Brown Charles Gets Green Light

Swimmers to tackle cleaner, safer Charles River for the first time in over 50 years

Unnamed photo
M. AIDAN Kelly

The Charles River...fancy a swim?

For over 50 years, it has sat conspicuously nearby, yet tauntingly out of reach. It’s known now for its grime, but the Charles River hasn’t always been simply the divide between Boston and Cambridge.

Until the mid-1950s, the Charles was also a playground for swimmers, in addition to rowers, sailors, and the occasional drunk student who took a dive off the Weeks Footbridge. But swimming has been banned since tests in 1955 showed the water was no longer safe for people.

That is, until tomorrow morning, when about 100 intrepid water-lovers—including about a half-dozen Harvard affiliates—will compete in the Charles River Masters Swim Race. Not only will it be the first time the Charles will have a sanctioned race in its waters in more than five decades, but according to Charles River Swimming Club President Frans S. Lawaetz, it’s also one of the first fresh-water swimming race in a downtown section of a major U.S. city.

“People have fallen out of touch with the river,” Lawaetz said. “My main motivation is that this sort of marks a reestablishment of what is internationally an appropriate interaction with a water body.”

‘DIRTY WATER’

Despite the name of the club he leads, Lawaetz will be no more experienced than anyone else when the gun goes off marking the beginning of tomorrow’s mile-long race, scheduled to begin at 8 a.m. in the basin of the river.

That’s because since 1955, a growing prevalence of factories and pollution-emitting businesses along the river have made it unsafe for humans. In addition, an increasing number of various bacteria and toxic sediment have, due to its location on the river’s floor, been able to sit, then grow and spread, according to Lawaetz.

“We don’t actually swim in the river,” he says. “You’re not actually allowed to swim in the Charles—there are no approved spots.”

That is, until now. Barring a repeat of summer 2006, when reasons of sanitation, safety, and some heavy rain canceled the event, the race will take place.

“There was toxic blue-green algae last year,” said Charles River Swimming Club Vice President Ulla Hester.

Hester said she hopes that the last-minute Massachusetts Department of Health tests won’t once again dash racers’ dreams just hours before they take to the starting line.

“There’s a little algae on the water, but we don’t think it’s enough to affect the race,” Hester said. “If we get a huge rain storm, that will likely affect the water quality. We’re keeping our fingers and toes crossed.”

RESCUE BOAT

But while Mother Nature and toxic algae levels offer potential last-minute complications for tomorrow’s race, it was the poor sanitation conditions that made swimming impossible for decades, prompting the 2003 launch of clean-up effort.

“Four years ago, the river was covered with trash,” says Thomas J. McNichol, a retired 69-year-old living in Worcester. “Islands of trash would float back and forth, because it’s not really a river, it’s a dam. You’d see the same trash going back and fourth across the river week after week. A group of us decided one day that we’d clean it up.”

That group, made up of four captains and about 200 volunteers, comprises the Charles River Clean Up Boat.

Four days a week from April to October, McNichol and his three other captains lead a crew of up to four volunteers for a full day of picking up trash on the river. The Clean Up Boat is completely the work of volunteers from across Massachusetts who share McNichol’s desire to restore the once-proud nature of the local waterway. Even then-Gov. Mitt Romney once spent a day on the boat in 2005.

McNichol said that he’s excited that the volunteers’ efforts are being put to use in the form of tomorrow’s race and that he hopes the event will show people that “we have this beautiful river right smack dab in the middle of our hometown, and it’s really in good condition.”

Most of the trash in the river—plastic and Styrofoam—is removed relatively easily, which bodes well for future Charles River racing prospects, according to McNichol.

“The chemical content is getting better, the biological content is getting better every year,” he said. “It’s safe, as long as we can keep the trash off the top.”

And while the trash offers impediments to would-be racers, it also provides interesting insight into local consumer trends.

“The dominant coffee cup is Dunkin’ Donuts, except for the week after the Head of the Charles, and it’s Starbucks. The dominant plastic bag is CVS, and we get lots of water bottles, juice bottles,” he said.

FLOODING THE MARKET

Lawaetz said that he’s hopeful that the precedent-setting race McNichol made possible will spread beyond the borders of the small slice of water that separates Boston and Cambridge.

“If it takes place, I think it’s really going to set the bar for the rest of the nation,” Lawaetz said. “We’re not the only city trying to promote fresh water swimming.”

It’s an idea that came about because of a simple Internet search, after Hester participated in a Hudson River swim a few years ago in New York.

“The two people who founded the club are Frans and myself,” she said. “I started looking into whether someone else had the idea to swim in the Charles, and I came across the homepage of someone who was clearly thinking about it, and that was Frans. We got together and founded the club, and thus the idea for the race was born.”

And it’s the history of past river encounters that serves as an inspiration, Lawaetz said, to draw people back to the waters of the Charles.

“Older Bostonians recall swimming in the river as kids,” Lawaetz said. “A generation of kids have only known the river as something to look across. Our main objective is to facilitate the return of general public river swimming.”

—Staff writer Malcom A. Glenn can be reached at mglenn@fas.harvard.edu.