JAMESTOWN — Last month, 300 swimmers set off across Narragansett Bay as part of a Rhode Island tradition that’s taken place annually for over four decades. The 1.7-nautical mile journey is quite a feat in any case, but for one Coventry resident, in particular, completing this year’s swim was especially significant.
“Swimming has always been something I enjoy doing,” Alan Hollenbeck said Monday of his unwavering dedication over the last 25 years to the annual fundraiser.
Hollenbeck, who’s participated in every Save The Bay Swim since 1994, was one of 36 swimmers to be honored during an award ceremony following the July 27 crawl between Newport and Jamestown. Awards were given to those who’ve swum in the event either five, 10, 15, 20 or 25 times.
Hollenbeck and Patrick O’Brien, of Smithfield, were the only two to be recognized as 25-year participants.
“I guess I can say when I first started doing this that I didn’t think I’d be doing it for 25 straight years,” Hollenbeck said. “But now, it’s almost part of my summertime routine.”
Having grown up on a lake in upstate New York, Hollenbeck developed a love for open-water swimming at a young age. What began for him as a fun childhood pastime all these years later has become an exciting challenge looked forward to each summer.
“When I moved [to Rhode Island, in 1993], I saw the swim, and it seemed like an interesting event,” Hollenbeck said, recounting his introduction to the event. “I’ve really enjoyed the challenge.”
Begun in 1977, the Save The Bay Swim each year draws hundreds to Narragansett Bay to raise funds and awareness in support of the organization’s mission to restore and protect the vital resource. And over the two and a half decades that he’s been participating in the swim, Hollenbeck said he’s noticed quite an improvement in the cleanliness of the bay.
“From a pollution standpoint, I’ve definitely seen an improvement over the years,” he said.
He also, however, has witnessed some disturbing changes.
“I’ve noticed changes in things that Save The Bay really has no control over, like the effects of the warming climate and warming temperatures,” Hollenbeck said. “You notice those things.”
Hollenbeck recalled that years ago, he’d commonly see starfish laid out across the ocean floor as he swam through Potter Cove in Jamestown.
He doesn’t see the starfish anymore.
“There are things that are changing, environmentally, that are tough for us to control,” he said.
Despite initially being drawn to the challenge of an open-water swim across Narragansett Bay, Hollenbeck said what’s kept him going year-after-year are his love for the ocean and the camaraderie he’s found among his fellow swimmers.
“I really enjoy the environment of the event,” he said, adding that he enjoys being greeted by his family as he steps onto the shore at the end of the swim.
Save The Bay’s mission is also one that Hollenbeck has been happy to support.
“It’s really just about clean, accessible water for everybody here in Rhode Island,” he said. “Save The Bay plays a big role in helping improve the water quality to make it open, and free, and safe for everybody.”
At 59, Hollenbeck said he feels as healthy now as he ever has felt, and he doesn’t imagine himself giving up the tradition any time soon.
”God willing, as long as my health stays good,” he added, noting that the low-impact nature of swimming makes it an ideal sport at any age.
“At some point I may move on and try something different,” Hollenbeck continued. “But for now, while I’m here, I think I’ll keep doing it. It’s been a good run.”