Hackensack River Canoe & Kayak Club

paddling for over a third of a century

A Cause Worth Supporting
by Betty Wiest

Sunday, September 12, 2004

Three miles. You can drive three miles in three minutes. You can walk three miles in an hour. But what does it take to swim three miles?
On Sunday, September 12th, swimmers took to the Hudson River to support the National Multiple Sclerosis Society’s 8th Annual Swim Across the Hudson benefiting the Southern NY Chapter. And kayakers provided a supporting role.

It was a gorgeous Sunday in September to hold this event, and tame is a term to describe the Hudson that day…calm and comfortable. Delightfully warm and sunny, the day, however, was riveted with excitement.

Days before this event a flurry of emails informed me of this event and I looked forward to participating, but I didn’t know until the last moment that I could. So it was a pleasant surprise to know that eleven members of the Hackensack River Canoe & Kayak Club wound up volunteering: Fred Cohane; Ruth Schultz; Ed Snutes; Bob Kay; Joe Wiedmont; Bob, Kathy & Shevaun Kirschbaum (what a great way to celebrate Kathy's 50th birthday;) Nancy & Mike Passow; and myself.

From the moment Joel and I arrived in Piermont, the jumping off point “so to speak,” we eagerly awaited the dozens of other volunteer kayakers who were there to form a protective wall around the swimmers and provide guidance and support along the three-mile trip from Piermont to Irvington.

Most of the swimmers and kayakers registered in Irvington. The swimmers were bused to Piermont for the one-way swim. We had no way of knowing how many energetic swimmers would be making the swim across nor how many kayakers would be paddling across from Irvington.

Like soldiers (there were quite a few West Point cadets both swimming and kayaking) waiting on shore, the first wave of kayakers paddled their way to Piermont. For anyone driving across the Tappan Zee Bridge to see a flotilla of kayaks making their way across the Hudson must have been a sight to see.

Soon dozens and dozens of kayakers were not merely assembling along the skinny strip of land that was “the beach,” but rafting up in every possible way close to shore waiting for further instructions…and waiting for the swimmers. While waiting, some lazily positioned themselves on their boats, and you could feel the excitement and momentum building.

More varieties of kayaks were on hand that any one vendor could sell from one store…Old Town, Wilderness Systems, Current Designs, Dagger, Perception and lots of others. Sophisticated kayaks and unadorned ones, each and every volunteer kayaker had a mission: to assist, guide and protect the swimmers.

We finally got the word to “start your engines.” At first it was tough wiggling my way out of the pack to a lesser concentrated part of the staging area. But I found my way to the rest of our group where we hung out awaiting instructions.

In order to make the event more manageable, the entire kayak contingent was divided into four groups. Moments later a leader called for the first 25 volunteer kayakers. We lost no time in paddling to his designated area. Sidelined, we waited in the river while the gun went off and the first wave of swimmers took off. Using my telephoto lens, I could see a mass of humanity making their way into the Hudson. Watching, I thought to myself, “I could never have the endurance to swim the Hudson, but I’m glad to be here helping out.” Armed with an identification number on their upper arm, swimmers were greased to help limit exposure in the river.

It was our group’s turn. A number of us assembled on the north side of the “swimming corridor,” and some of us paddled the south side. This was essential for all swimmers to have a sense of some confinement. After all, when you’re swimming three miles, who wants to wind up in Tarrytown?

Yellow caps bobbing in the water. I was sure my friend Joel would not mistaken them for oversized fishing bobbers (he has quite a collection).

It was not long before our group spread out. At times there were swimmers spread far apart—everyone seemed to get his/her own stroke rhythm—and a few times just an arm’s length apart. The most important thing was to keep them focused and moving in the right direction.

When you’re not paddling just for paddling’s sake, it’s totally different. Our eyes were on the swimmers. Our strokes were modified—slow, but determined. It didn’t matter that it took over an hour and a half to cross the Hudson...or more.

As we neared Irvington, the cheers and applause were thunderous. The crowd’s excitement as these special swimmers approached the destination beach was truly appreciated. Swimmers and kayakers alike were treated to lunch and drinks compliments of the sponsor. Between all the friends and family of the participants, a few food booths, a DJ, t-shirts and goody bag, massage area for swimmers, it was a festive occasion. What a way to spend a Sunday. Ah, now the paddle back to our cars!

In the indomitable human spirit, the interest in helping those in need was the real motivation to help. What a great cause! What a great group of volunteers!

From the press release supplied by the National Sclerosis Society we read: “The 'Swim' was founded in 1991 by Irvington police office Dennis Chillemi to raise awareness about the Hudson River. In 1997 when his partner, Officer Peter Carelli, was diagnosed with MS, Mr. Chillemi focused the swim solely on raising funds and awareness for MS.” He continues to serve as the Swim Director for this event. “Swimmers who participate in the crossing are required to raise a minimum of $350 in contributions by having friends, colleagues and neighbors sponsor their endeavor. Kayakers and volunteers are also encouraged to raise funds to support research projects as well as programs and services for over 18,000 people affected by MS in the Southern New York area.”