PUNTA GORDA — Plenty of people brave the heat for a traditional Fourth of July picnic.
But here’s an event that I would nominate as the coolest Florida Fourth activity: The 2012 Charlotte Harbor Freedom Swim.
Twenty one years ago, it began when Michael Haymans, a Punta Gorda attorney, and friends decided to celebrate the Fourth of July by swimming the 1.5 mile distance across the Peace River. They weren’t athletes in training; they had heard stories about how in the 1940s, swimming across the river was a rite of passage for teens.
Over the years, the event has grown and this year, 1,400 people are expected. But it still retains its character; its founders like to think of it as a happening.
They don’t race. They don’t even necessarily swim. Some people are on stand up paddle boards. Others float on plastic noodles or inflatable rafts and kick across. Kayaks join the procession with dogs on board. And, yes, some do swim; some make it across the river in 30 minutes.
Punta Gorda’s spokeserson has described it as a “bobblefest.” There are no registration fees, no prizes and no rules except using common sense and courtesy. (Swim with a buddy!) Many swimmers go for red, white and blue attire. For a few years, some swimmers took “freedom” to another level: They swam au natural and ran their swim suits up the mast of their sailboat. (Word has it that sailboat owner isn’t around any longer.) Here, however, is the skinny for 2012:
The annual 4th of July Freedom Swim starts on the north side of the southbound US 41 bridge and ends at Harpoon Harry’s in Fishermen’s Village. Swim start time is 2 p.m. It is recommended participants be at the starting point no later than 1:30 p.m. You should park at Fishermen’s Village: The Green Hibiscus Trolley will provide transportation from there to the swim starting point beginning at noon.
Over at Fishermen’s Village, Punta Gorda will keep the swimmers happy with live music by the “Jim Morris Trio” performing Trop Rock from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. “Mercy” performs from 5 to 9 p.m. The fireworks display over Charlotte Harbor begins at 9 p.m.
Fishermen’s Village Waterfront Mall, Resort and Marina is located off Marion Avenue, Punta Gorda. From I-75, take exit 164, turn left and proceed three miles to Fishermen’s Village. Call (941) 639-8721 for more information or visit on line at www.fishville.com.
Call 941-639-8721 for more information on Punta Gorda’s Fourth of July activities and the Charlotte Habor Freedom Swim.
Tips on participating in the Freedom Swim
The growth and popularity of the Freedom Swim has resulted in additional Coast Guard requirements for 2012. In order to keep the Freedom Swim alive, organizer Michael Haymans has agreed to some steps to ensure safety at the event. In a video of his radio show, he stresses:
- For the first hour, swimmers will be going against an incoming tide. If you are not a strong swimmer, don’t get in the water, Haymans said. Watch from the bridge or take a kayak or paddleboard. Last year, a hundred participants were pushed upriver and had to be rescued by law enforcement boats, Haymans said. Swimmers requiring rescue by officials are a mark against the Freedom Swim, he said.
- No children should participate on their own and no swimmers should undertake the swim alone. All swimmers should have close support.
- For the first time, all swimmers must sign in at the start of the race.
- Haymans needs 12 official boats to help ensure safety. Captains must attend a pre-event meeting a week in advance. If you can participate, contact Haymans at 941-661-5622. (Please call only to volunteer. Use 941-639-8721 to call for more information.)
Things to do in Punta Gorda
Punta Gorda is a great anchor to explore a region with lots of outdoors activities. Here’s a Florida Rambler guide to things to do in Punta Gorda. A few things to recommend in particular, all covered in this story: If you want an indoor activity, consider the first-rate Muscle Car City Museum. There’s a terrific fish shack in a quaint Cracker cabin there: I’ve written a story all about Peace River Seafood here.
Resources for planning a visit to Punta Gorda
- Southwest Florida Visitor Center
- Charlotte County Blueway Trails
- Babcock-Webb Wildlife Management Area
- Don Pedro State Park
- Charlotte Harbor Environmental Center’s Alligator Creek Preserve
- Charlotte Harbor Preserve State Park
- Cape Haze Pioneer Bike Trail
- Gasparilla Island State Park
- Stump Pass Beach State Park
- Kayaking Gasparilla Sound
- Peace River Seafood
- Muscle Car City Museum
- King Fisher Fleet
- Grande Tours Kayak Center