One Square Mile: Open Water Swimming Grows, For Exercise And Community

Oct 8, 2014

This week we’re bringing you stories from our series One Square Mile: Narragansett Bay. We’re taking a deep dive into the bay that helps define the Ocean State. Its history. Its present. Its future. Now, a look at how the bay keeps us healthy, through the eyes of a few of the growing numbers of open water swimmers.

Gathering for an evening swim

We’re sitting on a ledge at Narragansett town beach. The sky is overcast, it’s early evening. Dozens of people are suiting up for a swim.

“My name is Susan Hannel. And I’m with a group of people who are about to go open water swimming, here along the beach.”

They gather a couple of nights a week all summer to swim and socialize. And as they shimmy into wetsuits and catch up with friends, Hannel says she wasn’t always so comfortable swimming in open water.

“The first couple times, I went out to the first buoy and came back. And then the next time I went out to the second buoy and came back. And now, it’s been, this is summer number six.”

She’s lost her fear, built up strength and endurance. Now, she’s ready for a workout.

Fred Bartlett lays out the swimmers’ course. Out to the first buoy, and beyond. A little more than a mile. Bartlett has been leading swimmers into the bay for decades. But it wasn’t always this popular.

“30 years ago would you have seen a group like this?” I ask.
“Absolutely not,” says Bartlett.

Nowadays, says Barlett, it’s easy for swimmers to find a group.

“It’s grown exponentially, obviously with the internet. In the early years I would have a hotline and people would call the hotline. In the early, early years it was just three or four of us that would go out and swim. And then it started to grow and people saw us out here and said ‘Hey, what’s going on?”

A sport gains momentum, and a cleaner bay beckons

What was going on, says Bartlett, was that more people were discovering how much they enjoyed being in open water. The internet helped them find each other and get organized. But there were a few other changes that helped convince more swimmers to plunge in. The state’s oldest and, now, biggest open water swim, a fundraiser for Save The Bay, took off. And so, too, did efforts to clean up years of unchecked pollution.

“In the early years of Save the Bay you’d come out with marks all over your face, mud and stains, and you’d hit different things throughout the swim of Save the Bay,” says Barlett. “So the cleanliness of the bay has improved tenfold.”

Cities have curbed the sewage that used to spill out into the bay. There’s less garbage floating around. But there’s also better equipment now for open water swimming – especially in chilly water. Take wet suits, for example. They used to be made just for surfers.

“The wet suit has come a long way. Before they were not swimming wet suits they were designed for surfing and wind surfing. But they weren’t swimming wet suits. And now they’re specifically designed for swimming. And it’s made the weaker swimmers much more comfortable and more buoyant and less hesitant to go in the water.”

Along the way, there were champions of open water swimming like Fred Bartlett, keeping the flame lit for swimmers like Beth Rodewig, who has just zipped up her wetsuit.

“He is the pied piper. I mean look at us! We swim with him in all kinds of conditions because we trust him. All kinds of bodies of ocean, because we trust him.”

And because, after a winter of workouts in a pool, she can’t wait to get outside.

“it’s so much different from the pool. It’s challenging. It’s fun. It’s just a beautiful, relaxing place to be out here.”

Rodewig and the rest of the swimmers trudge down the beach toward the water, stopping to help each other zip up wetsuits. It should feel good - the water is 70 degrees or so. But a storm is churning up the Eastern seaboard, so they might encounter some chop.

Swim in a pack, and be prepared

“When you do open water swimming, you have a variety of environments you have to deal with.”

This is Frank McQuiggan. He’s one of the founders of Swim Rhode Island. Few people in Rhode Island know how to navigate the beauty and danger of all those environments better than McQuiggan.

“It rains. It’s windy. Sometimes it’s flat as glass, which is beautiful. Sometimes it’s clear. Sometimes it’s very dark.”

That’s one reason McQuiggan says a swimmer has to be prepared.

“You can’t drop in to the ocean and start swimming a mile. You have to start in a pool. And there’s training you can do that can get you to that point sooner. Interval training, more effective than just long, slow distance swimming. Working with a coach, because technique is such a part of it.”

McQuiggan has helped put Rhode Island swimming on the map. At 65, he not only continues to coach swimmers, but he’s still a fierce competitor himself in long distance open water swimming.

“Once you have the technique down, and you’re comfortable and you can swim a mile in a pool, then you’re ready for a half mile, three quarter mile swim in the ocean.”

Because there’s a current. And there’s no wall to hold on to when you get tired, no line to follow if you get off course. Not to mention the jellyfish. That’s why McQuiggan says you should never swim alone. Better to swim in a pack.

“There’s comfort in a pack. But also in a pack in open water, you can draft off each other, which is kind of fun because it takes a little less effort to climb behind somebody and kind of let them pull you along.

Taking the plunge

“Guys, we’re going to be walking down half way and we’re going to do a buoy pattern down there… which is about a mile…if you want to swim past the chop…”

Back on Narragansett town beach, the swimmers following Fred Bartlett into gentle surf strap on goggles and secure their swim caps.

Swimmer Susan Hannel says she’s plunging in as much for the exercise as for the community.

“I have friends at church and people I work with that I really love. But the people I swim with are just amazing,” says Hannel.

And with that, the swimmers disappear into the surf.