Friday, July 15, 2011

FOLIO WEEKLY: Jim's Big Swim --3.5 miles across the St. Johns, with nothing but a Speedo and a mission to save the river

By Kara Pound

It’s just 10 a.m. at Fleming Island Marina in Orange Park and
the thermometer has already hit 90 degrees. The humidity
is compounded by the fog of smoke wafting from dozens of
wildfires, making for a leaden, oppressive atmosphere. The air
quality is poor, as is the visibility across the St. Johns River, but
Jim Alabiso doesn’t seem to mind.
“Don’t ash on my parade,” he cracks, referring to the cinders
that coated him and his Moped on his morning ride to Fox
Restaurant in Avondale — his daily destination for an egg white,
black bean, spinach and mushroom omelet.
The haze may not worry him, but Alabiso isn’t exactly
relaxed, either. “I’m always nervous before going in,” he
admits, as he puts on an American flag-emblazoned swim
cap, nose clips and a navy blue Speedo. “No matter how many
times I do it.”
The river he’s standing in front of — the mighty
northward-flowing St. Johns, the longest in the state — is a
comfortable 78 degrees. His good friend, Charles Prentice,
floats in a bright yellow two-person kayak, about 10 yards
from the dock. When I ask if pre-swim anxiety is normal,
Prentice looks at me and simply says, “Before birth, we were
in water. After birth, we are on land.” And with that, Alabiso
lowers himself from the dock into the water.
In 1765, William Bartram described the St. Johns as “a true
garden of Eden.” Two hundred years later, Florida author
Harry Crews described it as “the dirtiest river in the country
… smelling of garbage, gasoline and raw human waste.”
Vigorous efforts have been made to clean up the river,
including removing all 77 raw sewage streams that once
flooded it daily and cleaning up most of the remaining effluents
dramatically. In 1977, Mayor Hans Tanzler even water-skied
across the river to demonstrate how clean it was.
But swimming in it? Well, that’s a bridge too far for most people.
Alabiso isn’t an ordinary swimmer, however. He’s made it his
mission to raise awareness about both the beauty of the St. Johns
River and the environmental peril it still faces. And he plans to
do so by making a 3.5-mile, solo, open-water swim that will start
at the Fleming Island Marina on the west side of the river and
end in Mandarin, at the county dock at Walter Jones Park on the
east side.
The swim — scheduled for Sunday, July 17 and expected to
take about two hours — is, coincidentally, the same length as
the wastewater pipeline Georgia-Pacific plans to build from its
Palatka paper mill to the middle of the St. Johns River.
The St. Johns River is 310 miles long and weaves in and out
of 12 counties; Jacksonville is the largest urban area through
which it flows. As the St. Johns Riverkeeper website notes,
“Shortly after Florida became part of the United States, a
handful of men laid out Jacksonville to be on the river. The
river meant transportation: carrying goods and passengers
upstream into the state, and downstream for coastal trading
and across the sea and facilitated commerce, enhanced security
and provided food and recreation for tourists.”
The river allowed for rapid development, which in turn
brought rapid pollution. Nearly a century-and-a-half later,
3.5 miles across the St. Johns, with nothing
but a Speedo and a mission to save the river
in 2008, the St. Johns was included on a list
of America’s 10 Most Endangered Rivers
by American Rivers, a national nonprofit
conservation organization. Between fertilizerand
pesticide-laden runoff from lawns,
industrial polluters and still-huge volumes of
treated sewage, the St. Johns River is choked
with nitrogen and phosphorus, which cause
harmful algal blooms and the occasional
white mystery foam (like the one that coated
the river’s surface last year).
While the river is often used for recreational
boating, few people would ever dream of going
for a swim in it. Jimmy Orth, executive director
of the St. Johns Riverkeeper, a privately funded,
independent river advocacy organization,
hopes to change both the perception and the
health of the river.
“Yes, our river is sick,” says Orth, a
Jacksonville native. “But it’s not dead. We’re
not on life support yet; we can still save it.”
