It began last year with a scene in Motorcycle Diaries where the lead character did something that led me to wonder if I could do the same. I mentioned my thoughts to a few friends. Only one, Dave, said let’s do it. (What “it” is, I’ll get to below).
We scheduled it for June 15. A trip to Rome delayed that. Rescheduling was a challenge. Thursday it seemed like there was too much left unplanned to do it this weekend. I said if we postpone we’ll just be in the same state one month later. So we said Damn the torpedoes, let’s do it Saturday.
The Day Of
Saturday I woke up at 8am and walked over to Dave’s place. He met me downstairs. We walked down to the Hudson and up to the 39th Street ferry terminal. We took the ferry across the Hudson to Port Imperial, New Jersey, walked north to a pier that felt about right. It was roughly across from 60th Street.
As planned, we then threw our shirts and shoes in a trash can so we were in just our shorts, climbed over a fence, into the water AND SWAM ACROSS THE HUDSON RIVER TO MANHATTAN!
Ho Lee Shit! We swam across the fucking Hudson River.
We had no backup or plan. Getting in the water was eerie. I’d never done anything like this. Were there rules about this? Was I going to bash myself against these rocks? Would the current carry me out to sea? People walking along the pier stopped as we climbed in to ask what we were doing. “Swimming across the Hudson, of course.” “Have you done this before?” “No, we’re just doing it.”
We had no idea what would happen. We had no idea if it was legal. I had heard that a drowning person in panic would push an untrained person down to save himself, so we agreed each of us was on his own with the river.
Maps on the web make it look like about a mile across. We couldn’t estimate the current. The air and water temperatures were perfect. The web said the city declared the water safe for human recreation and, in fact, sponsors swims in the Hudson (though never across).
It took about an hour of swimming. Dave neglected to tell me until afterward that he had experience in open water swimming, when I realized in retrospect his swimming form looked remarkably good. The current took us a mile downstream.
Not many boats went by while we swam, although a giant Norwegian Cruise boat had been tugged in while we were on the ferry to Jersey. If we were in the water when that thing went by, no one would have noticed it totally destroying us. The only boat that went close enough to interact with us, not counting wakes that hit us, was a guy on a kayak with an outrigger. Boy was he confused to see us. Dave yelled out to him, “Hey, have you seen our kayak? We lost it. It’s big and long and blue. We paddled in from England,” which didn’t resolve his confusion. But it was fun for us.
Dave had gotten two waterproof disposable cameras so we were taking pictures the whole time (I’ll probably post them somewhere sometime). We took a picture of the kayak guy. Before us he probably felt special as the smallest boat out there.
We reached Manhattan about 40th Street, at the end of a pier where the Circle Line docks. People saw us and started gathering around. We couldn’t talk to them because we were on a ledge under the pier and they were over it. I cut myself a few times climbing on the concrete and Dave slipped and almost fell from the slippery moss on the concrete. We walked to the land end of the pier and climbed up the rock wall to the main landing.
People reacted extremely positively to these two guys woo-hooing and high fiving each other. They couldn’t believe we did it — even the people who saw us swim in and climb up. Amazing: They didn’t believe their own eyes! We got a couple beers and celebrated by cheering, telling interested people about what we did, and answering their questions: Why? How long did it take? Is it polluted? Was it hard? How far is it? etc.
Our adventure wasn’t over. We had to walk from 40th Street back to the Village barefoot and shirtless. The one bar we stopped in wouldn’t serve us, dammit. My worst injuries are the sore and cut bottoms of my feet from walking city streets and hot asphalt and a sunburn.
We showered, dropped off the cameras to develop the pictures, and went for lunch around 1:30pm. Eventually we went to a rooftop party in the East Village.
Let me tell you, risking your life in a barely-considered, crazy way makes for a great story at a party. The answer to most questions about why we did it were “testosterone.”
What I Learned
The two main realizations came when getting in the water and about three quarters of the way across.
Getting in the water it became real. I could easily have done everything up to there on my own. Having Dave helped a lot to actually do it.
Three quarters of the way across I was very tired, realized my plan had a problem, and had a face-to-face-with-myself moment. In particular, since I hadn’t swum in years but am nearly in marathon running condition, I figured if I got tired, I could just tread water until my strength was back. But at that point I realized not only was I more tired than I expected, the current was fast enough that if I treaded water too long I could miss Manhattan and end up in the Atlantic.
If you get tired running, you can just sit down and someone can help you. If you get tired in the middle of the Hudson, no one is going to walk past. If I ran out of energy, it could take Dave an hour to get help, by which time my body could be floating by the Statue of Liberty. So not that I was close to panicking, but it was definitely a time when I was face to face with myself. I mean, no one could take a single stroke for me so if I was going to make it it would have to be me doing every stroke.
Not that the swim was “extreme,” but a lot of “extreme” things people do are actually planned and structured, which de-extremizes them. If you sky dive, for example, you’re doing exactly what someone planned for you. I don’t know of anyone who just decided to swim across the Hudson. Yet it’s easy. Anyone can do it anytime. I think the simplicity of doing something perceived by so many to be so risky added to the positivity of everyone’s responses.
I didn’t talk to anyone with a good idea of how to estimate the risk, let alone to quantify it. Everyone except Dave and I thought it was too risky. They all overestimated the risks. But everyone thought it was cool. How many cool things are people not doing for no good reason?
It’s so easy to plan to do or think about doing things like this and never do them. On the other hand it’s as simple as anything just to do them. Life is best lived just by doing them.
- The scene in Motorcycle Diaries that inspired this is where the main character swims across the Amazon River.
- The river bottom on the New Jersey side is less that six feet deep a couple hundred yards out, but it feels WEIRD to your feet. It has the consistency of guacamole, so you don’t want to touch it.
- When a power boat goes by even very far away you can hear it under water as if it was next to you, which can freak you out.
- Visibility in the water was about twelve inches. The water may not have been polluted, but it was definitely dirty.
- Your mood is great for at least a couple days after swimming across the Hudson River.
- People in New York can see two guys walking barefoot and shirtless on the street and not notice anything unusual.
- When I was starting to worry about making it across I remember thinking I would never want to do this again, but as soon as I was back on land that feeling was gone. I felt like I had conquered the river.
Worried I might have underestimated the risks, and having told almost no one, including family, about the plan, I wrote the following note just before heading to Dave’s in the morning (I didn’t tell Dave about it until afterward):
I’m about to go swim across the Hudson. I suppose there is a chance I’ll die. It wasn’t suicide if I did. I was loving life. Better to enjoy it fully than not live it how you want.
Dave got a waterproof disposable camera for each of us. The first set of pictures are by me. Click on any to see them larger.
I think the place that developed them just scanned the prints instead of the negatives, so the picture quality isn’t so great, but the content is what matters.
EDIT: Here’s a follow-up post on some articles I found of other people trying to swim across the river.
The next set of pictures were by Dave.
EDIT 2: I take no responsibility if you try this feat yourself.
Read my weekly newsletter
On initiative, leadership, the environment, and burpees