Nineteen intrepid marathon swimmers will test their mettle on the Hudson River, attempting in seven grueling days to swim between the eight bridges from the Rip Van Winkle Bridge in Catskill to Brooklyn’s Verrazano Narrows Bridge, approximately 120 miles of a rolling river swim. The swim is the brainchild of seasoned marathon swimmer Barra, 46, and his partner in this open-water adventure, Rondi Davies, who lives in the Chelsea near Beacon. The seven-day bridge-to-bridge swim will begin on July 8 and run through July 14, with an extreme-weather rain date scheduled for July 15.
Barra, who cuts and installs marble and granite with Barra & Trumbore Stone Fabricators, spends time swimming in every body of water near his home in Alligerville, which he shares with his wife and fellow open-water swimmer Claire Kelly-Barra.
It had long been Barra’s dream to swim the length of all eight bridges that span the Hudson. Growing up in Brooklyn. Barra said he spent a lot of time riding along the bike path underneath the Verrazano Bridge. “It’s such a familiar area to me, and such an enjoyable place to ride and one I was always impressed with [the Verrazano architecture). In a way, the eight-bridge dream is almost like swimming into my past, mile by mile.”
While working installing granite at a riverside home in West Camp a decade ago, Barra could step outside and see the majestic body of water from the Rip Van Winkle Bridge to the Kingston-Rhinecliff Bridge. “It was then that I first thought how cool it would be to swim the length between those two bridges,” he recalled.
The distance between the two spans was approximately 20 miles. “I thought, I could probably swim that with a little current to help me along,” he said. He learned that the distances between all eight bridges was anywhere from 15 to 20 miles. “I thought, if you could do one, why not do a couple of them? Hell, why not do them all?”
That audacious vision lay dormant in Barra’s brain until last year, when it was revived while he was training with Davies in the Hudson.
Swimming requires planning
“We’re able to train in the early part of summer or late spring before Minnewaska opens,” Barra explained. Barra has a special place in his heart for Minnewaska Lake in Minnewaska State Park. If distance swimmers pass a test administered by the park, they are allowed to swim a mile-long circuit of the dead lake, something open-water swimmers had to lobby the state for years to achieve. He also swims the Hudson when Minnewaska closes in the early fall.
One doesn’t simply jump into the Hudson and churn out miles. One has to keep an eye on the tidal changes and the weather patterns. One must arrange to have someone in a kayak provide protection against recreational boaters, jet skiers and barges, and be available in case one has difficulty swimming or the weather becomes dangerous.
“We also will pull buoys behind us if we do not have a kayaker,” Barra explained. “But swimming in the Hudson requires a little planning. You don’t want to ride a fast current for miles, then turn around and realize you are swimming against the tide and may never make it back! You need to have an idea of the ebb and flow to plan a swim that will be successful.”
Barra explains that while it’s called a “river,” the Hudson is really an “estuary,” meaning the currents flow both ways. The marathon swimmer explains that his research of the Hudson River as a swimmer has morphed into his becoming a real student of the Hudson. “The Hudson is much cleaner than it was,” he said. “There are still some problem areas, and we’ve learned about them through the incredible knowledge and passion of John Lipscomb.”
Lipscomb is the captain of the Riverkeeper boat. “He and his crew collect water samples and data along the Hudson River constantly,” said Barra, “and that data is put on their website -- www.riverkeeper.org – daily. It is very user-friendly.” The marathon swim will publicize and support Riverkeeper’s work. “They do such an incredible job, which is why we want to try and raise money through this event to help them continue to fund their monitoring efforts and their advocacy efforts,” Barra said.
Barra said the threats he and other open-water swimmers fear are in the rejuvenated river are hot spots that are noted on the website. Most pathogens come from raw sewage dumped into the Hudson and its tributaries from sewage treatment plants overwhelmed after heavy rains.
Committing himself and Davies to the 100-mile, bridge-to-bridge Hudson River swim was easy. The planning, organizing, safety and insurance aspects were the challenging part. Barra enlisted the Coney Island Brighton Beach Open Water Swimmers to co-sponsor the event and provide the insurance, as well as the USA Master Swimmer’s open-water marathon swimming sanction. He had to obtain Coast Guard permits. He had to ensure a support staff of kayakers, two zodiacs (inflatable boats), and New York State Bridge Authority cooperation to help with transport. Volunteers needed to be rounded up to provide boats for “feedings,” liquid feeds blended for each individual swimmer to include high-caloric, electrolyte-enriched cocktails as well as bananas or nuts.
According to USA Swimming Marathon swimming rules, Barra said, athletes “can stop swimming and just float, but cannot rest on a boat, hang onto a kayak, get any other support beyond a feed, which is given as they swim or scull in the water for a bit to take it in.”
Doing all seven stages
Lipscomb put Barra and Davies in contact with Greg Porteus, a retired New York State police officer who had single-handedly resuscitated a sunken police craft and restored it. That boat, now called “Launch 5,” is used for many Hudson River events, celebrations and whatever may take place along the Hudson that requires a large support boat.
“We have the Launch 5, which is an incredible support,” Barra said. “We also have kayakers who have agreed to sit on top of their crafts, not inside them, so that they have a good view of the swimmers. There is one kayak per swimmer, as well as other inflatable boats and the Launch 5, ensuring that each person is well monitored and taken care of.”
“My goal is to do all seven stages,” Barra says. “But honestly, I’m scared. It is beyond anything I’ve ever done, and as I’ve told all of the marathon swimmers who have pledged to do one stage or more, it will not be a failure if they can’t complete a stage. It’s 20 miles, with ebbs and tides and weather and things beyond our control.”
The $20,000 cost of putting this event together will come from contributions. Barra, Davies and their co-sponsors are hoping that people can support their efforts, not only to help cover the costs of the event and necessary security, but to contribute towards their designated beneficiaries: Riverkeeper, Launch 5 and the Coney Island swimming group. “All of these organizations are concerned and dedicated to making the entire length of the Hudson River a clean, sustainable and safe environment for all,” Barra said.
These open-water marathon swims are no stroll in the park. They can begin at night and end almost a day later in rough weather. They involve problems of tides, body-numbing coldness and hours of solitude. They require soul-challenging fortitude and conviction. Why does Barra do it?
“When you swim in open water, whether it’s the English Channel, the Hudson River, Minnewaska, the Catalina channel, it’s always a different day, a different feel, a different taste, a different weather pattern,” he replied. “It keeps it interesting. It could be foggy, rainy, bright, clear, muggy, choppy water, strong currents, things like dolphins or sharks bumping against you. There is nothing like starting off at night, with a glow stick on your swim cap and attached to your swim suit and heading off in unchartered waters, with a slight play of light on the water, knowing you’re swimming into sunrise.”
It’s that beauty and connection that has enticed Barra and Davies. What is found in each stroke and each ripple of the water is both motivating and humbling. The event is dedicated to something bigger than the tiny figures swimming between and beneath bridges.
To lend your support for this project, go to the website www.active.com, where “8 Bridges” has a contribution link. Or log onto www.8bridges.com to contribute, learn more, volunteer, view and support the swims. Or contact Barra at firstname.lastname@example.org.