News » AIDS

Provincetown Celebrates 30th Swim for Life & Paddler Flotilla

Friday Sep 8, 2017

Celebrating its 30th year, the Provincetown Swim for Life event will be held on September 9 in Cape Cod. For three decades, in one of the largest natural harbors in the world, thousands of swimmers braved its unpredictable waters -- its chilly currents, surging tides, and their deep fears -- raising $4M for AIDS, women's health and the community.

This quintessential Provincetown tradition symbolizes the heroic efforts of a community devastated by the pandemic and its unequivocal response to it. The Swim for Life & Paddler Flotilla (a 1.4 mile swim), sponsored by the Provincetown Community Compact, has become a catalyst for a nurturing community, offering connectedness, healthy exercise and continuity for those who return year after year.

Come immerse yourself in the 1.4 mile swim, glide across the harbor's surfaces as a swimmer or kayaker, or welcome swimmers on shore as a volunteer or cheerleader.

Provincetown Harbor is designated a "safe harbor" and is one of the largest natural harbors in the world. The Swim for Life is both a fundraising event and a celebration of this unique geological gift that gave birth to Provincetown and its symbiotic relationship to the sea. The activation of this water with human bodies navigating its magical essence, along with the neon-colored swim caps and kayaks, has become an important community tradition as we become more aware of the fragility of the natural environment and our place within it.

In the summer of 1988, Jay Critchley and Walter McLean wanted to test their swimming ability by swimming across Provincetown Harbor. That summer, many New England beaches were closed due to pollution, but the Cape-tip beaches remained swimmable.

The two made the swim and two weeks later organized the first Swim for Life, which continues to celebrate the healing waters and ecology of the harbor, while raising money for local health services. The first year 18 swimmers raised $6,000. In 1993 the Provincetown Community Compact, Inc. was formed as a non-profit, 501 (c) 3, tax exempt organization, serving as a sponsor of the event.

Always held the weekend after Labor Day and the busy summer tourist season, the event has grown to attract swimmers, kayakers, volunteers and friends from throughout the country and abroad. With the assistance of 150 volunteers and 400 swimmers, this annual fall ritual has become an event that defines the best of the Provincetown spirit.

The event is marked by its many prayer ribbons. From the lofty ceiling of the Meeting House to the deck of the Boatslip, from across Commercial Street to the State House in Boston, these five-foot long, inscribed colored ribbons are a dominant visual presence at the Swim for Life weekend. And in 2016, Prayer Ribbons traveled to Washington, DC to the nation's Capitol for World AIDS Day and to Florida to honor the victims of the Orlando nightclub shooting.

Prayer Ribbons were initiated in 1993 to provide a visual witness to the swimmers as they crossed the harbor from Long Point to the Boatslip, each swimmer with his or her own personal images, hopes and fears. All are invited to inscribe the names of those they love -- and personal messages -- to those they wish to celebrate in their lives, both living and deceased.
The ribbons commemorate the devastation that AIDS has done to our community, but they also challenge us to live our lives more fully and joyfully. They create a visual statement about Provincetown as a community, its contradictions, its conflicts, its possibilities.

The Prayer Ribbons now number 2,500. Swim for Life initiated the first World AIDS Day event, December 1, 2011, at the State House in Boston. Prayer Ribbons were featured, with these edited remarks by artist and Swim organizer Jay Critchley.

The event also features a Celebration of Life concert. This euphoric community songfest at the UU Meeting House was created by John Thomas and Jim Vincent in 1994 in association with the Swim for Life. John Thomas has directed this free concert since, offering a rousing prelude to the next day's Swim. The Mermaid Brunch, along with the Celebration of Life Concert, has propelled the Swim for Life into a weekend long celebration.
This Provincetown Swim has spawned an annual Swim for Life in Maryland, organized by Joe Stewart, a 26-year swimmer.

Swim-inspired and initiated events have also been held in Germany, Montreal, Fire Island, Miami Beach and Italy. Over the years we have tried special events including: a monumental yard sale; opera concerts produced by Donna Roll from Longy School of Music in Boston; Festival of Happiness at Herring Cove Beach after the Swim; and a Pool Splash for ocean-challenged swimmers.

Schedule of Events

Saturday, September 9
8:30-10 a.m.
Kayak/Stand-up Paddle Boarders/Safety Boat Registration (on Boatslip beach)
9-10 a.m.
Swimmer Registration, Boatslip Deck
Transport of swimmers to Long Point
11 a.m.
Swim for Life Begins at Long Point
11:30 a.m.-2 p.m.
Public Greets Swimmers & Kayakers, Boatslip
Music by Zoe Lewis & friends
12-2 p.m.
Mermaid Brunch by Far Land Provicions (public welcome, donations accepted), Boatslip deck
1 p.m. (or after last swimmer arrives safely)
Awards Ceremony

The event will be held at the Boatslip Beach Club, 161 Commercial Street on Saturday, September 9.

For more information, visit


Add New Comment

Comments on Facebook