By Maria Rocha-Buschel
Four intrepid swimmers took a dip in the East River last Saturday morning to participate in the annual Rose Pitonof Swim, traveling 17 miles in the chilly water to Coney Island. Stuyvesant Town resident Simona Dwass was attempting the feat as the swim’s youngest participant in the five years since it started, and not only did she finish, she also set a course record, reaching Coney Island in four hours and 24 minutes.
The 17-year-old Hunter College High School student has been swimming in open water since she was 12 and although she also competes in swimming events in a pool, she said that she prefers the open water.
“There are no boundaries so you don’t have to flip-turn to keep going,” she said. “You can just swim forever. And there are so many courses you can do and I like just playing with the currents in the open water.”
The swim, first organized by Urban Swim founder Deanne Draeger, starts in the East River at 26th Street because that’s where its namesake started out in 1911. The swimmers all boarded their boats from the pier at East 23rd Street and headed up the river three blocks for the race’s 8 a.m. start time.
The other three swimmers this year were Kathryn Mason, who got a head start on the race because she was attempting to do butterfly (and succeeded), Kenn Lichtenwalter and Kathleen Jaeger. Mason was also the swim’s first international participant, flying over from England just for the event. Alan Morrison, who swam breaststroke in the race last year, was on Mason’s safety boat and had helped her mentally prepare for choosing a slower, more unconventional stroke.
Swimmers have a time limit of eight hours to get from East 26th Street to Steeplechase Pier in Coney Island. Participants pay $850 plus fuel fees for their safety boat and must have completed and submitted proof of a three-hours or longer qualifying swim to be eligible.
For each person swimming, they had a team of a motor boat captain, two to three kayakers and an observer, in addition to a fleet command boat and another inflatable boat that was on the water from 7 a.m. until late afternoon. There is also insurance, as well as paying fees for landing and launching.
“It sounds like a lot of money but we tend to break even,” Draeger said. “The number one cost is the safety flotilla.”
Wendy-Lynn McClean of Urban Swim noted that the boats assigned to each swimmer stay at their pace and have to watch out for other boats in the water.
“New York waters are crazy,” she said. “Our boats will literally have to put themselves in the way of the swimmers because the pleasure boats, as we call them, really can’t see them at all.”
Another factor that goes into the swimmers’ safety is just making sure that they’re capable of finishing the race.
“(Deanne) doesn’t want to allow swimmers who can’t make it because it’s just not safe,” McClean said. “Swimmers train on their own but we have a rigorous qualification process. The goal is to be able to do a five to six-hour swim. We’ve not ever had to pull out any of the swimmers, but it costs a lot for us and for the swimmers to run this race.”
McClean said that Dwass has been anxious to participate in the swim since she was 15, but Draeger didn’t want her to do it until she was sure she would be able to finish it.
Draeger completed the first official Rose Pitonof swim in 2010 after she got injured while training for her second Iron Man and couldn’t complete it.
“All I could do was swim so I was looking for a marathon swim and came across the article about Rose Pitonof, which was published in New York Times in 1911,” she said. “I was nearby where she started, on East 13th Street between A and B, so it was a short walk for me. It was very inspiring, because she was a 17-year-old girl who was a swimming phenomenon when at that time, people knowing how to swim was not common.”
Although to most, a swim in the East River might not seem like a lovely day at the beach, Dwass said that the perceived quality of the water didn’t gross her out, although she jokingly added, “that was before I read the stories (in Town & Village) about the bodies that were found there.”
On a more serious note, she said that there are signs that the water quality isn’t as bad as everyone seems to think it is. “Environmental protection organizations have been doing a lot to help the water quality and a lot of the animals that used to be in the river are coming back,” she said.
Urban Swim also does its own water testing using the same system that the city uses to test the water quality on the beaches. Draeger said that the water quality in the East River has been noticeably improving over the last few years, especially since dumping has stopped, but the antiquated sewer system in the city is one of the factors that slows the progress on cleaner water.
“When it rains, the rain water mixes with sewage and when there’s overflow, it goes into the rivers,” Draeger said. “But it’s also tidal so things wash up twice a day and since Hurricane Sandy it’s actually been a lot cleaner. That was a major tidal event which sort of scoured the area. It was kind of cleansing for the river.”
McClean said that Draeger’s interest in the swim has partially fueled the organization’s efforts to provide access to water in New York.
“In doing the swim, she became aware of the water quality,” McClean said. “The kayaking at Stuyvesant Cove, that started because Deanne was trying to get access to the water. The whole point of Urban Swim is to increase access to the water, clean the water and making people aware of water quality. That’s why our motto is ‘your city, your water.’”