Swimming long distances in open waters, James Jackson Doty braved Boston Harbor’s filthiest tides in the 1970s. He also swam 23 miles around Cape Ann, raced across New Hampshire lakes, and inspired scores to match themselves against the sea.
A burly insurance salesman, he launched the New England Marathon Swimming Association in 1978. Powering through bone-numbing cold in polluted water, he gasped for air amid the stench from burning garbage scows while enduring curious sharks, sea lice, and jellyfish.
“He was remarkable; I wouldn’t have swum the English Channel if it wasn’t for Jim,’’ said Peter Jurzynski, a former Boston resident who first crossed the channel in 1987 and has completed the swim 14 times.
A past president of the L Street Brownies swim club, Mr. Doty was inducted into the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame in 2002.
He died of heart failure April 17 in Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. Mr. Doty, who was 75 and lived in Dedham, was diagnosed with lymphoma in 1970.
“He was fearless,’’ said a friend, Dr. Joel Saperstein of Medford, who read about Mr. Doty’s swimming and first asked to join him on a swim in 1969. “He was just the salt of the earth. If someone came along who could barely swim, he was optimistic and encouraging, because he was so devoted to the swim.’’
When Saperstein called, Mr. Doty invited him for a swim in Gloucester. It was December, so Saperstein thought Mr. Doty must have meant a trip to the YMCA. He did not.
“He used to call me Dr. Chicken because I can’t take the cold like Jim Doty,’’ Saperstein said.
The two made headlines in June 1971 when they sought to raise environmental awareness for the organization Save Our Shores by swimming from Graves Light in Boston Harbor to the South Boston Yacht Club.
“I think it was the smell around Deer Island that got me,’’ Mr. Doty told the Globe after they were stopped by floating greasy balls of sewage and a 20-mile headwind. Covered in Vaseline, the two tried the 12-mile Harbor swim again in August 1971 and succeeded.
“No one shall ever replace Jim Doty,’’ Saperstein said.
The youngest of three children, Mr. Doty grew up on family farms in Waltham and Wayland.
He was president of his high school class at Noble and Greenough School and married a roommate’s sister, Paula Newell, who is known as KoKo. They would have celebrated their 50th anniversary in July.
“We had a good life together,’’ she said. “He was kind and generous to everybody.’’
In addition to his wife, Mr. Doty leaves his daughters, Paula Doty Attridge and Elinor Doty Juviler, both of Westwood; a son, James of Weston, Fla.; and 10 grandchildren.
A celebration of Mr. Doty’s life will be held at 11 a.m. June 2 at First Parish Church in Brookline.
Mr. Doty graduated in 1959 from Harvard, where he competed in the shot put and hammer throw. He ran the Boston Marathon in 1956, finishing 78th.
In 1961, he graduated from Boston University with a master’s degree in communications.
By the early 1960s, he was spending long days at his desk. Packing 265 pounds on a 6-foot-4-inch frame, he tried swimming to drop some weight.
After he met distance swimmer Jack Starrett of Natick while swimming in Lake Cochituate, the two trained together.
Mr. Doty joined the World Professional Marathon Swimming Association tour and swam in Rhode Island, Chicago, and Canada. He and Starrett tackled Cape Ann in 1966, but were interrupted by an oil slick, according to Brockton author and swimmer Robert McCormack, who chronicled Mr. Doty’s career in a book, “The Jim Doty Story.’’
Fueling himself with canned peaches, candy bars, and soda, Mr. Doty finished the Cape Ann swim solo in September 1973.
Mr. Doty twice tried to swim the English Channel in the early 1970s, only to be stopped by bad weather and changing tides.
“He was disappointed because you can’t do it again if you don’t have the money and the time,’’ his daughter Elinor said.
Instead of going back, Mr. Doty shared insights with Jurzynski, counseling him to forge good relationships with hired boat handlers.
In 2008, when Jurzynski had heart surgery, Mr. Doty called every day during his recovery.
“He was a man of kindness and class,’’ Jurzynski said.
Mr. Doty was a Mayflower descendant, but few friends knew, even though he sometimes jokingly scrawled “Jim Doty 1620’’ on notes and cards to friends. He never retired from the insurance business and never used computers.
He reveled in the camaraderie with swimmers at the L Street Bathhouse in South Boston.
“He loved the fact he could get out in the elements like that and just become part of the whole system: the water, the air, the jellyfish, the waves,’’ McCormack said.
In 1978, Mr. Doty reinitiated the 8-mile race from Boston Light to South Boston. The race dated to 1907, but had been discontinued since World War II. He built it into a favorite for swimmers training to cross the English Channel, because the conditions are similar. Held in August, the race now draws top swimmers from around the world. Mr. Doty completed it 18 times.
He had held the record for swimming to Boston Light and back, which Elaine K. Howley of Waltham broke in 2010. Mr. Doty called her to celebrate.
“He took me out to lunch to congratulate me for breaking his record,’’ said Howley, 34.
In an interview with WBUR-FM in 2010, Mr. Doty recalled a swim near Minot’s Ledge Light when he encountered a shark and his boatman pulled a gun.
“He starts shooting at the damn shark with a rifle,’’ Mr. Doty said. “The damn bullets are hitting the water and going over my head. . . . So I said: ‘Lefty, for cripe sakes, start the boat and get over here. Even if you hit the shark, I’m gone. It’s going to take a zillion bullets. You’ll need a machine gun or a hand grenade.’ So finally, he got smart and he came over there. And the shark, of course, heard the roar, roar, roar, and took off. Any shark with any brains would.’’
J.M. Lawrence can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.