Hoards of media and curious individuals waited on bridges along the Gowanus Canal to see a clean-water activist swim its polluted length on Wednesday afternoon.
Christopher Swain, who has taken similar swims through other, somewhat less toxic, bodies of water, jumped in (eventually) to the Superfund site to call for an accelerated cleanup of the canal. And while neighbors standing in the sunshine debated the dangers of such a dive with police helicopters hovering overhead, Community Board 6 district manager Craig Hammerman told us he’d been in contact with the NYPD on Tuesday night, and both parties expressed concern for the danger Swain could end up exposing others to.
“It’s one thing to put yourself in harm’s way, it’s another to do so to responders who may need to save you should something go wrong,” Hammerman said, noting that while a call for more attention to the canal is great, it may not be necessary, as there are already steps being taken to remediate issues at the toxic waterway.
Still, Swain worked out the details with the police, and despite logistical delays — there were issues with where he’d enter and exit the canal — he eventually got in the water.
An officer on the 3rd Street Bridge was less worried about the swimmer — “he’s crazy, but he’s supposedly protected” — and more to deal with as gawkers darted from side to side through car traffic.
People checked reports from Twitter and friends stationed at bridges closer to the starting point, but the crowd thinned as folks got restless.
“I don’t know what’s going on here,” one woman complained. “He’s not a punctual man.”
A member of Swain’s team explained that though the NYPD had been very cooperative, the property owner of the planned entry point had second thoughts this morning about liability concerns, so they moved to Degraw.
“We were told he could get out, but now we’re told he can’t,” she said. “Wildlife can get in and get out without getting arrested, so…” She explained they also had some concerns about the weather, with the predicted rain causing problems — rain means raw sewage seeping into the canal.
About an hour and a half after his expected dive time, he finally jumped into the Gowanus, which is known to host a variety of cancer-causing chemicals, bacteria, sewage, and even gonorrhea. The crowd began to get excited again.
“Has he been eaten by mutant fish yet?” a police officer quipped.
Swain, swimming a brisk breaststroke in a bright yellow safety suit and a swim cap — but with his face exposed to the water — came through the canal to cheers at each bridge. Workers at the Lightstone project paused their construction to peer over the edge of the structure and snap photos, and two boats — one from his team, and one from Harbor Patrol — floated alongside him.
“Thank you for waiting!” Swain shouted as he swam past.
Rounding the corner near the Whole Foods, he discussed his exit strategy with his boat, before standing up on the shore near the supermarket, pausing to gargle with hydrogen peroxide.
“This dude is officially nuts,” said a teen watching from the shore.
The swimmer hauled the boat up and began taking some questions, explaining his reasons for making the dangerous dunk.
“I patiently waited — I want to swim in clean water,” he said. “It’s time we accelerate this cleanup.”
Describing the water, Swain said it was “a little milky,” and despite all the other difficulties of the swim — which was not the complete trip along the length of canal he had planned — Swain said he hopes to do it again, when the weather cooperates, and concerns about heath and safety are resolved.
“We deserve a Gowanus canal that’s a jewel,” he said.
If you’re interested in getting more involved with the Gowanus Canal and its cleanup, consider working with the Gowanus Canal Community Advisory Group, which accepts organizational and members-at-large from the community; their next meeting is Tuesday, April 28 at 6:30pm at Mary Star of The Sea Senior Apartments, 41 1st Street. Or look into the Gowanus Canal Conservancy, our local non-profit that’s working on making the Gowanus watershed a clean and healthy environment.