Race History

Peter S. McNally
Peter S. Mc Nally 1897

The first documented swim to Boston Light took place way back on September 3, 1898, when Peter S. McNally, the world’s champion long-distance swimmer and noted lifesaver, made another of his phenomenal swims in Boston Harbor. He started from Charlestown Bridge and crossed the 10 miles to Boston Light. The sturdy waterman showed no ill effects of his long journey.

Over the history of the event the race course has changed, but the Boston Light has always played a part. The modern swim starts in the water at the foot of Boston Light on Little Brewster Island. During a flood tide, swimmers snake their way past the Harbor Islands and finish 8miles later at the L Street Bathhouse in South Boston. This swim is perfect for individuals who are training for an attempt at an English Channel crossing.

In 1907 during the Old Home Week celebration three men attempted the swim from the Charlestown Bridge to Boston Light. The event was a ten mile race from Charlestown Bridge, east of Governor’s Island, west of Long Island, west of George’s Island, and finishing at Little Brewster Island where the nation’s first lighthouse was built in 1716. Samuel Richards and Commodore Alfred Brown dropped out while Louis Jacot went on to win the race.

On 30 July 1908 on Boston’s Revere Beach, Annette Kellerman plunged into the ocean determined to swim to and from the Boston Light. She gave up just yards short of the thirteen-mile finish, prompting a Boston Post reporter to proclaim: ‘Annette’s wonderful swim was far from being a disgrace’. It was one year earlier that Kellerman was arrested on a Boston beach for wearing a men’s one-piece swimsuit: the publicity helped to relax laws relating to women’s swimwear.

Annette Kellerman kellerman Arrest
Annette Kellerman 1908 Similar to Kellerman, two Chicago women arrested in 1922

In 1909, Austrian Alois Anderle completed the Boston Lighthouse Marathon Swim. He started out with eight others following the same rout as the 1907 event. Anderle completed the last half mile in a severe thunderstorm with a time of 5:38. He was later disqualified for walking across an exposed sandbar at Nix’s Crag.

The next year, 15 year old Rose Pitonof won the race with a time of 6 hours and 50 minutes battling frigid waves, eddies, cross currents, winds, and changeable temperatures.  She was the first woman to compete the event. Her record stood for several years.

Rose Pitonof
Rose Pitonof 1909

There were two reported swims in 1911. In the first on August 11, Samuel Richards won the race with a time of 6:15. The other competitors got lost in the fog around Long Island. Alsie Aykroyd, a 17 year old Bostonian, won the second Boston Light Swim of 1911. She started the race along with three professional male swimmers (Alois Anderle among them) and she was the only one to compete the race with a time of 7:12.

Samuel Richards wins again in 1912 with a time of 5:15.41 almost an hour better than the previous year. Three others out of 42 entrants completed the race. Several hours before the race Anne Morecroft, a young local swimmer, attempted the same course. She fainted in the waters off of Fort Strong and was taken to the hospital in serious condition.

August 17, 1913, Samuel Richards swam from the Charlestown Bridge to Boston Light and back, an estimated distance of 24 miles. This was the first time the feat had ever been accomplished. Richards was in the water for over 13 hours. Ten others attempted the swim to Boston Light with only two making the distance. Richards was the only one to even try the return swim.

No one reached Boston Light in 1914. Seventeen swimmers entered the water on September 6th, but the race was stopped due to a change in the tides. First place was awarded to Jack Hurwitz because he was in the lead when the race was called off.

In 1915, Henry Miron, an 18 year old boy from Abington, won the race with a time of 6:49.  Sixteen swimmers competed and Charles Toth was the only other finisher coming in a full hour behind Miron.  George Meehan, of Brookline, was out to break Sam Richards course record and had to be pulled within 200 yards of Boston Light due to exhaustion.

July 31, 1916, seven competed in the annual race from Charlestown Bridge to Boston Light and all failed to reach the goal except Charles Toth, holder of the American endurance record, with a time of 6:00.

