By JOSEPH B. NADEAU
JAMESTOWN -- Anyone who has regularly participated in Save The Bay's annual Narrragansett Bay swim fundraiser and entered the waters off Potter's Cove Saturday for this year's 37th annual edition will remember it as definitely different.
Rather than depart a beach at the Newport Naval Station as has been done for most of the Bay swims (the first editions left Jamestown and finished in Newport), this year's Citizens Bank sponsored swim started in Potter's Cove near the Newport Bridge toll booths and returned to that spot. The change resulted from the federal budget sequester's impact on Navy funding and the Naval Station's inability to host the event.
Without the Naval Station as a starting point, the three waves of swimmers were forced to follow a triangular course out into the Bay and back to achieve the 1.7 mile distance equal to a crossing Narragansett Bay's East Passage. The change left many swimmers lamenting the loss of Newport Bridge to the south of the swim route as a point of reference in navigating the course.
That's not to say there haven't been many earlier variations in the swim over the years as Walter Moskwa, 63, formerly of Pawtucket and now living in Maryland, and Edgar Mercado, 61, of North Kingstown can attest.
The two swimmers collected plaques honoring their 35th year of participation in the swim upon returning to shore in Jamestown on Saturday, and have seen everything from heavy seas, fog, and even a barge-towed through the school of swimmers one year. Both swimmers missed two of the swims at different times but are the current record holders for participation.
The fact this year's swim did not cross the entire East Passage of Narragansett Bay as it has in its earlier editions left the veterans missing the stunning views of the Newport Bridge that has been the swim's trademark.
Moskwa, who works as a cartographer for the federal government, said his navigation of the course was also impacted by not having the bridge as a reference point along the way.
This year, only two large orange inflatable markers were posted at the triangle's turning points and Moskwa had to stop occasionally and lift his goggles to spot them. One of the kayakers that Save The Bay posts on the course to monitor the swimmers did help to keep him on track, Moskwa said.
"I started going to to right and the kayaker said "No you have to veer further off, 45 degrees," Moskwa said. The kayaker told another swimmer to take a 90 degree heading out into the Bay to correct his course error, he added.
"I started to head for the second pylon of the bridge and I said to myself 'this is weird' because it is like I am going in the opposite direction (swimming toward Newport)," he said. Once past the first marker, swimmers also had to contend with a steady swell and chop that Moskwa described as making the water "drop off" and then washing over him as he headed for the second marker and the turn back to the cove.
"I finally got to it," Moskwa said while explaining how a kayaker comfirmed he had made out past the marker and could turn onto the last leg for the finish line.
The waves Saturday were not as bad as what he experienced in 2006 and Moskwa also pointed to the time when the tanker came through in the 1990s, and he had to stop for five minutes to tread water before continuing on, as more challenging. It also won't keep him from coming back to Rhode Island to swim next year although he might think about bringing along a kayaking friend to help with the route if same course is used.
The reasons he swims are same as when he started out in 1978 while majoring in natural resources at URI.. "Things such as a clean water, a clean Bay and a clean habitat for wildlife were important to me," he said.
Edgar Mercado said he was the first one to sign up for Save The Bay's inaugural Bay swim in 1977 and remembers how excited the organization's exectutive director of the time, Trudy Coxe, got when he walked through the door.
There were far fewer swimmers involved than the more than 400 that swim today but the draw was still crossing the East Passage, according to Mercado.
The Sequester swim was "orginial," he said, but Mercado would still like to follow the old route when he returns in the future.
"To go across the Bay along that bridge and look up at those towers-- I would say that is majestic," he said.
During the award ceremony after the Swim, Save The Bay Executive Director Jonathan Stone thanked Citizens Bay and the rest of the sponsors and the swimmers for continuing to help fund Save The Bay's educational programs and other effort on behalf of Narragasett Bay even with the changes in the course. He also thanked Moskwa and Mercado for their special effort in support the swim for 35 years while presenting them with their plaques.