Stuy Town teen blows competition out of the water in 17-mile swim

By Maria Rocha-Buschel

Simona Dwass at the finish line in Coney Island (photo by Agnus McIntyre)

Simona Dwass at the finish line in Coney Island (photo by Agnus McIntyre)

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.

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Last paddle of the season at Stuy Cove

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By Maria Rocha-Buschel

Community residents got a taste of nature last Saturday when Stuyvesant Cove Park hosted an afternoon of free kayaking. The Long Island City Community Boathouse provided all of the equipment, including the boats, lifejackets and paddles, and the event was a community project from the LIC Boathouse, Urban Swim and the New York City Water Trail Association, with help from Lower East Side Ecology Center, SWIM Coalition and the Gowanus Dredgers Canoe Club and support from Solar One.

This was the third time ever that kayaking was offered in Stuyvesant Cove Park and it was the second and last time for this season. Many of the volunteers and participants said that they’re hoping the opportunity will be more regularly available and LIC Boathouse chair John McGarvey said that he’s hoping the recent $1 million grant that came in conjunction with the East River Blueway plan will help make a boathouse at Stuyvesant Cove Park a reality. With the current set-up, kayaking at Stuyvesant Cove Park is available so infrequently because there is nowhere to store the boats, especially since the naturally formed beach at the park disappears at high tide, and the only way to get to the river is by climbing up and over the fence with a rigged ladder and a cooler as a stepping stool.

“The grant will help with infrastructure and ideally will help consult with the boathouse, and won’t let some architect make something that’s just pretty and useless,” McGarvey said. “It’s a boon to the community the value it gives to the real estate, environmental activism and health. We’ll keep supporting it. The trick is to just be politically active to get things done.”

By the end of the event last Saturday, the Lower East Side Ecology Center said that almost 150 people came to go paddling, which they considered a success, and LIC Boathouse volunteer Ted Gruber said that he was happy to see the Cove’s beach empty most of the afternoon, with all of the boats on the river.

Gruber, one of the many LIC Boathouse volunteers at the event, is a strong proponent for kayaking in the East River because it’s a resource the community could use and it’s not being taken advantage of.

“There’s no river access on the East Side,” he said. “There are at least seven access points on the west side, and none on the east.”

He added that aside from these sporadic events near Stuyvesant Town providing fun summer activities, he said that residents need to attend the events to show that there is interest in making it a more permanent fixture.

“It’s important that we educate people in Stuy Town so people know that they can have this here,” he said. “The people who want to see this here need to come out and let people know that there is a demand and that we’d like this here.”

Barbara Alpert, a Stuyvesant Town resident who grew up in the area and also volunteers with the LIC Boathouse, said that she really wants to encourage people to come out and participate.

“I like kayaking but I especially like it out in the neighborhood,” she said.

Graeme Birchall, president of Downtown Boathouse, which offers free kayaking on the Hudson River, was at the event to support the effort for East Side river access.

“This is the cleanest air in Manhattan,” he said. “It might not be the cleanest water but it’s the cleanest air. Wouldn’t it be nice if these residents of the East Side had similar possibilities as those on the west? It’s amazing to do right in the city and people don’t even realize they can do it here.”

Beatrice Hoffman and her sister Celeste Clarke had never been to Stuyvesant Cove Park but Hoffman has kayaked with the LIC Boathouse before and she’s a volunteer with them and the Brooklyn Bridge Park. The two, who are also senior citizens, were out on Saturday because Clarke had never been kayaking before.

“So many people don’t get the opportunity to do water sports and they don’t realize how easy it is to do in the city, especially because it can be so expensive,” Hoffman said.

“But it’s important to do things like kayaking because it also encourages people to learn how to swim.”

Up the river, with paddles and kayaks

A kayaking event held at Stuyvesant Cove Park last Saturday was a hit with neighborhood residents. Photo by Wendy-Lynn McClean/Urban Swim

A kayaking event held at Stuyvesant Cove Park last Saturday was a hit with neighborhood residents.
Photo by Wendy-Lynn McClean/Urban Swim

By Sabina Mollot

Who needs the beach when you have the East River?

Last Saturday, neighborhood residents headed out to Stuyvesant Cove Park for a free kayaking event on the river, the second such event to take place since planning of the East River Blueway project got underway. Though this recreational event was unaffiliated with that plan, Deanne Draeger of the East 13th Street based organization Urban Swim said the goal is essentially the same, which is to get New Yorkers out onto a clean, safe waterway.

The first kayaking event at Stuyvesant Cove took place last August, and like this one, was a hit, with neighborhood residents of all ages, many of whom had never gone boating before, lining up to use the kayaks. According to Solar One’s figures, there were around 200 participants.

“For a lot of people it was their first time ever, so it was a very interesting thing to be able to do,” said Draeger. “You don’t need experience and we provided all the safety equipment. Some people were nervous, but when you get on the water it’s incredible and you’re paddling around in the New York Harbor.”

Along with Urban Swim, the afternoon activity was also made possible by the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance, NYCEDC and Long Island City Community Boat Club. The organization has also fostered relationships with other organizations that have supported its efforts including Solar One, the Lower East Side Ecology Center and the NY Water Trail Association.

In addition to hosting events aimed at getting people into the water, including the occasional swim between Stuyvesant Cove and Coney Island, Urban Swim also does weekly testing of the water to determine its cleanliness. Fortunately, according to Draeger, most of the time, the water’s fine, at least for swimming and other activities.

“It’s definitely a lot cleaner than it has been,” she said, noting that the practice of dumping into rivers by many companies “has been curtailed.”

The only exception tends to be after heavy rainfalls, thanks to an antiquated sewer system. (At that time, the river can see what’s known as combined sewage overflow, which is extra storm water that can’t be treated fast enough by sewage plants.)

Draeger said Urban Swim tests at around 30 sites in Manhattan and then publishes its results.

“We’re very grassroots about it,” she said. “A bunch of us test in different locations.”

Urban Swim has been around since 2010, having gotten started after Draeger organized a swim for herself from Stuyvesant Cove Park to Steeple Chase in Coney Island, Brooklyn. When she did it again the following year and then the next, she invited others to join her and has since been organizing other events on the water.

If anyone thinks they can handle a similar swim, the next opportunity will be on August 10, when the group once again heads from Stuy Cove to Coney Island. Another swim, from the Statue of Liberty to One World Trade Center, is scheduled for September 14. There will also be another kayaking day at the Cove set for August 17. For more information about upcoming events, visit the “Urban Swim” Facebook page.