1919 Stopped early due to a lightning storm

1921 Charles Toth 5:37, the only finisher

1923 John Bray at age 60 was declared the winner. He was pulled from the water exhausted after swimming 7 hours and 35 minutes, one mile short of the finish. He was the only swimmer to make it that far.  A very strong southwest wind which threw a rough and choppy sea directly in the faces of those that were participating in the long-distance swim from Warren Bridge, Charlestown, to Boston Light, prevented any of 14 taking part from finishing.

1924 Eva Morrison swam for over 7 hours and made it to within one mile of Boston Light. The other swimmers exited the race earlier saying the water was too cold. Miss Morrison ate chocolates fed to her from a row boat for energy. She finally stopped because the tide had changed.

Ava Morrison Ava Morrison Ava Morrison
Eva Morrison 1924

In 1925 the race course was the reverse of the modern day swim. Sixteen swimmers left from the L Street Bathhouse and finished at Boston Light. For the first time in the swims history Boston Light was reached by more than one swimmer in the same race, the feat being accomplished by Walter Patterson, 39, of Bridgeport, Conn. with a time of 7:20, and Max Freedman of Beachmont, 8:30.  Irene Hesenius, of Winthrop, at age 17, won the amateur race later in August with a time of 7:09 (11 minutes faster than the pro Patterson).

Irene Hesenius
Irene Hesenius 1925

August 22, 1926 Miss Mae Elwell, 17-year-old Revere swimmer, defeated Miss Eva Morrison of I Piotou, N. S., in a race to Boston Light by one hour and 46 minutes. Her record time was 6:45. Twelve swimmers planned to swim the race but only four entered the 57 degree water.  Charles Gartland, a 19 year old from Ohio, was declared the winner of the men’s race even though no one reached Boston Light. He attempted the swim last year, but only made it half way. He blamed the failure on “a lack of beef”. This year he prepared by gaining 17 pounds in 13 days by consuming “two quarts of milk and a jar of cream a day, about a quarter pound of butter and all of the mashed potatoes I can get a hold of”.

1927 Sixteen year old Frances Vincent of East Boston won the women’s race. She was the only one to finish with a time of 7:15. (pictures, articles and notes of Vincent’s swim were provided by Vincent’s grandson, William Portalla)

1928 No one finished the traditional course from the Charlestown bridge. The swimmer who had gone the furthest, Grace Currier, a 16 year old who swam in the nude received first prize. A second race that same year went from Boston Light in to L Street, the same course we swim today.  Jimmy Cullen of Charlestown won that race.

1929 Anne Pearson, a 19 year old from Worcester, won the women’s race with a time of 7:23.

1930 Richards won the professional race against six other swimmers with a time of 6:10.

1931 Bill Hanley won the amateur race from Boston Light, but was disqualified because he had swum in the earlier professional race. The award was given to John Mullen who finished 5 minutes behind Hanley.

1932 combined pro-am race pro: Joe Nunan 5:01, am: John Jarosh 5:05. Nunan went on to win the event a total of six times.

1933 Joe Nunan 5:44

1934 Joe Hickey Dorchester was the winner.  In September of the same year, Charlotte Arne, a 17 year old girl from Medford, swam to Boston Light and back with a time of 13:35. She dived into the harbor from the old Charlestown Bridge at 5:55 a.m. and returned at 7:29 p.m. after the nonstop swim.  She was first woman to complete this feat. The only other person to swim both ways was Richards back in 1913.

July 28, 1935  “Only Four Finish in Boston Swim”.   Only 4 of the 19 swimmers finished with Bill Mullen of Dorchester winning by just 40 seconds with a time of 4:23.  Joe Nunan came in close behind him to take second place.

1936 Joe Nunan was the only finisher.

1937 John Mullen set a record from Boston Light to the L Street Bath house with a time of 3:35.

1938 Russell Doucette, a 22-year old Squantum Swimming Club member, won in 3:43 passing Mullen in the process.

August 7 1939 Nunan today won the thirty-fifth annual Boston Light swim in the record time of 3 hours 22 minutes, 13 minutes from the set by John Mullen of Boston.

August 11, 1940 Joe Nolan of Boston broke the course record with a time of 2:46 – 30 minutes below the old record.

