in the UK at the Outdoor Swimming Society’s website. A London-based friend directed me to an article, published in The Guardian newspaper in July 2015, on a swimmer’s journey over one weekend across London’s top 10 outdoor pools and ponds. I was fascinated to learn about the vibrant year-round outdoor swim culture in the UK, that also incorporates swimming in ponds and a lake London’s public parks.

In London, I headed to Hyde Park and walked alongside the Serpentine Lake that bisects the park while admiring the rich variety of waterfowl and other birds that inhabit it. Heading west, I arrived at the Serpentine Lido, the area of the lake roped off for the Serpentine Swim Club. The year-round open air swim club is the oldest swimming club in Great Britain. Members swim in the “lido” area between 6:00 and 9:30 every morning and also during its famous Christmas Day race. While I had arrived too late to see any people swimming, it was fun to see the lido and imagine the delights of swimming in this lovely public park.

photo: Serpentine Lake Lido, Hyde Park, London

Serpentine Lake Lido, Hyde Park, London

Hampstead Heath, a public park on a large ancient heath (an open area dominated by low-growing shrubland) in one of the highest points in London, is also well-known for its outdoor swimming. It includes one outdoor swimming pool and three bathing ponds; its Ladies’ Pond and Men’s Ponds are the UK’s only lifeguarded open water swimming facilities open to the public every day of the year. While I was attracted to the idea of swimming in outdoor pond solely for women, the cold water and my unfamiliarity of the park and the pond made me decide against it as the place for my first swim in England.

photo: light-filled 3-lane pool

The restored Art Deco pool at the Marshall Street Leisure Center in the West End of London.

After some online research, I selected as my swim venue the airy and light-filled 30-meter restored Art Deco indoor pool at the Marshall Street Leisure Centre & Spa, in the City of Westminster, in the West End of London. The location and open swim hours worked well with my schedule so I dropped in on a Friday afternoon after a visit to the National Portrait Gallery. The front desk associate was helpful and friendly, and, noting my accent, asked if I was American. I paid about $17.60 to use the pool and spa facilities, a rate that may have been discounted from the official rate for day use. The pool’s six lanes were divided into three sections: slow, medium, and fast. The medium lane turned out to be suitable for my approximately 20-minute swim, a combination of breaststroke, front crawl, and backstroke that seemed a reasonable workout, given that I was out of practice for lap swimming. Sharing the pool with about eight swimmers, my swim was pleasantly uncrowded. It was fun, as a visitor, to be able to use a gym and pool frequented by locals, and I felt grateful that I was allowed to do so. The swim and quick trip to the steam room afterward were welcome diversions from my sightseeing and made me feel more relaxed and open for the rest of my day’s tourist activities.

On Saturday, I boarded the train to Cambridge where I met my sister, Eve, who lives in and runs an interior design firm in the city. The next day, with her partner and son, we drove to Dartmouth, in Devon on the southwest of coast of England, where we met her daughter and eight other people with whom we would spend the next four days over the holiday in a large rented house up a hill above the River Dart. The Dart is an estuary that rises high to the moorlands of Dartmoor and releases into the English Channel at Dartmouth. The sparkling turquoise blue color of the Dart and the area’s mild climate that is hospitable to palm trees made Dartmouth seem almost tropical, amid the intermittent fog and drizzling rain.

photo: palm trees

A public park with palm trees in Dartmouth, England.

photo: riverside houses

Dartmouth on the River Dart in Devon in the southwest of England.

Swimming, it turns out, is a Christmas Day tradition in the United Kingdom, so on the holiday, I followed my fellow houseguest Tristan to the beach and watched him peel down to his trunks and swim far out toward the mouth of the turquoise river. Tristan told me that he always likes to swim when he’s on vacation. I promised myself that I would go for a swim the next day, which was Boxing Day in the UK. After breakfast the next morning, Tristan, another fellow houseguest Jon, and I set out downhill for the beach, accompanied by three others from our group. With the tide receding, we waded over a rocky bottom to deeper water with a soft sandy bottom, and then, screaming and yelling, we plunged in, while our companions cheered us on from a high point above the water. The river water was quite cold but not icy, and the outside temperature was about 50 Fahrenheit. I played with my fantasy of Dartmouth and England as a tropical paradise as I swam front and backstrokes and tasted the salty water, which Tristan noted was diluted with the onrushing freshwater draining down from the hillside into the river. We stayed in for just a few minutes and then ran out. After a wonderfully warm shower at the house, I was ready for an afternoon walk with my family members and newfound friends, who had generously shared this lovely part of the country and swimming in it, with me.

photo: Tristan swimming in the Dart on Christmas Day.

