Orin McCluskey's Swim Journal
Manhattan Island Swim Journal - 1999-08-10
Crew: Schellie Archbold, Mary Wolf
Official Observer: Evan Stewart
Kayaker: Richard Clifford
Boat Captain: Earl Sandric
6:15 a.m. Leave North Cove Yacht Basin on board my support boat My Jo., well-appointed, clean boat,
33ft, and a head that looks like a real bathroom. Nice work, Marcia [Cleveland, the swim organizer].
Schellie greases me lightly with a mixture that is one part lanolin and three parts Vaseline. I wear surgical
gloves while this is happening, so nothing will get on my hands. All I need is a great finger smudge of
lanolin on my goggles.
6:25 a.m. Emerge on deck and - it's cold. Overcast and with a slight wind, it is windbreaker weather. What
happened to 90°F? Was it a mistake not to put on more grease? I can see Cedric stretching on his boat;
he does not look cold. I put a towel over my shoulders and do a few desultory stretches.
6:45 a.m. The boats have taken us to Battery Park, and we await our kayakers, who approach together
from the north - they are absolutely alone on the Hudson, and look dignified gliding toward us. The very
city seems asleep. Well, asleep except for the Fox Channel 5 chopper that hovers way above us. I forget
to say the prayers I meant to say, since there is non-stop bantering on board, but I feel calm and
confident. I flip down my goggles.
6:50 a.m. Marcia does the countdown, blows her whistle, and I prepare to jump. I brace myself for the
cold and - the water is warm [it would get to 78°F]. It's like jumping into bed in a cold room. Cedric and I
do a high-five handshake and start swimming. I am one happy fella.
Big thrill rounding the tip of Manhattan, and a bigger one going under the Brooklyn Bridge, the first bridge in
a river of bridges [we would go under 19 bridges]. Avoided the Staten Island Ferry, so Marcia timed that
I had made the decision not to bi-lateral breathe, but to breathe only on my left side because 1) there is a
greater risk of swallowing water on my "unnatural" side, and 2) moving my head from side to side
aggravates my greatest fear and nemesis: motion sickness. Yes, swimmers do get seasick. I know that if I
rolled my hips and body more I would not get as dizzy - but it is too late now to learn how to swim
properly. You go with what you got. I am fully aware that the risk for me of left-side only breathing is
serious pain in the left shoulder from favoring it.
I sense (correctly, as it turns out) that this may be my last opportunity to think about the people for
whom I am swimming. So I think about my mother --- good, kind, fair woman --- sister, Berko's mom, and
the others. And count my blessings.
7:50 a.m. First feeding. 1 Gu [a liquid jell full of calories] 1 cup sweetened warm water. Just past
Williamsburg Bridge, which is much better than I anticipated. Am feeding off Richard's kayak rather than
the support boat (Richard shuttles back and forth). This makes sense as I can have quiet words with
Richard as opposed to shouting at the support boat, and Richard is the tactician and navigator. A swimmer
cannot leave the water or hang on to a boat during feedings, so I try floating on my back as I drink,
hoping that I will continue to drift with the current.
8:10 a.m. Approaching Roosevelt Island. Richard clearly has found the fastest current, setting a line on the
southern tip of Roosevelt Island instead of closer to Manhattan, as I had suggested (fortunately I had left
Richard completely in charge with no second-guessing). We begin to close quickly on Cedric, who had been
300 yards ahead of me, but chooses a course closer to shore. I can hear the Fox Channel 5 chopper
coming quite low (I had instructed my crew: looka busy). Sun begins to break through the clouds. This is
going to be a great day!
8:25 a.m. Hell Gate (or Hell's Gate), just past Roosevelt Island, where the East River and the Harlem River
converge. Cedric and his crew are amazed when I catch him and look ready to pass; unfortunately the
current then equalizes and my luck runs out. This is the last time I will see Cedric.
