Manhattan Island Marathon Swim 2007

Splashing out in New York City

(Report on the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim 2007)

Our journey to the Big Apple began 7 months before the starting hooter sounded, on 16th June 2007. Penny & I love open water swimming, for the competition, for the challenges (to mind & body) & camaraderie with some amazing people who share our passion.

We are regular Rottnest swimmers (& love this event) but since you only live once, we started seeking out other races & crossings.

In 2006 we swam that Strait of Gibraltar together (becoming the first husband & wife to complete solo crossings). And Penny followed that up with successful Cook Strait & English Channel crossings.

Penny has already booked another English Channel attempt for August 2007, so we started looking for another event to fill up our calendar. We heard about the Manhattan Island swim (MIMS) from Dan Boyle (a New Yorker & English Channel swimmer).

The event sounded absolutely brilliant:

·        A full counter clockwise circumnavigation of Manhattan Island, on which New York City is situated.

·        At 45.8klm (28.5 miles), the longest swimming race held on an annual basis, in the world.

·        Solo swim field limited to 25 competitors.

Our first hurdle was to gain entry to the event.

The entry process was all ‘online’ and our NYC contact warned us to make it snappy with our entries as places were sure to fill quickly. So we skipped our Saturday training swim & went to the office at 5.00am to ensure we didn’t miss out.

The entry requirements were quite comprehensive. As well as the usual information, we had to undertake medicals, complete a 4 hour cold water qualifying swim, submit copies of our training logs, etc.

Two weeks later, we received confirmation that our entries had been accepted. Furthermore, Penny & I were the only Aussie solo swimmers in the field of 25.

Wow! Talk about excited!! We could have partied for a week on that news….except that Penny was swimming in the 25K at nationals (FINA World Selection Trials) the following week.

The 25K in Melbourne was a real race of attrition. With seas up to 2 metres & wind strength never less than 20 knots, only three people finished the race- Brendan Capell, Shelly Clark & Penny. Unfortunately for us, the powers that be only accepted one swimmer for the 25K at worlds. So Penny had to settle for some silverware. Not bad though for a 44 year old mother of three.

Our build up for MIMS (and Penny’s EC bid) consisted of a couple of races, with lots of solid endurance work in the pool, and a weekly open water session in our stinger net. The ‘net’ as we call it, is basically a very tough, fine gauge net with a cylindrical canvas float, and heavy weights anchoring it to the bottom. The net is 100m long & extends about 75m offshore.

Why the net? In summer, the costal waters in Northern Australia are inhabited by several dangerous jellyfish (a couple being deadly & others which inflict a nasty sting).

It turned out that the net had one other valuable use for us. The beaches were closed over summer, on three separate occasions, due to salt water crocodile sightings. As we entered the water in the net in total darkness for our 5-6 hour training swims, we hoped that the crocs remembered which side of the net they were meant to be on.

The first test of our progress came with the Rottnest Channel Swim (19.2k) in Perth in February. Unfortunately for us & 2350 other competitors, the race was cancelled due to rough conditions.

Not to be discouraged we returned to Perth in March for the “Freo to Rotto-Big Splash”. A slightly different (20K exact) course & very low key, we really enjoyed this swim. Our boaties, John Rothwell & Wayne Williams (from Austal ships) were superb as always & they guided us to very good times. Penny was the overall winner with a course record time of 4:41 & I was third overall in 5:33.

We also did the South Head Roughwater Swim (apx. 11k) in Sydney. This is a great event with a fabulous course & we would thoroughly recommend it. John Fallon (a really nice guy) runs this event & he can be contacted via the Ocean swims website.

Penny was again overall winner & broke the women’s course record & I was 7th overall. My brother Martin (also a mad keen open water swimmer) who lives in Sydney hosted us & put us up for this swim. Another highlight of the South Head Swim for us was meeting Murph Renford. Murph is the son of legendry Des Renford (19 EC crossings) & is training for a channel attempt a few weeks before Penny. Fit & well prepared, there was only one thing we lacked, cold water acclimation.

