Manhattan Island

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Photo: Diana Nyad, October 6, 1975

This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and this is The Score.

The annual swim race around Manhattan Island just took place. I must say I don't spend a lot of time reminiscing about the long distance swims I did through the decade of the 70's but Manhattan, that was a special place. A special day. It was October 6, 1975. I had spent the summer the way I spent all summers in those days, competing in marathon swims all around the world. Across the Bay of Naples in Italy; down the coast of Mar del Plata in Argentina. When I got back to New York in September to continue graduate school, a friend remarked to me that I was swimming to these foreign shores but here I lived on the most famous island on the planet, obviously surrounded by water, so why I didn't I swim around my own home town?

I looked into it and discovered that there had been an annual race around Manhattan way back in the late 1800's, early 1900's. The first man to swim the English Channel, Matthew Webb, accomplished that feat in 1875, earlier than most people guess, and even though he subsequently died trying to plummet over Niagara Falls in a wooden barrel, Webb had made distance swimming popular in the day and circling Manhattan was a must on any marathoner's resume. I often wondered why the great Gertrude Ederle, the first woman to cross the English Channel, in 1926, never swam Manhattan. She was born and bred on the island, her father a butcher on the Upper West Side. The ticker tape parade for Ederle, when she returned from England, was a gala event and if she had become the first woman to circle her own New York, it would have been touted as a stellar accomplishment. But in 1975, I found that not only had Gertrude Ederle never swum around Manhattan. No other woman had done it, either. I got to work on researching the tides, the currents, the water temperature. I was determined to be the first.

The currents are in fact tricky. There are four rivers to contend with: the Hudson, the East River, the Flushing, and the Harlem. When the tides are strong, the currents can run over twelve miles an hour, so you've got to have a strategy. I went down to the tony 79th Street Boat Basin to ask the tony yacht owners there if any of them would accompany me and navigate the day. They threatened to call the dock master and have me arrested. The last boat I approached was worn down. So was the captain. He was an old guy from Boston, with an old dog on deck.

He asked "Well, what day you planning on doing this thing?"

I said "Tuesday. The tides will be right."

He asked, "Can you finish by five o'clock? I got a vet appointment for my dog."

I said "I don't know but I'll sure try." And he became my navigator.

We started at sunrise at the confluence of the East and Flushing rivers at low tide. I busted North to get out of the swirling currents. In the Harlem River, about an hour later, all the support people on my boat were cringing and covering their eyes in horror. I never asked what they saw, then or since.

When I came out of the Harlem and into the wide, historic Hudson and lined up the George Washington Bridge, I had an adrenaline surge I'll never forget. It was a sparkling day, the sun glistening off the white caps. Tugboats and other craft honked for good luck. I saw people lining the Manhattan shore, cheering me on. When I'd come close to the boat to grab a cup of glucose every so often, the Boston captain would yell over the side: "Hey, do you know what's happening here? A fella from the New York Times was just on MY boat, interviewing ME!"

It was a grand day. I finished in 7 hours, 57 minutes and I can say that I still get goose bumps every time I fly into New York, especially on a bright, sunny day, and see the glorious expanse of the Hudson River. As I say, I have little occasion to think back on all those other swims. But Manhattan. Those eight hours will always live in a special corner of my heart.

This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and that's The Score.



Diana Nyad