LET’S face it, at the end of the day a trip to New York is all about bragging to your mates in the pub when you get home. Empire State Building? Tick. Central Park? Tick. Fifth Avenue? Tick. Swam round the Statue of Liberty? Whoa, hold on there buddy. What’s that? Yes it’s true. Once a year you can see the Big Apple from a very soggy perspective by swimming 1.2km around the Statue of Liberty. All you have to do is log on at NYC Swim, pay a registration fee of $130 and prove you can cover 1500m in 35 minutes or less - someone at your local pool can vouch for you - and then come mid August, off you go.
It all seemed like a great idea when I signed up, and persuaded my Brooklyn-based buddy Erika to come along too. But as the day dawned nerves were starting to take hold.
Sure I can swim, and have done so in open water before, but everyone’s jokes about front crawling in the murky waters of the Hudson River (if I had a dollar for every “keep your mouth tight shut” comment or “look out for the bodies”) started to wear thin pretty quickly.
On a calm summer afternoon the ferry over to the island was packed with tourists, the ones who preferred dry land. But at 6.15pm they were cleared away and sent back to Manhattan, leaving only us swimmers and our supporters to gaze up at Lady Liberty. My anxieties were now doing laps in my brain quicker than Rebecca Adlington covers a width in a paddling pool. It troubled me that this was officially a race, rather than a gentle lap around the bay. After all Americans are a competitive race – second is first loser, as they like to say. But what about the plucky Brit, just giving it his best shot? No time to think about that. We were lined up and then the queue was moving forward, towards a pontoon, where we were given an encouraging push and, splash, there I was in the Hudson River. This was happening.
The biggest shock was that it wasn’t cold. In fact it was quite refreshing on a hot August evening. Around me flailing arms were a reminder to push forward. We were off.
The lap was counter clockwise, which seemed to favour the current. Every so often I’d stop and look up at the Manhattan skyline away in the distance. How many people ever get to see America’s biggest city from this perspective? I paused, took it all in, then head down, kick, kick, kick, nice high arm, down, pull through and onwards.
All went well till the last few yards, when the current changed. Suddenly it was like swimming against a jet of water. Ten minutes to cover less than 50 meters, but the steps were in sight. I seemed to be going nowhere. Near me, one of the kayaking support team pulled out an exhausted swimmer. I battled on. Legs drained. Arms so weary. But then, in just over 45 minutes, I was there, clambering the steps, hugging Erika, high-fiving random strangers under the glow of the Statue of Liberty’s lamp and dreaming of the many, many celebratory beers that would soon be mine.
Will Hide is a London-based travel writer who spent 12 years on the travel desk of the Times before turning freelance. He still writes regularly for the Times as well as the FT, Telegraph and numerous magazines. You can follow his travels at Been There, Done It.