On February 26, 2011, Swim for the Lights, an event sponsored by the American Lighthouse Foundation and its chapter, Friends of Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouses, lived up to its incredible billing and realized its important fundraising potential.
Thanks to Gary Sredzienski of Kittery, Maine, and his one-of-a-kind commitment and swimming prowess, as well as to the dedicated volunteers who helped coordinate the event – and to the many donors who graciously supported it, Swim for the Lights raised over $9,000 for the mission of the American Lighthouse Foundation!
When you have such a successful event as Swim for the Lights, a recap may be best served by obtaining the unique perspectives of those involved to tell its story.
Q: Can you describe the weather conditions at the start of Gary’s four mile swim?
A: “The conditions seemed favorable near Odiorne Point in Rye, NH, slightly before 1:30 pm, 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.”
“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 Piscataqua, however, is anything but predictable. A storm had passed by the night before and there was a stiff westerly breeze.” – Jeremy D’Entremont, President, American Lighthouse Foundation
Q: What kind of logistical support was in place at the start of the swim?
A: “Gary was helped to the water by the American Lighthouse Foundation’s executive director, Bob Trapani, and William Marshall, a board member of the 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 Portsmouth also provided a patrol boat for the duration of the event.” – Jeremy D’Entremont
A: “The committee ensured Gary received an array of support, but none greater than two aspects that had a direct impact on his preparation and ability to complete the swim. Upon arrival at the Seacoast Science Center, swim committee member Mark Schremmer made sure Gary had all of his gear in-hand and that it was properly donned. Mark also ensured that Gary had his ‘quiet’ space from the public so that he could focus entirely on the task at hand with his pre-swim mental preparations, which was vital to such a demanding physical feat.”
“Once Gary arrived at water’s edge to begin his swim, the baton was now passed to the support boat and its crew who would accompany Gary on every leg of the swim. Jim Varn, the boat’s operator, along with crewmen Kent Allyn and Jeremy D’Entremont, as well as Doctor Larry Schlemann, was Gary’s ‘eyes & ears’ on the water. The value of this crew cannot be overstated. The crew’s job was to observe Gary’s efforts closely for any signs of possible trouble, provide him with food and water, and of course – cheer him on every stretch of the way!” – Bob Trapani, Jr.
Q: As the boat operator, what did you see as your biggest challenges during the swim?
A: “Our biggest challenge was keeping the right distance from Gary no matter what was going on with the wind, waves and current. We needed to be close enough to ensure that he was safe but not too close where we might have gotten in his way or crowded him. It was also a little tricky when we pulled up next to him to give him food and water. We had to put the motor in neutral to keep him safe, but then we were subject to being moved around by the elements – sometimes to places we didn’t want to go.” – Jim Varn
Q: As a member of the boat crew, what was your role?
A: “I felt that we were there to give Gary comfort and encouragement, food and nourishment, and general support. It was important for him to know that there was a doctor onboard and that a quick ride to shore was there in case anything had gone awry.” – Kent Allyn
A: “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.” – Jeremy D’Entremont
Q: How did the stretch between Odiorne Point and Whaleback Lighthouse fare for Gary?
A: “From my great vantage point aboard the support boat, I saw that Gary looked strong and in complete command at the start of the swim. But then, as we got farther out in the middle of the mouth of the Piscataqua, I started to worry. I wasn’t worried for Gary’s safety, but the increasingly choppy seas and steady westerly wind made me wonder if Gary would be able to finish the swim. He was obviously laboring to fight the current as we got closer to Whaleback.”
“As he battled his way to Whaleback, I thought for sure there was no way Gary would have the energy to climb up onto the massive rocks near the lighthouse. But if there’s one thing I learned from the event, it’s not to underestimate Gary. He climbed up onto the rocks and gave the lighthouse a bow. Gary’s a showman, and he certainly provided us with a memorable photo opportunity.” – Jeremy D’Entremont
Q: What were your (Gary Sredzienski) biggest challenges during the swim?
A: “The biggest challenge of the swim was the first leg, coping with the wind and waves. When I started it was very difficult to see where I was going. I was told later that I veered to the right and went off course. I had assumed the ocean currents were starting to come in so I was swimming toward the right to over compensate.”
“I have heard for years that many lives were lost out there and that boats even disappeared. I could sense that as I swam out there. Although the fight between sea and river goes far inland, around Whaleback Light is the geographic boundary where two powerful forces of nature meet. The water from five different rivers empty into that harbor. I am humbled and have the utmost respect for the Piscataqua River. When I stood up horizontally at the lighthouse, I felt the exhaustion. Your mind goes into a different place.” – Gary Sredzienski
Q: Can you describe what it was like to emerge from the water at Whaleback Lighthouse?
A: “I was so psyched to reach Whaleback – that was my ultimate goal. On the way out I knew nature was saying to me, ‘you’re not going to get this too easily. If you want her, you’re really going to have to work for it.’”
“As I said, I could feel the tragedies of years past as I was swimming out there. The boulders at the lighthouse are so huge. I recall saying to myself that I’m not really up for rock climbing today, but it had to be done, though I was aware that I could easily have broken a leg climbing those rocks. As for Whaleback Lighthouse, what a noble structure – it really seems to be alive.” – Gary Sredzienski
Q: How did Gary’s efforts fare after departing Whaleback in-route to Portsmouth Harbor Light?
