Monday, February 28, 2011

Incredible "Swim for the Lights" by Gary Sredzienski

February 26, 2011, was an extraordinary day for lighthouse preservation. It was also one of the most memorable days of my life.

I had the good fortune to be in a support boat alongside Gary Sredzienski as he successfully completed his four-mile, 2.5-hour "Swim for the Lights."

I've never witnessed a display of willpower and athleticism to compare to what Gary accomplished on this day.

The conditions seemed favorable near Odiorne Point in Rye, NH, slightly before 1:30 p.m., when Gary entered the frigid waters at the mouth of the Piscataqua River and began his swim. The air temperature was about 27F, and the water was about 38F.

Gary was helped to the water by the American Lighthouse Foundation's executive director, Bob Trapani, and William Marshall, a board member of Friends of Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouses. Bob served as the primary point person on land during the swim.

Meanwhile, Friends of Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouses Chairman Ross Tracy rode along in a boat with the New Hampshire Marine Patrol. Coast Guard Station Porstmouth Harbor also provided a patrol boat for the duration of the event.

The Piscataqua, incidentally, is said to be the second fastest flowing navigable river in the United States. The swim was timed to start an hour after low tide, at a time when the current was expected to be a relatively minor factor.
The route (bottom to top)
The Piscataqua, however, is anything but predictable. A storm had passed by the night before and there was a stiff westerly breeze.

By the time he was a third of the way to Whaleback Lighthouse, his first intended stop about a mile and a half away, the west wind was kicking up and the seas were growing dangerously choppy. Several times, we had to yell to Gary to adjust his course as he struggled toward his objective.

I could see that Gary was expending tremendous energy during the first leg of the swim, and I started to wonder if he could draw on some sort of inner reserves to complete the route. I was worried for him.

About three-quarters of the way to Whaleback, Gary came over to the boat for a quick breather, a drink of water, and a bite of banana. He was already looking drained. He said later that he expended so much energy in the early part of the swim that he stopped kicking for much of the time so he could save some leg energy for the last part.

It was Gary's aim to climb onto the rocks at Whaleback to provide a good photo opportunity. I told him repeatedly that we didn't want him doing anything to put himself in danger -- including climbing onto wet, slippery rocks.

As he neared the jagged granite boulders with waves crashing against them, I hoped Gary would give up on the idea of going ashore. My boatmates, Jim Varn and Kent Allyn, laughed and said that Gary does what Gary wants to do.

Timing his access between waves, Gary clambered onto the wet rocks. He waved triumphantly and climbed up and over to the other side, out of our sight. He couldn't stay out of the water for long or he'd get too cold. By the time we got to the other side, Gary was lowering himself back into the water.

As Gary swam on toward Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse in New Castle, NH, the wind and waves gradually subsided.

A crowd of well-wishers was waiting around the base of the lighthouse in New Castle, and they cheered as Gary got close. This time he had second thoughts about scaling the wet, seaweed-covered rocks in front of the lighthouse. As he paused near the rocks, a kayaker approached and shouted his good wishes.
Gary eventually pulled away and started the last leg of the swim toward Kittery Point. During the duration of the swim, Gary took occasional brief breaks, coming over to the boat for a quick drink of seltzer water and a bite of a banana or Powerbar. By my count, he took three of these breaks, none of them longer than a few minutes. By the last break, he was telling us to grab him so he didn't have to hang onto the boat -- he was running out of strength in his arms.

Gary's willpower pulled him on past Fort McClary to Kittery Point. As we got closer, we were thrilled to see a crowd waiting on the dock. I'm sure it warmed Gary's heart -- which was no doubt frozen by this time -- to see all the people waiting for him.

Photo by William Marshall
In spite of his dwindling energy, Gary had to put on a show for the audience. A couple of hundred feet away from the dock, Gary came to the side of the boat so he could don a "Creature from the Black Lagoon" mask, and he got on a boogie board to be hauled to the finish line.

As he walked up onto the boat ramp, he was handed a little red accordion as the crowd cheered.
Photo by Ann Trapani

I wondered if he would have the energy to walk up the boat ramp unassisted. He did, of course.

If all that wasn't remarkable enough, after a brief break to shower and change, Gary played a two-hour gig at a post-Swim celebration party at Captain and Patty's restaurant.

At the party, several hundred more dollars were added to the funds raised by the swim. At this writing, the donations total almost $8300 toward the goal of $10,000. You can still honor Gary's extraordinary accomplishment by donating at or

My thanks to everyone who has donated or played any role in this event. It's a day I'll never forget.

As I finish writing this, I just got an email from Gary. He's complaining that he has the "post-aqua" blues. And to think I was worried about how he might be feeling!

And I just got another message from Gary:

The Piscataqua is so humbling and is no joke. I did that [wore the mask at the end of the swim] to have fun and have fun with the cause and the people, but most of all I just want to express my respect because so many lost their lives where I was. 

I believe in 1871 a Prussian lighthouse keeper of Whaleback drowned. You can feel that out there.  That was a very difficult first stretch between Rye and Whaleback and it dawned on me that it's where the water of five rivers meet the sea. 

