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‘I feel like a kid’: Open water swimmers traverse the Brooklyn waterfront

people at open water swin in east river
Urban Swim holds its .8-mile Brooklyn Bridge swim from Brooklyn Bridge Park to Pebble Beach Cove on Saturday, July 30, 2022. The group hosts several open water swims around New York Harbor to raise awareness of water accessibility and water health in the city.
Photo by Paul Frangipane

One by one swimmers hopped from motor boats into the East River, popping their heads up and assessing the chop below the Lower Manhattan skyline. 

The group gathering in the water between piers 2 and 3 at Brooklyn Bridge Park were taking part in a .8-mile open water swim to Pebble Beach Cove organized by the group Urban Swim. The group hosts several open water swims around New York Harbor to raise awareness of water accessibility and water health in the city.

woman diving off boat at open swim
Swimmers prepare to jump into the East River to swim .8 miles from Brooklyn Bridge Park to Pebble Beach Cove on Saturday, July 30. The group, Urban Swim hosted the Brooklyn Bridge swim.Paul Frangipane

“There was one bit where I just had to stop and look back when I had an unadulterated view from the water of the Statue of Liberty, with nothing in front, and I was in the water swimming,” said Graham Buckle, 59.

Buckle, a Westminster resident, referred to himself as a “serial swimmer,” with experience from 14K swims to relays in Lake Geneva and the English Channel. Being in New York for over a month he was able to check off his first dive into New York Harbor with the Saturday, July 30 swim.

“On one level it’s really crackers, it’s a bit difficult to get your head around,” he said, laughing to himself. “For us to be able to do that today I think is a really really important statement about the use of water.”

brooklyn east river open water swim
Swimmers celebrate as they finish a .8-mile open water swim in the East River on Saturday, July 30, 2022.Photo by Paul Frangipane

For Deanne Draeger, founder of Urban Swim, that sentiment is the basis of each swim they host. Growing up, she couldn’t imagine diving into the harbor but her perspective changed after swimming 17 miles from Manhattan to Coney Island in 2010, marking the inception of Urban Swim.

“If people start to become aware of the water in and around their city, they’ll become more aware of the cleanliness and the importance of keeping it clean … how and what they can do to make it cleaner so they can make it more available,” Draeger said.

New York Harbor is the cleanest it’s been since the 19th century, according to the city Department of Environment Protection. And while climate change brings on heavier storms and increasing populations threaten more sewage in the city’s waterways, many sections of the harbor are often clean enough to swim in.

peolpe on a boat during open water swim
‘I feel like a kid at the end of a Disneyland ride where I want to do it again’: Swimmers celebrate the end of the .8 mile trek on Saturday. Photo by Paul Frangipane

The 10 participants swam into the current, letting it push them towards the Brooklyn Bridge with a personal kayak escort to their right protecting them from being swept under the piers. 

Urban Swim tested its first Brooklyn Bridge swim last year as swimmers inquired about shorter distanced events.

“That was sort of the genesis of it,” Draeger said. “Just people saying it would be great to have a shorter swim and then looking into it and thinking, just wouldn’t it be amazingly cool if we could all swim under the Brooklyn Bridge.”

open water swim
Graham Buckle experiences his first moments swimming in the East River before starting a .8-mile swim past the Brooklyn Bridge. Photo by Paul Frangipane

As a distance swimmer, Jenn Leyva, 31, left the water jubilant but wanting more. 

“I feel like a kid at the end of a Disneyland ride where I want to do it again … it’s always such a joyful experience,” the Brooklyn Heights resident said.

urban swim east river swim
Nargus Harounzadeh experiences her first moments swimming in the East River as Jenn Leyva prepares to jump into the East River behind her. Paul Frangipane

The swimmers shared that joy together as they floated in pebble beach cove, cheering themselves on after a successful swim as land-locked bystanders photographed and filmed the scene.

“Its a city of 8 million people defined by water. But so few people actually spend time in the water,” Leyva said. “Maybe you go over the water on a train but to actually be a part of it and to experience it is so rare.”

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