Harry Kemp, an American writer known as Poet of the Dunes, floated the idea of an open water swim between Provincetown and Plymouth, symbolically celebrating the historic bond between the First Landing Place and the First Colony.
Kemp promoted a 20-mile swim called the American Channel Swim from Provincetown to Plymouth to remind people of the course the Pilgrams took. But it failed to catch on because Kemp was never able to find swimmers who could manage the distance.
Henry Sullivan, the first American to cross the English Channel, Charlie Toth, the third man to cross the English Channel, and Samuel Richards gave it a shot in 1915, but each failed.
Decades later beginning in the 1950s, several people made attempts but none succeeded until 41-year-old Russell Chaffee of Sayre, Pennsylvnia swam 19.5 miles from Plymouth to Provincetown in 1968 in 14 hours 40 minutes.
On August 21st David Barra, Eileen Burke, Janet Harris, Greg O’Connor and Mo Siegel aimed to replicate Chaffee’s success. They started around 3 am from White Horse Beach in Plymouth, Massachusetts and headed 20 miles towards Herring Cove in Provincetown on Cape Cod.
“The first hour was the hardest. I always find it hard to step off of a boat into cold water at night,” recalled O’Connor (shown on left) of the 63°F (17°C) water.
“It is just the idea that once I leave the boat there is not stopping until it is over many miles and hours away. I had a long, lonely swim into White Horse beach in Plymouth. It took a while to get in to the start because the tide was going out. I stepped on to the beach at just before 3:50 am. It was dark and the boat looked like it was a mile away.”
There were reports days before of Great White Shark sightings inside Cape Cod Bay. It weighed on the swimmers’ minds. “I always find the first hour in marathon swims to be the hardest. That is the time when I have doubts and thoughts of quitting. I know this always happens so I push through the first hour and it always gets better. With this swim it seemed to get better by the hour and I found myself really enjoy the time in the water for most of the swim.”
But swimming at night had its advantages. “The best part of the swim was the swarms of small jelly fish that would glow green when you hit them at night.” So did the day as a pod of Minke whales were spotted near the end.
Siegel abandoned his swim due to an injury as O’Connor landed at Race Point Light in 10 hours 22 minutes. Burke finished at the southern end of Herring Cover in 11 hours 10 minutes as Barra and Harris finished in 11 hours 45 minutes.
Copyright © 2012 by World Open Water Swimming Association