Building the Swim Network

50 Ways We’ve Saved The Bay: Building the Swim Network

by Katy Dorchies, marketing and graphics specialist

Save The Bay's Topher Hamblett gives the 2018 Swim safety speech.
For decades, swimmers have gathered behind the Naval War College for the Save The Bay Swim’s safety speech.

Since our earliest days fighting an energy plant in Tiverton, Save The Bay has been focused on community. And our community shows up to support our mission and answers our calls to action time and time again. They march with us against oil refinery and power plant proposals, support the cleanup of oil spills, approve clean water bonds, invest in wastewater treatment plant improvements and more. Our annual open water Swim is no exception; in fact, nowhere does the Save The Bay community show up in greater or more visible numbers.

The Swim challenges participants to complete a 1.7-nautical-mile journey from Newport to Jamestown. It celebrates a Narragansett Bay that is improving in both quality and recreational opportunity. Swimmers, accompanied by supporters in kayaks, join hundreds of volunteers and staff, often in the wee hours of the morning, to accomplish what was once believed to be Impossible.

The idea of the Swim was first proposed in 1977 by then-assistant director, Trudy Coxe. It was so far-fetched that not even the organization’s director, John Scanlon, was on board at first. After all, Narragansett Bay had never seen an organized swim of that distance and, although the biggest era of Bay cleanup was underway, its waters were still far from clean. But Coxe, who had deep childhood ties to Narragansett Bay, maintained that the Bay could and should be swimmable. She was unwavering in her belief that nothing would build the community’s connection to the Bay like engaging with it.

The first Save The Bay Swim starting line.
In 1977, one hundred swimmers gathered in Jamestown, R.I. for the first Save The Bay Swim. (Photo Credit: Newport Daily News.)

That first year, the event maxed out its registration limit with 100 swimmers. And they were dedicated swimmers at that. On the morning of the event, Coxe announced that the Department of Health had declared the first several hundred feet of water too polluted to swim in. She instructed all participants to climb into their accompanying rowboats, row 300 feet off-shore and swim to Newport from there. Everyone complied, though many took note of the water’s foul smell and emerged at the finish line covered in oil, tarballs and slime.

Despite the unpalatable experience of swimming across Narragansett Bay that first year, participants continued to return to the Swim to tackle its waters and celebrate the improvement of Rhode Island’s coastal waters.

Today, the Swim supports a massive network of participants who, without the event, might not have any relationship with Narragansett Bay. From the friends and family members who arrive in Jamestown to welcome their loved ones to shore, to the 2000+ donors who support the fundraising swimmers, the Swim unites a far-reaching and diverse community around Save The Bay’s simple goal for the event: to foster an appreciation for and host a celebration of Narragansett Bay.

The value of the Swim can be measured a number of ways. As a fundraiser, it accounts for 10% of Save The Bay’s operating budget. As an athletic event, it has a reputation for being one of the most storied swims in the country. But we think that one of the most important and moving realities of the Swim is the simple fact that Trudy Coxe was right: nothing has activated the community’s connection to the Bay like engaging with it and, today, thousands of individuals have become part of the Swim tradition, contributing to an ever-expanding collective of those who love, value and appreciate Narragansett Bay.

Learn More about our 50th Anniversary Celebration

*Please note:  Be sure to access the Johnson & Wales University Harborside Campus through the main entrance on Harborside Blvd. Your GPS may suggest taking Ernest Street to JWU’s Shipyard Street entrance, but that route requires a key card for entry.  

From Route I-95 North or South, take Exit 18 (Thurbers Avenue). Head downhill on Thurbers Avenue to US Route 1A (Allens Avenue). Turn right onto Allens Ave. Continue southbound on Allens Ave. into Cranston, where Allens Ave. becomes Narragansett Blvd. Turn left onto Harborside Blvd. at the traffic light by the Shell gas station. Follow Harborside Blvd. through the Johnson & Wales Harborside Campus. At the end of Harborside Blvd., turn right onto Save The Bay Drive. Save The Bay Drive becomes a circular, one-way roadway as you approach the Bay Center. Parking is available in four guest lots after you pass the main building. Enter the building through the main entrance.