Swimming the Channel

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During the 1940s and 1950s (and even into the 1980s) there was a “rite of passage” that held sway over the teens (especially boys!) of Sodus Point and the surrounding area. This was swimming the channel between the two piers jutting out of Sodus Bay. It was dangerous, foolhardy and reckless and several people over the years died doing it. But this was the 1940s and 50s and much to our parents chagrin, we did things like that in those days.
Bob Pearson grew up in Sodus and captured this beautifully in his book Stinky’s Tales Growing Up in a Small Village in the 1940s and 1950s (2004):
Swimming the Channel —– Guts city
“Rite of Passage.” That is the phrase used to describe an activity used to define courage or maturity during one’s youth. Ultimately one of the litmus tests for us waited at Sodus Point each and every summer of our lives. The channel demarcations were the two concrete piers extended out into the lake from Sodus Bay. On one was the lighthouse and on the other were seagulls and graffiti from various visitors to the far side over the years. There was nothing at all outstanding about a gray pier bathed in seagull crap and names from another era. The only purposes it served were to keep the channel from filling up with sand and control wave action in the narrow body of water.
There was one other draw for the body of water. Although it served as a passageway for boats it also served as a metaphorical passage into adulthood for those willing to risk the swim. Many were able to swim the width of the waters and back against the wishes of the Coast Guard and against better judgment. For me the body of water was an enigma. I had witnessed a young man dive in and die there. I knew it was illegal to swim there. There were serious currents running through the passage due to the numerous big boats plying the waters in the era. The waves of Lake Ontario carried down the length of the channel on certain days when the winds were right smack out of the north. It was a stupid thing to try to do , and the benefits were very limited. Who gave a crap if you swam the channel?
That is precisely why a teenager would try to do it.
When I made the decision to try my hand at the challenge, my planning included a row boat, my brother to row and a calm day. There was nothing glamorous about my effort. Dick and I rowed out away from the near side of the channel after rowing up the bay from the dock. I slipped quietly over the side and merely swam next to the rowboat to the other side. I climbed up on the breakwater, took notice of all the seagull crap and the graffiti, and clambered back into the rowboat more mentally exhausted than physically spent. We took the boat back to the rental dock near the ball diamond and went back to Sodus. Dick wasn’t interested in swimming that day. It probably came from the realization that I may not have been much help should he run into difficulty.
Unlike the efforts like those turned in by lifeguards who could swim over and back rather quickly I went slowly and methodically. I also did not “need” to swim back. One width was plenty for me, thank you! Certain lifeguards performed their feat under the collective gaze of large audiences of young ladies and other “beachlings”. I wanted to try it in the presence of a rowboat operator in the event something went awry. Even then I possessed some degree of common sense.
One lifeguard called “Gorilla”, with good reason, could swim over and back doing the butterfly stroke. This was the most exceptional swimming feat I have ever seen in my life. The stroke is very difficult and is limited to fifty or one hundred meters in pools. The lifeguard named John could do endless pull-ups on the beach while on duty. This entertained the young ladies and developed his upper body in an outstanding fashion. It also provided him with the upper body needed to perform the butterfly. The channel swim was his trademark, and the butterfly was his stroke of choice.
Even the Coast Guard guys once saw him and did not interfere with his remarkable passage over and back. They knew they were witnessing an unusual swimming effort. My timid, one-way trip next to a rowboat paled by comparison. I thought about my own mortality as I did my swim; “Gorilla” probably thought about all the nubile young ladies witnessing him.
This was summer life, full of choices, along the channel at Sodus Point.