This Was Then: Swimming across the sound

Not as easy as it might seem.

Several miles of deceptively treacherous water surround the Vineyard. Photo circa 1920s. Courtesy Chris Baer.

More people have walked in space than have swum the 3½ miles of water separating our Island from the rest of the world. It’s quite dangerous, for one, and extremely physically challenging. It’s also not at all practical. But it is always a notable feat.

The first Sound crosser on record was Maurice Richardson of Fitchburg. As a fresh Harvard graduate preparing to teach at Salem High School, Richardson swam from Falmouth to the Vineyard in early September 1873, accompanied by a friend in a boat. It took him nearly three hours.

In 1916, six members of the L Street Swimming Club of Boston attempted a Labor Day swim from Falmouth Heights to Oak Bluffs. Sudden gusty winds forced five of them to abandon their attempt, but Jack Hurwitz, who held the lead and was accompanied by his pilot, Fred Thompson, in a small skiff, disappeared in the channel between Squash Meadow and Hedge Fence shoals. A week later, Thompson’s nearly unrecognizable body washed up on the beach at Tarpaulin Cove on Naushon. Three days later, Hurwitz’s body was found on South Beach and identified by his gold signet ring.

Curiously, almost none of the swimmers who have attempted or finished the crossing have been Island residents. The fact is, many Vineyarders born as late as the early 20th century simply never learned to swim. Even Joshua Slocum of West Tisbury, the first person to sail alone around the world, couldn’t swim a stroke. Sound crossing has been largely an off-Islander’s sport.

Jack Hurwitz, pictured, and Fred Thompson both drowned in Hurwitz’s attempt to swim from Falmouth to Oak Bluffs in 1916. Courtesy Chris Baer.

The first Islander on record to cross the Sound barrier was Winthrop Rheno (brother of our first Island pilot, Walter Rheno). In 1927, the 30-year-old Vineyard Haven carpenter successfully swam to Naushon. “First to Swim Across Vineyard Sound” boasted the headline in the Boston Globe, who had evidently forgotten Richardson’s success a half-century earlier. Some reports suggest that Rheno’s destination was actually Falmouth, but that he had drifted in the powerful current.

More crossers followed. In 1930, Albert Schofield of East Weymouth successfully swam from East Chop Light to Nobska Light, accompanied by several boats full of friends and a local lobsterman. Five years later, Falmouth lifeguard Joseph Goudreau and his friend Charles Greenwood of Haverhill began a swim together from West Chop for Falmouth, but soon were separated. Greenwood was swept five miles off course and landed on Nashawena; Goudreau managed, with difficulty, to outmaneuver the tidal currents, and arrived in Falmouth nearly four hours later. Walter Graf swam from West Chop to Falmouth in 1938 in less than 2½ hours, setting a new, if informal, record, and George “Scotty” Frasier, a 44-year-old disabled World War II veteran, successfully swam the same route in 1950 in preparation for an attempt to cross the English Channel.

Thirty-year-old Winthrop Rheno was the first Islander on record to swim across Vineyard Sound, in 1927. Courtesy Chris Baer.

Sally Sylvia, a 19-year-old Falmouth Heights resident, was the first woman on record to make the crossing, to Nobska Point, in 1961. And in 2000, James Pittar, a blind Australian man, successfully made the first known swim from Martha’s Vineyard to Nantucket. Don Margolis of Aquinnah crossed the Sound not once, but three times, between 2012 and 2016. Margolis emphasizes the necessity of a support vessel: “People talk about sharks, [but] boats are the biggest hazard to open-water swimmers. Also, one cannot carry enough water in one’s bathing suit, and the risk of dehydration is very real.” And recently

66-year-old Bud Raymond swam from Naushon to Cedar Tree Neck in 2017.

Every one of these crossers — including the men who died — were well-trained, well-prepared athletes who carefully timed their trips with an eye for weather and tides, and each was accompanied by a support vessel. The mainland looks like a deceptively easy swim on a clear day. But don’t even think about it.


Chris Baer teaches photography and graphics at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. His book, “Martha’s Vineyard Tales,” containing many “This Was Then” columns, will be released June 1.