In Townsville, North Queensland, the water temperature is 29˚ in summer & never drops below 20˚ in winter. So, we scheduled a week stop over in San Francisco.

I have to say that the hustle & bustle of big cities is not for us. But as far as cities go, San Francisco was very enjoyable. Featuring a very attractive country side, an interesting history & friendly people who pride themselves on embracing all sorts of alternative lifestyles, we had no shortage of things to do.

San Francisco also has one of the world’s most active open water swimming communities. The South end rowing club & dolphin club swimmers train daily (& all day long) in & around the aquatic park & they welcomed us into the fold. (Many thanks especially to Suzie Dodds). We trained twice a day for up to an hour in waters of 56-57˚ F (13-14˚C). Bloody freezing!! After 30 minutes the “claw” would set in (where you start to lose fine motor control in your hands) & we were shivering when we finished. But, all valuable training for MIMS.

We also did a 1.5 mile (2.4K) race from Alcatraz to the mainland, along with 800 other competitors. This time Penny was second female and I was twelfth male in the non-wetsuit category.

Arriving in Manhattan (New York City) by taxi from JFK airport was like entering a different world. We have never seen so many towering buildings, so much traffic congestion & so many people constantly rushing. The pace of life in New York is definitely too fast for us and we could never live there. But having said that, I think everyone who likes traveling should visit the big apple. There is just a huge list of things to see & do & we really enjoyed our stay.

Finally to the swim. MIMS 2007 boasted a top field from the USA, South America, UK, Italy & we two Aussies.

Dan Boyle, our New York City contact, was fantastic. Not only did he give us a huge amount of helpful advice, he also teed up our handlers. His partner Brooke Bessert was to guide Penny and his friend Rodolfo Nunez would take care of me. Dan himself was handling for his friend, Dr. Distance from Florida.

Race day started fine and sunny with a water temperature of 66.6˚ F (19˚ C) and a light southerly breeze. The start/finish was at South Cove, the Battery, at the southern tip of Manhattan.

We were to start at 8.25am pushing into the beginning of the flood tide for 1.5K before zooming up East River with the full flood behind us. It turned out that we had to push a bit harder than expected, after the start was delayed by 25 minutes.

When the hooter went, we all knew we had to swim with some urgency to get around the Battery. So preoccupied was I with the tide factor, that I didn’t even think to look for the Statue of Liberty, off to our right. Having got around the Battery, East River was amazing. For MIMS, it is best to breathe either bilaterally or just to your left as there is a constant parade of sights in Manhattan. First you pass the downtown financial district. Then there are the massive Brooklyn, Manhattan & Williamsburg bridges. Soon enough, you reach midtown, with the Empire State, Chrysler & UN buildings standing out like you know what. And so it goes on.

There is a huge “horizontal” flow of water in the East & Hudson Rivers. How else does an average swimmer like me cover 15K in the first two hours (that’s even with the head current around the Battery). At one point, just after the UN building, I spotted a father & son on the promenade. Dad was jogging & the boy was riding his bike. They would just ease ahead of me but then seemed to slow up & I would pull past them. This went on for about 5 minutes. Then they either stopped or I dropped them.

I thought to myself, if only I could string together 30 laps in a 50m pool like this! Look out Hacky!! The East River was such a buzz. And these memories will last a long time.

Next you pass through Hell Gate. This is the junction of three rivers & the waters can be very rough & turbulent. Not too much of a drama for us though, as we peeled off to the left up the Harlem River, which separates Manhattan from The Bronx.