Suddenly things begin to go wrong. First comes the nausea. How can this happen? I have swallowed hardly
any water. Should I have followed Mike Ross's regimen of eating nothing for breakfast? Then the
headache. God! My temples and eyes are throbbing. I decide to take out one soft contact lens at the next
feeding, which may reduce pressure on my eyes. (I imagine myself saying to Richard: "If I have to take out
the other one, you will have your first blind swimmer to take around Manhattan"). I know I will have a
goggles change after two hours, which should reduce pressure on my nose (different types of goggles
have different pressure points).
Richard has kept me close to the shore (near Gracie Mansion) so there is nothing seriously difficult about
Hell Gate. But then the current drops and we seem to crawl to the green Ward's Island Footbridge, which
had looked a hop, skip, and a jump away. It seems to get no closer. I am dying to stop.
8:52 a.m. Second Feeding, Ward's Island Footbridge. Sweetened water only. I make two decisions, which
turn out to be crucial. First, I switch from a tighter fitting latex cap to a looser silicone cap. Even
incremental relief is now critical.
The second decision is to change the feeding interval from one hour to forty-five minutes. I realize how
much I looked forward to this stop when I began to feel ill, and that the game now is just to get from stop
I consider taking two Dramamine and two "little green pills" (double-strength Motrin), but decide that
swallowing them would just make me throw up. Same with Gu. I get the water down, and switch goggles.
Richard is trying to be poker-faced, but I can see his concern: "Now your stroke count has fallen off a bit,
and you have to try to pick it up a little." I can read his thoughts: he may not make it. I look toward the
boat, but cannot muster a smile. Do they realize what is going on? I hope they are oblivious, but it sure
seems quiet up there. "This will be a long, boring stretch," says Richard, as he nudges me to get going,
"but we have the half-way point to look forward to at Roberto Clemente State Park." Half-way point!
9:05 a.m. Swimming again. This is the dark night of the soul, although starting I am dimly aware that the
rest has done me some good. I have forgotten about the contact lens. The scenery is awful - Manhattan
Psychiatric Center (where I should be) on your right, East River Projects on your left. Etc.
I begin a series of debates and ruminations. How could I feel this bad after only two hours? I have seven
hours to go. I have done plenty of two-hour swims - what did I do wrong? Should I throw up now or wait?
I review my training and recall how I plateaued in May, unable to get beyond a 1:30 pace consistently [1
minute 30 seconds per 100 yards] while Cedric and the other marathon swimmers kept moving down the
ladder. At the end I was doing 40,000 yards a week, but since I was not swimming consistently against
the clock how much of it was "junk yardage"? Or did I over-train and wear myself out?
For the first time I consider the psychology of quitting. I can feel the luxurious calm that comes from even
thinking of giving up. You can call this a good effort training swim, and really go for it next year, I think,
even as I know I would never go for it next year. I am creeping into a warm cocoon.
But I am outside of my body now, watching myself spin through the emotions of failure. I never actively
consider quitting, but I wonder if it is because of my inner determination or because I told everyone in the
world I was swimming around Manhattan. Does it matter?
Slowly, the debate resolves itself. No, Orin, considering your age, make-up, and ability, you did everything
you could in training. And then, You are still strong, you do not have hypothermia, you have no shoulder
pain. And finally, Your biggest problem is that you imagined this exhilarating swim ending gloriously, and
now your dream is in ashes. You are on a plane. You feel sick. You can't get off the plane. It is going to be
one long day. Deal with it.
I wonder if I will ever pass under another bridge again, and suddenly [at 9:50 a.m.] I am under the
Triborough. This is somehow reassuring. I remember one of my prayers: "But you, who rule the power of
the sea and calm the surging waves, arise and help me." And then another: "O Lord, give your strength to
your servant, and save your handmaid's son." Like the psalmist, I cry out for help, beleaguered.
My headache is receding. Then Richard flashes me 10 minutes to the next feeding. I look forward to this
like a kid going to a birthday party.
