On a recent Thursday, 69-year-old Ira Gershenhorn, a self-proclaimed “bad swimmer” biked down from his Upper West Side apartment, strapped on his diving cap and swim goggles, and gently waded into the Hudson River, where he’s been swimming regularly since about 2015.
“Most people think that you can’t swim here, but you totally can. In fact, the water has never been cleaner.”
Gershenhorn is part of a loosely knit group of West Siders who enjoy, when the weather warms up, freely frolicking in the Hudson.
His favorite access point is by Cherry Walk in Riverside Park, where he walks down a concrete covered waste-water pipe into the water. However, there are at least a dozen other access points, some of which involve hopping a fence.
A true master swimmer can even travel with the tide, swimming uptown or downtown, depending on the direction the tide.
A software engineer by day, Gershenhorn carefully monitors the “slack” (tide), the temperature of the water, and the pollution levels. He says the official measurements are often skewed because of bad samples.
The Department of Environmental Conservation of New York State takes regular measurements of enterococci, a type of fecal bacteria, and says that the level in the Hudson River now make it generally safe to swim. These measurements sometimes fluctuate. Gershenhorn says these measurements can often be incorrect if there’s a “flock of geese” nearby pooping around the area where they take the sample.
Shaking its Reputation
These pollution measurements can also change is there’s heavy rain and untreated wastewater overflows into the River. The best days to swim are dry days where it hasn’t rained for days, when the outside air temperature is above 70 degrees.
Despite the water being much clearer, the Hudson River still has a hard time shaking its reputation as a heavily polluted waterway unsuitable for swimming. For decades, commercial industries dumped pollutants like dyes, solvents, metals, oil directly into the river. The river was also chalk full of random debris like wooden pallets, shopping carts, and the occasional body.
Environmental activism and passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972 led to far stricter regulations and a cleanup of the river.
Gershenhorn says he’s glad the water quality has improved, but is frustrated at how slowly public perception has evolved, despite evidence showing that the water is now safe to swim in. He jokes that the only problem with the lack of floating debris is that it makes it more for him to determine which direction the tide is going in before he enters the water.
You don’t need a ton of supplies, but Gershenhorn wears booties, a swimming cap, a wet-suit, and fins. He sometimes listens to his mp3 player, and he always uses a floating buoy for visibility. “If you’re using of these buoys people don’t think you’re as crazy. Well maybe they do,” he jokes.
The idea of swimming in New York’s public waterways was lampooned in Seinfeld when Kramer, who finds himself crowded out at a neighborhood pool, decides to hop in the East River, telling Jerry: “I’ve just found myself miles and miles of open lanes.”
Gershenhorn first sought these open lanes himself, when he tried swimming in the Hudson River years ago, at the beach in Fort Washington Park. Since then, he’s also swam the Harlem River and the East River.
Does the Hudson River have its dangers? Sure, there’s a reason you don’t see too many other swimmers. People occasionally drown, or are struck by boats by random debris, but this is extremely rare. And despite the river cleanup many people still think it’s too polluted.
However, the river is now cleaner than ever. In fact, every year thousands of participants complete the “swim portion” of the New York City Triathlon in the Hudson River.
When I asked friends and family if they’d consider swimming the answer was a firm “no way.” Even Ira Greenhorn concedes this his wife insists he shower off when he gets home.