A: “Gary’s swim route became a bit easier conditions-wise after Whaleback. I was relieved as the wind and waves died down as Gary approached Portsmouth Harbor Light. I was also relieved when he decided not to battle the seaweed and wet rocks to go ashore there. It would have been dangerous, and he needed to save his energy for a final push.”
“Nonetheless, it was neat to see a crowd of well-wishers waiting around the base of the lighthouse in New Castle and to hear them cheer as Gary got close. As he paused near the rocks, a kayaker approached and shouted his good wishes too.”– Jeremy D’Entremont
A: “From our vantage point at Portsmouth Harbor Light, it appeared that Gary was making much better progress time-wise as he swam the stretch from Whaleback, past the Wood Island Lifesaving Station, to Portsmouth Harbor Light, though at this point, we knew he had to be extremely tired. That said, when Gary arrived at the ledge below the lighthouse, it really was an exciting moment for all the onlookers – for he was almost home. You could sense the excitement building for Gary’s upcoming finish, which was a great feeling for all involved.” – Bob Trapani, Jr.
Q: Can you describe the swim’s finish?
A: “Gary gave the crowd gathered at Kittery Point a laugh, finishing the swim on a boogie board while wearing a Creature from the Black Lagoon mask. He wanted to put on a show for people, but no one should mistake the lighthearted way Gary finished the swim for a lack of seriousness. He trained hard, and he fought hard for every inch he swam on this day. I have never witnessed a more impressive show of willpower unfolding right in front of me. It was truly inspiring.” – Jeremy D’Entremont
Q: What did you think of Gary Sredzienski’s swim?
A: “I was in awe of Gary’s power and persistence. He was like an unstoppable force. Once he decides to do something, he just puts his head down and goes. He is physically powerful, but it’s the mental and emotional toughness that amazed and impressed me. He is one of a kind.” – Jim Varn
A: “I was there, but it’s still hard for me to believe that he played accordion for almost two hours with his band, the Serfs, at our party after the swim. Talk about a commitment! I’m sure no one will ever give so much of their heart, body, and soul in a single day for our cause again.” – Jeremy D’Entremont
A: “For me, I don’t think the realization of what Gary did for us really set in until he pulled himself on stage at Captain & Patty’s and, again, put his heart and soul into giving the attendees an entertaining and uplifting performance with the Serfs. Huge thanks go out to everyone involved in making this event such a rousing success!” – Ross Tracy
A: “Gary’s passion, energy and resolve was indomitable. Watching him persevere through exhaustion and pain, and still maintain his mental toughness for the duration of this vigorous feat, was something to behold. Completing the swim under such demanding conditions says a lot about Gary’s talents – and even more about his spirit and willingness to help others.” – Bob Trapani, Jr.
Q: Why do lighthouses mean a lot to you?
A: “Hundreds of times I’ve been out in a boat and admired lighthouses, but you really feel the connection when you are in the water swimming to them. You can’t really feel this from a boat…well you can, but there is something about being in the water approaching them. Those lighthouses –Whaleback and Portsmouth Harbor, gave me a warm feeling as I was swimming to them.” – Gary Sredzienski
Q: Any final thoughts on the swim?
A: “Gary’s swim was inspirational to not just our supportive donors and sponsors, but to the corps of volunteers that also gave 150% and helped us create one of our largest events. It’s imperative that we keep interest in lighthouse preservation year-round and our donor response was something to behold, especially since this event falls outside of our ‘normal season.’” – Ross Tracy, Chairman, Friends of Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouses
A: “In the end, Gary’s efforts brought lighthouse enthusiasts from all over, and communities from two states, together for one common cause. In doing so, we accomplished great things for lighthouses – and for the spirit of teamwork that helps make our communities a better place to live, work and play.” – Bob Trapani, Jr.
A: I can honestly say, with no exaggeration, that the swim was the most incredible show of athleticism and sheer willpower I’ve ever witnessed. As if all that wasn’t enough, after the swim, Gary played the accordion with his band, the Serfs, during a sold-out celebration at Captain and Patty’s Restaurant at Kittery Point. Those of you who were there know that Gary did his absolute best to put on a fantastic show in spite of the fact that he was physically drained from the swim. – Jeremy D’Entremont
A: “I am humbled and truly blessed. Everything worked out so beautifully. To have such an experience and have it benefit others at the same time, brought me immense joy.” – Gary Sredzienski
The American Lighthouse Foundation (ALF) and its chapter, Friends of Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouses (FPHL), wish to express its sincere gratitude to:
All the “Swim for the Lights” sponsors and donors who helped make this event a wonderful fundraising success
Captain & Patty’s Restaurant
New Hampshire Marine Patrol
New Hampshire State Parks
Seacoast Science Center
United States Coast Guard (Sector Northern New England & Station Portsmouth)
In addition, ALF & FPHL wish to thank the “Swim for the Lights” Committee:
Kent Allyn, Jeremy D’Entremont, William Marshall, Mark Schremmer, Gary Sredzienski, Ross Tracy, Ann-Marie Trapani, Bob Trapani, Jr. and Jim Varn
More Photos from the “Swim for the Lights” event…