ROCKLAND, Maine — Most people think he is crazy, but from Gary Sredzienski’s standpoint, he loves swimming and he lives in an ocean state — so why not do what he loves all the time?
Sredzienski is a winter swimmer. Come Saturday, Dec. 10, he will swim from Owls Head Lighthouse to Rockland Breakwater Lighthouse and back to shore, a total of 3.3 miles in 39-degree water. To Sredzienski, 39 degrees is practically bath water. The man, an accordionist by profession, typically swims the estuaries in Kittery, his hometown, almost every day. There the mix of ocean water and chillier fresh water from rivers can run as low as 30 degrees.
“Maine has such beautiful estuaries and the ocean. Why would I ever swim in a pool? I haven’t swam in a pool for years — I feel like a goldfish in a bowl. No. Take it outside,” Sredzienski said during a trip to Rockland on Sunday.
To help keep him warm, Sredzienski, 49, has combined flexible, but not-so-warm surfing wetsuits with not-so-flexible, but very warm scuba gear. Then, when the tide is right, he takes off for his three-mile swim at least five times a week. Often people driving by the Kittery and Portsmouth estuaries will call the police, concerned.
“I’m never cold. It’s only cold if you stop [swimming]. Then you’re in trouble,” he said.
The benefit of winter swimming, Sredzienski said, is that the water is particularly clean. Runoff from people’s yards will freeze in place and not get into the rivers as quickly. Plus, there aren’t any boats or personal watercrafts to contend with.
Sredzienski has been winter swimming for 10 years now, and for the last few years has decided to do it for charity. He raised $17,000 for a brain injury nonprofit in 2008 by swimming seven miles in Portsmouth Harbor in New Hampshire. Since then, he has tried to do one charity event per year. This year, lighthouses will benefit. The goal is $15,000.
“I’ve swam for hungry kids, elderly, brain injury, but this one — swimming for lighthouses — it’s a perfect fit,” Sredzienski said. “Nobody is taking care of the lighthouses. I feel people in the community should take care of them. They’re important to local economies and local culture.”
On the weekends from May through September, 20,000 visitors went to the two lighthouses, according to Eric Davis, who is on the Friends of Rockland Breakwater Lighthouse’s board of directors.
“It’s a huge attraction to the area. We’re not the only ones who are benefiting,” Davis said.
With the money, Friends of Rockland Breakwater Lighthouse plans to furnish the attached lighthouse keeper’s house with 1950s decorations. The house is currently pretty bare. The Rockland-based American Lighthouse Foundation will get the other half of the funds raised by Sredzienski. That organization’s director, Bob Trapani, said the funds are needed.
“We open the lighthouses every spring and it takes money,” Trapani said.
For instance, even though the Owls Head Lighthouse was just restored with grant money, the work is never done. “They will never truly be restored. The [weather] elements continue to decorate them. We hope this inspires people — through Gary’s swim — to continue their support for lighthouses.”
It may not be easy.
“Raising money for lighthouses? It’s hard. People give to animals and kids. Lighthouses are hard,” Sredzienski said. For him, a cold-water swimmer, it’s personal.
“There is no greater trip than swimming up to a lighthouse. It’s a warm, motherly feeling. There is just a feeling about it.”
Sredzienski’s swim will begin at Owls Head beach at 9 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 10. After the send-off, people will assemble in the Rockland Yacht Club and watch live video of Sredzienski swimming and wait for his arrival to shore.
A post-swim celebration will be 6 p.m. that night at Owls Head Community Center and Sredzienski will play his accordion. Tickets for the after party are $5.
For information visit lighthousefoundation.org.