At 5:00 am on Saturday, September 22, 2012, when most Americans were still sleeping, writer and designer Sarah Peck climbed into a boat making its way to Alcatraz. Less than two hours later, Peck slipped into the frigid water and began swimming steadily from Alcatraz to San Francisco. An early morning swim in 55-degree water might seem like an unusual way to celebrate one’s 29th birthday. To make the event more memorable, Peck swam the distance wearing nothing but a swim cap. Why?
She embarked on the swim to raise money for charity: water, a non-profit organization dedicated to bringing clean and safe drinking water to people in developing nations.
Several major nonprofits sponsor marathon runs, walks, or swimming races to generate funds for charity. Swim Across America coordinates a swim across the San Francisco Bay to raise money and awareness for cancer research, prevention and treatment.
The difference is, most swimmers undertaking the 1.5 mile swim from Alcatraz to San Francisco for charity (or any reason) wear wetsuits—the water temperature in the Bay hovers around 55 degrees.
Why did Peck swim nude in frigid, murky water? To make a point. After learning that 800 million human beings on the planet don’t have access to clean water Peck committed herself to making a difference. She set a goal of raising $29,000 to bring safe water to others.
Peck publicized the idea on her blog, It Starts With, boldly asking readers to forgo a bottle of wine or a take-out meal to donate to the cause of clean water. She reasoned that if 1000 people donated $29, she’d reach her goal. “It will be freezing. I will be very, very cold. But a little cold and a little bay muck is nothing compared to the lives lived on other countries in this world.” She promised that if she raised $29,000, she would embark on the swim wearing nothing but her birthday suit. And she did it.
In a nation where clean, cold water–often enhanced with vitamins–is available at nearly every corner convenience store, it is difficult to imagine having to walk five miles for potable water as some individuals must. According to statistics from the World Health Organization, diseases associated with unsafe water and unhygienic living conditions caused by lack of clean water kill more people worldwide annually than all forms of violence–even war. Young children are especially vulnerable to diseases caused by unsafe water. Sarah Peck swam to help change that.
Though she may not have realized it, Peck is following in the footsteps of other extraordinary women from past decades who used a passion for swimming to raise money to help others in need. Mercedes Gleitze, an eighteen-year-old typist in London, became the first woman swimmer to attract front page headlines in American newspapers when she announced her intent to attempt to swim the English Channel in 1922 (more on Gleitze to follow in subsequent posts).
American journalists reported favorably on Gleitze as the “beautiful London stenographer” in the “scanty swimsuit” who saved her money and tried seven times over five years before successfully swimming the English Channel in 1927. Like Peck 80 years later, Gleitze dedicated the money she raised from swimming to improving living conditions for others. Gleitze, a fascinating woman, swam dangerous straits around the world, including the Irish Channel, Hellespont, the Straits of Gibraltar (which she attempted six times before succeeding), the Cook Straits of New Zealand and the Dardanelles to raise funds to help the destitute in London.
Though Gleitze earned celebrity status among her contemporaries, she’s been largely forgotten, even by historians, today. Maybe Sarah Peck, who followed Gleitze’s example of swimming to raise money to help others, will help change that.
Peck modestly acknowledged that her swim wouldn’t secure clean water for 800 million people. But her accomplishment of raising nearly $30,000 from over 400 people–in only three months–proves that working together, like-minded people can make a positive difference in the world. “Swim for it.”