The Cross Bay Swim entails a rigorous swim of 5.6 miles across the Great South Bay from Fire Island to Bay Shore. The distance, the wind, the tide, are all factors in this true endurance test. Hundreds of athletes have successfully completed this event since 1927.
The first swim dates back to 1927, but records were spotty before 1950. It was held each year up to and including 1964. It resumed in 1968, continuing until 1973 and after a 26 year hiatus, it once again was revived in 1999. The swim, cosponsored by the Islip Town Bulletin and the Bay Shore Tuna Club from 1950-1973, was a highly anticipated event each year as competitors and spectators alike knew different thrills were ahead of them.
Each year the field of participants included men and women 14 years of age and older. Some years there were sibling combinations, father and son combinations, and often there were swimmers from previous years involved. The 1950 winner, Richard Hunt of Babylon, finished the endeavor in 5 hours, 36 minutes, and 3 seconds (5:36:03). Each subsequent year for three years, new standards were set by Charles Arnold of Woodmere with a time of 3:17:34 in 1951, Barry Staebler of Islip, finishing in 3:03:43 in 1952, and Robert Lopey of Copiague, with a time of 2:24:48 in 1953. (Barry Staebler, also holds the record for being the youngest winner at the age of 14.) John Budzeyko of Flushing, swimming the backstroke, was the first to have won on two separate occasions with a time of 3:25:53 in 1954 and 5:11:30 in 1955. Bob Chalich of West Islip went on to win the swim in 1960 (finishing 2:25:15) and in 1962 (2:21:56). In 1959, Paul Jacobsen of Lawrence set a record with a winning time of 2:12:25 which held until 1968 when Dan Slick of Brentwood posted a time of 2:06:30. The women’s record at that time was held by the only female victor, Ellen Flaherty of Toledo, Ohio, (Amityville summer resident) who completed the 1972 Cross Bay Swim with a time of 1:54.06. The men’s record at that time was claimed by Tod Brown of West Islip who now resides in South Carolina, with a time of 1:43:25 set in 1976.
Up to 1970, the swim commenced at the Fire Island Lighthouse dock (the old Coast Guard Dock) and finished at the Bay Way Cabana and Tennis Club, Brightwaters and in 1971-1973 the race finished at the George L. Walker Memorial Park in Brightwaters. The 1999 swim took a new course, beginning at the Fire Island Lighthouse dock (the Old Coast Guard dock) and ending at Gilbert Park in Brightwaters(1/8 mile East of Walker Park). Up until and including 1973, Bill Brewster and Joe Fanelli served as co-chairmen. In organizing the event, the chairmen needed to be sure each competitor followed the regulations including the following. All participants were to be amateur swimmers with a minimum age of 14 in good physical condition as checked by a doctor appointed to the race, and all participants needed a guide row boat carrying two able swimmers for support. On the morning of the swim, Brewster and Fanelli had the responsibility of gauging whether the conditions were suitable for the swimmers and in some cases, when the wind and tide were not ideal, they had to delay the start of the race. In 1968-1970, they also approved the Cross Bay Surf Paddling Contest which accompanied the Cross Bay Swim and attracted many participants.
1999 marked a turning point for the swim. Through the tireless efforts and charismatic leadership of one Bay Shore resident, Rory Allen, the swim was once again brought to fruition. In cooperation with the Village of Brightwaters, in particular Mayor McNulty whose encouragement and support were integral, the Coast Guard, The Fire Island Ferries, Inc., The National Park Service, the Bay Shore-Brightwaters Ambulance personnel, and over 30 volunteers, “The 1999 Great South Bay Swim” was a success. The winner, Bryan Krut, a Kismet lifeguard and tri-athlete from Oakdale, finished with a time of 2:07.12. Seven other swimmers, 2 women and 5 men, finished within an hour of Krut’s time.
In 1999 the swim was dedicated to the memory of Maggie Fischer. She passed away just a few days before its’ revival; she was scheduled to be a competitor. Maggie was a seventeen year old senior of St. Anthony’s High School, born and raised in Brightwaters. In seventeen years she achieved more than what most could hope to do in a lifetime. She was one of the top students in her class, an accomplished member of the crew and swim teams, an incredible flutist, and a dedicated lifeguard to the Saltaire community on Fire Island. Maggie was the type of person who was described by friends as being “extremely generous and kind hearted.” She continually strived for perfection, and most often achieved that goal. Maggie loved just having fun, and the swim is dedicated to that memory of her, the memory of the life she lived and of all the amazing things she accomplished in her seventeen years.
The generosity of local businesses and private donors helped cover the expenses of the race. For the first time in the history of the swim, a charitable contribution of $650 was made to the Children’s Bereavement Fund of Hospice in 1999. The unique nature of the event was typified when the three winners, Bryan Krut (2:07.12), Nicole Young (2:17.41), and Riche Wilde (2:20.32), all of West Islip, generously added their prize money to the overall donation.
In 2004 the swim once again took a new course, directly north from the Lighthouse dock to Walker Beach in Brightwaters. This course presented less of a navigational challenge and allowed for more leniency in timing the tides.
The plans are underway for this year’s swim. The Maggie Fischer Memorial Great South Bay Cross Bay Swim continues!