A middle-aged duo recently pondered the finer points of their upcoming swim around Manhattan. Among other difficulties, they wouldn't have the water to themselves.
“You have to get in in that window before the Staten Island ferry pulls out,” Sil Bracaglia explained. “No boat traffic stops for us. Not the Staten Island ferry, not the Circle Line, not the little yellow guys.”
Bracaglia and Melissa Kretschmer were on a scouting mission ahead of the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim, which circumnavigates the oldest New York City borough on June 18. Bracaglia narrated the counterclockwise route as casually if it were a shortcut to JFK.
Departing from Battery Park City, the swim is timed to begin with an eastward sprint against the current. After the U-turn around lower Manhattan, the swimmers fix on the Wall Street heliport, and the tides work their magic. “Once you make that turn into the East River, you can take a breather,” he said.
Bracaglia, 59, and his relay partner, Kretschmer, a mixed-media artist, will be joining a few dozen other masochists for the event.
As for the question everyone asks: The water is cleaner than you might think — or at least cleaner than it used to be. Still, even event organizer NYC Swim recommends an up-to-date tetanus shot and maybe a hepatitis A vaccine.
Small, sinewy, and in a period of career transition, Bracaglia calls himself an “adult-onset swimmer.” He and Kretschmer buddied up for the Manhattan swim after meeting through the Coney Island Brighton Beach Open Water Swimmers. Off south Brooklyn, Kretschmer said, the harmless jellyfish can float in packs so thick it “feels like you’re swimming through gravel.”
Kretschmer’s indoctrination came in 2007, around her 45th birthday, when she crossed the Hudson, at Beacon, New York, and decided “this is what I’m going to do to celebrate getting older.”
Off Brighton Beach she joined winter excursions when the hearty few sandwich their dips between stints in a “warming van” with the engine revving. Kretschmer, who has a swoop of short blonde hair and an unpretentious manner, called the swimmers’ camaraderie “the complete antithesis of the art world.”
Alternating two-hour shifts, they’d like to finish the 28.5-mile course in around eight hours and twenty minutes, which they say isn’t particularly fast. A flotilla of motor boats and kayaks accompany the swimmers, most of whom are soloists.
The team’s chosen kayaker will toss them “feeding lines” tethered to bottles of high-caloric nonsolids. Bracaglia produced a silvery packet of “jet blackberry”-flavored gel, brand name Gu. “Everyone has to replace calories,” he said. “How they do it, that’s the stuff that blog posts are made of.” He prefers lukewarm tea loaded with honey. The exact temperature depends on the water. “Anything more than a seventeen-degree difference will scald you.”
Bracaglia expects to be in the water for the loop’s most notorious stretch, beginning around Mill Rock, an unpopulated island between 95th Street and Astoria where the Harlem and East rivers meet the Hell Gate tributary. The triple confluence can churn up a Charybdis right off the Upper East Side. “The Dutch and British lost a lot of ships there,” Bracaglia said.
Then it’s the eight-mile slog up the Harlem, stagnant as the tub, before the long straightaway of riding currents and dodging cruise ships on the Hudson. “If you go too far, you’re going to be pulled all the way over to Jersey,” Kretschmer said.
Kretschmer had just returned from supporting a friend who was swimming around Tampa Bay, a 24-miler that’s another of the premier open-water events. Swimmers get bored in the warm Gulf waters. “There’s nothing to look at,” she said. That’s not a concern in New York. Under the Brooklyn Bridge, Bracaglia said, “you have to do the backstroke to take it all in.”