On the eve of the Boston Light Swim, established in 1907 and known as the “Granddaddy of American Open Water Swims,” there is a celebratory pasta dinner during which the participants introduce themselves.
“It’s like an AA meeting for swimmers,” says Elaine Howley, the race director for the 8-mile journey from the nation’s oldest continuously used lighthouse to the M Street Beach.
This swimming community is an eclectic bunch of all ages and sizes. Howley is a local swimming legend who once swam Boston Light three times in a day. She also swam the inky waters of Loch Ness and sports a tattoo of the Monster on her thigh.
“Yeah, we’re weird,” says Howley with a laugh.
So why attempt this?
“For me, it’s the challenge,” she says. “Can I actually do one of the few sports where it’s really Man vs. Nature? Can you survive the cold water, rough conditions, and whatever critters might be there?”
Most of the swimmers have underlying reasons — both mental and physical — for doing long-distance open-water swims. One swimmer said she simply hated to run, a sentiment wildly applauded. The mental reasons are much more complex.
The secret is in the water.
“It’s very healing,” says Howley, who has battled weight issues her entire life. “As a kid, my younger sister died of leukemia. I was a bone marrow donor. I was 8 and she was 3. And in my 8-year-old mind, my body wasn’t good enough to save my sister.”
No one goes it alone. Escort boats, one for each swimmer, are outfitted with dive flags and “Slow Swimmer” banners. No wet suits are allowed.
This year, Howley will be in the safety boat, making sure reckless boaters don’t hit any of the 19 participants who have come from as far away as Paris to compete. There are no cash prizes. All finishers get a Boston Light Swim medallion, a T-shirt, and a lei.
There is a genuine camaraderie among the swimmers.
“We call ourselves the island of misfit toys,” says Howley. “We don’t fit anywhere else but we all fit together here because we’re all broken in some way. The water is going to support you and welcome you in. It doesn’t matter what happened on land.”
Laurie Craigen, 43, an assistant professor of mental health counseling at Boston University Medical School, is attempting her first Boston Light swim. She thanks the local L Street swim community for their help.
“I lived my whole life in fear, and I found a group that, instead of moving away from fear, moved toward it,” Craigen says. “It has been so good for me emotionally and physically to find this community to push us to be the best versions of ourselves. I’m so grateful.”
Her grandfather, a World War II Marine, fought at Iwo Jima. Her father served in the First Cavalry Division in Vietnam and came home with PTSD. Later, the pain continued, even for the loved ones. When there was thunder and lightning, they had to shut off all the lights and close up the shutters.
“I’ve always avoided things that make me scared,” she says. “He’s a wonderful dad, but I think war changes you.”
She started swimming with Sam Levinson, who suggested they swim across the bay to the JFK Library. Craigen balked.
“Do you get scared?” she asked Levinson.
“Oh, I get scared,” Levinson said. “So that’s why I swim over there.”
Craigen then took the plunge.
“It just shifted my whole perspective,” she says. “It has been life-changing.”
‘I can do this’
Just before 6 a.m. on Aug. 7, the flotilla of boats make sure they are positioned a safe distance from one another just off Little Brewster Island The muted orange sun balances on the blue horizon behind Boston Light like a Monet painting. Boston looks far away, almost like a mirage.
Craigen stretches, then sits on the edge of the starboard side of her support boat, “Tangled Up In Blue.” Other swimmers lather on sunscreen.
For a moment, Craigen dangles there, then slips into the ocean.
The piercing 30-second air horn blast is a wakeup call from the soft lapping waters. Swimmers, with thrashing arms and bobbing swim caps, head toward Boston.
The course, which meanders around the Boston Harbor Islands, is underway in 67-degree water temperatures and mostly calm seas.
“The water was beautiful,” Craigen says later.
But she admitted that there were still some demons to conquer.
“I always think I see several sharks, jellyfish, maybe a whale,” she says with a laugh. “So I have to calm myself because you get, like, an eyelash in your goggles and you think you see something in your periphery.”
Skipper Dickie Monbouquette and crew help guide Craigen toward Boston. Swimmers are not allowed to touch the boat or swim behind it, but every 45 minutes to an hour, Amy Craigen tosses her sister a line. At the end of it is her choice of either an apple sauce pouch or an electrolyte drink.
Near the old stanchions of the Long Island Bridge (4½ miles), the crew senses that Craigen is losing momentum. Swimming veteran Francis O’Loughlin belts out the song “Drunken Sailor.” The boat stereo blares “We are the Champions” and the theme from “Rocky.” Nancy Monbouquette and everybody else on board dances and screams encouragement.
Craigen later says those moves helped her.
“There were a couple of times when I started to get tired and then they started cheering and I said, ‘OK, I can do this,’ ” she says. “It was a lot less scary than I thought it would be, because you were just surrounded by islands.”
Rolling with the tide
The race itself is not close. Jen Downing, 42, an associate director of development for Harvard athletics on her first solo Boston Light Swim, took off swiftly and never looked back. She finished in 3 hours 15 minutes 59 seconds.
Craig Lewin, 35, a former Boston College swimmer who has accomplished the Triple Crown of open-water swimming — the English Channel Swim, the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim, and the Catalina Channel Swim to Los Angeles — was second at 3:21:15. Craigen was third in 3:24:32.
Downing loves that women — both Boston Light solo rookies — took two of the first three spots.
“It says we can do it,” says Downing, the first woman to win since 2015. “I was thinking about being long and strong, stretching out, and remembering to kick.”
Downing received a first-place plaque with a photo of Rose Pitonof, the first female to complete the swim in 1910. The race back then was a 12-mile course from Charlestown to Boston Light. The first two years it was held, none of the swimmers finished.
This year, only one swimmer did not complete the course before the five-hour cutoff time.
Race organizers planned the start so that swimmers would be aided by an incoming tide, making the 8-mile swim feel like 6.
Don’t tell that to Polly Madding, a nanny from East Boston who didn’t think she was going to finish.
“I really struggled,” says Madding. “Did I feel like I had current help? No.”
But she rallied and was able to cross the finish line and get her medal before shedding tears of joy in the arms of family and friends.
Downing had a slice of watermelon and stayed to hug friends. Conditions were near-perfect, she says.
“The water was very clean, just a couple of patches of seaweed,” she says. “No jellies, no driftwood, no trash. It was very calm, just a little choppy by the Light.”
She says that pandemic restrictions actually helped her win because her local pool was closed. So instead of swimming in chlorinated waters between walls of concrete, she was set free both mentally and physically by the endless salty ocean water.
“I definitely attribute my performance to being forced to train outside for 11 months,” she says.
Downing was tired but not sore, and planned to swim again the next day.
“I’ll probably sleep well tonight,” she says.
Stan Grossfeld can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.