The Gowanus Canal has served as the murky necropolis for a variety of wayward fauna over the years, and the last person to swim in it wrapped himself in a drysuit, a swamp cap, and goggles, slathered himself with petroleum jelly, and gargled peroxide between inadvertent mouthfuls of sewage, PCBs, and gonorrhea. But none of that fancy safety stuff was required by the latest brave soul to test the waters.
Music producer Martin Bisi said he was out for a jog on Saturday afternoon and had stopped to catch his breath on the canal's bank, near the edge of the Whole Foods parking lot, when "I hear some voices and I hear him calling out about dead bodies. 'Oh, the dead bodies.' 'Oh, the waste.'"
The loudest voice belonged to a swimmer who had just begun paddling out into the Fifth Street Basin, and was being goaded on by his friends on land.
"It appeared to be spontaneous," Bisi said. "He swam to the middle where there's some debris floating around an old structure that slightly pokes out there. He swam around a little, like on his back, then dog-paddle style."
He went in at the same point he got out. I didn't see a towel or change of clothes. I also didn't want to stay too close after taking photos. They were kinda rowdy.
The canal floods with raw sewage during heavy rains, is coated with the toxins of a century of industry, and is a designated federal Superfund cleanup site.
Bisi opened a recording studio in the neighborhood in 1979 and has lived there since. He said apart from environmentalist Christopher Swain's fully armored and widely publicized swims last year, he can't recall ever seeing anyone take a dip in the fetid waters of the inlet.
He recalled that shortly after he moved to the area, he was walking with his then-studio partner Bill Laswell when members of the Crazy Homicides gang tried to mug them.
We were ignoring some muggers. We were kind of walking away from them, and their threat was that they were going to throw us in the Gowanus Canal if we didn't give them money. They were sort of joking, but then they showed us they had screwdrivers poking out of their pockets.
That was their joke threat, was that they were going to throw us into the canal. So even amongst these gangsters, the canal was known to be a killer, pretty much.
As far as this past weekend's nautical nincompoop, Bisi said he didn't see any signs of intoxication among the swimmer and his friends. He speculated that testosterone played a big role in the decision to take the plunge.
It really seemed like guys doing some bravado, risk-taking, like bungee jumping or something, just to show off to other guys. Notably, there was no girlfriends. I noticed that it was definitely kind of a bro situation. I think it probably would have turned off some women. I don't think he would have gotten too laid that day if there was any women there observing this.