Looking Out: In The Light Swim, Water Buffalo Rise10:02

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If you manage to swim it in a straight line, it's eight miles. If you want to know if you can wear a wetsuit or anything else to keep warm, don't bother entering. And if you're worried about your weight, don’t: It hasn't stopped the winners. In this eighth installment of our summer series, "Looking Out: A New View Of Boston Harbor," we go on the Boston Light Swim.

Elaine Howley swims near Boston Harbor's Long Island Bridge in 2006. (Courtesy of Elaine Howley)
Elaine Howley swims near Boston Harbor's Long Island Bridge in 2006. (Courtesy of Elaine Howley)

Almost every Boston boy learned to swim, pull an oar and sail a small spritsail-rigged boat. His education was not complete until he got lost in the fog and spent the night on an island in Boston Harbor.

So wrote the preeminent historian and Boston boy, Samuel Eliot Morison, in "The Maritime History of Massachusetts, 1793-1860."

But the admiral never wrote about the girls.

If Admiral Morison were around today, and out of the fog, he might note that when it comes to long-distance swimming, the girls have come a long way, baby.

Elaine Howley fixes her swim cap during practice. (Courtesy)
Elaine Howley fixes her swim cap during practice. (Courtesy)

Take 32-year-old Elaine Howley, of Waltham.

"I am a long-distance open-water swimmer, specializing in cold channel swims," Howley says.

A lifelong swimmer, Howley doesn't much care for warm water. With the sound of jets leaving Logan Airport and the view of the skyline as the sun sets over Dorchester Bay, she was doing a training swim when I joined her last week behind the L Street Bath House.

This is where the Brownies go swimming on New Year's. This is also where the Boston Light Swim will finish.

America's first swimming race starts at Little Brewster Island and America's first lighthouse. Twenty-five swimmers and their escort boats will thread through the scenery of emerald islands — past George's, Rainsford, Long Island, Moon Island and Spectacle, into view of the skyline, and then past Thomson — and then head between the Prudential and the Hancock to get to the finish line.

This is where Howley launched her career in 2006.

"I had no idea whether or not I was going to be able to make it," she recalls. "And we went out. And I had an awesome swim. And everything just kinda came together. And just coming around the bend and seeing this Boston skyline and, 'Oh my God, I'm going to make it, I'm going to actually swim eight miles.' "

Annette Kellerman, in mermaid costume for the role of "Merrilla, the Queen of the Sea," nearly swam from Revere Beach to Boston Light in 1908. (Courtesy)
Annette Kellerman, in mermaid costume for the role of "Merrilla, the Queen of the Sea," nearly swam from Revere Beach to Boston Light in 1908. (Courtesy)

There was no going back after that. "It was just incredible, an incredible feeling. And I just got hooked," Howley said.

Howley did two more Boston Light swims. In short order, she crossed the English Channel, the Catalina Channel and circumnavigated Manhattan Island — considered the Triple Crown of swimming.

She belongs to a long run of women and girls who have starred in Boston Harbor since the first race in 1907, from the Charlestown Bridge to Boston Light.

"It's amazing, back in the early 1900s open water swimming was huge. Thousands of people would show up just to watch the start of these races," says Hawley's swimming partner, Greg O'Connor. He's the race director of this year's Boston Light swim.

The history of the race is one that Admiral Morison might have admired. It started out in 1907 with three men; one finished.

A year later, the beautiful and daring Annette Kellerman came within yards of making an even longer swim — 13 miles — from Revere Beach to Boston Light.

The previous year, she had been arrested in front of a beachside crowd and hauled off by police for wearing a one-piece bathing suit.

Elaine Howley leaves the cliffs of England during a swim in the English Channel. (Courtesy)
Elaine Howley leaves the cliffs of England during a swim in the English Channel. (Courtesy)

Legendary swimmer Jim Doty, who's swum the Boston Light course 18 times, says Kellerman's success was a wake-up call.

"Women can do the same thing as a man can do if she trains for it," Doty said. "I mean, water is an equalizer between men and women."

It took only three years into the history of the race before a woman — no, a girl — 15-year-old Rose Pitonof of Dorchester, won it in record time. Off she went to Vaudeville (the trajectory of professional swimmers including Johnny Weismuller, the first Tarzan) and performed with seals.

Doty met Pitonof when she was in her 90s.

"She was small but tough," he said. "Every part of her was tough, and you could see she had a chest that wouldn't quit."

This, you need to know, is not a leer, but an expression of admiration among open-water swimmers, whose body shapes are not what you might think. Take Howley. Her nickname is "beer baby."

"It's funny because you put me up alongside other swimmer types and I don't look like I belong. I look like I got on the wrong bus," Howley said.

Forget your image of the Olympic pool stars with orangutan shoulders and runway hips.

Long-distance swimmer Jim Doty. (Courtesy of Bob McCormack)
Long-distance swimmer Jim Doty. (Courtesy of Bob McCormack)

"There's a lot to be said for having a little extra around the middle to keep you warm," Howley says, who captained her high school swim team, then crewed and swam at Georgetown.

"Especially in water like this," adds O'Connor. "The irony is I started this to get thin," he chuckles, holding a pudgy bit of his stomach.

"Now look at us," Hawley laughs.

In mid-August, the water temperature ranges from 58-65 degrees. Your arms and legs go numb, but when your chest and belly get cold, you're "cooked," so to speak. Fast lean guys show up for this race, but they never finish.

The natural law of cold-water swimming is stark: the cheetahs always lose and the water buffalo always win.

Elaine Howley takes care to feed her "beer baby."

"You go train for six hours and then you go to the pub and have burgers and beers and fries and you stop for an ice cream on the way home and then go to bed." she says. "It's great."

[sidebar title="Shooting The Shark" width="300" align="right"]

Legendary local swimmer Jim Doty completed 18 Boston Light swims and owns the record for a double crossing that Elaine Howell and Greg O'Connor set out to beat on Thursday morning.

As well as weather and waves, Doty has had to contend with jelly fish, grease balls, sewage, oil tankers and other boat traffic over the years. Listen to one of his stories about contending with sharks, this time on a swim between Nantasket and Minot Light. Doty was being escorted by a boatman named Lefty when they happened upon a shark. [/sidebar]

Mind you, Howley has an awesome resting heart rate of 59 beats a minute.

Because she and her swimming partner O'Connor are running this year's race, they won't be swimming on Saturday. So instead, they are trying to swim from Southie to Boston Light and back to Southie, a distance of 16 miles. They're hoping to break Doty's record of 9.5 hours.

To sustain themselves as they burn through calories (anywhere from 800 to 1,500 an hour), O'Connor will rely on a fluid mix of proteins and carbohydrates, while Hawley goes with solids.

"I mean I'll eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich out there, gummy bears, whatever they send down. If it looks good I'm going to eat it," Howley says.

Natural law doesn't change. In open-water swimming, the cheetahs always lose, the water buffalo always win.

This program aired on August 12, 2010.

David Boeri Twitter Senior Reporter
Now retired, David Boeri was a senior reporter at WBUR.