Posted by: Chris Kretz | December 16, 2008

Who was Robert Dowling? Part 1: Swimming around Manhattan

Robert Dowling, the namesake and main benefactor of the College during the first years of its independence, lived a fascinating and varied life. Instead of trying to cram his life into just one post, we’ll look in on him periodically at different stages of his career.

Born September 9, 1895, he was the scion of a renowned New York City real estate family. Known for his physical prowess, Dowling gained early distinction as the first person to swim around Manhattan Island, a feat he accomplished on September 5, 1915.

In this excerpt from Vanity Fair, Dowling describes the ordeal:

“…At exactly eight-thirty a.m. I dived off the center of the railroad bridge at Spuyten Duyvil. It was a gray, rainy sort of morning, but once I was in the water it didn’t matter about the weather. I used a trudgeon-crawl stroke without interruption until we reached the Battery in four hours and sixteen minutes.

As it was nearly time for luncheon, one o’clock, I drank some beef juice and ate about half a pound of milk chocolate. The tide in the Hudson was still ebbing a little and it took a good half hour of hard swimming to reach the Brooklyn shore of the East River where the tide had changed and had begun to flood. I passed so close to the ferry slip of the little Governors Island ferry that I could have nearly touched it. We made very good time up the East River, reaching Hell Gate at about three-forty. I had more to eat from here on, on an average of about every hour, until about eight o’clcok. the tide was running against me through the East and lower Harlem Rivers for a distance of about three miles. It took three hours and twenty-five minutes to make this three miles. When you consider that for the rest of the swim we averaged over three miles an hour, it is easy to see that this was the hardest part of the whole swim.

At this point, the motor boat, which had gone ahead to feel out the tides came back and reported that they did not think we could make the two miles or so between where I was then and slack water.

We made it.

It was then nine minutes past seven and the sun had set. The darkness made it hard for us to keep a straight course. It seemed odd when the men in the boat told me that it was half past eight, just the time we had started in the morning. The water grew colder after dark, but near the end we had a strong tide and made very fast time. At exactly quarter after ten I touched the same spot from which I had dived at eight-thirty in the morning – just thirteen hours and forty-five minutes from the time of our start.”

“Circumnavigating Manhattan Island: Robert Dowling’s Account of His Record Swim”
Vanity Fair
November, 1915


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