by John Torseillo
It’s amazing what thoughts drift into your mind when you stand on the beach and stare out to sea.
Fairfield graduate Jay Critchley ’69 and his friend, Walter McLean, were hanging out on a Provincetown Harbor beach in 1988 when they heard the news of beach closings in New England due to the wash up of medical waste and other debris. Provincetown Harbor was still swimmable, so they decided to see if they could swim across it and bring attention to one of the largest natural harbors in the world. They did, and out of their whimsical effort came a decision to organize a benefit for AIDS services. Just two weeks later, 18 swimmers assembled on the same beach, with a gallon jug of water, and $6,000 in pledges.
“We swam the 1.4 miles to Long Point, the tip of Cape Cod, but hadn’t figured how to get back,” said Critchley, an artist. “We flagged a couple of boats to bring us back to the start.”
Out of such modest beginnings, the swim grew and Critchley has directed what became the Provincetown Swim for Life and Paddler Flotilla, raising a remarkable $2.5 million for AIDS, women’s health services, and the local community since 1988. Last year alone the event raised $200,000.
Some 400 swimmers participated in the 2011 event, along with 75 kayakers and 150 volunteers. It has become a Provincetown community tradition, and this year’s 25th staging will be held on Sept. 8. Critchley and his associates have created a new Web site (www.theswim4life.org) and are expanding their social media reach, he said.
“It is an ongoing challenge to keep the event exciting and high energy. If that is accomplished, the funds will follow.”
That the event is held in Provincetown is sadly significant. The historic and charming whaling port, fishing village, and art colony at the outermost tip of Cape Cod was devastated by the AIDS pandemic, recording one of the highest incidents of infection and death in the country.
Critchley said, “I became involved because my friends and others in the community were dying — sometimes within a week or two of getting sick. It was mysterious, shocking, and inexplicable. I am grateful that the Swim for Life offers a community of hope and remembrance.”
The event has grown steadily through the years, hitting 200, 300, and then a whopping 400 swimmers churning through the chilly waters of Provincetown Harbor, their bodies and spirits warmed by thoughts that their expenditure of energy is all for a good cause.
“It was thrilling,” said Critchley of the event’s growth. “The event has become a tradition for many families and groups of friends. People are so enthusiastic about it that they recruit their friends and make the weekend a reunion and a vacation.”
Critchley founded the Provincetown Community Compact (The Compact) in 1993 as a non-profit whose mission is to enhance the well-being of Provincetown and the Lower Cape, linking the arts, environment, and the economy. The group sponsors the Swim for Life, manages two dune shack residencies in the Cape Cod National Seashore, and offers fiscal sponsorship for community projects through its “Think-ubator” program. The group was instrumental in the formation of other non-profits, such as the Tennessee Williams Theater Festival, Provincetown International Film Festival, Provincetown Dog Park, and the Cape Cod Historic House Trust.
“The Compact is part of my art practice,” said Critchley. “My work is conceptual and performance based, utilizing sculpture, performance, ceremony, video, installation and text. It often deals with environmental issues.”
He views the Swim for Life as a “cyclical performance piece” that annually activates the harbor with colorful kayaks and neon-colored swim caps. On shore, thousands of prayer ribbons fly, multi-colored, 5-foot long remembrances or expressions for people who have died or whom individuals wish to honor in their lives. There are 2,500 ribbons that will be exhibited for the first time this September as part of “Swim25,” the 25th event.
Critchley, who has a son and two grandchildren whom he also inspires with his life’s work, has resided and worked in Provincetown since 1975.
Coming from a strict Irish Catholic American family of nine children from Forestville, Conn., Critchley said that Fairfield University was “the perfect bubble” for him. “Wearing a tie to dinner was still required, and lights out at 11 p.m. I managed to rig up a way to block any light coming through the door or window of our small room to stay up late. I’m still a night bird.”
Critchley credits Dr. Walter Petry (now an emeritus professor of history) as a major influence. “Although I was not in the honors program, I would accompany his group on many trips to New York City to see movies. My first political protest was a silent vigil protesting the Vietnam War. There were only about a dozen of us, standing quietly in a circle as lots of students derided us with catcalls and rubber chickens.”
He added, “I also spent my senior at the beach, and you don’t want to know what that was like in 1968 and ’69!”
For more information about The Swim for Life and Paddler Flotilla, visits www.swim4life.org.