10:02 a.m. Third feeding at Willis Avenue Bridge . 1 cup sweetened warm water 1 Gu. The Gu goes down
OK, and I feel stable enough to ask for the two Dramamine and the little green pills. There is some
scurrying around in the boat - it turns out that I gave away all the Dramamine to everyone in the boat,
telling them: "It can't hurt." Except that Mary - bless her - has kept one in her pocket, which Richard
fetches for me.
Then Richard says: "Your stroke count is up to 65. You're on an 8:20 pace [8 hours 20 minutes to finish]
and we should be reaching Roberto Clemente State Park soon." [There is an honorable tradition of little
white lies in marathon swimming].This picks me up because even mentioning a finish time assumes that
someone is going to finish. 65 strokes a minute!
I even try a little rah-rah. "Tell everyone I want them to start acting like proper Latinos [my three
Episcopalians] - I want more singing, more dancing, more noise!" "Gotcha," says Richard.
10:10 a.m. Off I go. No more nausea. Suddenly I am cranking. Bridges flow by. The Third Avenue Bridge.
The Madison Avenue Bridge. The Macombs Dam Bridge. The crumbling industrial sites look "quaint". I see
Huck Finn sitting on the rocks, watching me. The water is dead calm, and I can feel myself slicing through
it. Visions of finishing dance in my head. Richard's poker face is playing with a grin.
11:00 a.m. Fourth Feeding near Washington Heights Bridge. 1 cup sweetened warm water. Richard says:
"There are three bridges left in the Harlem River," and points out a landmark at Spuyten Duyvil. In the
distance I can see where the river makes a sharp left turn towards the Hudson. I try a little sexist humor:
"Tell the boat I will give $10 to the first girl who dances naked on the bow." Richard's face brightens. "OH,
WE'VE GOT A WAGER." There is lots of hooraying on the boat, lots of noise. Mary yells, "You better look
good, Orin, you're going to be on television in twenty minutes!"
11:05 a.m. Off I go. Now the bridges fly by. The University Heights Bridge; The Broadway Bridge; The
Henry Hudson Bridge. The river temperature is like zebra stripes: warm, cold - very cold! - Warm, cold.
Now, all this fascinates me. Right on cue, I hear the Channel Two helicopter coming in close. I do my best
Don Schollander imitation.
Before I know it, Richard is holding up a water bottle, signaling a feeding. I look up. The Spuyten Duyvil
Railroad Bridge is in front of me, and beyond it I can see the Hudson. "Oh, my God," I say. I want to linger
awhile, savor the moment, but Richard says, "Time we got you swimming, get you into the Hudson." The
12:00 noon. Fifth Feeding at Spuyten Duyvil. 1 cup cold water 1 Gu.
12:05 p.m. Swimming again. Richard and I enter the Hudson alone: the railroad bridge has closed, and our
boat is held on the other side. It will be fifteen minutes before we join up again. Richard initially keeps me
close to the shore. It is so bucolic up here; we could be in Rhinebeck or Catskill. There is very little current
at this point in the Hudson.
It is then that the pain hits my shoulder. But it is not, as I anticipated, in the left (breathing side)
shoulder, but the right shoulder. What is going on here? I have never, ever, had a pain in my right
shoulder. What I have done is exaggerate the pull on the right side to protect the left, and have now worn
out a previously under-used set of muscles.
This time, however, there is no depression. First, the pain is localized and specific: it is pain with a name
on it. I recall reading in Marcia's journal how she had excruciating pain in her shoulder for the last third of
her swim around Manhattan. Second, I am in the Hudson. Hell - get to the George Washington Bridge, and
you can float home.
I consider doing the left-arm only drill, as I am having trouble lifting my right arm. Finally, I settle on
focusing entirely on my left-side technique - stretch your arm, glide, reach for the wall, stroke! - and get
my right arm around as best I can. In this manner I make slow progress to the George Washington Bridge.
Under the bridge I swim a few strokes of backstroke to get a better feel for the moment. My last bridge.
