“Jump in!” came a shout from the yacht’s cabin. “You won’t grow a third eye.” This is not what I wanted to hear as I was poised on the bow of a Catalina, working up the courage for a midnight dip. It was a perfect summer’s night: The dark waters were mirror-flat, and the steamy air wrapped the deck in a velvety embrace. But this wasn’t an idyllic corner of the French Riviera, Turkish coast or Adriatic. Two hundred yards away loomed the Statue of Liberty, her golden torch casting a shimmering reflection in the Hudson River.
“We’re at the cleanest place to swim in all of New York Harbor,” continued Avram Ludwig, the unflappable captain of the yacht and self-described “urban explorer,” as he secured the anchor between Liberty and Ellis islands, the Manhattan skyline glittering behind us. “There’s no river traffic, no barges, no industry.” Even better, the ocean tide was coming in, he enthused. Still, the half-dozen other passengers, Broadway actor and actress friends of Ludwig (whose day jobs are movie producer, director and novelist), eyed the river warily and cracked jokes about dead bodies floating past. The unsavory nature of the New York waterways has been an integral part of American urban lore since the 1920s, when industry closed the estuary’s many oyster beds, floating swimming pools and bathhouses. Woody Allen joked that German submarines would sneak into the bathing area of Coney Island beaches during World War II, only to be destroyed by pollution. An entire “Seinfeld” episode revolves around Kramer’s mad plan to swim in the East River and the noisome odors he begins to exude.
“Sure, I remember when I was a kid seeing toilet paper and condoms floating from the discharge pipes at 72nd Street,” admitted Ludwig, who berths his yacht every summer in Chelsea. “But now there are 14 wastewater treatment plants, and it’s completely safe.” The main problem in New York, he added helpfully, comes after heavy rains, when the storm drains overflow and bacteria levels spike—but skies had been clear for a week.
There was nothing more to be said. I took a deep breath, plunged headfirst off the bow, then began breaststroking toward New Jersey.
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