Swimming from Greenport to the Island

COURTESY PHOTO Joan Archard of Patchogue holds up her wetsuit Tuesday near Great South Bay, where she’s been practicing for this weekend’s swim from Greenport to Shelter Island (and maybe back).

COURTESY PHOTO
Joan Archard of Patchogue holds up her wetsuit Tuesday near Great South Bay, where she’s been practicing for this weekend’s swim from Greenport to Shelter Island (and maybe back).

The matriarch of the family — good old granny — always leaves a certain legacy behind. Whether it’s her perfect chocolate-chip cookie recipe or the slightly off-kilter jokes she made, grandmas are known to pass down fond memories.

This summer, Joan Archard of Patchogue is paying homage to her grandmother’s less conventional achievements through a feat of athleticism to be attempted in Greenport.

About 80 years ago, Ms. Archard’s grandmother, Margaret (Gilbride) O’Donnell, swam from her Shelter Island home to Greenport, about 0.56 miles. This weekend, Ms. Archard plans to do the same thing, though she’ll start on the Greenport side.

“I remember growing up and my father and my uncle used to always say, ‘Your grandmother swam from Shelter Island to Long Island,’ and before I turned 50 I thought, why not put that on my bucket list?” Ms. Archard said.

She’ll make her journey either Saturday, July 19, or Sunday, July 20, depending on water conditions. She said a North Ferry captain familiar with the Greenport-to-Shelter Island route told her to make the swim between the full and new moons, when the currents would be more favorable, and this weekend fit the description.

“I was meant to be a fish, I think,” she said. “I love to be in the water, under the water … it’s a very peaceful feeling to me and I could swim forever.”

Ms. Archard can recall her grandmother feeling the same way.

“My grandmother was always a swimmer,” she said. “I remember when I would bring her down to the water — she lived a block or two away — and as soon as we made that turn to the bay she would inhale and say, ‘You smell that water? That can cure anything.’

“She believed if you had a cut and you went in the water it would heal right away,” she said.

For safety reasons, a friend will ride alongside Ms. Archard in a kayak; another friend will be in a motorboat, making sure the way is clear. She will also wear a wetsuit and panty hose on her hands and feet to avoid jellyfish stings.

Her intention is to swim there and back — her grandmother is said to have done only a one-way swim — but she’ll have to make the decision that day, depending on the currents and how crowded the water is.

She plans to depart from Sage Boulevard in Greenport “mid-morning,” she said, depending on water conditions.

“She won’t be swimming near the ferry, so I’m not too concerned in that sense,” said North Ferry General Manager Bridg Hunt. “I’ve known people who have swum across before. I can’t name names but it’s not the first time.”

Though Ms. Archard has been swimming her entire life and has traversed other bodies of water, including a wide river in Vermont, she did a bit of additional training for this effort. She swam in a bay — alongside her kayaker friend — for two and a half hours, about two miles lengthwise. Those sessions only boosted her confidence.

“I felt like I could go on forever,” she said.

Bob O’Donnell, Ms. Archard’s father, whose mother did the swim in the 1930s, is excited for his daughter following in his mother’s wake.

“It’s been a part of the family history ever since I was a little kid,” Mr. O’Donnell explained. “I spent all of my summers on Shelter Island and in Greenport with my cousins, and from generation to generation the word came down about my mother swimming over from Shelter Island to Greenport.

“My daughter got wind of it and now she’s going to do it,” he continued. “It’s nice that she’s trying to emulate my mother. She’s got the ability to do it and she’s got the perseverance to do it.”

Mr. O’Donnell said his mother’s brother, Ms. Archard’s great uncle Bill Cummings, also swam between the Island and Greenport sometime before World War II.

Neither Mr. O’Donnell nor his wife were there when his mother did the swim — she was said to have been in her early 20s at the time — but they have no trouble believing it’s a true story.

“She was always very gracious, had a beautiful smile and was a great mother-in-law. I was one of the lucky ones,” said his wife, Joan O’Donnell. “And oh how she loved to swim. Once she said, ‘When I die, if there’s no water in heaven, I’m coming back!’ ”

When asked why she decided to do the swim now, Ms. Archard couldn’t give any specific reason.

“It just popped into my head,” she said. “Well, my sister and I just went skydiving and I needed a new challenge. I’ve never had a fear of the water and I don’t really understand a fear of it.

“I actually said why don’t we go from here to Fire Island?” she continued, laughing. “And my friend said, ‘Joan … maybe next year.’ ”