12:50 p.m. Sixth Feeding Just past GW Bridge. 1 banana 1 cup cold water. The banana is the best thing I
have ever tasted. Richard gives me two little green pills, and cautions me against taking alcohol. Evan is
telling me how well I am doing, and I can hear him clearly. Mary and Schellie lift up their shirts. On their
stomachs is written HOO RAY ORIN (we gave our grease board to Cedric, who left his at home, so they
have to write on their stomachs). I make a note to myself how resourceful my crew is. I think Schellie is
topless. Earl and Jerry [the boat captain and mate] are delirious.
I set off, in good spirits, into an unexpectedly large chop. We have been accompanied by a police boat for
most of the swim, but for some reason this is the first time I have noticed it. Like any New Yorker, I think I
am about to be arrested. The wind is blowing the waves right into my face, but Richard is pushing me
further into the center of the river. My one-sided stroke is getting sloppy (I have found the best thing to
do with my right arm is slap it into the wave), and I am swallowing some serious water.
I daydream. Many years ago at a press conference[Governor] Hugh Carey was saying how clean the
Hudson was, and was challenged by a reporter who said it was full of PCBs. Carey said he would drink a
glass of Hudson River water at the contamination site to show how harmless PCBs were (he didn't). I
decide to call Carey to tell him I drank the glass of water and won the bet for him.
1:40 p.m. Seventh Feeding, North of 79th Street Boat Basin. 1 Gu 1 Cup cold water 1 banana. Richard
says "There is a 2.6- knot current closer to shore [where it is calmer], and a 5.2 -knot current in the
center of the river. As rough as it gets, keep in mind you are swimming home on a five-knot current." He
adds, with some relish, "We are going to have to earn this swim!" Yeah right what have we been having
here a picnic?
Off I go. Evan, Mary, and Schellie are all up in the crow's nest with Earl and Jerry. The greenies are
beginning to help the pain in my right shoulder, although I am having difficulty lifting my arm above the
wave. No more daydreaming, or you are going to be drinking PCBs on the bottom of the Hudson. I can see
how rough it is by watching the bow of Richard's kayak being lifted way up in the air, and then slammed
down. He is getting as wet as I am. He is earning it.
2:05 p.m. Eighth Feeding, just below the Empire State Building. 1cup cold water ½ banana. The feedings
are getting difficult, and Richard decides that this will be the last. "You're looking great, let's finish strong,"
he says. Schellie and Mary now have "GO ORIN GO" written on their stomachs ( as there is no grease
board). What a crew.
Off I go. It is an incredible feeling being alone in the middle of a vast river (well, Cedric is out there
somewhere) with the skyline and the harbor in the distance. The police boat begins to cut in on a beeline
with the Vista Hotel, and we follow. I have affected a kind of slapping stroke to adapt to the chop. At the
Vista, we begin the famous "trip along the wall" that will bring us home.
The "wall" goes on and on (actually it is a series of walls). Suddenly Richard is frantically waving me away,
and a moment later his kayak is riding up the side of a huge yellow buoy, which has blind-sided him (we are
really moving). He has thrown the boat in front of the buoy so I will not hit it, and I am just able to veer
off. [Later Richard will say, "I knew we were in trouble when I saw the two policemen in the policeboat sit
I pass the North Cove Yacht Basin, and still there are more walls. Like the man in the cartoon crawling in
the desert, I am sure each wall is Battery Park, and then - another wall. I try to remember the tune to
"Chariots of Fire". Richard is saying something to me, and slapping his paddle. I look up, thinking there is
another buoy. "You did it," he says. Everyone in the boat is cheering.
As I approach the boat, I see I am going to have to scoot up one of those ladders that never go far
enough into the water - where you have to lean way back to get your foot to the bottom rung, and then
somehow haul yourself up. Swimmers can totally cramp up here, and are left flailing in the water. But,
thankfully, my legs stay firm as I haul myself up. I swing one leg over the side of the boat. Some of my
mother's determination must have rubbed off on me.
Time Elapsed: 8 Hours 45 Minutes 56 Seconds.
The Swim Around Manhattan