How Times Have Changed For The Better In The Charles

How Times Have Changed For The Better In The Charles

Courtesy of WOWSA, Huntington Beach, California.

The 8th annual Charles River One-mile Swim will attract hundreds of people and plenty of local press about the swim that encourages and celebrates the return of public river swimming [see here].

Race Director Kate Radville explains, “The Charles River Swimming Club was founded in 2005 with the dual purpose of organizing competitive swimming events in the Charles River and public river swimming.

After decades of pollution, the Charles River has benefited from the ongoing Clean Charles River Initiative which was started in 1995 to restore the river’s ecological health. The river is now clean enough on most summer days to meet swimming standards. The club aims to raise awareness of and celebrate the efforts that went into cleaning the river, as well as to highlight the need for continued clean-up to enable recreational swimming

How times have changed…for the better

We lived three years alongside the shores of the Charles River. The early morning sunrise and the evening sunsets were beautiful to observe as we trudged over the river bridges on a daily basis.

We always knew and were told that swimming in the Charles River was off limits and forbidden. But the allure of swimming in the meandering river was too much. We were drawn to swim clandestinely along the shoreline so we often woke up before the crack of dawn and planned our swims. Every time, we woke up, we started to sweat in anticipation and worry.

This solo river swimming predated the publication and promotion of Wild Swimming, GPS, social media and the global explosion of open water swimming. It was borne out of our desire to swim in the Charles River, a slow-moving river that emptied out into the Boston Harbor.

We needed to train hard in the open water, but the Atlantic Ocean and Walden Pond was too far away, especially with the Charles River just steps from our dormitory. Simply swimming back and forth at the 50-meter Blodgett Pool on the Harvard campus was insufficient and frankly unappealing because the glistening water of the Charles River beckoned us every time we crossed one of its bridges. We felt a strong inner desire to train in water without walls. We also needed to think swimming in terms of hours and miles, not in meters and with frequent flip turns.

Every time we walked back and forth over the bridge, we plotted our swims in the Charles River for the next day, wondering what we would say if we were caught by professor or a police officer. The last thing that we wanted to be called upon by Master Heimert, the authoritative administrator who ruled Eliot House, our dormitory. He would have called us to a disciplinary panel.

But the allure of the forbidden river was too much to ignore and discard, especially as it took on various characteristics throughout the year. It ranged from a winding river framed by the colorful leaves of autumn to a white frozen mass in winter. In spring, the speed of its current seem to speed up with the melting of the snow while in summer, things seemed to slow down as the heat and humidity became oppressive and seemed to press down on the river’s surface.

The Charles daily called us, inviting us to challenge oursevles by swimming upstream and then enjoying the speed of a downstream return.

That was a powerful motivation, too much to give in. The adventure and the risk seemed so right, so enticing.

In a twisted mind of a marathon swimmer desperate to train in the open water, the risk and the planning seemed worthwhile.

So we told no one: neither our college roommates, nor our swimming teammates. Nary a word to any of our classmates. Our swims would have to remain completely confidential. A total blackout of information because the risk of telling anyone was too high. The last thing we could afford was for someone to leak information about our dawn swims.

We easily woke up before the crack of dawn and used the cloak of darkness to maintain confidentiality. Night swimming was a means to an end. The collegiate rowers were out early on the Charles, but not that early. They needed the light of the early morning to row safely. To avoid being caught, we would simply swim before the sun rose. We would rather face darkness than the Cambridge police or Master Heimert.

We scouted the Charles River for the perfect rendezvous and selected a location where we could hide our clothes and enter the river without anyone noticing. We planned to jump in on a moonlit night and start swimming parallel to shore no more than 10 meters off the shoreline. Swimming out in the middle of the river was too risky to be seen and would require time for us to escape if we were seen A few runners might be out, but the last thing they would expect was a student swimming in the Charles River. Even the splashing of our arm strokes should not attract attention for the sounds of arm strokes would be completely out of place in a darkened river with early morning traffic making plenty of ambient sounds.

The sound of splashing arms was so foreign to the situation that a swimmer was totally unexpected and understandably ignored by runners.

We grabbed a clear pair of goggles and a black swim cap. We changed into running shoes and shorts to disguise ourself as a jogger along the river banks. We would dart into the Charles River when the timing was right. After we left our dorm room with slumbering roommates unaware of our plans, the Charles River environs remained relatively quiet with the dawn’s light hours away.

We usually took fewer than 10 minutes to run to the secret start locations. It was an easy jog with no one the wiser of our plans. There was always some light traffic along the city streets, but no one was looking for a college student training for marathon swims.

When we stopped by the hedge of bushes near the banks, our skin was usually clammy and cold to the touch. We quickly stripped down to our swimsuit, always swiveling our head at every sound. We were more worried about the specter of facing Master Heimert than the risks of swimming in a polluted river. We put on our black swim cap; our way to convince ourself that we were in stealth mode. We imagined that all that was missing was camouflage paint.

We quickly skulked in the water as quietly as possible and was usually pleasantly surprised to find the water warmer than we expected. We always knew where we wanted to swim, but we never wanted to create ripples or a wake.

We always picked cloudless nights when the moonlight aided our vision. We could make out silhouettes of the trees and shrubs along the shoreline. This always helped with our navigation in the blackness. Normally darkness was a hindrance to a swimmer, but the cloak of darkness was now an enabler in the Charles River.

We always felt free swimming in the Charles. But as the Charles contours meandered through Cambridge, so did we. We swam parallel to the banks as best we could. We swam and swam, planning to train for an hour on most early mornings. We were occasionally surprised by a floating branch that popped up in our path, but the swim was always performed in completely stealth. No one ever caught us. We occasionally missed the spot where we stashed our clothes but we fortunately also evaded capture.

We did this over and over again. Quietly and confidentially.

Dial forward some 30 years later. Open water swimming is now an Olympic sport and tens of thousands of open water swimming event take place including the Charles River Swim. Local newspaper accounts now describe a cleaner river that is open to the public for time since the 1950’s.

Less than 500 meters from the Longfellow Bridge where we secretly swam in the early 1980s, contemporary swimmers can now swim freely in the Charles. How times have changed: no more hiding, no more secret swims, no more swimming under the cloak of darkness. Years ago, the Charles River Conservancy hosted the first public swim in the Charles River in 50 years. Renata von Tscharner, the founder of the Charles River Conservancy, was happy to join so many locals in the roped-off area near the shoreline.

From sneaking into the Charles in the pre-dawn mornings to publicly enjoying the river in the light of day in front of the media, the environment sure has changed for the better. A swimmable Charles; it is time for celebration.

For more information on the Charles River Conservancy, visit here.

Copyright © 2016 by World Open Water Swimming Association
Steven Munatones