When you say you are doing MIMS, everyone asks, “Are you worried about the water quality?” Well we certainly were! But as it turned out, we were pleasantly surprised. Sure, there was some flotsam in the water here & there, but nowhere near as bad as we expected. Salinity was lower than the ocean in the East River and you could see your hands the whole time. The Harlem is virtually devoid of tidal movement, basically fresh (?) water & more than its fair share of floaties. But we could still see down to our elbows & the Hudson had the same visibility as the Harlem, with the same salinity as the East River. Water quality though not great, was certainly not unpleasant. Highlights along the Harlem River were heaps of bridges, Yankee Stadium & the wooded hills which signaled that we were close to the mighty Hudson.

When you enter the Hudson River from the Harlem, you go through a spot called Spuyten Duyvil (pronounced Spoi-ten Die-vil). Again there are lots of weird currents & back eddies here, but nothing too serious. The race was timed for us to reach the Hudson River with the tide now ebbing, so as to get a free ride for the 12.5 miles (20K) to the finish. It all sounded pretty cruisy. The only problem was that the light southerly breeze at the start had picked up to a 10-15 knot (now headwind). And it was the wind against the tide so we had a very nasty ½ meter chop to punch through. After 5 hours of relatively comfortable swimming, everyone now had to work very hard to earn their finishers medal. It took the field between 4 to 5 hours to reach the finish from the Spuyten Duyvil. And I would rank that passage of the swim, equal in difficulty to Rottnest in 2003. Not fun.

But we’re not finished yet! Half way down the Hudson there is a cruise ship terminal. And we were advised in the briefing that, whilst they would try to give way to us, a ship might pull out in front of us. If this was to occur, we would be extracted from the water, wait for it to choof off & then continue on from the same spot.

Sure enough, after 7:18 of stroking, Rodolfo gave me the signal to get out… bugger! As it turned out all three cruise ships were departing one after the other. But also (I’m not making this up) we could see a big electrical storm bearing down on us from New Jersey (the western side of the Hudson) For varying lengths of time (depending on when our coaches pulled us out of the water) we sat on our boats freezing our buts off, with the wind, rain, thunder & lightning (& three cruise ships hightailing it). My initial feeling of mild frustration was replaced with worry. What if the organizers deemed the race unsafe to continue? What if the tide changed? What about the cut-off time? Of all the competitors Penny & Brooke were the hardest done by. The organizers had a policy of one out, all out, so she too, was cooling her heels. In her case though, she was 9K past the cruise ship terminal & miles from the storm front & only 12 minutes of swimming from the finish. It would have been heartbreaking if the race was canned at this point.

Finally, the word came over race radio that we could resume the race from the points at which we were extracted. Thank god for that.


Penny won the race overall in a time of 8:36 (7:46 after deducting the time out). She was 10 minutes ahead of 2nd place, Rendy Opdycke (overall winner in 2006). For us middle of the pack swimmers, I think we all adopted the same approach! Cold, tired & stiff we were all going as hard as we could with two things driving us, tide change & cut-off. It wasn’t until I was about 2K from the finish that I knew I would get to receive my Finisher’s Medal. Of the 25 starters, 19 swimmers finished. I was 16th with a time of 10:03 (8:56 after deducting time out).

MIMS is a fantastic event & right up there with the biggest & best marathon swims in the world. And it is great to have an annual race like this, in our world, where insurance & liability issues dictate whether an event will even get off the ground. I only wish there were more events like MIMS.

The organizers, volunteers, boaties & paddlers were absolutely first class. And our handlers, Brooke & Rodolfo, you were awesome! Considering I was sick as a dog at the presentation (drinking too much river water perhaps?), I have to say I did make quite a quotable comment. At the race briefing the organizers asked all the swimmers to tell the crowd about their background. 24 hours later, at the presentation, I recalled yesterday I could call myself a long distance swimmer. Tonight, crook though I may be, I can call myself a marathon swimmer. Thanks to MIMS organizers (and race organizers everywhere) for helping us to live our dreams.











By Chris Palfrey.

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Open water swimming crossings and races in Australia and around the world. Stories and reports of our adventures in and out of the water.