We all know that the oldest and most famous marathon run in the USA is the Boston Marathon. The 26 mile-365-yard race starts in the small town of Hopkinton and finishes in downtown Boston. It has been contested annually on Patriots Day since April, 1897. Every year thousands of men and women from all over the world apply for an entry after meeting the rigid time qualifications.
But can you name the oldest open water swimming event in the USA? A Bostonian would not have to look far for the answer. It is the Boston Light Swim. Sounds like a diet beer? Ships coming into Boston have to navigate around a series of islands in Boston Harbor. Several miles from downtown Boston is a lighthouse on Little Brewster Island, said to be America’s first lighthouse. It was built long ago to guide ships around those islands and safely into the harbor.
One hundred and fourteen years ago (1907) a group of local swimmers thought that it would be a good idea to put on a swim race from the lighthouse into Boston, finishing at what is known as the “L-Street Brownies” clubhouse. (You may have heard of the Brownies’ annual New Year’s Day frigid Polar Bear ocean swim, the grandfather of polar bear swims.) The distance is at least eight miles, depending on your route, always done on a rising tide. The course takes a swimmer on a zigzag route around several of the offshore islands, where rip currents can be brutal. In the summer the water temperature is in the low fifties. All swimmers must have pilot boats accompanying them for navigation and for safety. And like the English Channel, no wetsuits. Does it sound like fun?
There is an easier way to do it. If there is room, the organizers allow a few relay teams to participate, and that is how I was able to be a part of the swim. There were six of us on our team. No one was a great swimmer, but we were all good enough and looking for a great day in the water. It went ‘swimmingly’ until one of our swimmers (not me) got turned around in the gyre of currents off an island. It cost us a half hour of laughing to catch up.
A couple of years later I had the pleasure of crewing for Beaverton’s Michelle Macy, a very strong distance swimmer, who entered the Boston LightRace as a solo swimmer. We motored out to the lighthouse on Little Brewster Island and dropped anchor as Michelle swam to the shore start. On the shore the swimmers were nervously fidgeting, jumping up and down to keep warm, anxious to get moving. At precisely eight AM the starter’s gun went off. BAM! The swimmers hurried into the cold water, flailing away to hook up with their pilot boat. They would be flailing for a long time. My job was to be on Michelle’s pilot boat and help to find the best currents for Michelle, and from time to time give her sustenance. From the beginning she led the pack and she stayed there for seven miles. Every half hour she was given her feedings. She was feeling good. Michelle was eating away at the miles keeping a steady pace and a good lead. All of a sudden,we spotted a pair of swimmers, two young men swimming together from one boat. Their boat was not far behindus and closing the gap fast. It was clear that they were taking turns drafting off each other to save energy, a rule violation. Shortly before the finish at the Brownie’s Pier, they overtook Michelle, coming in first overall. Michelle officially finished in second place, the first woman.
There were two things wrong with what those guys did. First, there is supposed to be one swimmer to a boat, and this boat had two swimmers. Second, drafting is cheating, pure and simple. I asked Michelle about it: Should I post a protest? She smiled and told me that she had come to Boston to swim, she had a great swim, and that it was not important to her to enter a protest. Michelle is a class act. Then we went into town for a big bowl of clam chowder.