Staten Island
EXTRA,  FEATURES,  Features,  Readers' Swims,  September 2023

Trash, lice and tankers: a lap around Staten Island

Daniel Shailer shares Leslie Hamilton’s story of her record-breaking swim around Staten Island, braving sea lice and submerged rusting hulks

Sometimes great things start late. When Lynne Cox swam across the Bering Strait from Alaska to Russia in 1987, she was swimming under the Iron Curtain itself – a swim which transcended the sport, reaching into international politics and history – but only after her indigenous escort of Inupiaq canoes arrived late and, according to some accounts, hungover.

So when Leslie Hamilton, an accountant from North Carolina, stood at the bottom of Manhattan, eyeing her watch and the Hudson River, maybe it was a good sign. In just under an hour’s time she would attempt to swim one record-breaking lap, 37 miles, around New York City’s fifth and forgotten borough: Staten Island. And the boats were late.

Still, waiting around isn’t fun. For most of that Saturday Hamilton had kept her cool, sleeping or watching The Bear. “I feel like I blocked it out pretty well, but I’m starting to freak out a little bit again,” said Hamilton at North Cove Marina, a stone’s throw from the World Trade Center. “It’ll be better when I’m in the water.”

Rusting hulks

There were plenty of things to be nervous about. The Hudson is not famous for clean water; New York Harbor has some of the busiest shipping traffic in the world; Staten Island is, arguably, where the city crams all the ugliness it needs to keep Manhattan looking glamorous.

Hamilton’s route would take her past power stations and trash-compactors, alongside the world’s one-time biggest landfill and over an ominous collection of semi-submerged, rusting barges: the Staten Island Boat Graveyard.

“I guess I’m a little bit nervous about hitting something in the dark,” said Hamilton. “Like something submerged.”

Hamilton started marathon swimming in 2018 with a 10k race down the Hudson. Since then she’s splashed a lap around Manhattan, swum the length of Lake Tahoe and finished SCAR, a brutal, four-day staged swim through the lakes of Salt River, Arizona.

Training once in South Carolina, Hamilton swam into a shark, and went back to train in the same water the next day. At the end of an eight-day staged swim down the Hudson, from Albany to New York City, she nearly passed out cutting her leg open on a submerged wooden jetty. “I was starting to get a little bit loopy by the end,” she remembered.

According to Hamilton, each swim prepared her for Staten Island in different ways. This year she also started training for sleep deprivation. “I’m going to try to be more alert than usual for the whole thing,” she said.

A waiting game

But before she could do battle with shipping containers and submerged obstacles, she had to wait for the boat.

Every year New York Open Water escorts 100-odd marathon swimmers around Manhattan Island: 28 miles under 20 iconic bridges shooting off the city that never sleeps like spokes off a wheel. On 8 July, the day before Hamilton’s record attempt around Staten Island, kayakers Alex Arévalo and Terrance O’Malley were escorting a group of swimmers round Manhattan. It took a little longer than expected, so Arévalo, O’Malley and boat captain Sean Makofsky pulled into New Jersey for a few hours rest.

“They’re napping over in Jersey somewhere,” said one of the swim’s observers, looking over at the Colgate clock opposite the Marina. Before long the boat arrived and crossed New York Harbor to Goethals Bridge on the northwest tip of the island. Hamilton splashed just after midnight, flanked on either side by kayaks and kayakers fuelled by Monster energy drinks.

Tiny biters

So, as Lynne Cox might appreciate, Hamilton’s swim started late. It also nearly ended early. Almost immediately, Hamilton felt herself attacked all over her swimsuit, this time not by a shark.

“Fifteen minutes in I was like ‘Oh fuck,’” Hamilton said on the boat home that afternoon.

Sea lice, at least in the Atlantic, actually aren’t lice at all. They’re the microscopic larvae of two stinging marine creatures: either thimble jellyfish or a type of anemone that resembles a War of the Worlds fighting-machine, if it were soft, pale-orange and two centimetres tall. Wherever the larvae get caught between a swimmer’s skin and their swimsuit, they inject their toxin and leave a small ‘bite.’

For the whole first hour of the swim, Hamilton’s skin crawled “in and out.” She felt lice floating up her nose, between the bridge of goggles. All she could think was “I’m going to DNF.” Lynne Cox might have appreciated that too. “Being in the ocean you could become part of the food chain at any moment,” Cox once told water writer and journalist Bonnie Tsui.

