History Of The Popular Manhattan Island Marathon Swim

History Of The Popular Manhattan Island Marathon Swim

Courtesy of WOWSA, Huntington Beach, California.

Captain Tim Johnson provided the background information for the September 10th record-breaking attempt.

Mark Warkentin (shown on left above), Petar Stoychev (shown on right above), Rondi Davies and Tobey-Anne Saracino will be setting off on September 10th on a record attempt.

95 years previously the first authenticated circumnavigation of Manhattan Island was done by 18-year-old Robert Dowling, Jr. in a time of 13 hours 45 minutes on September 5th 1915. His record was broken the year later by Ida Elionsky in 11 hours 35 minutes. Elionsky’s record-breaking swim of a woman beating the men was replicated in 1995 when Shelley Taylor-Smith set the current record of 5 hours and 45 minutes.

In 1927, the record was dropped to 8 hours 56 minutes by 25-year-old Bryon Summers who held the Catalina record at the time (set in April 1927 in 13 hours 35 minutes). Summers and his navigator established the modern course for the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim by starting at Hell Gate and swimming counterclockwise around Manhattan Island in synchronization with the tides.

Dial forward nearly 50 years and Diana Nyad lowered the record in 1975 to 7 hours 57 minutes. 43-year-old Drury Gallagher subsequently lowered the record to 7 hours 12 minutes in 1982 and then co-founded the Manhattan Island Swimming Association with Tom Hetzel to organize the annual race around Manhattan Island.

Captain Johnson has computed the tides for every record attempt from 1983 to 2007 using an algorithm to model the swim he developed as a student at Empire State College. His algorithm predicted the ultimately fastest circumnavigation to be 5 hours 30 minutes.

In an interesting side note to marathon swimming history, Captain Johnson developed this 16-kilobyte computer program in BASIC when the swim record was a little over 7 hours. But it took a Hewlett-Packard computer just about as long to calculate the swim simulation itself.

When International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame swimmer Paul Asmuth used the algorithm in 1983, he became the first person to swim around Manhattan Island under 7 hours with a time of 6 hours 48 minutes, ushering in the age of computer-assisted marathon swimming.

With 7-time world professional marathon swimming champion Asmuth in the water and Captain Johnson planning on dryland and in an escort boat, the computer analysis revealed that the swimmer’s finishing time was dictated by when and where they began their swim in the tide cycle.

Over a period of a few years, the record was lowered again until it stood at 6 hours 12 minutes set by Shelley Taylor-Smith in 1985. For six years despite several attempts, no swimmer broke the record although Karen Farnsworth came very close with a 6 hour 13 minute and 5 second effort in 1989.

The rivers around Manhattan Island were tricky and knowledge was accumulated over time and with much trial and error. In 1991, Kris Rutford made a record attempt based on Captain Johnson’s model and was able to match the computer projections through 66% of the swim, but towards the end, Rutford, like the others, fell behind the computer predictions. The problem was that the tide was rated at 2.7 knots for the ebb in the Hudson River, but this tide is so fast it does not tend to occur every year.

Captain Johnson had converted the BASIC algorithm and model to Lotus 1-2-3 and used a portable computer onboard the escort boat to correct for the tidal flow. In the meantime, Rutford caught up with the theoretical predictions to become the first person to swim around Manhattan Island under 6 hours with a time of 5 hours 54 minutes.

True to her competitive nature, Taylor-Smith immediately asked for the opportunity to respond to Rutford’s new standard. Four years later in 1995, the 7-time Australian professional marathon swimming champion got her chance. Starting at Hell’s Gate at 2:40 am, she swam up the Harlem River on the fastest tide of the year. She swam the entire Harlem River in the dark and reached the Battery ahead of Rutford’s time when she was held up by the Staten Island ferry that was docking at 7 am. Not happy with having to tread water for valuable minutes, Taylor-Smith stayed in place while she hydrated and learned that she was at the same place in the same time as Rutford was when he set the record. Ever motivated, Taylor-Smith took off as soon as the ferry moved out of position and turned on her stereotypical fast turnover for a sprint down the East River. She swam the remaining 7 miles in 1 hour 29 minutes to break Rutford’s record by 9 minutes.

Her record of 5 hours 45 minutes stood for decades.*

Wilkinson used a new model developed by Morty Berger, founder of NYC Swim, that was first rolled out in 2009 when Liz Fry smashed the reverse circumnavigation record around Manhattan Island, previously established by Rutford in 17 hours 48 minutes in 1995 with an unprecedented time of 11 hours 41 minutes. In 2010, Berger predicted that it is possible for Warkentin, Stoychev, Davies and Saracino to all go under 6 hours. The tide predicted for the September 10th record attempt is a comparable 2.7 knot ebb current that pushed both Rutford and Taylor-Smith to their respective record swims.

Can the quad of swimmers come close to Captain Johnson’s theoretical limit of 5 hours 30 minutes?

We shall see on September 10th, starting at 2 pm when the event will be carried live online. Stay tuned for more details.

Note: Taylor-Smith’s record was broken in September 2011 by 36-year-old Oliver Wilkinson in 5 hours 44 minutes and 2 seconds in a 2011 match race against 41-year-old Rondi Davies who set a new women’s record of 5 hours 44 minutes and 47 seconds.

Copyright © 2010 by World Open Water Swimming Association
Steven Munatones