This is Diana Nyad for KCRW. And this is The Score.
It was 29 years ago yesterday, Oct. 6, 1975, that I broke the 50-year-old record for swimming around Manhattan Island. Back in the early years of the 20th century, a few men had swum around The Big Apple. The rivers were a lot cleaner in those days. The first thing I learned in 1975 was that I would have to have gammoglobulin, diptheria and typhoid shots. When I came North out of the East River into the Harlem River, I caught a glimpse of the people on my boat shielding their eyes and grimacing at something they saw in the water. I never asked what it was and just kept stroking.
A long distance swim is something of an expedition. Your competition is an infinitely mightier force than you so you research the tides and currents and learn every nuance of the geography and potential hazards. Folks at the New York Coast Guard were kind enough to pour over nautical charts of the island's rivers with me. It's a fairly short distance by a marathoner's standards. Only 28 miles. I later swam 102 miles from the Bahamas to Florida, to give you a comparison. But Manhattan is tricky because you have to negotiate three different rivers and get through the currents of yet another. I started on the East Side, where the confluence of the East, Flushing, and Harlem rivers meet. The currents at high tide there can swirl so violently as to drag small craft down to the bottom. I dived in just after dawn, at low tide, and sprinted North.
The man accompanying me on this adventure was named Ed and I had only met him a few days prior. I had gone down to the swank West Side Boat Basin and paraded around, announcing my goal to be the first woman ever to do this feat. I'd gone up to gentlemen in navy blazers, sipping cocktails at the sterns of their fancy yachts, and asked if they'd like to make history with me. Most threatened to call the dock steward and have me thrown out. Then I found Ed. His was a beat-up old trawler. And he had an equally beat-up old dog on board with him. Ed said, painstakingly slowly: "Well;, what day you thinking about doing this?"
"Tuesday;", I said. "Tuesday.; Well, I got a vet appointment for my dog here at 5 that day. Think you can finish by then?" Yep, I guaranteed him I could. And once I agreed to buy lunch for both him and his dog, Ed and I were a team.
We spread out the charts on his deck and made a plan. We would go down the Hudson about a third the way from shore, to avoid wash from the big tankers and yachts. And if we reached the South end of the island before the tide turned to get back up the East River to complete the circle, I would tred water until the tide reversed.
Tuesday came. Ed, his dog, a couple of friends of mine, and an official from the Marathon Swimming Association crowded onto Ed's boat and took off right next to me. The day was glorious. Brilliant sunshine. Swinging out of the Harlem and into the Hudson River, I flooded with feelings the early explorers must have experienced coming down the Hudson for the first time. A wide, majestic expanse, glistening with small white caps. Swimming counter-clockwise, I breathed to the left and looked at Manhattan, my home, all day long. Word got out and people started gathering all around the island at the water's edge. Helicopters swooped around above me and our little band of explorers got to be a big deal that day. I finished in 7 hours, 57 minutes, a new record, and Ed canceled his vet appointment to be part of the celebration.
New York's Mayor at the time, Abe Beam, gave me the key to the city about a week later. He wondered if I might swim next to a yacht that was to circle the island as a fundraiser as guests dined on caviar and champagne. I'm always up for an adventure, but becoming the dinner show for rich people noshing on fish eggs, that's where I draw the line.
This is Diana Nyad for KCRW. And that's The Score.