Swimmers Gear up for Annual Peaks Island-to-Portland Race

Jul 10, 2014

Mitchell Williams, 1927. Mitchell Williams was the winner of the 1927 race. Standing behind him is his wife, Florence Eastman Williams.
Credit Courtesy: Maine Historical Society/MaineToday Media

The YMCA of Southern Maine will stage its 32nd annual Peaks Island-to-Portland swim Saturday morning. But the swim has a much longer history.

I have to begin with a disclosure:  In the strict, journalistic sense of the word, I have a conflict of interest on this story.

"You know, for years and years I came out and covered this event and I always said to the people I interviewed, 'You're crazy for doing this. Crazy.'  And now that I've done it, I know after all these years, I was right."

That's me, interviewed by our late colleague Allan Dowd after finishing my first Peaks-to-Portland swim in 1995. I've done six more since.  But this story is not about me.  

It's not about our Jennifer Rooks, who swam her first Peaks swim in 2008.  "That's the craziest thing I've ever done. You told me it would be, and it was. Oh my gosh," she said.

No, this is a story about Mitchell Williams, whose photo appears on the Maine Memory Network Web site identified as the winner of the Peaks-to-Portland swim in 1927. It's about Ruth Fairbanks Stewart, who swam past a maritime disaster in 1946.  And it's about Hattie Train, who's getting ready to try Peaks for the first time, after kayaking alongside her Mom last year.

In some ways, the islands of Casco Bay close to Portland represent an obvious challenge for long-distance swimmers. And a few hearty souls began taking up that challenge back at the dawn of the 20th century. Mitchell Williams' photo is evidence of one of those earliest swims.   

The distance from the Peaks Island ferry landing  to Portland's East End Beach is a bit less than 2 1/2 miles.  But  the real challenge isn't the distance, it's the cold water. The water temperature rarely goes above the mid 60's in these parts, and it's sometimes in the 50s for the Peaks swim.  

Terry Swain, the aquatics director for the YMCA of Southern Maine.
Credit Irwin Gratz

For decades,the only protection was a strong constitution and lots and lots of axle grease.  "And I'm sure it was very hard to get off of your body after a while, so it's hard to imagine that happening," says Terry Swain, the aquatics director for the YMCA of Southern Maine.   

In 1982, as part of Greater Portland's 350th anniversary, the "Y" revived the swim, at first barring wet suits from the race. That rule was lifted after a few years, and in the last decade, Swain has embarked on a drive to swell the ranks of swimmers.  There were just 50 who registered for that 1982 race;  this year there are 400.

"I've often said to some swimmers, 'When I can walk across your backs across from Peaks Island to East End Beach, then we'll have enough people,'" she says.

The swelling field poses its own challenges:  Timing is now done electronically, since swimmers sometimes cross the finish line in batches too big for volunteers to record times.  The "Y" deploys six motorized boats with lifeguards aboard, one with a physician's assistant and all with supplies to treat hypothermic swimmers;  more lifeguards patrol the race field in kayaks;  the Coast Guard will have a presence, as will the Portland harbor master.  And the Portland fire boat will bring up the rear.

All to help insure a safe swim for everyone, including Hattie Train, who will be doing Peaks-to-Portland for the first time this year.

"Although I have swam in open water, like out to friends moorings and stuff from the beach, but I've never swam this far in an open water swim and it's very exciting and scary," she says.

A poster depicting the race.
Credit Irwin Gratz

Train is from Long Island. She's a competitive swimmer - won four medals at a state swim meet for her high school, Cheverus.   But that's swimming in a pool.

"I personally hate seeing the bottom when I'm swimming in deep water in the ocean," she says. "I don't know why it bothers me greatly."

All right, so we won't tell her about all the jellyfish people have seen in Maine waters this year. Train is also part of a mother-daughter pairing at this year's swim:  Marci Train has done the Peaks several times; Hattie was her accompanying kayaker last year.

But perhaps there was no greater challenge than the one faced by Ruth Fairbanks Stuart, in 1946. She was the only female swimmer in that field.  But that wasn't her big challenge either.  It was, after all, her third swim.  But, as she neared East End Beach, there was a huge explosion aboard the oil tanker Diamond Island, which was at anchor not far from the beach.   

The blast killed two crew members and injured three others. Thousands, gathered to watch the finish, were looking right at the blast.  Maine Sunday Telegram Sports Editor Bud Cornish described it as "mushrooming atom cloud."
In her obituary, Ruth Stuart was quoted as saying she felt a tremor in the water, but, realizing she was unhurt, decided to keep going.  She finished 6th in a field of 17. 

This year's Peaks Island-to-Portland Swim begins Saturday morning at 8:30.