A dip in the Charles

 

By Steve Nadis, Cambridge Chronicle

Saturday was going to be my big day — the day I made history as the first civilian (as opposed to competitive swimmer) to dunk legally in the Charles in more than 50 years.

I’m not counting all those renegade kids who jump off the Weeks Footbridge near Harvard Square. Nor am I counting William Weld’s 1996 dive into the river, which violated several local statutes even though he was governor at the time and could invoke executive privilege. Despite these outlaw acts, recreational swimming has been banned in the Charles since the 1950s, when authorities determined that doing so could be injurious to one’s hairstyle, even to so-called “perms.”

But last Saturday was different, because the Charles River Conservancy had organized a “community” swimming event, publicized on WikiLeaks and sanctioned by the EPA, DCR and Daughters of the American Revolution. The water was deemed perfectly “swimmable;” you just needed a reservation to get on the guest list. I signed up early (and often) and was, I believe, first on the list. I also saved space for my wife and daughter, securing the second and third spots. I felt confident I could get the jump on them but wasn’t sure about the rest of the crowd. The one thing working in my favor was the element of surprise: Nobody else knew there was a competition to see who hit the water first.

My plan was looking good, but the weather not so good — cool and cloudy, when I woke up, with a slight drizzle (or “slizzle,” as we say in the prognostication trade). Things took a turn for the better when we reached the swimming site along the Esplanade.

The master of ceremonies for this event was none other than Bruce Schwoegler, a former WBZ meteorologist and personal hero of mine. I’ve long admired the levity he brought to his five-day forecasts, plus the deftness with which he navigated complex weather maps, identifying frontal zones, squall lines and tropical depressions that the average citizen couldn’t distinguish from the jet stream.

I’ve always had a soft spot for weathermen, ever since I was 5 and got a signed photo from the legendary Chicago meteorologist Harry Volkman, a Boston native who wrote: “Dear Steve, I hope you weather the many storms you’ll surely face in the future” — or words to that effect.

But there were no storms on this Saturday. Just as “Schwoegy” predicted, the clouds thinned and the sun pierced through. He introduced several speakers to kick off the proceedings, including Bob Zimmerman of the Charles River Watershed Association, who said he dreamed of the day “you could go swimming in the Charles without first having to listen to guys like me.”

When the gabfest was over, I wanted to introduce myself to Schwoegy and let him know what a big fan I was, maybe his biggest fan ever, but that might have scared him. Also, the first swimmers were supposed to proceed to the dock, posthaste. I wasn’t going to dawdle at this critical juncture, even though it probably cost me my second signed weatherman photo.

I stood at the edge of the pier, waiting for the all-clear signal. That’s when my plan was foiled, although I didn’t realize it then. For the Conservancy insisted on everyone having a “swimming buddy,” and we were introduced to my wife’s buddy — a seemingly genial man named Paul. He insisted that we hold hands and jump at the same time. “One, two, three,” Paul called out — rushing things by the end — and we were in. It was hard to tell, but I thought my toes broke the surface first.

The water felt warm, which I expected after the weather we’d had (thanks, Bruce). But the water also had a nice, fresh smell, which I didn’t expect. We had a half-hour to swim around in a smallish roped-off area. I did a few laps, while my daughter (and assigned buddy) did a few cannonballs. Before I knew it, we were asked to make way for the second group of swimmers. I stalled, determined to be the first one in and last one out.

After drying in the sun, I picked up my “Certificate of Participation” from the Conservancy — a handsome document I plan to mount on my office wall, right next to the Volkman portrait.

I was feeling great until Sunday rolled along and I noticed the photo on Page 1 of the Globe’s Metro section. It showed Paul, my wife, daughter and me, hands entwined, leaping from the docks. But Paul had pulled a fast one with his bogus, hurried countdown: He was already in, up to his knees, before my feet touched the water. I was not the Charles’ first community swimmer in more than 50 years — just another also-ran and a footnote to history, at best.

 

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