A swim around Manhattan started with a chance encounter at Harvard. In March, I was at Harvard to compete in the Masters Swimming New England Championships, and ran into Jon Lenchner, a high school teammate I hadn’t seen in 35 years.
The meet ended, we said our goodbyes, and I figured I would not see him again until the following March. But it did not work out that way. In May, Jon sent me an email with an invitation. He and his friends were putting together a six-person relay to swim around Manhattan.
Although I’ve always been a better pool than open-water swimmer, I was intrigued by the offer. I had lived or worked in Manhattan for almost 30 years, but I had never entered the waters that surrounded the island.
As is my nature, I considered all the things that could go wrong: Would I be the slowest in the group and cause my team to lose to their archrivals? Would I ingest a destructive parasite?
But I couldn’t turn down such a unique invitation. With trepidation and excitement, I told Jon that I would join the team.
I continued my training all summer, stretch, lift, and swim, and warmed up for the relay by completing the open-water portion of the Vineyard Triathlon on Sept. 7. I finished five minutes behind Leslie Craven, who was the open-water winner, and eight minutes behind Rainy Goodale of Vineyard Haven, who has multiple New England Masters records.
In the week before the relay, our team participated in a webinar that described the course and race procedures. The good news was that we would be swimming counterclockwise so that I would always breathe towards Manhattan. The bad news was the warnings, like making sure to stay left at Hell Gate or the current would take you to Long Island; being alert for cruise ships leaving docks; avoiding the sanitation plant at 145th Street.
On Friday I traveled to New York City, and on Saturday morning, I woke up, had a small cup of orange juice and took the subway down to Pier 25. There I met my teammates, our kayaker guide, and our boat captain. He would be our ride around the island while we weren’t swimming a leg of the race.
We left our lead swimmer, Shauna, at Pier 25 and headed south in the boat. We would meet Shauna after she rounded the Battery (the southern tip of Manhattan).
I was to relieve Shauna at the Williamsburg Bridge. We located Shauna after she passed the Staten Island Ferry Terminal. As she passed the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges, I got ready for my first leg. At the Williamsburg Bridge, I jumped in the water, grabbed her ankle and began my swim.
It was an exhilarating experience. In the open water, I had a strange feeling of solitude. There is no visibility, and I had a sense that I was in a vast nothingness. Stroke, breathe, green water. Stroke, breathe, green water. I couldn’t hear anything because of the water in my ears. I had a fear of not being able to see two feet in front of me and not knowing whether I was going where I was supposed to. But I had to put that fear aside and continue to stroke. Here I was in my own little world, yet only a hundred yards away from me was the busiest and most populous city in the country.
In the pool, I have a keen sense of progress and time. But in the open water, there is only a vague sense of distance and time. Progress was slow — Isn’t that the same building I saw 20 strokes ago? — but steady. I had to swim to the 59th Street Bridge.
There aren’t too many landmarks on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, so I was thrilled to finally see the NYU Medical Center (31st Street). But I realized I still had 18 blocks to go, almost a mile. I kept swimming.
I sighted the United Nations, then the Citicorp building, and finally the 59th Street Bridge. Jon was my relief, and I came aboard the boat, tired but relieved that I had completed my first leg. I had gone for 45 minutes, seven minutes more than the previous week’s triathlon swim, but still had more to do.
I had two more swims; the first started three and a half hours after I had exited at the 59th Street Bridge. Right after the intersection of the Harlem and Hudson rivers it was my turn again. It was starting to rain, but I jumped in, relieving Shauna, and headed south for the George Washington Bridge.
At this point in the relay, we were doing 30-minute segments. I was hoping to make it to the bridge, but the next swimmer went in before I reached it. The oddest part of the race happened after we passed the George Washington Bridge. As we traveled south, we saw something in the middle of the river. From a distance, it looked like a pile of clothing. With our curiosity raging, we asked one of the many police boats patrolling the river if they had seen what we did. They had. It was a sheep.
My last swim was a short one, from Pier 40 to Pier 25, the mandatory last transfer point. Our last swimmer touched the finish buoy in Battery Park eight hours and 11 minutes after we started the race.
A team from the New York Athletic Club finished first in the seven-team race. But much to my relief, our team finished second. In total, I swam about one hour and 30 minutes, probably about five miles. I was invigorated by the race and realized that in the end, what mattered most was not our time or what place we finished, but the thrill of a new adventure.
Jonathan Chatinover and his wife Beth own AAC, Inc., a consulting company, and moved to Martha’s Vineyard three years ago. Mr. Chatinover swam in high school and college, and has been swimming with the Martha’s Vineyard Masters group. He also coached the Martha’s Vineyard High School swim team last year, and hopes to continue this year.