Christopher Swain abandons Gowanus Canal swim after two-thirds of a mile

Recap: The Great Gowanus Canal Swim of 2015 — with slideshow!

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Photo gallery

Suiting up: Christopher Swain dons a dry suit, which was meant to protect him from the toxic waters of the Gowanus Canal during his swim on Earth Day.
Knee deep: Swain lowers himself into the murky depths of the Gowanus Canal on April 22.
Almost there: Swain nears his destination.
Cruising: Swain paddles down the Gowanus Canal on Earth Day as part of an attempt to call attention to the Canal’s fetid waters.
Back on land: Swain explains his decision to cut his swim short amid low tides and threats of thunderstorms.
Alive, for now: Christopher Swain appears healthy after emerging from the turgid depths of Brooklyn’s nautical Purgatory on April 22.
Quite a crowd: Dozens of reporters and spectators watch as Christopher Swain swimps past the Carroll Street Bridge toward Whole Foods on April 22.

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.”

Updated 10:17 pm, July 9, 2018
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Reasonable discourse

Kate Zidar from at large says:
April 22, 2015, 5:06 pm
Random Guy from Park Slope says:
He's starring in the new Toxic Avenger movie.
April 22, 2015, 5:56 pm
Cynthia from Clinton hill says:
Is he sick yet??
April 22, 2015, 9:11 pm
NBD from Brooklyn says:
No Big Deal. He's just some fool trying to take credits for others hard work.

So many people and groups have advocated for the cleanup of the canal and this guy comes out of nowhere and tries to take the spot light.

What a ham!
April 23, 2015, 7:45 am
Mark Spitz (water from his mouth) says:
"Swain was dressed in a drysuit and goggles, but attempted his swim without anything covering his face...." Not surprisingly, I see a preference for the breast stroke.
April 23, 2015, 9:07 am
Gianna Balditoni from Red Hook says:
re: Ham Handz, if you read about the guy elsewhere--

"In 2005, I helped the U.N. do an event to launch the world water decade," he told Daily Intelligencer. "This spring, I was thinking about that and it occurred to me almost within view of the U.N. complex you can see the mouth of two of the dirtiest city waterways in the world." His first big swim for a cause was for human rights in 1996, when he plied the bottom 200 miles of the Connecticut River. After that swim he woke up with fevers. This time he is coordinating with local authorities.
April 23, 2015, 12:34 pm
Scott from Park Slope says:
The guy is only one more in a long line of people trying to get the canal cleaned up, sure, but the goal remains a good one and in the end, the more people who call for it and the more press it gets, the more likely it is to happen. It would be great to have the Gowanus Creek return as clean as it once was when the Battle of Brooklyn came to town. I read once at the Old Stone House that the creek used to have fresh water oysters the size of dinner plates that were exported to Europe. Hard to imagine, right?
April 23, 2015, 2:34 pm

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