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Monday, October 03, 2005

Swinburne Island

Swinburne Island is the smaller of two artificial islands located in the Lower New York Bay (the other being Hoffman Island) that were used to quarantine immigrants to the U.S. that were found to have been carrying contagious diseases upon arrival at Ellis Island. The island is of artificial origin, and was originally called Dix Island, but was renamed in honor of Dr. John Swinburne (May 30, 1820-April 4, 1889), a noted military surgeon during the American Civil War.

The island is about 1.75 miles out into the lower Hudson Bay from South Beach Staten Island. On Saturday - October 1, 2005, I swam to this island with my friends Sondra and Jason. Jason had agreed to this swim after I informed him that it would take less than one hour to do it and that the venture was perfectly legal. However, during the drive to the beach, Jason mentioned his surprise that what we were about to attempt wasn’t prohibited. Upon hearing this, Sondra quickly pointed out that what we intended to do was very much against the law and that you are not allowed to swim out past a set distance from shore. I think at this point Jason's committment for the adventure begain to waiver. I on the other hand couldn’t have cared less about its legality. As far as I was concerned, this is a free country and if I wanted to swim away from it, then it was entirely my prerogative to do so.

We were supposed to start the swim at 1:30pm, but unfortunately our kayaker escorts were delayed from the Downtown Boathouse by heavy winds blowing in from sea. Instead we started our swim around 2:30pm when the tide already started pushing towards shore.

Originally, I estimated that the swim would take approximately 45 minutes, providing we set out during slack tide. However, the current was well on its way in and we had to fight against the current and the wind for the entire swim. When I swam to Hoffman Island several weeks ago, it took me about 26 minutes to reach it. Swinburne sits almost directly in line with Hoffman and by 40 minutes I still hadn’t passed it. The first doubt as to whether this swim would be possible crossed my mind.

I was guided by a couple of kayakers, but primarily by a guardian angel named Diane. By keeping Diane a set distance to my right, I was able to simply concentrate on swimming. It would have been much more difficult to do this swim if I had to do it without a kayaker to navigate. The water had a lot of chop that came right into you, so sighting forward wasn’t easy. Since we were swimming directly away from shore, we didn’t have any landmarks except for Hoffman Island; and truthfully I didn’t want to look at Hoffman, because it seemed as though I would never pass it.

Every now and then I would pause to see how much distance to Swinburne remains. At times I felt like I was making progress, but at others it felt like I hadn’t moved an inch. I was beginning to wonder if I was making negative progress and if Sondra and Jason were still making the attempt. I was well ahead of them and I began to worry if the current wasn’t causing them to make negative progress. I know I was worried that I wasn’t moving, but Diane kept assuring me I was doing well.

During the course of the swim, I would on occasion concentrate on increasing the force and turnover of my stroke. These surges were born out of the frustration at not making any visible progress. It also helped break up the monotony of the slow pace and I was able to challenge myself to surge ahead of the kayakers.

I tried to limit the number of times I would look up towards the island. The apparent lack of progress was demoralizing and the unchanging view was not getting me to the island any sooner.

Eventually I was able to make out the individual rocks that formed the seawall around the island. After 1 hour of swimming, I found this encouraging and began another surge. Diane kept offering encouragement and told me I was doing great.

Finally the island was only 100 yards ahead. A couple of the kayakers with me went ahead to scout out a landing area. As I was swimming these final yards, you could see the ocean bottom starting to rise up. I was surprised, because I expected the water to be relatively deep until you came right up onto the island. I reached the rocks of the island at 1 hour and 18 minutes.

The tide had come in enough, so that no beach was visible. I climbed out of the water over the rocks and quickly grabbed something to eat and drink. We landed on a bunch of rocks that formed a small finger out into the water. The kayakers floated around while we discussed how best to secure the boats while we went exploring. Eventually we decided to haul the kayaks up onto the rocks so they were out of the water completely. Fortunately, I didn’t feel tired at all and I was able to help them bring all of the boats ashore.

The kayaker crew and I sat around the rocks having snacks and drinking various beverages. Diane provided me with some beef jerky that was very tasty after all of the salt water I swallowed for the past hour. I snapped a few pictures of the island and the views from it, while we waited for Sondra and Jason to arrive. I wanted to wait to go exploring until everyone came ashore.

Sondra, Jason and their kayak escorts arrived about 45 minutes from the time I came ashore. I was afraid of what Jason might say, as I knew my original calculation of 45 minutes was well off what he envisioned. Jason was a bit speechless after he arrived and I couldn’t help laughing over the thoughts that must have been going through his mind. Sondra I knew would be content with arriving and really wouldn’t have cared how long it would take.

After everyone was safely ashore, warmed up and fed, we began our exploration. The island has the remains of several buildings that appeared to be used as small barracks or hospital wards. The place also had a very rich smell of seagull guano. It was all over the rocks and when the breeze died down you could smell it quite profusely.

We found Heron nests scattered about in the trees, wild vegetation, a few trees and lots of scrub brush. It appeared that there were blueberries growing from several bushes, but Diane advised me against eating them.

After a short while, Tim the lead kayaker called us to cease our exploration as it was time to head back. It was after 5pm in the evening and we had to pack everything, launch the boats and get the swimmers back to Staten Island. The kayak crew still had to get to the downtown boathouse up the Hudson River.

The swim back was quick. Soon after I started swimming, I could already see Hoffman Island. The current was really pushing and I made it back to shore in 45 minutes. We didn’t delay on the shore as it was really starting to get dark and we were getting cold once we got to shore. We said our goodbyes and waved to our kayaking friends as they set sail for home under the Verrazano Bridge.

You can see all of the photos from the adventure by clicking here:


Blogger Brooklyn said...

That was a sick swim! Good job! Great pics, too.

1:25 AM  

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