Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Why Do We Swim? To Make a Statement for the Environment

By Justin Cheves, Communications Intern

Most people who find the courage to swim the 1.7 nautical miles across the East Passage each year for Save The Bay’s annual swim take the plunge right here in Narragansett Bay waters. But one dedicated swimmer has found a way to swim for Narragansett Bay and Save The Bay from across the Atlantic Ocean in Rome, Italy. 

As a visiting engineering professor at University of Rome, Charlestown resident Dr. Rick Fleeter spends more time in Italy than he does in Rhode Island these days, and he can’t make it home in the summertime. But an engineer’s mind is a natural problem solver. So he heads out to Lake Bracciano, a 22-square-mile lake not far from Rome, measures out the 1.7 nautical miles along the shoreline, and, on the day of the Save The Bay Swim, swims right along with the 500 swimmers back here in Rhode Island. Like many of the swimmers here, he sends letters to 80 or so friends, family members and fellow athletes, raising awareness and support for Save The Bay and Narragansett Bay from afar.

The idea for his “virtual swim” came along when Rick realized how many people are turned away from the actual event each year due to space limitations. “I just thought that’s a shame, because they could be out there raising money for Save The Bay.” So he proposed the idea and a virtual swim was born. 

Rick swims for his love of Narragansett Bay, which he first discovered during a visit to Rhode Island in 1971 because “Brown would give me financial support to swim.” He was immediately smitten. “I got invited to the coach’s house for a team picnic in southern Rhode Island; he lived on a salt pond. Being from Ohio, I knew nothing about the New England coast, its ocean or salt ponds. I just thought it was fantastic. And from then on, I knew I wanted to live there,” Rick said. And he has. 

After earning two degrees from Brown (and a third at Stanford), the aerospace engineer and professor moved all over the world for work—Los Angeles, New York, Japan, Australia, Malaysia, Italy, Israel, and other remote corners of the world—but he’s called Rhode Island home ever since, even commuting between Charlestown and his Reston, Va. company, AeroAstro, for over 20 years. 

His love of environment, though, first began as a self-proclaimed “child of the 60s” in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, where Native American culture formed his philosophy. “The Native Americans would do nothing that would damage the earth, because obviously, the earth was where you came from, where all life came from. Today, we dig a hole in the ground, pull something out of it, use it, and then throw it onto the surface of the earth. We can do better than that. We take for granted that our human-built machines create undesirable waste products, but nature throws nothing away,” Rick said.

“I have lived in so many places in the world that need their own Save The Bay organization. Everywhere you go, people are degrading their environment, believing that it’s ok in their particular situation,” Rick said. “Save The Bay and the Bay Swim are one way I can make a statement about one place where together we are drawing the line and don’t want to see another part of nature ruined. That’s how I can be an example for other people.”