Vineyard Havener Dean Bragonier will begin a 27-part, freestyle circumnavigation of Martha’s Vineyard this Sunday at State Beach in Oak Bluffs. Forty-two-year-old Mr. Bragonier, a dyslexic, is the founder of NoticeAbility, a nonprofit corporation dedicated to creating a dyslexic-specific middle school curriculum. In addition to raising awareness about dyslexia, Mr. Bragonier is undertaking what will be a 50-nautical-mile swimming adventure to draw donations to NoticeAbility, in an effort to hit a $145,000 target for curriculum development. Several Island businesses, such as Wallace & Co., the Mansion House, Big Sky, Atria, the Art Cliff Diner, 7a, and this newspaper, have lent their support.
As a child, Mr. Bragonier struggled with learning disabilities in middle school. “I remember a seventh-grade history class where the teacher had us read aloud paragraphs from a textbook,” he said in a recent interview with the Times. “I would spend the first few minutes of the class trying to identify which paragraph would be mine (by counting off the number of students in the rows before me). Inevitably, as my turn approached, my heart would beat wildly with anxiety, knowing that I would stumble on words, mispronounce easy ones, and butcher my delivery.
“The class bully always had it in for me. I would feel his stare as my turn to read approached. One day, on a particularly horrific attempt at reading the paragraph, this student proclaimed that ‘my stupidity was holding up the class.’ This was met with a handful of laughs but none more loud and pronounced than the teacher’s own cackle.
“I was shattered.”
Mr. Bragonier eventually enrolled at Bates College, where, he has said, he finally developed a true love of learning, fostered “in large part by the institution’s unique approach to education and its support of students with learning differences.”
The initial spark for forming NoticeAbility came to Mr. Bragonier at a conference in May 2014, where he witnessed what he termed a “magical event.”
He saw an eighth grader from the Carroll School (a Lincoln school specializing in teaching dyslexic children) present a prototype project to a group of educators. He described the eighth grader’s device as a size 11 basketball sneaker with an “Erector Set attachment” and a wire. It was designed to charge a cellphone while the kid walked.
“As he presented this to this group of educators and received all these accolades and this praise,” Mr. Bragonier said, “I saw him kind of go through this metamorphosis from the nerves and anxiety of a young presenter into what was clearly going to be a future entrepreneur.”
The moment moved Mr. Bragonier to work toward exposing a wider population of young dyslexics to the type of specialized curriculum that enabled that eighth-grade dyslexic inventor to succeed. To that end he started NoticeAbility. It wasn’t long afterward that he hatched a plan to swim around the East Coast’s third largest island to spotlight both the company and cause.
Throughout the winter Mr. Bragonier trained with the Cambridge Masters Swim Club at the Harvard University pool to build up the stamina necessary for such an arduous series of swims. In order for his body to periodically recover, he won’t swim every day as he makes his loop.
“I’ll swim in a sequence of three days on, one day at rest, and I continue that pattern until August 16th,” he said.
For every one of the 27 legs of his swim, Mr. Bragonier will post a video blog featuring different aspects of the journey, alongside different folks from on- and off-Island who were born with dyslexia. Recent Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School graduate Charlie Marano will film the blogs (which will also be available on the Times website; see info below). Mr. Bragonier described Mr. Marano as having “an exceptional eye for video documentaries.”
Visitors to Mr. Bragonier’s site will be able to follow his progress as he moves around the Island. Each of the “lightbulb” waypoints will turn to orange when he’s finished that leg.
Mr. Bragonier faces a range of hazards in the Atlantic, from wayward boaters and old buoy lines to rip currents and jellyfish — frustratingly common in Vineyard waters, these stinging globs form minefields around which Mr. Bragonier will not be able to swim, but must just plunge through. One particularly ominous hazard, about the size of three end-to-end refrigerators, has motivated Mr. Bragonier to seek creative defenses in the name of sanity. That hazard, of course, is the white shark.
Mr. Bragonier happens to be friendly with renowned shark expert Greg Skomal, and has consulted with him about the risks these huge fish pose to the swim.
“He and I have talked about this issue at great length,” he said. “The reality is there’s very low risk. However, based on the duration of time that I’ll be in the water and increases in seal populations, it warrants real consideration. Greg’s principal concern is the south side of the island and the east side of Chappaquiddick.”
Along with being monitored by the Dukes County Sheriff’s boat and, at times, various harbormasters, Mr. Bragonier has hedged against the threat of becoming a chew toy by commissioning a special triathlete suit that’s decorated on the legs with an orange light bulb pattern and on the chest with green striations in an effort to mimic coloration akin to poisonous marine life. The thinking is that white sharks will not only not be disinclined to sample something they deem harmful to them, but they will be less likely to mistake Mr. Bragonier for something he’s not.
“I absolutely don’t look like a seal,” he confirmed.
Also, around his ankle, Mr. Bragonier will wear an electronic deterrent popular with abalone divers, spear fisherman, and surfers, made by Shark Shield of Australia. The device trails a 4-foot cord that emits a radio frequency sharks apparently detest.
Mr. Bragonier plans to pick his swim times and shore distances carefully.
“I don’t want to swim after dusk or before dawn. Those are principal feeding times for great whites. I don’t want to swim if I see seals. The other things Greg and I have spoken about are the preferred feeding depths. The depths of water that great whites tend to feed the most in range from 12 to 25 feet.”
Mr. Bragonier further defined those depths of concern to be in the zone just beyond the surf break, where the seabed often drops off. So for safety’s sake, he’ll hug the shore, staying inside the natural breakwater along the south side of the Island. Unfortunately, this is where waves are generally hefty. He anticipates getting knocked around in the surf a bit.
“It’s going to be very challenging swimming,” he told us.
For better or worse, Mr. Bragonier is linked to some interesting bits of “Jaws” trivia. He is the former owner of the Amity Café in Oak Bluffs. His father was a friend and fishing buddy of Peter Benchley. This year marks the 40th anniversary of the motion picture. The director of that blockbuster, Steven Spielberg, is dyslexic. Lastly, Mr. Bragonier’s swim will end at the second bridge on the Oak Bluffs–Edgartown line, site of the infamous ‘shark in the pond scenes’ in the movie.
Passionate about dyslexia being a cognitive asset as opposed to a disability, Mr. Bragonier hopes the swim will bring more folks around to looking at it in that way as opposed to merely a disorder. He noted that dyslexics excel in entrepreneurship, engineering, architecture, and the arts, and cited his wife Sally Taylor’s multimedia installation “Consensus” as a concrete example of the fruit regularly born from a dyslexic mind: “For anyone who wants to see what the strength of dyslexia looks like,” he said, “her creation, which is called ‘Consensus,’ is being housed on the second floor of Midnight Farm. It’s on exhibit all summer long.” And Sally is not the only one in Mr. Bragonier’s extended family to have suffered from the learning disability. His mother-in-law, singer Carly Simon, said in an email to the Times, via Mr. Bragonier: “As a dyslexic child, I never got to feel proud of what I was good at. If you’re not talented at what school thinks is important, then you’re a failure. If a student is only categorized in the traditional subjects, then you lose the sense of yourself as a person.
“[But] there are other ways of being an ‘A’ student,” she continued. “You can be one in multiple ways. To open a student’s eyes and let them realize that they are an ‘A’ at something is just as important. Any light that you can shine on that is creative unto itself.”