The battle between river and sea travels far inland, but that is the geographic boundary between two great forces of nature. It was such an honor for me to feel that, to be humbled by that, and I only mean respect to this river and those lighthouses. 

Here's a video recapping the swim:

Sunday, February 27, 2011

An Inspiring "Swim for the Lights"

I had the privilege of riding along in a support boat on Saturday as Gary Sredzienski swam four miles in 38-degree water, battling wind and waves to raise funds for lighthouse preservation. It was incredible. I'll be posting more very soon.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

One more preview video for "Swim for the Lights"

Swim for the Lights cartoon in the Portsmouth Herald

The Portsmouth Herald has published a cartoon related to the Swim for the Lights event that's happening this Saturday, benefiting the American Lighthouse Foundation and the Friends of Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse.

The cartoon depicts swimmer/musician Gary Sredzienski towing the rest of his band as he swims past Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse.

You can win a prize by correctly guessing the name of the band -- click here.

The weather looks good for Saturday and all systems are go for this exciting event. I'll be out in a boat all afternoon shooting video of Gary's four -mile swim in 35 degree water. I've got my warm clothes all laid out.

To date, the event has raised about two-thirds of the goal of  $10,000. There's still time to donate to help support lighthouse preservation -- click here for more info.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

American Lighthouse Foundation promo video

I put this promotional video together using my own photos of 22 lighthouses under ALF's care.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Swim for the Lights Preview Video

Here's another video preview for the unique "Swim for the Lights" event this Saturday, February 26. To date, the event has raised more than $6000 for the American Lighthouse Foundation and Friends of Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouses -- the goal is $10,000. See for more information.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Battling a Snowstorm at Owls Head Light in the 1960s

Owls Head Light Station, Maine
In calm weather, being a lighthouse keeper was hard work, but generally not stressful. During storms, on the other hand, keepers frequently had to battle heroically against extreme forces to keep the light and foghorn going for any unfortunate mariners in their vicinity. It was the same for the Coast Guard keepers of the modern era as it was for the civilian keepers of prior centuries. In severe weather, everything was always reduced to the simple equation of man vs. nature.

I just received the story below in an email from Linda Davis, who was passing it along for her husband, Melvin Davis. Jr., who was the Coast Guard lightkeeper at Owls Head Light in Midcoast Maine, 1965-68. In a storm in the 1960s, Melvin displayed courage and devotion to duty that would have made lighthouse keepers of any era proud.  Thank you to Melvin and Linda for sharing this.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Swim for the Lights Preview 3 - February 6, 2011

Frigid swim will benefit local lighthouses - Portsmouth Herald

I spent some time at Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse with Deborah McDermott and Deb Cram of the Portsmouth (NH) Herald for interviews and photos related to the "Swim for the Lights" fundraising event coming up on 2/26. Deborah did a wonderful job with the story -- click here to read it!

Friday, February 4, 2011

Lights Out for Lighthouses? (CNN)

I'm heavily quoted in an article on the CNN website today -- click here.

George Webster did a fine job with this story. I hope it helps bring attention to the fact that our offshore lighthouses are seriously endangered.

Help Keep the Elements Out of Cape Elizabeth's Lantern!

Few lighthouses in Maine, and throughout the country for that matter, rival the elegance and beauty of the east light tower at Cape Elizabeth, but its stately appearance on the exterior does not reveal what the elements are doing on the interior of the historic structure.

Click here to read more!

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Gary gets a wetsuit!

Cinnamon Rainbows Surf Co. of Hampton, New Hampshire, is on board as a sponsor of the "Swim for the Lights," an event coming up on February 26.

The store provided a Xcel wetsuit for Gary Sredzienski at a deep discount, helping to insure that he'll be properly attired when he swims four miles in frigid water to raise funds for lighthouse preservation.

Big thanks to Cinnamon Rainbows for supporting lighthouse preservation!

Left, Gary Sredzienski with Phil Carey of Cinnamon Rainbows.

To learn more about the "Swim for the Lights," click here.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Is this man crazy?

Gary Sredzienski on ice near Kittery, Maine. Photo by Deb Cram
Well, if it's crazy to swim 12 months a year, even if the water temperature is below freezing, then yes, Gary Sredzienski is crazy as a loon. But he's made a science of figuring out the proper gear to wear, and he's made it this far (he's in his upper 40s) without any serious damage. He likes to say that people watching him from shore are colder than he is -- as long as he keeps moving.

Gary is also a very accomplished accordionist, and he has a radio show called "Polka Party" that's listened to nationwide. Everything Gary does is done with passion and commitment. It's those qualities that led him to start doing long-distance winter swims for local charities in the Portsmouth, New Hampshire, area.

Photo by Deb Cram
This year, his chosen cause is the American Lighthouse Foundation and its local chapter, Friends of Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouses. Gary is a big believer in cultural heritage, and he feels a strong attachment to the area's lighthouses as historic icons that must be preserved.

Gary will be swimming four miles, with stops at Whaleback Lighthouse and Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse, on February 26. Following the swim, Gary and his band, the Serfs, will play at a party/concert at Captain and Patty's restaurant at Kittery Point, Maine. You can read all the details by clicking here.

If this man is crazy, then we need more crazy people to help support historic preservation.