An activist’s Earth Day attempt to swim the entire 1.8-mile stretch of the Gowanus Canal — America’s most polluted waterway — ended after just two-thirds of a mile and a mind-boggling 30 minutes in the water.
A swarm of news media, curious onlookers, police officials, and a quick-thinking ice-cream man lined the shores of the canal near Degraw Street and watched in awe as Christopher Swain plopped into the canal and attempted to swim from its rear-end to its mouth.
But Swain’s journey — which he said he was doing to raise awareness of the slow pace of the federal government’s Gowanus Canal cleanup — ended abruptly at the nearby grocery store Whole Foods due to a falling tide and the threat of a thunderstorm, which would have unleashed the thousands of gallons of raw sewage that routinely feeds the canal once it hit. He climbed up the rocky shore and into the parking lot where, when greeted by admirers, he swore he will one day return and get the job done.
“I promise that one day I will swim the entire Gowanus Canal,” Swain said, still dripping with the “water” that calls the canal home.
Swain was dressed in a drysuit and goggles, but attempted his swim without anything covering his face, which was frequently submerged in the swill as he paddled. He periodically paused to gargle his mouth clean with hydrogen peroxide, and despite knowing that the Canal is home to viable cultures of gonorrhea, insisted he had no need to worry about contracting the uncomfortable but treatable infection.
Swain’s noon dive-off was delayed nearly two hours while he worked with police concerned about the safety of Swain’s daredevil experiment, which some have likened to Evel Knievel’s failed attempt to jump the Snake River Canyon in a rocket. The sticking point was the location of his extraction at the end of the canal, because cops were concerned that any property owner on whose land he slithered out of the water would not necessarily be aware of the dangerous fluids dripping off of his body.
At one point Swain had said he planned to swim as far out into the harbor as was humanly possible to “rinse off,” leaving some to suggest he would have to go all the way to Sandy Hook, if not the Atlantic Highlands. But eventually he settled for a dunk in bleach water following the press conference at Whole Foods.
The commanding officer of the 78th Precinct, on the scene and most likely tipped off to the event by The Brooklyn Paper’s seemingly endless coverage, told reporters that Swain had every right to plop himself into Brooklyn’s nautical Purgatory, although officers from the department’s harbor unit stood by ready to assist if the intrepid swimmer needed help.
Cops were not the only ones worried about Swain’s safety. The day before his daring deed, the regional branch of the Environmental Protection Agency tweeted a warning advising the activist against dunking in the Canal’s dirty water.
“The EPA strongly advises AGAINST swimming in the #Gowanus Canal,” tweeted the Agency — at The Brooklyn Paper, of course — on Tuesday after learning of activist’s plan.
The agency shared a 2011 fact sheet explaining numerous ways such a dip in Brooklyn’s nautical purgatory could be hazardous to your health.
It was just that miasma of toxins that motivated Swain to embarked on his journey in the first place. The New York-born activist said he hoped the attention his stunt would bring would help spur along the slow-moving federal cleanup of the canal and its surrounding neighborhood, claiming it is about time the area finally got cleaned up after years of abuse.
“We split the atom, we went to the moon,” he said. “Why can’t we clean up a 1.8 mile canal to the point of being able to swim in it?”
Swain may have had noble aims, but not everyone in the neighborhood was glad to see him criticizing the cleanup effort without mentioning the fact that residents have been fighting to have the so-called Lavender Lake cleaned up for decades.
“I think he is pretty far out of touch with the incredible advocacy this community has been doing all along, which has been matched by the extremely bountiful response by city, state, and federal levels of government,” said Craig Hammerman, district manager of Community Board 6. “This was not only a spectacle, but it also drained police resources as well. We frankly think our police should be keeping the community safe, not chasing publicity hounds around.”