“If a place can exist both in dreamtime and wakingtime it is Provincetown. This spiral spit of shifting sand and seductive energy has been a point of pilgrimage since it emerged from the sea 6000 years ago. Swimmers now follow seafarers, voyagers and seekers to our safe harbor, an “official harbor of refuge”, for a community festival that embraces the fertile cultural ecology that is Provincetown.” *
Although changing dramatically, Provincetown is a geographically isolated and economically depressed community, 50 miles from a hospital and large retail outlets, with one of the lowest per capita incomes in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. The unemployment in the winter hovers around 30%.
Provincetown’s beauty, carefree attitude, art and history continue to draw crowds of tourists here each summer to experience the magic and healing of this spiral spit of sand. People from all over the country think of Provincetown as their spiritual home. It is this connection – and magnificent Provincetown Harbor – that inspired this quintessential community event.
In the summer of 1988, Jay Critchley and Walter McLean wanted to test their swimming ability by swimming across Provincetown Harbor. That summer, many New England beaches were closed due to pollution, but the Cape-tip beaches remained swimmable. The two made the swim and two weeks later organized the first Swim for Life, which continues to celebrate the healing waters and ecology of the harbor, while raising money for local health services. The first year 18 swimmers raised $6,000. In 1993 the Provincetown Community Compact, Inc. was formed as a non-profit, 501 (c) 3, tax exempt organization, serving as a sponsor of the event.
Always held the weekend after Labor Day and the busy summer tourist season, the event has grown to attract swimmers, kayakers, volunteers and friends from throughout the country and abroad. With the assistance of 150 volunteers and 400 swimmers, this annual fall ritual has become an event that defines the best of the Provincetown spirit.
In 1991, Helen Roczcewski, a local gourmet chef, produced the first legendary Mermaid Brunch at the home of iconic Provincetown artist Hans Hofmann, which immediately followed the Swim. The Mermaid Brunch has been held at the Crown & Anchor pool, Bas Relief Park and the Boston Ferry. The free meal is attended by hundreds of participants and is open to the community. It now has a home on the spectacular Boatslip Resort deck following the Swim, catered by Far Land Provisions.
From the lofty ceiling of the Meeting House to the deck of the Boatslip, from across Commercial Street to the State House in Boston, these five-foot long, inscribed colored ribbons are a dominant visual presence at the Swim for Life weekend. And in 2016, Prayer Ribbons traveled to Washington, DC to the nation’s Capitol for World AIDS Day and to Florida to honor the victims of the Orlando nightclub shooting.
Prayer Ribbons were initiated in 1993 to provide a visual witness to the swimmers as they crossed the harbor from Long Point to the Boatslip, each swimmer with his or her own personal images, hopes and fears. All are invited to inscribe the names of those they love – and personal messages – to those they wish to celebrate in their lives, both living and deceased.
The ribbons commemorate the devastation that AIDS has done to our community, but they also challenge us to live our lives more fully and joyfully. They create a visual statement about Provincetown as a community, its contradictions, its conflicts, its possibilities.
Celebration of Life Concert
This euphoric community songfest at the UU Meeting House was created by John Thomas and Jim Vincent in 1994 in association with the Swim for Life. John Thomas has directed this free concert since, offering a rousing prelude to the next day’s Swim. The Mermaid Brunch, along with the Celebration of Life Concert, has propelled the Swim for Life into a weekend long celebration.
This Provincetown Swim has spawned an annual Swim for Life in Maryland, organized by Joe Stewart, a 26-year swimmer. Swim-inspired and initiated events have also been held in Germany, Montreal, Fire Island, Miami Beach and Italy. Over the years we have tried special events including: a monumental yard sale; opera concerts produced by Donna Roll from Longy School of Music in Boston; Festival of Happiness at Herring Cove Beach after the Swim; and a Pool Splash for ocean-challenged swimmers.
“Although the weather, currents, wind and water temperature are unpredictable, we know that Jay will always surprise us with a provocative hat – along with his recognizable, ceremonial flag”.
Let the the Swim begin!
If you arrive in town before the Swim, check out the Great Provincetown Schooner Regatta