Charles River opens for first public swim since the 1950s

Boston-07/13/13 _The Charles River Conservancy hosted the 1st public swim in the Charles River in 50 years, as participants took the plunge at a boat dock near the Hatch Shell on the Esplanade. The Longfellow Bridge is in the distance as swimmer frolic in the Charles. Globe staff photo by John Tlumacki(metro)
Boston-07/13/13 _The Charles River Conservancy hosted the 1st public swim in the Charles River in 50 years, as participants took the plunge at a boat dock near the Hatch Shell on the Esplanade. The Longfellow Bridge is in the distance as swimmer frolic in the Charles. Globe staff photo by John Tlumacki(metro)
The Boston Globe

After the countdown and the cannonballs, the initial group at the first public swim in the Charles River in 50 years had a moment to tread water and look down. The seven pioneers began shouting their impressions of what it felt like to swim in the famously filthy body of water.

It’s warm, came one report. It feels great, came another. And then a woman looked down and shouted what was unmistakable for the people standing above.

“It’s orange,” she yelled as she looked down at her body in the water, which faded to black somewhere around the thighs. “We look orange.”

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A man on the dock said it was more like beef broth. Renata von Tscharner, the head of the Charles River Conservancy, said she preferred to describe it as a tea.

Whatever it was, it was clean enough on Saturday morning for dozens of people to jump off the River Dock near the Hatch Shell on The Esplanade for the first approved community swim in the Charles River since the 1950s.

Swimming in the Charles River, like playing in the street, is something generations of Boston children have been taught will lead to no good. At the very least, to a tetanus shot.

But since 1995, when the EPA gave the water quality a grade of D, the health of the river has improved dramatically, rising to a B in 2011, and now meeting the state standards for swimming most days of the summer. The bottom of the river remains a toxic mess, but if a swimmer can get in and out of the water without touching the squishy bottom, no tetanus shot is necessary.

Over the past eight years, a group called the Charles River Swim Club has hosted a 1-mile race for elite swimmers, but Saturday morning was the first time officials permitted a swim to be held for the general public. Getting the permit took six months.

Over the course of two hours, about two dozen swimmers at a time took their turn jumping from the dock into the water – which was a comfortable 78 degrees – and playing around for 20 minutes in a small roped-off area while the passing duck boats beeped their horns. Four lifeguards on the dock, as well as two in kayaks kept watch.

“When you’re in the water and you look out and see the view, it’s incredible,” said Kathleen McDermott, 56, of Bay Village, after surviving her swim.

When von Tscharner, who had founded the conservancy in 2000 with a swimmable Charles River as one of its goals, jumped in with a group, and was all smiles as she floated on her back. Karl Haglund, the author of a book called “Inventing the Charles River,” swam up and congratulated her. As she tread water, von Tscharner introduced Haglund as “the man who knows the most about the Charles River,” which prompted a woman nearby to ask Haglund a question.

“So we’re not going to need hazmat suits on the way out, right?”

Pictures: Swimmers plunge into the Charles River