JAMESTOWN, R.I. — Eight years ago, Ben Tuff flailed around as he swam his first lap.
On Sunday, he will attempt something that’s never been done before: swim 19 miles nonstop from Block Island to Jamestown.
“There is no specific way of doing these crazy things. It’s how do you best set your mind and body up for this,” Tuff said recently. “Ninety percent of it is in the mind.”
Eight years of training, distance swimming competitions, and daily swims have led to this moment of being a pioneer in Rhode Island Sound.
He’ll begin early enough in the morning at the northernmost point of the island, swim a mile in the wrong direction in order to catch the currents, and ride them along his northern route toward the mainland. No wetsuit, just a swimsuit made by Blue Seventy (he’s part of the swimwear’s team), SolRX sunscreen to protect his skin from sunburn, and thick, greasy Bag Balm cream to prevent chafing from the saltwater.
His wife and her friends will be on two support boats. Jake Finley, a friend who’s a professional paddleboarder, will paddle alongside to keep Tuff motivated. They’ll videotape his swim and post it on the website for Clean Ocean Access, a Middletown nonprofit that Tuff is raising money to support.
But only Tuff can do what he has challenged himself to do — endure swells, wind, and currents, and skirt the attentions of curious marine life, like the great white sharks passing by on their way to Cape Cod.
“It’s critical to get the timing right,” said Dave Ullman, an associate marine research scientist at the University of Rhode Island’s Graduate School of Oceanography, who is working with Olympian Elizabeth Beisel on her upcoming 20-kilometer swim from Point Judith to Block Island to raise money for cancer research.
“The current between Block Island and Point Judith goes east and west with the tides, and so you definitely don’t want to be swimming [against it],” Ullman said. “He will have to worry about waves and the wind. Going north, the swell is likely to be behind him. If it’s windy and choppy, it will be more of a problem.”
(Tuff had planned to swim on Saturday morning, but postponed to Sunday due to a cold front bringing in northwest winds of 10 to 20 miles per hour, which would have created choppy waters at the start of his race.)
Tuff will also be wearing a “shark deterrent” made by Australian technology company Ocean Guardian. Jon Dodd, the executive director of the Atlantic Shark Institute, says the device’s success depends on the shark.
Blue sharks, which are fairly common, are inquisitive and cautious, Dodd said. They’ll swim around and poke at something unusual, to see if they can eat it, so if the device makes them uncomfortable, they’ll back off.
Great whites, however, love to attack prey from below, and once they decide to go for something, they don’t hold back, Dodd said.
However, in a swim that he estimates will take between 10 to 12 hours, Tuff said he’s more worried about exhaustion than sharks.
He came close to that time in August 2019, when he swam 23 miles around Conanicut Island and raised more than $54,000 for Clean Ocean Access, which works to protect the shoreline and improve water quality of Narragansett Bay.
Tuff, who is a board member, wants to double that amount -- and by Friday, he’d raised more than $70,000.
“Ben’s swim will end on the afternoon of Aug. 1, but our work to protect the ocean never stops,” executive director Dave McLaughlin said in a statement. “Whether your passion is professional sailing, recreational surfing, casual walks along the shoreline, fishing as a family tradition, or resting peacefully on the beach – our work will take bolder steps and greater strides to improve ocean health for the Ocean State.”
For athletes like Tuff, the challenge is as much mental as it is physical. He’s spent the last eight years training and competing as a long-distance open-water swimmer. He finds the pleasures in the competition are the same as what drew him to begin swimming years ago.
“If we go through life always thinking about the dangers, you’re not thinking about anything for real,” Tuff said. “And that’s a boring life.”
As a boy spending summers at his family’s home in Jamestown, where his roots go back to his great-grandfather Admiral Herbert Seymour Howard, Tuff says he wasn’t much of a swimmer.
That changed after he began teaching 17 years ago at Rumsey Hall School in Connecticut. (Tuff is now the school’s director of admission.)
“All of us as teachers, especially as boarding schools, you are 24/7, and most difficult part is finding your escape,” Tuff said.
He’d gotten into the habit of going out for beers with his buddies, “and that escape led to really unhealthy drinking.”
Tuff was married, and then as the couple had a son and daughter, he realized it was time to figure out his life. “You’re a father, and you need to be the best you can,” he said. “I thought, what am I going to do?”
His wife, Gretchen, is an Ironman triathlete, but Tuff wasn’t much of a swimmer, hadn’t run a marathon, and wasn’t a real cyclist. So, he decided to figure it out by signing up for a triathlon that summer. “I’m very competitive,” he admitted.
Turned out, running wasn’t his thing (“I look like an ostrich,” said Tuff, who is 6 foot 4) and biking didn’t give him the challenge he was looking for.
Swimming was also hard, at first. Then, he discovered what he called the “mindfulness of exhaling” underwater.
“It was the freedom and ability to detach oneself in the pool, or even better in a lake and ocean,” Tuff said. “It’s the breathing, being surrounded by something so much bigger, that wraps you up like a mother.”
Now, as he prepares for Sunday, Tuff knows his mental preparedness will be as critical as his physical readiness.
“At least for peace of mind, I know I can go that distance and power through some mental anguish,” Tuff said. “Though, when there’s no land, there’s no references to whether you are moving forward or not.”
He’ll just have to trust the process, one stroke at a time.