The Chinese used to refer to the wilderness beyond the Great Wall of China as called “Ku Wai.” A barren place where demons lived.
By the end of June, I decided it was time to see what lay beyond “The Wall.”
My friend Shlomo Rosenzweig has an app called, Tides Near Me that we use to predict the currents. If one wanted to swim from Brighton Beach to the Pier, one could pick the time and day when the currents were traveling in the same direction as the swimmer.
(No one wants to swim into the current. You can literally swim and go nowhere.)
After two weeks of planning, I arrived at 4:30 a.m. on a warm July Wednesday morning.
Had it been later in the season, when the water is warmer, I might have been worried about the crabs that like to nibble on toes at low water mark or the hockey puck sized jellyfish that hover on the surface of the water.
That morning my focus was on avoiding the sharp rocks that lay ahead in the darkness. I walked into the water until it reached my collar bone. The water was warm and the air was still.
My neoprene wetsuit ran from my ankles to my throat with my feet, arms and head were exposed to the cold ocean water.
I fitted my goggles on my face and pressed start on my Garmin GPS watch.
At 4:45 a.m. the sky was black, the moon obscured by clouds. The water, normally olive green, was even darker than the sky. A void with no color, no depth, completely empty. Normally I would be able to see my hands as they slice through the water. Not this time. All I had were the predawn lights of the Brighton Beach boardwalk to guide me each time I turned to breathe. I was used to relying on familiar landmarks to determine my progress, but in the darkness, I only had my watch. Every 500 yards my watch would buzz signaling that I had passed a benchmark. I lifted my arm into the dark sky and my watch would illuminate its digital face.
My first 500 meters took about 10 minutes which is my average swim pace.
My second 500 meters was about nine minutes. I was moving faster because the current was with me. The boardwalk lights were still shining, but I could now see the Coney Island Aquarium as I turned to breathe.
The pre-dawn light had turned the ocean water back to its normal semi-translucent olive green color.
My last obstacle before “The Wall” was at the 1,500-meter mark.
A six-foot-wide outcropping of jagged rocks the size of a child’s toy chest.
This was by far the longest and the most deceptive of the shoals that protruded out from the beach like a finger. It typified the expression “tip of the iceberg.”
I turned to swim around it, but I misjudged the margin for error. I cut my index finger as the digit scraped across one of the submerged edges.
I paused; I looked; No blood. I continued my swim. As I passed the rocks the bay in front of the pier opened before me. Up to this point I had been following the coastline, about 50 meters offshore. To avoid the rocks, I had turned my body and I was now 300 meters from the shore with a current that was trying to tell me to end my journey. My line of sight was the horizon. It felt as if I could almost reach out and touch the Ferris Wheel or the parachute drop of the Coney Island Amusement Park. With each breath the boardwalk loomed larger and larger.
Once under the boardwalk I paused, as my body swayed in waves like the proverbial cork in a bathtub. The concrete legs holding up the pier were stained with barnacles and strips of seaweed, but I was looking for something less corporeal. I found what I was looking for as I cleared the pilings.
On the other side of the pier the currents play by their own rules. They speed up, slow down or pull sideways without warning.
It is literally the other side of the world.
I was now in “Ku Wai” and the difference was immediately noticeable the moment I turned to breath.
No children playing in the sand. No fishermen with their long poles and buckets. No elderly Russian immigrants in their skimpy bathing suits.
Gone were the bright lights and metal structures of the amusement park.
This place was a barren land, devoid of life. Even the sky above looked differently. It was as if someone had switched my goggle lenses from normal to sepia.
This was the Coney Island Chanel. Get caught in a strong current and you will be pulled into the shipping lanes of the Lower Bay. From there it’s three miles west to Staten Island or four miles to Sandy Hook, NJ or worse...
David Roher is a USAT certified marathon & triathlon coach. He is a multi-Ironman finisher and a veteran special education teacher. He is on Instagram @davidroher140.6. He can be reached at: [email protected]