America’s oldest open water swim

Boats getting ready to depart towards Little Brewster Island to begin the race at the lighthouse in 2018. Photo Courtesy of MOWSA.

By Irene Anastasiadis

Boston University News Service

The horn goes off signaling the start of the race, and the swimmers plunge off their boats into 59 degrees Fahrenheit harbor water, trying to navigate through each other’s flailing bodies. For the first two miles, the herd gets carried involuntarily by the tide, an aspect of the ocean every swimmer is thankful for only when they’re swimming with it and not against it.

“It’s like being on a moving walkway at the airport, you’re just flying,” Boston Light Swim co-director Elaine Howley said. Otherwise, you could be swimming in place for hours. This is why the race is capped at five and a half hours.

The Boston Light Swim is rich in history, just like most things in the city of Boston, Massachusetts. It is the country’s oldest open water swim, starting at Boston’s oldest lighthouse on Little Brewster Island and swimming across the Boston Harbor through several of the inner islands to the mainland, according to the race’s website. It’s an eight mile open water swim, and no wetsuits, a garment that keeps you warm while wet, are allowed. 

Open water swims are quite precarious and vastly contingent on mother nature. Howley, who is also president of the Massachusetts Open Water Swim Association and has completed three races, expresses that safety is their utmost priority. 

“It’s a labor of love,” Howley said, as she explains the many logistics that are involved in planning and executing the marathon on this course. Inclement weather, fog, tidal currents, number of safety boats, time of day, as well as recreational boaters and ferries, all impact the safety of the swimmers. There is a risk of crossing paths with ferries around Long Island and Spectacle Island as you near the last two to three miles, the toughest part of the course. She explains that sometimes swimmers must dodge a ferry or two during the race, showing how truly immersed in the harbor these swimmers are.

“Invariably we have to get up at stupid o’clock…the earlier in the day you start, the less chance of wind,” Howley said about the race’s start time. The swim is scheduled to take place on Friday, Aug. 9, with the start time of approximately 8:45 A.M., race director Mina Elnaccash said. The first documented race happened in 1907, and in 1995 David Alleva, from Quincy, MA, set the current course record with a finish time of 2:20.00, according to the BLS website.

The race starts early to avoid boat traffic, as later on in the day the recreational boaters may be drinking and “less able to respond to a crisis situation,” said Howley.  

Roberta Allison, a professor in Hospitality Management at MassBay Community College in Wellesley, has also swam the race three times, twice in a relay and once solo. Allison was in her mid 40s during her first race.

“I remember the next morning I could not even lift my arms to brush my hair,” Allison said, describing how she felt after completing the race for the first time.

Howley said she hopes to improve access to the water for urban kids, and increase funding for this non-profit. The swim association offers multiple open water swims to encourage newbies to enter and become a part of this community. It is a unique way to enjoy the Boston Harbor, Howley said, her goal being to share this experience with, and make it accessible to, everyone.

As the swimmers near the end of the race, towards the L Street Bathhouse in South Boston, the city greets them with open arms.

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