Then and now: 5 swimmers look back on 25 years of the Buzzards Bay Swim

Twenty-five years ago, a small but visionary group of local residents had a big idea: to swim 1.2 miles across outer New Bedford Harbor to raise awareness and funds for clean water in Buzzards Bay. On August 21, 1994, 17 swimmers raised $2,000 at the very first Buzzards Bay Swim.

Bob Rocha at the 1997 Buzzards Bay Swim.

Former Coalition staff member Bob Rocha coordinated – and swam in – the second annual Swim in 1995. Today, Bob still volunteers at the Swim.

Pembroke resident and New Bedford native Dan Vasconcellos was one of those first swimmers. Back then, the water in the outer harbor wasn’t as clear as it is today. “You might have been able to see your hand in front of you,” he remembers. “Now, the conditions are unbelievable. I like to think it’s due to the efforts of the Coalition.”

Since that first Swim in 1994, the event has grown to attract more than 300 swimmers from communities across New England and beyond to the shores of Buzzards Bay each summer. This year, for its 25th anniversary, the Swim is poised to celebrate its biggest year yet.

Although the Swim has welcomed hundreds of new swimmers in recent years, there are also plenty of familiar faces like Dan in the crowd each year. Some of these veteran swimmers have made the annual harbor crossing over a dozen times and still participate today, while others continue to support the event as volunteers. In honor of the 25th anniversary, we’re celebrating the Swim’s history by sharing their stories.

Former Coalition staff member Bob Rocha coordinated – and swam in – the second annual Swim in 1995. “If I was going to ask 31 people to get in the water to swim across the outer harbor, then I would need to get into the water with them,” he recalls. “So, after we got everyone else into the water, my escort boat, with two spotters in it, started rowing from Fairhaven toward New Bedford, and I started swimming behind it.”

Things got a little off track for Bob and his escorts after that. “[My two spotters] talked all the way across the harbor, and I participated in that conversation. My rower got distracted enough that he didn’t go in a straight line, and I refused to stray too far from the boat.” Bob and his boat finally reached the finish line 77 minutes later – a “slowest time” record that stood for several years. “I sum up that Swim experience as ‘Last one in, last one out!’” he says.

Today, Bob still volunteers at the Swim. He’ll be there again this year as the event welcomes paddleboarders as swimmer escorts for the first time.

Rhea Teves-Cate at the 2009 Buzzards Bay Swim.

During her 10-year run as a swimmer, Rhea Teves-Cate won the top fundraiser award four years in a row by recruiting donations from more than 100 people.

Longtime swimmer Rhea Teves-Cate was a little more focused when training for her first swim in 1999 at age 66. But she didn’t stop there. For the next 10 years, Rhea stalwartly made her way across, winning the top fundraiser award four years in a row by recruiting donations from more than 100 people.

“My original focus was just to be able to swim the 1.2 miles from Davy’s Locker to Fort Phoenix,” she says. “As I became more knowledgeable about [the Coalition’s] purpose, I became more interested in the reason for the Swim event, which is to raise funds to support clean water for swimmers, fishermen, shore wildlife, coastal residents, and boaters.”

Although she no longer swims in the event, a vibrant 85-year-old Rhea still participates every year as a volunteer in the food tent at the finish line, welcoming swimmers with fresh coffee and baked goods to help celebrate their accomplishment.

Gerry Payette happily took over the “slowest time” record from Bob Rocha when he started participating in the Swim in 1998. Another New Bedford native, Gerry spent many a day in his childhood swimming at local beaches. Although Gerry admits he is “a VERY slow swimmer” – he still makes a point to finish alongside the final swimmer out of the water each year – he knows his participation year after year makes a difference for clean water. “I take great pride in helping the Coalition continue with the important task to save the Bay.”

When Gerry encounters people who are afraid or nervous about trying the Swim, he feels a sense of obligation to reach out to them. “You only have to be in decent shape and know that the swimmers are given ample support,” he says to prospective swimmers. “Enjoying the Swim – living in the moment – is truly what I believe. And helping out a great cause – it’s a win-win situation.”

Gerry Payette at the 2016 Buzzards Bay Swim.

Longtime swimmer Gerry Payette (left) encourages people who are afraid or nervous about trying the Swim. He’s recruited other to join him, like his cousin Gisele Pappas (right).

2018 will be Gerry’s 20th crossing of the harbor, where he’ll receive the coveted “Pukwudgie Award” for participating in 20 Buzzards Bay Swims. The beachside awards ceremony will be a highlight of the 25th anniversary Swim, with awards given for years participated, top fundraisers, top teams, fastest swimmers – and a few surprise awards as well.

The cause is what continues to drive swimmers like Peter Burlinson, who first participated in 1997 as one of just 49 swimmers. To Peter, the Swim is “a fun way to demonstrate and celebrate what has been accomplished in reducing pollution flowing into the Bay.” Even though the Swim has grown to over 350 swimmers who raise over $150,000, Peter still considers the Swim “an event that increases awareness, adds support, and builds sustaining membership so the Coalition’s necessary work will continue.”

After being sidelined with a shoulder injury for several years, Peter has kept involved with the Swim by facilitating Edson International’s annual donation of custom bronze finisher medals. He’s contemplating a return to the water for the 25th anniversary Swim to collect another medal for himself in this milestone year.

All of these dedicated swimmers know that the fight for clean water evolves over decades and generations. Each year, they demonstrate their commitment and hopeful spirit by participating in the Buzzards Bay Swim – and they invite you to join them in this special anniversary year.

Whether you’re a top athlete or a carefree beach swimmer, on June 30 you can be part of history at the 25th anniversary Swim. Sign up now to make a difference for clean water!

The Buzzards Bay Swim is a Waterkeeper Alliance SPLASH Series event, presented nationally by Toyota. The SPLASH Series engages local citizens in recreational use of our waterways to celebrate access to clean water. Event sponsors also include Amica Insurance, YMCA Southcoast, and Fiber Optic Center.

Category: Events

Swim the Bay, Save the Bay

Buzzards Bay Swim

Celebrate clean water at the Coalition's 31st annual Buzzards Bay Swim on Saturday, June 22, 2024! Join more than 400 others who make a difference to protect clean water in Buzzards Bay. You can swim, volunteer, or cheer on swimmers as they cross outer New Bedford Harbor.

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Working to Save Buzzards Bay

The Buzzards Bay Coalition is a membership-supported organization dedicated to improving the health of the Buzzards Bay ecosystem for all through education, conservation, research, and advocacy.

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