Battling against frigid waters and the worst fog in the history of the event, Melvin “Ski” Dulong, 25year-old shipper from Woburn, won the 37th annual 10-mile Boston Light swim in the good time of 3:17, arriving almost an hour ahead of the second swimmer.  Four swimmers completed the swim on August 3, 1941.

The Boston Light Swim is discontinued at the onset of World War II.

September 1969 James J. Doty, 34, set a new record for the swim to Boston Light and back. His time was 9:30. He shattered the times of Arne in 1934 and Richards in 1913.

In 1978, Jim Doty incorporated the New England Marathon Swimming Association (NEMSA) as a charity to promote swimming and study water conditions. It re-started the Boston Light race on an annual basis. Jim announced his retirement as race director of the Boston Light Swim after the event in 1995.  Jim Doty was a world renowned open-water swimmer and in 2002 he was inducted in the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame (IMSHOF).

Sadly Jim passed away in 2011.  There is an annual 1-mile open water swim in his honor every June at the L Street Bathhouse sponsored by NEMSA and Massachusetts Open-Water Swimming Association (MOWSA).  There is a fundraising effort to create a perminant memorial to James Doty in the form of large clocks mounted atop the L Street Bathhouse.

Modern Results of the Boston Light Swim:

Date 1st Place Finisher Hometown Time
2016 Eric Nilsson Boston, MA 2:25
2015 Penny Palfrey Queensland AUS 2:56
2014 Bill Shipp Mitchellville, MD 2:59
2013 Eric Nilsson Honolulu, HI 2:46
2012 Eric Nilsson Honolulu, HI 2:35
2011 Matthew McKay Wellesley, MA 2:41
2010 Elizabeth Mancuso Cambridge, MA 2:42
2009 Seb Neumayer Cambridge, MA 2:57
2008 Ray Gandy / Seb   Neumayer Coventry, RI /   Cambridge, MA 2:44
2007 Ray Gandy Coventry, RI 3:30
2006 Mark Warkentin* Santa Barbara, CA 2:26
2005 Dori Miller Somerville, MA 3:04
2004 Bill Ireland Los Angeles, CA 3:14
2003 Will Riddell Cambridge, MA 3:05
2002 Marcia Cleveland Riverside, CT 2:47
2001 Fred Knight Wayland, MA 4:59
2000 Meryem Masood New York, NY 3:31
1999 Tom Dugan Norton, MA 4:36
1998 Ireana Sombera Orleans, MA 3:13
1996 David Alleva Quincy, MA 2:23
1995 David Alleva Quincy, MA 2:20**
1994 Julie Burnett Stoneham, MA 3:38
1993 Julie Burnett Stoneham, MA 3:41
1992 Bob Bristol 3:04
1991 William Paine MA 3:41
1990 Jim Peters Sudbury, MA 3:30
1989 Jim Peters Sudbury, MA 3:17
1988 Dave Van Mouwerik Acton, MA 3:14
1987 Marcy MacDonald Manchester, CT 2:55
1986 Marcy MacDonald Manchester, CT 4:04
1985 Nathalie Patenaude Quebec, CA 3:08
1984 Jeff Sheard Columbus, Ohio 3:41
1983 Margaret Broenniman Washington DC 3:27
1982 Sharon Beckman Cambridge, MA 3:07
1981 Todd Bryan Rhode Island 2:38
1980 Brian Hanley Cambridge, MA 4:10
1979 Karen Hartley / Brian Hanley Dorchester, MA / Cambridge, MA  4:15
1978 Brian Hanley Cambridge, MA 4:51
1977 RoAnn Costin Cambridge, MA 5:21
1976 Jim Doty Dedham, MA 5:39


* Swimmer finished in 8th place in the 2008 Olympic 10K open water swim

** Current course record

This Boston Light Swim history was constructed in 2009 from direct communications with Robert McCormack, a compilation of newspaper articles, as well as “The History of Open-Water Swimming” by Capt. Tim Johnson.

For more on the history of the Boston Light Swim, check out two books by Robert McCormack now available on Amazon:

Swimming the Light: A Brief History of the Boston Light Swim, 1907-1941

Swimming the Light, Volume 2: A Brief History of the Boston Light Swim, 1941-2014 


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