Davis Lee is taking his family to New York City this weekend. You might think their to-do list includes the Empire State Building, Statue of Liberty, Times Square, maybe a Broadway show.
No. He’s swimming around the island of Manhattan. That’s into the Hudson, counterclockwise up the East River, veer left into the Harlem River and back down the Hudson. He figures it will take him around eight hours to complete the 28.5 miles.
Lee, 36, is attempting to be the 50th person on record to complete what the U.S. swimming community calls the ‘Triple Crown’: Swimming the English Channel, Catalina Island-to-San Pedro, Calif., and around the island of Manhattan.
He did the first two, and oh, the stories he has. On Saturday, he’ll be one of three swimmers in the field of 73 attempting to complete the Triple Crown. The Manhattan Island Marathon is an actual event, in its 30th year, with prizes to the fastest male and female, fastest pair, etc …
But Lee isn’t there to win anything. “I’m there to complete, not so much compete,” Lee said.
“His goal is to finish and get the Triple Crown and move on to another event,” said Andrew Soracco, his coach of three years, who trains swimmers and triathletes. “Davis’ greatest strength is his mind. Things that would freak people out just don’t bother him. His positive attitude gets him everywhere he goes.”
There is logic and timing that go with circumnavigating Manhattan. And Lee, with a doctorate in physics from MIT, a master’s degree from Johns Hopkins and an undergraduate degree from the University of Mary Washington, has been diligent in mapping the course.
“It may be the easiest of the three, but it’s nothing to scoff at,” he explained. “You have to be prepared physically. You have to know what the tides and currents are. There is weather to contend with, traffic, pollution, wildlife.”
It is more difficult than running a marathon. This is roughly eight hours of using every muscle in the body.
“But by all counts, it’s a pretty fun endeavor,” he added. “A lot of people do this every year. It is considered the premier open water swimming event.”
Remember that Seinfeld episode when Kramer joins a swimming group in the East River? They’re for real. It’s a society.
The Manhattan Island Marathon begins Saturday at 10:20 a.m. at South Cove in Battery Park when, if timed right, the current from the Hudson River feeds into the East River.
The current continues to be favorable the further north swimmers go as the Long Island Sound draws from the merging of the East River and Harlem River. “The distance is longer than anything I’ve done, but much of it is assisted by currents,” Lee said. “It effectively makes it more manageable.”
After turning northwest along the Harlem River, Lee reenters the Hudson, which flows south, back to Battery Park.
Having done the English Channel (September, 2010) and Catalina Island (July, 2011), there is little that could catch Lee by surprise. When he did the Channel, measured straight at 21.6 miles, currents forced him into a reverse ‘S’ pattern which made him go 31.6 miles over 12 hours and 41 minutes.
He was less than a mile from the French coast – a distance which would’ve taken him 20 minutes – but a change in currents pushed him slightly west, adding another three miles and 1.5 hours.
Catalina was going smooth until about an hour in, when the jellyfish found him. He was stung countless times, at one stage about once a minute. He reached San Pedro harbor in 9 hours, 46 minutes.
“It feels like a small electrocution,” he described. “It was annoying, but it gets to the point where you’re resigned to it.”
In both swims, he battled 60-degree seas and long hours of darkness (he left Catalina Island after 11 p.m.; Dover, England at 1 a.m.).
There are hazards, however, with Manhattan. Like the English Channel and Catalina, it is a busy shipping waterway with ferries, tourist boats, carriers, floating debris.
“I’ve been told that the water quality is good, unless it rains,” he noted. There were some thunder storms predicted for the early hours of Saturday morning, but clearing by 10 a.m.
And there is this: After swimming under the George Washington Bridge, the SwimNYC.org website warns “swimmers must stay as far enough out from shore so that they are not swept into the sewage disposal plant, which protrudes out about a quarter of a mile.”
Lee didn’t need to worry about that on his previous two swims.
“You do not want to get sucked up into the sewage treatment plant,” he quipped. “It’s a big facility. There are two million people who live on the island of Manhattan.”
Since Lee was 14, swimming the English Channel was a goal. He doesn’t have an explanation for it; it’s just something he wanted to do.
Lee swam competitively as a youngster but gave it up by the time he was 10, about when his family moved from Connecticut to the Bahamas, where he spent his formative years. He played water polo throughout high school and one year at Mary Washington.
Lately, Lee can be seen swimming off Plum Island between 5 a.m. until 7:30, covering in the way of 10,000 meters. Every three weeks, he’ll do one long swim upwards of 12-13 miles.
“I think I’m over-prepared,” he said. “I hope I am.”
After Lee completed the English Channel, he thought he was finished. But before long he was intrigued by Catalina, which led to the Triple Crown. The question is inevitable: What’s next?
He talked about the Strait of Gibraltar, the nine-mile channel between Spain and Morocco. “Even though it’s only nine miles, there’s a lot of traffic and strong current,” he said. “It would be an interesting, sort of intercontinental swim.”
He is asked about Cuba to Florida, 103-miles of wayward current, traffic, jellyfish and sharks.
“I’ll never say never,” Lee laughed, “but it isn’t in the forseeable future.”