Tristan swimming in the Dart on Christmas Day.

Swimming, I learned, is an exceptional way to immerse myself in a culture and make a connection with people and a place. I returned from my trip energized and inspired, and excited for more swimming adventures in the new year.

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Not a Pool: Ohio Street Beach

outdoor lockers

Like a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow, a bank of free lockers just steps away from the urban waterfront is the stuff that dreams are made of — but the latter actually exists at Ohio Street Beach, Streeterville, Chicago.

signage pointing the way to Ohio Street Beach

Swimmer-friendly public signage points the way to Ohio Street Beach.

A work trip took me to the Windy City in late October. I arrived in the mid-afternoon, had no work obligations until the next morning, and saw that this time slot would be the warmest of my visit, so naturally I hightailed it to the beach immediately after checking into my Magnificent Mile hotel. Could there really be lockers, like the Internet said? Indeed, they were there, almost all free to be claimed!

Back to the hotel in 12 minutes to regroup and hustle to the beach once again for a swim. By then the sun was sinking behind the skyscrapers to the west, shooting long shadows across the waterfront esplanade into Lake Michigan, making my swim that much more memorable. It’s not often that I get to swim in and out of the shade of some of the world’s tallest and most famous structures.

skyscrapers dotting the waterfront north from Ohio Street Beach

The John Hancock Center peers out over the swim course from Ohio Street Beach. This photo is from the morning two days after my swim — better light and no shadows.

All this would have been remarkable enough, but the water was lovely to boot! Swimming in such an enormous body of freshwater seemed otherworldly. In fact, something about the water reminded me of the Blue Lagoon (and it wasn’t the temperature!) — a slight opacity that nevertheless felt really clean.

The swim course is along the sea wall. Channel markers a ways off the side protect the area, and there are regular ladders up out of the water onto the Lakefront Promenade should you wish to exit. Were someone to swim this close to the shore in Manhattan, you can bet that law enforcement would be on the case in no time. Here in Chicago, no one paid me any mind except a girl staging a Barbie photo shoot on the beach.

Due to the approaching darkness, the temperature (mid-50s air and water), and dinner plans, I limited my swim to about 20 minutes. Next time I’d like to make it at least out to the breakwater about .6 miles north, but I’d been confused by what it was when seeing it from water level.

Much to my delight, the clothes I’d shoved into the locker were still warm when I reclaimed them! The remainder of my swims on this trip were in my favorite indoor pool, where I contemplated whether perhaps I should relocate. In the interim, I’ll jump at the chance to return to the City of the Big Shoulders during outdoor swim season.

No swimming sign

Swimming northeast from the beach is not allowed.

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Not a Pool: Keller Beach

Beach view toward San Rafael

DSCN2284_keller_beachI sometimes wonder whether I’m a mutant type of vampire who is enlivened by outdoor swimming. Nothing makes me feel more vital than time in the water under the bright sun. A trip to California last month provided a good dose, mostly in Temescal Pool, as each day grew increasingly sunny and warm–while the Northeast was socked in by a polar vortex. On President’s Day, the pool was closed, so we took a family trip to the beach I’d learned about from a local friend.

Point Richmond’s tiny Keller Beach is nestled into a cove of San Francisco Bay surrounded by hills at the north end of Miller Knox Regional Shoreline. Attractions include soft sand, amazing views, sea creatures, plus amenities like bathrooms and showers. No wonder the East Bay Open Water Swim group makes its home here. A Google Group helps them coordinate group swim times, and I hopped on the list in anticipation of my visit, asking hopefully for a late-morning holiday swim. A swimmer named Fred took the lead, figuring out the best time and destination given the tides.