It was time to improvise. At around two in the morning Hamilton stripped off her swimsuit to minimise the area she could be bitten, and put on the bottom half of a spare two-piece. The biting stopped and a few hours later Hamilton was swimming under the single most nerve-wracking part of the swim: the Verrazzano bridge between Brooklyn and Staten Island.

Under the bridge

“It’s so beautiful and it’s so iconic, but it’s also terrifying,” Hamilton said over lunch a few weeks before the swim. She’d already swum under the Verrazano five times for five different swims. Every encounter has been stressful; the last, most recent, had ended with a weeping gash in her leg. “I’ve never really felt that comfortable under that bridge. It’s kind of an uneasy place. I love it, but I respect it. I’m scared of it.”

The sixth time Hamilton swam under the Verrazzano bridge she was topless, screaming at 4am, “Tits out for Staten Island.”

The next six hours of swimming after the bridge was just “beach, beach, beach,” said Hamilton. She passed early-bird fishermen, tankers pirouetting in the night and, to the left, the Atlantic Ocean. “Wild industrial,” said one of the kayakers, Arévalo, in the morning.

A unique perspective

For Hamilton, swimming in New York, even with nothing to look at but beach, is special. “You think about all the tourists that fly into LaGuardia,” she said before the swim. “They see the skyline and they’re like: ‘New York! It’s so amazing.It’s so grand.’ I’m thinking the same thing, but I’m looking at the water. I’m so much more excited about the water.”

Fourteen hours, 34 minutes and a few hundred lice bites after she started, Hamilton climbed back onto the boat, smiling from ear to ear: the fastest person to swim around Staten Island. In fact, she would swim the first officially observed lap ever.

Palmer Donelly swam a lap of Staten Island in 1961, after failing once the year before. According to the September issue of Sport Illustrated it was “The Year of the Quarterback.” It was also a different era of marathon swimming. When Donolly, then a 21-year-old New Jersey lifeguard, emerged from the water after 25 hours he was met by a crowd of 15,000 supporters, a game show styled cheque for $2,000 (over 20 grand today), and keys to both New York and New Jersey cities.

Eighteen years later Donelly, middle-aged and well into a career as a social worker, returned to swim another lap. “I was disappointed,” he said afterwards, not to finish under 18 hours. He was still nearly six hours quicker than his first swim.

Dwindling crowds

By 1979 the glory days of marathon swimming were already receding into the distance. At the end of a decade which saw swims across the Cooke Strait, and Molokai and Maui Channels, Donelly’s second swim was merely “the latest in a seemingly never-ending supply of stories about long-distance swimmers,” wrote the New York Times. Kevin Murphy and Des Renford had settled their legendary trilogy of races and, seemingly, clinched the last comically-sized cheque.

There were no crowds or keys to the city after Donelly’s second, faster swim. “Make his Manhattan,” ran one headline, before moving on to the Watergate burglars. Hamilton’s final time, 14:34:04 was just a minute over the prediction made by New York Open Water’s vice president and resident tide whisperer, Rondi Davies.

“We’ve got to start calling you Rain Woman,” said kayaker O’Malley, floating under Goethals Bridge. “This is an art as much as a science,” said Davies, who was also one of the swim’s two observers, with Paula Croxson.

When Hamilton finished her swim she floated in the water for minutes afterwards, thanking her crew, kayakers, the observers, and her fiance, Yan. “I’m working with a bunch of legends,” she said. It was a record, she said, that wouldn’t have been possible without support on the day, hours of planning beforehand, and a community of swimmers to train with over years of marathon events.

“I feel like you have to be uplifting, because what we’re doing is really hard,” said Hamilton. “I hope that people will go faster than me and do better than me some day.”

Passing the baton

Even standing in the dark, waiting for the kayaks the night before her attempt, Hamilton was thinking of how other swimmers will one day take up the challenge. “It’s exciting. I don’t know if this will end up being a one-off but it’ll be cool to see what happens in the years after this. Because I’m sure we’ll figure it out even better.”

One day Hamilton’s “dream dream” is to swim Loch Ness and complete the triple crown of lake monster swims. (She swam Lake Tahoe in 2021, and Lake Memphremagog in Vermont the year after.) More immediately, though, she had a swim to celebrate, and her 31st birthday in August. Later this month Yan and Hamilton are getting married on the banks of the Hudson – but upstate, nowhere near Staten Island.

Photos: Harry Zernike

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