Charles River Swimming Club Aims to Bring Positive Perception to an Urban River

By Beth Treffeisen

During the early morning hours last Saturday, 200 brave swimmers pulled on their goggles and swim caps and dove into the Charles River Basin for a one-mile race that ran between the Longfellow Bridge and the Massachusetts Ave Bridge.

Since 2007, the Charles River Swimming Club, Inc., has been hosting races in this urban river to promote both organized competitive swimming and the return of public river swimming.

“The primary focus of the club is half environmental and half athletic,” said Frans Lawaetz, the president of the Charles River Swimming Club. “The goal is to not have the race be a unique one-off event and not just another day of swimming.”

This was the ninth year that the Charles River Swimming Club held the race. In the past there have been some cancellations but Lawaetz said they have had a streak since 2011 and he hopes that will continue in the years to come.

Founded in 2005, the club started as way to celebrate and acknowledge the improved water quality in the river. Now, most days in the summer the water is clean enough to swim in.

Last year, the Environmental Protection Agency gave the river a B+ rating, meaning that the river is suitable for swimming about 70 percent of the time. That is due in part because the Clean Charles River Initiative that began in 1995 has been working to restore the river’s ecological health.

The first race the club held ten years ago was the first sanctioned public swimming event in the river in over 50 years.

The club aims to raise awareness of and celebrate the efforts that went into cleaning the urban river but to also highlight the need for continued clean up to enable recreational swimming into the future.

Lawaetz moved to Boston from the Virgin Islands in 2000, shortly after efforts had already been in affect to reverse the garbage cesspool that once tarnished the river.

“I think it is fortunate that I didn’t grow up here so I don’t have the concept in my mind that the river is dirty or smelly,” said Lawaetz. “It is about changing the perception and that takes time. If you grew up with the context that the river is not suitable for swimming it is hard to change that mind set.”

Although some people might be weary of jumping in the river, Lawaetz pointed that many people already are in the water all summer long – kayaking, windsurfing, sailing – and they have contact with the water and are fine.

The race itself is a way to show that the river really is clean and can be enjoyed by all to use he said.

“I can say, after each race I see the swimmers coming out of the water who are all beaming and having had a great time,” said Lawaetz.

For Katharine Radville, the race director and vice president of the Charles River Swimming Club, Inc., swimming has always been a big part of her life.

Radville grew up in Reading, and attended college and graduate school in the City.

She said growing up in the area,  the perception was the water was dirty and even when she later attended Boston University and was a lifeguard at the sailing center people kept saying, “Oh how disgusting that water is” when in reality she said it’s really not.

“I feel strongly about advocating on behalf on the river and although it is clean most days I want to make sure it stays that way,” said Radville.

During the race, Radville who swam the race in years past, said that the swimmers are right out in the Charles River Basin.

“When you look up to take a breath you see the Esplanade on one side and MIT on the other – it’s a pretty dramatic race,” said Radville.

Although there is typically a lot of boats and other obstacles for swimmers in the Charles River, Radville said, a lot of safety precautions are taken into account including supporting kayakers with lifeguards and other small craft boats.

As or right now, the club mostly is focused on the race that takes place each year but she hopes to expand it to include promotion of the river and all the great activities that one can do on it.

Currently, there is no designated swimming area and although some people may go in anyways, Lawaetz said that it is not legal.

The Charles River Conservancy is currently working on getting a Swim Park in the North Point Park to create a place for people to get in the water. The goal of the Swim Park will be to build a safe, fun and accessible permanent swimming facility in the Charles River.

“I think it is pretty realistic that recreational swimming will happen in the future,” said Radville. “But for now, it is about getting the word out that it is clean and then to continue to work to keep it that way.”

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