As New Yorkers, we long for those few short months when the weather warms and beaches open. From Montauk to Brooklyn and Queens, throngs of Vitamin-D thirsty people crowd narrow strips of sand, pulling out their surf boards, paddles, and floats to laze the summer days away. And each of us knows that as the sun begins to set, there is always at least one person who won’t dare leave the beach until weather or public official forces them to.
Christopher Swain is that person; one who will not even let pollution stop him from staying in the water. As he puts it, “It’s our federal right to swim.”
Swain’s love of the water and literal understanding of the Clean Water Act, which gives Americans the right to swim in any navigable waterway, is the reason why he is swimming the length of the Long Island Sound and East River. In an interview with Edible East End, Swain waxed poetic on the beauty and fun we miss out on when waterways are polluted. “We are cheating our way out of doing the fun stuff. So let’s take the water back.” His swim, which began September 22, will total 130 miles once completed and takes him from the tip of Montauk point northwest through the Sound, finishing at the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. Never a competitive swimmer or member of a swim team, Swain believes this is the best way to experience water and to celebrate the “web of life” inhabiting it.
This is not his first swim. In 2004, he swam the Hudson River for clean water and in 2015 he swam in both sewage laden waters of Newtown Creek and the Gowanus Canal. Outsiders may think Swain has a death wish since he is exposing himself to harsh pollutants in these waters, but he sees risking his life as a means to “create a platform to talk about clean water.” When referencing previous swims and his current undertaking, he claims he will continue swimming these waters until federal judges order to clean up our waterways.
According to Swain, it’s not a hard problem to solve. During our conversation, he asked if I’d ever experienced beach closures as a child and, when I replied that I had, he asked if I knew why. Up until now, I did not fully understand the reason my childhood swims were cut short. The reason? Poop. Swain went on to say “As soon as it rains, there’s too much liquid in pipes running into sewage treatment plants, which can’t handle that kind of volume. So all we need to do is to install catch basins or the equivalent so that storm water is caught and held long longer enough during a downpour that can be released gradually so it doesn’t overwhelm the system. When New York is dry, we aren’t dumping sewage in the water.”
The pollution does not just affect our ability to swim, wade, and paddle freely in New York’s water. It also affects our food system. There’s a reason we pick Montauk swordfish over striped bass from the Hudson. While fisherman can still be seen off the piers in Greenpoint and South Brooklyn, the city’s fish is not for the faint of heart and for no reason other than the free flowing of sewage, oil, and whatever your Law and Order-watching mind can conjure contaminating our water.
It’s clear from our conversation that Swain wishes more people were as angered as he is by our treatment of what he views a beautiful luxury. “New Yorkers are especially intense about their rights…and water is our right, not just a privilege. The places where we live and play are defined by water and we are getting cheated out of the most fun resource we have.”
Once Swain towels off after this swim, it likely won’t be long before he jumps back in. Acknowledging that water clean up is likely to come, he’s not willing to wait a moment longer for a judge to order it. “In this country, we say we have the smartest people and solve the biggest problems. Alright. So, let’s do it… let’s put a permanent end to it.”