While Rio welcomes the 2016 XXXI Olympics, Gloucester will host the “38th Annual Celebrate the Clean Harbor Swim” on August 13, 2016 at 9AM on Niles Beach. A 500 meter course for children ages 8-12 was added last year; any parent and child registering at the same time will receive a promotional discount. I find that incentive extra symbolic because a mother and daughter, Sarah Fraser Robbins and Sarah Robbins Evans, together with Philip Weld, Jr., got this all going! MassAudubon facilitated the annual swim the following year and many years after. More recently it’s been produced by the New England Ocean Water Swimming Association (NEOWSA). Many partners with the City of Gloucester continue to work hard for clean water. I’ll write more about the history of the swim in another post, but in this post I want to delve a bit into the biography of Sarah Fraser Robbins.
They swam for clean water because the Clean Water Act was not being enforced in the Harbor. Today participants swim to celebrate clean water.
There are 2.5 centuries of conservation efforts and notable naturalists in Gloucester. Sarah Fraser Robbins was one.
Sarah Fraser Robbins was 68 at the time of the first swim, a long time Gloucester resident, environmentalist, author, scholar and museum educator. She worked at the Peabody Essex Museum for 25 years. In 1961, she and others helped persuade the Raymond family to donate land to Mass Audubon, now Eastern Point Wildlife Sanctuary. Robbins was friends with Ivy LeMon who was active in banding monarchs to trace their migration wintering in Mexico–had to be with that wonderful name. I have heard that together they helped to secure habitat and urged people to garden using the plants butterflies liked. Kim Smith continues on that Gloucester path.
Robbins published articles in regional journals, the journal of the New England aquarium, and for close to 30 years a regular column- “The Curious Naturalist” -for Mass Audubon publications. The Sea Is All About Us: A Guide to Marine Environments of Cape Ann and Other Northern New England Waters, the 1973 book Robbins wrote with Clarice Yentsch, was an influential touchstone about wildlife at our shores. The lengthy title opens with a nod to the T.S. Eliot poem Four Quartets: The Dry Salvages. What other could it be? That glorious
landmark seamark poem is all Water, art, legacy and nature. And the paradise that’s Cape Ann.
Read an excerpt with Robbin’s curator, scholar and naturalist’s eye in mind. (Her father was an amateur geologist.)
The river is within us, the sea is all about us;
The sea is the land’s edge also, the granite
Into which it reaches, the beaches where it tosses
Its hints of earlier and other creation:
The starfish, the horseshoe crab, the whale’s backbone;
The pools where it offers to our curiosity
The more delicate algae and the sea anemone.
It tosses up our losses, the torn seine,
The shattered lobsterpot, the broken oar
And the gear of foreign dead men. The sea has many voices,
The ‘savage rocks’ are two groups of rocky ledge off our shores nearby Straightsmouth and Thacher Island. The bigger ‘Dry Salvages’ are a mile and a half out and the little salvages are a mile out. Growing up, including when he came home from Harvard, Eliot sailed from his family’s summer home on Eastern Point. He could clear the Dry Salvages or thread past Avery Ledge and Flat Ground and back home to Gloucester.
… the ragged rock in the restless waters,
Waves wash over it, fogs conceal it;
On a halcyon day it is merely a monument,
In navigable weather it is always a seamark
To lay a course by: but in the sombre season
Or the sudden fury, is what it always was.
Check out who wrote the forward for the new edition of The Sea is All About Us:
None other than Deborah Cramer, author of The Narrow Edge, another Gloucester conservationist ( and still looking for horseshoe crab sightings)
The Peabody Essex Museum and Maritime Gloucester memorialized Sarah Fraser Robbins. Be inspired!
- In 2003, Peabody Essex Museum established the Sarah Fraser Robbins Directorship for the Art & Nature Center, currently held by Jane Winchell.
- In 2014 the Center was dedicated in memory of PEM honorary trustee, Dorothy “Dotty” Addams Brown, Sarah’s good friend and Eastern Point resident.
- Maritime Gloucester’s education center was dedicated in 2008 as the Sarah Fraser Robbins Marine Science Center.
- In 2014, Maritime Gloucester also established the Sarah Fraser Robbins Environmental Award.
Philip Weld’s father, Philip S. Weld Sr., was a newspaper publisher, editor, writer, environmentalist, veteran, and record breaking sailor. The year after the first harbor swim Phil Sr won a transatlantic race sailing “Moxie” and wrote about that crossing. He grew up in Manchester and raised his family in Gloucester.
You can see Sarah’s daughter, Sarah Robbins Evans, interviewed in a great 2010 GMG video by Manny Simoes. Make sure to watch his terrific mini doc overview of that 32nd Clean Harbor Swim run by Richie Martin. There are brief and peppy participant interviews. Swimmers came near and far- Tewksbury, Beverly, Boxford, Boston, Bedford NH, Essex, Portland ME, Falmouth ME, Swampscott…watch to find out more!
To register for the Clean Harbor Swim