Activist Christopher Swain's biggest problem yesterday was supposed to be figuring out how to keep the gonorrhea out of his mouth as he swam the length of the Gowanus Canal, a clever if disgusting Earth Day publicity stunt designed to raise awareness about its remarkable filth. Instead, he spent two hours trying to wrangle an exit strategy—it turns out that once you enter one of America's most polluted waterways, private property owners aren't super keen about letting you rinse off on their land.
Bayside Oil Depot, the company that owns the land near the canal's southern terminus, had apparently failed to give Swain adequate permission to complete his swim on their property, forcing a delay of around two hours.
It was nearly 2 p.m. by the time Swain took his maiden dip in the burbling swill, which foamed at the edges like a fresh chocolate milkshake. He moved in a modified breast stroke at a reasonable clip, a remarkable feat considering the heft of his black and yellow dry suit. Water entered his mouth several times, but he managed not to swallow any, and paused to gargle every few strokes with hydrogen peroxide handed to him by a member of his crew.
"It tasted like mud, poop, ground-up grass, detergent and gasoline,” he told reporters after. His other anti-death precautions included waterproof lotion on his face, as well as a swim cap and goggles, which he said were going straight in the trash. "We should have had a bio hazard bin, could have thrown it right in," he quipped.
Swain's highly anticipated swim only lasted around 3/4 of a mile—not exactly the 1.8 mile slog he'd suited up for. The earlier problem of where he would decontaminate himself—a process that involves pouring a five gallon bucket of wheat bleach solution over his head—was no longer the issue. By the time he'd finally hopped in, the once sunny skies had turned dark, a violent downpour apparently imminent. Stormy weather is the worst time for a dip in the canal, since raw sewage bypasses the city's treatment plants and heads straight into the waterway. And into Swain's mouth.
Still, Swain was adamant that it wasn't The Man that forced him to cut his swim short, but that he made the call on behalf of his crew.
"I want to make it clear that no one is telling me to stop," he told a scrum of reporters outside the Whole Foods on 3rd Avenue, where he disembarked. "There's a bunch of health and safety issues already, so continuing would be stacking the deck."
But this will not be Swain's last dance with the Gowanus. He and his team will work with the city to try again later in the year, armed with a "bigger and more robust safety plan."
The point of holding the swim on Earth Day was to force attention to not just the nominal cleanups—collecting detritus at local parks and beaches—but the ones that require more than a trash picker and some elbow grease to solve.
"I think that basic idea is decent—we've made a mess, let's clean it up," he said. "What I'm saying is, some of these cleanups are big and they're intimidating and they're scary and they're discouraging. This is going to be one of those. This is a no-joke, big difficult cleanup."
It really is: The EPA reports that the Gowanus is one of the country's dirtiest bodies of water, with contaminants that include PCBs, coal tar wastes, heavy metals and volatile organics. It's been on the agency's Superfund National Priorities List since 2010, and finalized its controversial cleanup plan in 2013.
Residents have the right to swim in all navigable waters, Swain said, and he doesn't want to see the job half-assed: "Let's not make it sort of not bad. Let's make it sparkle. Let's make the standard of clean something safe enough to swim in every day," he said.
"We put a man on the moon. We split the atom. Someone can swim the Gowanus Canal."
Reached by phone this morning, Swain confirmed he remains in good health, somehow.
"[Everyone] probably wishes I died like Sludgie the Whale," he joked. "But it was no problem. Totally uneventful."