PUNTA GORDA — It started small and spontaneous. Twenty five years ago, Punta Gorda attorney Michael Haymans and some 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.
They had a good time, they told their friends, and those friends told a few more friends.
Today Haymans is planning the 2016 Charlotte Harbor Freedom Swim, and preparing for 500 or 600 participants, which was the number last year.
Still, Haymans resists commercializing the event. He doesn’t charge participants, require advance registration or give prizes.
It’s a happening, not a race; some don’t even swim. There are stand up paddleboards, inflatable rafts, inner tubes, even folks on plastic noodles. Kayaks join the procession with dogs on board. Those who swim (last year about 300) make it across the river in 30 minutes.
Punta Gorda’s spokesperson has described it as a “bobblefest.”
There are 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’s how it worked in 2017:
The 2017 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. The 2017 swim start time is 11 a.m. It is recommended participants be at the starting point a half hour early. You should park at Fishermen’s Village: The Green Hibiscus Trolley will provide shuttle service between Fishermen’s Village and the public beach where the swim starts.
Over at Fishermen’s Village, Punta Gorda will keep the swimmers happy with live music until the fireworks start with a variety of children’s activities such as face painting. 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. For more information,visit www.fishville.com.
Call 941-639-8721 for more information on Punta Gorda’s Fourth of July activities. If you want to talk to Haymans specifically about the Charlotte Harbor Freedom Swim, call 941 661-5622.
Tips on participating in the Freedom Swim
The growth and popularity of the Freedom Swim has resulted in additional Coast Guard requirements. In order to keep the Freedom Swim alive, organizer Michael Haymans has agreed to some steps to ensure safety at the event. These include:
- Don’t walk across U.S. 41 to reach the beach. Park at Fishermen’s Village and use the shuttle.
- 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. One 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.
- All swimmers must sign in at the start of the race.
- If you swim, Haymans says the best strategy is to parallel the bridge half-way across the river and then head for Fisherman’s Village. That way, he says, you avoid having the current push you beyond the finish point.
If you go, you can count on Michael Haymans to be there and swim it again.
“I wait until everyone is in the water,” Haymans said. “I try to be the last one.”
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