The ultimate goal of Riverkeeper is to restore
the river to being “fishable and swimmable.”
It’s not quite there yet.
And it’s not getting any closer. In recent
weeks, the Department of Environmental
Protection has made clear that it intends
to allow the Georgia-Pacific paper mill in
Palatka to move ahead with its plans to shift
its wastewater discharge from Rice Creek,
where the effluent currently violates water
quality guidelines, to the middle of the St.
Johns — pumping another 20 million gallons
of wastewater into the heart of the St. Johns.
“It’s so ironic that the distance is almost
the same,” says Orth of the length of Alabiso’s
swim and the pipeline. “I definitely think there
is an alternative to this pipeline, and all of us
have to use our talents, like Jim is doing, to get
involved and take action.”
Orth first heard about Alabiso when he called
to say he planned to swim the river and wanted
to involve the Riverkeeper. Orth was wary.
Although it sounded like something that would
create buzz, it also sounded, well, crazy. So Orth
met Jim Alabiso for breakfast at Fox Restaurant,
and the two began planning. By the time Alabiso
had finished his omelet, the Swim Across the St.
Johns was beginning to come together.
A decade ago, Jim Alabiso weighed
nearly 250 pounds, 35 percent of
which was body fat. He smoked a pack
of cigarettes a day and suffered from high
blood pressure. Today, at 56, he is tan, fit and
muscular. “I was never an athletic kid,” he
admits of his growing up in Brooklyn, N.Y. and
then South Florida. “I’m probably in the best
shape of my life.”
At 16, Alabiso was badly injured when
the driver of a motorcycle he was riding on
pulled out in front of an off-duty police officer
going 55 mph, and they were hit broadside.
The accident left him with plates in his right
leg, and it took nearly a year-and-a-half to
recuperate. He missed a lot of high school and
never really felt like he fit in, whether in the
Northeast or South Florida.
“There was just always this constant
change, and we moved all the time,” Alabiso
remembers. “It was really tough.”
After high school, Alabiso attended school
at Florida Junior College at Jacksonville (FJC,
subsequently FCCJ and now FSCJ), where he
studied guitar. He still plays and completed
an instrumental album last year that he hasn’t
really shared with anyone, but he ended up
Mighty efforts have been made
to clean up the river, including
removing all 77 raw sewage
streams that once flooded it daily.
But swimming in it?
A decade ago, Jim Alabiso weighed nearly
250 pounds and smoked a pack a day.
Today, he’s in the best shape of his life.
dropping out of college to focus on a career in
software development.
“I chose to make money rather than spend
it,” he laughs. “In retrospect, I would make the
same decision again. It served me well, because
I rode the wave of the computer revolution.”
A turning point in Alabiso’s career and
life came after he moved to Alaska to work as
an independent contractor for Crawford &
Company, an international insurance services
firm. The company was hired by Exxon right
after the 1989 Valdez oil spill. It was Alabiso’s
responsibility to help develop software to settle
claims filed by local fishermen, so they could be
paid as quickly as possible.
Alabiso wrote an essay in April — an
exploration of his motives for doing the swim —
that he agreed to show Folio Weekly. Until now,
he says, he’s only shared it with his partner and
fellow swimmer, Candice Davis. In it, he writes,
“Things changed again when I moved to Alaska to
work on the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill. I had a chance
to do something good. It was in Valdez that the
seed of environmental awareness was planted.”
He continues, “I was there for three
years. One of my fondest memories of that
time was my good friend Frank taking me
to the Russian River teaching me how to
fly fish. Catch and release. That’s a good
thing. Although I didn’t care so much about
catching fish. What I loved was being in the
River, with Frank, with my waders …”
In 2004, Alabiso suffered another physical
setback, after a nasty bicycle accident required
hip replacement surgery and another yearplus
recovery. He began swimming to gently
rehabilitate his physical and mental health. “I