DSCN2305

Gratuitous nephew photo–too cute to resist.

My nephew’s schedule favored an early arrival, and we had a nice time playing in the mucky sand and admiring the views of the Golden Gate straight ahead, the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge to the north, and various islands. The open water group convened in the late morning and casually suited up for a swim south along a railroad pier to Ferry Point. If you peeked around the end, about a mile out, you could see the Bay Bridge. A cormorant out there greeted me by chirping and then diving under, as if making sure I was enjoying the water.

DSCN2309_keller_beach

You want views? How about Angel Island and the Golden Gate!

I most certainly was! Conditions were flat as a pancake, with water temperate in the high 50s and the air about 20 degrees warmer. I could see my arms pushing through the deep green bay and the bright buoys of fellow swimmers all around. Apparently the buoys faded from view on the shore, causing my young nephew to become concerned, but then we swam back into range.

Many of the swimmers are also regulars at Aquatic Park and other Bay Area venues, but they have a special fondness for this little treasure. Now I do, too.

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Not Exactly a Pool: U.S. Winter Swimming 2016 National Championships Venue

 

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.

Hudson not-quite-a-pool, with George Washington Bridge in backgroundLocation: Hudson River at Dyckman Street, Upper Manhattan, by La Marina restaurant

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.

Janet finishing

Janet (left) finishing one of her many competitions.

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.

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Not a Pool: Siljan

postcard: Hälsning från Siljansnäs

Swedish swims #2 and #3 were in Lake Siljan, the heart of Sweden’s heartland, Dalarna. The country’s seventh-largest lake, Siljan is a vision in blue surrounded by red houses, purple roads, golden fields, and green hills, punctuated by flowery maypoles and flag poles with blue and yellow streamers, and known for craftsmen who carve and paint those iconic Swedish horses. It’s both simple and stunning. In high school, I spent a summer in the idyllic lakeside town of Siljansnäs, so returning here took me even farther down memory lane. Everything was just as I remembered, except perhaps the trees being a little bigger.

tree-covered island off SiljansnasA three-hour train ride northwest from Stockholm whisked me into this beautiful countryside for the weekend. I slipped back into life in the same house I’d stayed in 27 years ago, now occupied by my host family’s youngest daughter and her wonderful husband, daughters, and dog. “My” room had a view of the lake just down the way out the back.

The rest of the family is scattered around the small town, and after dinner one night the middle sister, her two boys, and I made for the lake. Everyone had been complaining that there’d only been about five days of summer–or was it three?–so a post-downpour clearing was excuse enough to go out, never mind the chilly air.

We rolled down a dirt road to a wooded beach at the east side of town and plunged in. The water was comfortable, and the sinking sun made long shadows and dark reflections. An island in the sun a couple hundred yards off shore was all the motivation I needed for a quick out-and-back swim.

the twins and I

Geese (upper right) kept us away one night, but they were gone when I returned on my own.

The next night, I walked down the street to a boat launch. We’d thought about swimming there the night before, but it was full of geese who didn’t seem to want company. They were gone by the second night, so I had the water all to myself–and once again I headed for an island. The water was quite shallow, so reeds brushed up against me most of the way. The shallowness explains something I’ve seen in the winter, namely, drivers taking a shortcut across the ice!

Looking back at the town from the water was the opposite of the postcard view I’ve seen so many times: blue expanse in the foreground, then fields dotted by red houses with white trim, trees, church, and hill rising in the distance. (Perhaps I should apologize here for the lack of pictures owing to my camera giving up the ghost on day 2 in Stockholm, and thank those who kindly shared their images with me.)

Both of these swims took place in a relatively tiny pocket of the lake created by the näs–“nose,” or isthmus–sticking into the big, irregularly shaped lake. It’s wonderful to be able to simply walk down the street and hop in, and to know that miles and miles more of lake are there for the swimming. It’s not quite right to say that Swedes take access to nature for granted. Rather, it’s unfathomable to them that they wouldn’t have it. The Swedish tradition of allemansrätt gives all comers access to almost all the land and the water in the country for reasonable recreational use. In other words, of course you can walk down the street and hop in the lake on a beautiful summer evening!

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