Lighthouse Larry’s crazy idea: Open-water, 8-mile swim to benefit Fla. Keys lighthouses

Jackie Brown, left, and Chris Blythe participated in the Swim for Alligator Light challenge as a two-person relay team last year, but this time, each is doing it solo.
Jackie Brown, left, and Chris Blythe participated in the Swim for Alligator Light challenge as a two-person relay team last year, but this time, each is doing it solo. Miami Herald staff

A year ago, Chris Blythe of Miami stood on the beach at The Moorings resort in Islamorada and stared at the vastness of the Atlantic Ocean, honing in on what looked like a “toothpick on the horizon.”

That “toothpick,” a 136-foot-tall, white octagonal pyramid built in 1873 to warn mariners of the shallow coral reef, was the turnaround point for the Inaugural Swim to Alligator Light.

Like several other competitors, Blythe wondered: “What on earth had I signed up for?”

Not only did the lighthouse seem mighty far away for a swim, Blythe had been “scared to death” of sharks since watching Jaws as a boy.

But stroke by stroke, Blythe and friend Jackie Brown completed the more than eight-mile round trip to the lighthouse as a two-person relay team called “Haulin’ Strokes.” Their time: 6 hours, 2 minutes.

They had such a good experience — despite a slew of moon jellyfish, Blythe’s seasickness and Brown’s near miss with another team’s support boat — that both are training to compete in the second annual Swim to Alligator Light on Sept. 20, only this time solo.

They will be among an expected 300-plus swimmers, up from 158 last year, who will attempt the feat solo or on two- or four-person relay teams. Among those planning to do the entire course: University of Florida alum Joey Pedraza, 27, of Miami, who won a bronze medal at the Open Water Nationals in June.

“This race is starting to get some buzz, and I think it could become one of the best open-water swims in the world,” said the race’s founder, artist and sculptor Larry Herlth.

It’s not an officially sanctioned open-water swim, yet. For now, it’s a challenging event with bragging rights for finishers. Last year, about 38 attempted the swim solo and 26 made it.

More have climbed Mt. Everest

“Let’s face it, right now only about 30 people in history have ever swam to Alligator Lighthouse and back,” Herlth said. “More people have climbed Mt. Everest. When you think of it that way, holy crap. It’s an accomplishment.”

It all began because Herlth, nicknamed Lighthouse Larry, wanted to do something to raise awareness for the plight of six aging reef lighthouses built in the mid-1800s. He grew up in the Keys and watched the historic icons being left to deteriorate in the harsh sun, salt, sea and storms because GPS and other modern-day technology had made it difficult to justify millions in taxpayers dollars to keep them maintained.

“It’s sad this is happening to our national treasures,” he said.

Herlth has built several scale replicas of the lighthouses, including one that greets motorists entering Marathon. But he’s afraid that if somebody doesn’t come to the rescue of the real lighthouses soon, “we’ll lose them.”

Seeing the light

Just two months ago, Alligator Light’s light went out, and the Coast Guard said it’s too dangerous to climb the structure to repair it. “Now that the light has gone out people are finally beginning to see the light,” Herlth said.

He didn’t know how to raise the millions needed to restore them. But he did know how to swim, albeit with a body not built for going fast through the water. “I’m 230 pounds,” he said. “My hull is made for the long haul, not for speed.”

At 52, he became the first person known to have made the round-trip swim to Alligator Lighthouse — named for the USS Alligator, which wrecked on the nearby reef in 1822. With calm seas, blue skies and the support of the Fighting Manatees master swim club, which included Olympic swimming champion Jon Olsen, Herlth finished in five hours, 11 minutes, declaring: “It’s the world record.”

On a practice run and his actual swim, Herlth discovered how beautiful the route was, through the view of goggles. The “gin-clear” water, as well as the shallow 30-foot maximum depth, provided great visibility to see patch reefs and plenty of marine life, including sea turtles, barracudas and colorful fish.

“It dawned on me while I was swimming that it would make a good event, and bring more attention to the lighthouses,” Herlth said.

Herlth took his idea to the Fighting Manatees and Friends of the Pool, a group that supports aquatic opportunities in the Upper Keys. “They jumped at it,” he said.

That led to Jonathan Strauss, a former University of Florida swimming captain who restored the open-water event Swim Miami.

“At first I thought he was crazy,” Strauss said. “But I started to like it a lot more because of its uniqueness in nature. Now, I think it can become a great destination type of event.”

The Monroe Tourist Development Council backed the event this year with $30,000 in funding.

Female champ

Last year, most of the competitors were from Florida. The solo event was won by a woman: Dale Leclair of Boca Raton, in four hours, 49 minutes, 37 seconds.

This year, participants have signed up from about 20 states, plus Colombia and Spain, Herlth said.

Open-water swimming has become more popular, with Diana Nyad’s epic swim from Cuba to Key West last year adding plenty of publicity. Ocean swimming is much different from doing laps in a pool. On the positive side, the salt water makes a person more buoyant. But pool swimmers don’t have to worry about moon jellyfish.

“In the ocean you also have currents, the waves and no walls to push off on every lap,” said Brown, 35, a nurse in the cardiac catheterization lab at Baptist Hospital. “And you don’t have sight, lane lines.”

Training in a pool also is often boring. Blythe, 39, said he was thoroughly entertained during his entire lighthouse swim. “You feel like you are swimming in a large aquarium. It’s very peaceful and you kind of forget you are swimming and exerting yourself.”

Blythe, a regional sales representative for a manufacturing company, said after getting talked into doing the race solo by Brown, he decided to make it more than just a personal challenge. He’s also raising money for the nonprofit Iraq & Afghanistan Veterans of America on Crowdrise.

After learning about the large numbers of suicides by veterans returning from those two wars, Blythe wanted to help. It also has provided him motivation.

Last year, Brown did a majority of the swimming because Blythe got seasick while waiting on a rocking boat for his turn to swim. Blythe is armed this time with a strong anti-nausea medicine and anti-inflammatory for his inner ear. Both have also trained better, including a weekly long swim in the ocean.

“We’re way more prepared this time,” Brown said.

Race organizers say they also are better prepared. In the inaugural event, there were safety problems caused by course-marking buoys that were spaced too far apart and team support boats that drove dangerously close to other swimmers.

“A pontoon boat almost hit Jackie,” Blythe said.

A Monroe County Sheriff’s officer working the event by boat said there was a lot of reckless boating and not enough manpower to prevent it along the route.

Better prep

Blythe and Brown wrote a letter detailing the problems to Strauss, the race director. Both said they were impressed with Strauss’ quick response to their concerns.

Buoys are being placed at quarter-mile intervals, and only four-member teams are allowed to have support motorized boats. Instead of a mass start of teams, they will be staggered one at a time at one-minute intervals, Strauss said.

Support boats must stay at least 50 feet from the buoys and the straight route between them. If they don’t, the team will be disqualified. And there will be more on-water supervision, with the Sheriff’s Office, Florida Fish & Wildlife and the Coast Guard Auxiliary providing a boat and manpower, as well as eight private vessels driven by knowledgeable local boat captains. The Boy Scouts also are bringing their 42-foot boat to provide food, drink and other aid.

Brown and Blythe, who each will be supported by friends on kayaks, say they are comfortable with the safety improvements.

Blythe also is less fearful of sharks this time around. “For me, once I start swimming in the ocean, all the fear goes away,” he said. “Humongous barracuda watched me, but I was so in awe of the experience I never felt scared.”