decided to reinvent myself,” Alabiso explains. “I
became happier the moment that I realized that
the only constant in life is change.”
Alabiso, by then a divorced father of
four, committed his nights and weekends to
swimming laps in his neighborhood pool.
Today, Alabiso is a lifeguard, SCUBA diver
and swim coach, even as he continues working
as a software developer. In
2008, he started seriously
training as an open-water
swimmer — basically defined
as any kind of swimming that
takes place in outdoor bodies:
oceans, bays, lakes, rivers,
canals and reservoirs.
“What’s so crazy about
open-water swimming
is that there’s no visual
stimulation like in running
or cycling,” Alabiso explains.
“The challenge is, ‘What do
I think about?’ ” He admits
that sometimes his mind
will wander to unwelcome
subjects, like sharks or
alligators, but the trick is to
“live in the moment and think
about each stroke.”
Last year, Alabiso was
standing on the county dock
by the Mandarin Museum
& Historical Society, trying
to decide on a name for his
new swim coaching business,
when a mullet jumped out
of the water. He took it as a
sign, and JumpingFish was
born. At that same moment,
Alabiso vowed he would
someday swim across the St.
Johns River and land at the same spot.
“Everyone kept telling me that I would
die from skin disease,” Alabiso says. “So I
called the city of Jacksonville to talk to an
environmental scientist and ask if the water
was healthy enough to swim in. And, in short,
she said, ‘Yes.’ ”
In open water, swimmers have zero
control over environmental conditions like
strong currents, tides, a relentless sun, cold
upwellings and pollution. That’s why it takes a
lot of planning and test runs to pull off a 3.5-
mile solo swim across Florida’s longest river.
Alabiso’s JumpingFish team includes
nearly a dozen other open-water swimmers,
a navigator, a photographer, a GPS expert,
a paramedic on standby, a unit captain,
and Alabiso’s partner’s mom, Joan Davis,
who pilots the spotting boat across the St.
Johns. The team has already completed five
expeditions, with the sixth slated for June 27.
Each expedition is planned with a half-mile
trajectory in mind — the distance from one
side of the river to the other. When all is
said and done, however, the current drifts
the swimmers away from land and the path
widens to more than three-and-a-half miles.
Alabiso compares it to “landing a spaceship.”
Today, Alabiso determines the strong
southerly current to be about six knots
(roughly 7 mph). Pointing to his friend
Prentice manning the kayak, “He’s here to
keep me safe so I don’t end up in Palatka,”
Alabiso says. “We like safe. I’ve learned to
respect the current.”
By the time he makes his first solo run
on Sunday, July 17 — the one he hopes will
garner a lot of attention for the St. Johns
Riverkeeper — he will have made the river
swim three times. After the solo swim, the
JumpingFish team plans to host The Race
Across the St. Johns River on Oct. 15, a
competitive race open only to experienced
open-water swimmers and triathletes.
Alabiso is looking forward to the swims.
But he also hopes they remind people of what
an extraordinary resource the river is, and
what it could be if cleanup efforts continue. In
his essay, he writes movingly about the river,
and how it continues to inspire him. “I looked
out over the water watching the mullets slide in
and out of water in great leaps. It reminded me
of a time in Alaska with Frank in the Russian
River. The fishing was not the main attraction.
I loved the River. I loved being surrounded by
her — a very expansive babbling brook, like
being with a constant childhood friend.”
He continues, “I knew at that moment,
looking west across the St. Johns, that I would
be swimming across this River — immersing
myself and reaching out like I had never
done before. At the time, I didn’t know
where I would start the swim, but I knew
the destination was County Dock, where
JumpingFish was born. A wind of change came
over the St. Johns, telling me I had the power.
The sun was setting on my previous life. Time
to do the work. To transform.” o
Kara Pound

“Yes, our river is sick,” says Jimmy
Orth, a Jacksonville native. “But
it’s not dead. We’re not on life
support yet; we can still save it.”

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