It started small and spontaneous. More than 30 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 the Charlotte Harbor Freedom Swim attracts 1,000 to 1,500 participants, including kayakers, paddle boards, boaters and 400-500 swimmers.
Haymans, who is still involved, 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 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.)
WHEN: Tides dictate the start, which is set for 2:30 p.m. on Tuesday, July 4, 2023. Arrive 10 or 15 minutes early to hear the briefing. Swimmers won’t have the assistance of an outgoing tidal current this year, Haymans says. The tide will be incoming but the swim is timed to take advantage of “the slosh,” he says, which will make it a little easier than at other times that day.
WHERE: East side of the Barron Collier Bridge’s north end. Here’s a link to a Google map for the location: Live Oak Point Park, 5100 Tamiami Trail, Port Charlotte. There is a small amount of parking and a rest room at this park. Getting into the water may take some clambering down to the sandy shoreline.
Logistics: Haymans says the 2023 Freedom Swim is going to take more planning because there is no trolley to shuttle swimmers to the put-in spot and parking there is limited due to a nearby construction site.
Your best bet is to park at the end point, at Fisherman’s Village and get dropped off by car or boat or Uber at the Freedom Swim starting point. You also can park across the bridge in Punta Gorda and walk to the put-in site, Haymans says.
Swimmers will swim under the bridges, across the Peace River and downstream to Fisherman’s Village. Although there will be several vessels escorting swimmers, swimmers are responsible for their own safety and support team.
Fishermen’s Village will keep the swimmers happy with live music and a variety of children’s activities such as face painting from noon 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. 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:
- 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 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: The Peace River Botanic Gardens, boat tours, bike trails and good kayaking. There’s also a terrific fish shack in a quaint Cracker cabin there: I’ve written a story all about Peace River Seafood here.
Nearby destinations recommended by Florida Rambler:
- Peace River Seafood
- Kayaking Gasparilla Sound
- Barrier islands, include Stump Pass Beach State Park
- Boca Grande
- Camping at Camp Venice
- Oscar Scherer State Park
- Legacy Trail and Venetian Waterway Park
- Kayak to Mound Key Archealogical State Park
- Calusa Blueway kayak trail
- Cayo Costa State Park
More resources for planning a visit to Punta Gorda
- Southwest Florida Visitor Center
- Charlotte County Blueway Trails
- Babcock-Webb Wildlife Management Area
- Charlotte Harbor Environmental Center’s Alligator Creek Preserve
- Charlotte Harbor Preserve State Park
- Cape Haze Pioneer Bike Trail
- King Fisher Fleet
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The author, Bonnie Gross, travels with her husband David Blasco, discovering off-the-beaten path places to hike, kayak, bike, swim and explore. Florida Rambler was founded in 2010 by Bonnie and fellow journalist Bob Rountree, two long-time Florida residents who have spent decades exploring the Florida outdoors. Their articles have been published in the Sun Sentinel, the Miami Herald, the Orlando Sentinel, The Guardian and Visit Florida.