, Salem, MA

April 23, 2009

Marblehead man takes plunge for clean waters

By Alan Burke

MARBLEHEAD — Christopher Swain, 41, headed for Washington, D.C., yesterday, and he's not the least bit worried about the traffic over the George Washington Bridge.

That's because Swain is swimming the entire distance to make a statement about the environment and the need to keep our waters free of pollutants.

"I love the water, and I love my kids, and I want to help them grow up in a clean environment," he said prior to setting out.

It'll be, relatively speaking, a leisurely swim, with plenty of stops along the way to instruct school kids and to help in projects like beach cleanups. In fact, Swain estimates the whole journey will consume a year and a half. Further, he expects to swim a maximum of 200 days or two to three days a week.

In the meantime, he plans to finance his journey with donations to his "Adopt a Mile" and "Adopt a Classroom" funds at his Web site

Dozens of onlookers watched Swain's departure. They watched from the State Street Landing dock, from the Landing restaurant, from the roof of the nearby boatyard and from boats out in the harbor. A brisk breeze began blowing off the water, but the bay itself was a remarkable clear sea green.

Selectman Judy Jacobi came early to cheer him on. "I like the fact that he's swimming not to break a record. He's swimming for clean water."

"The water's cold," Swain said in a loud voice — about 40 degrees. "I have a long way to go. The planet's a mess. But I haven't given up."

Daughters Celilo, 5, and Rowan, 8, clung to their father, reluctant to let him go. The Rev. Dennis Calhoun of the Old North Church in Marblehead offered a blessing. Explaining that he's not religious, Swain said, "I think faith is a good thing if you're going to swim 1,000 miles."

Swain, a Marblehead resident since 2006, wore a wet suit, complete with a hood to protect himself. Because of the weight of the suit, he will also use fins. Most people, he explained earlier, have the same question about his effort. "They all want to know about sharks and then they question my sanity."

Even his mother worries about sharks, he said. But Swain will trail a floating antenna that gives off a slight electrical impulse to discourage "large predators." Moreover, he's not particularly worried about them. Fishermen are rapidly depleting the shark population, he said, by hunting for lucrative shark fins.

Anyway, it isn't the sea life that frightens him, but large tankers and freighters, oceangoing vessels that might not spot his head poking above the waves. As a safety measure, a small boat is expected to follow Swain. He's well aware of the toll such a swim can take, having already made marathon swims of the Columbia River, the Hudson, Lake Champlain and even the Charles.

He didn't intend to go far on his first day in the water, just around Marblehead Neck to Castle Rock. But eventually he expects to build up to six-hour swims each day.

To enthusiastic applause, he fell backward into Marblehead Harbor off a float in the boatyard. Photographers and film crews from local and Boston media outlets caught the moment.

Catching his breath, he called out from the near-freezing water, joking, "Whose idea was this?!"