Trent Theroux faces high seas in triumphant swim to Block Island
Ten years almost to the day after an accident that nearly paralyzed him, Barrington resident Trent Theroux met his own daunting challenge: To swim the 14 miles between Point Judith to Block Island entirely by backstroke — a historic first. In the early morning hours of Saturday, September 8, Theroux entered the waters off the Point Judith Lighthouse in Narragansett and faced hurricane swells and riptides in an almost nine-hour swim to the northeast shore of the island.
Wishing his feat to accomplish more than just his own personal victory, Theroux joined it to a fundraiser for RISE Above Paralysis, an organization dedicated to improving the lives of spinal cord victims. As a result of a website for the RISE fundraiser entitled “Back to Block” — to acknowledge that Theroux would do the backstroke — Theroux and the group raised $33,000 by the Thursday before the race.
From noon to 2 p.m. on Saturday, nearly 250 family members and friends gathered at the Surf Hotel — many on the porch, and some on the beach below — in anticipation of Theroux’ emergence from the sea. His children Haley and Max and their friend Cooper sold Rise T-shirts at a table set up on the sidewalk in front of the hotel.
On the porch, Rise representatives Jerry Donovan and Dave Estrada arranged paintings for a silent auction and expressed their appreciation for the support their group was receiving from islanders. Noting that “it’s very expensive to live with paralysis,” the two explained that durable equipment (such as wheel chairs and hospital bed) that people require to fill basic needs is not covered by insurance. They said Rise, which has been in existence for 20 years, serves 500 people a year.
Watching the horizon
As the time approached for Theroux’s anticipated arrival at 1:30 p.m., more and more people peered at the distant horizon through their binoculars. At one point, Max came running onto the porch to announce, “My dad’s a mile and a half away!”
While people ordered snacks, lunch and drinks and chatted excitedly, an air of nervous energy built as several in the group exchanged anxious looks when more time had elapsed and there was still no sign of Theroux or accompanying craft.
Around 2:30 p.m., Jennifer, Theroux’s wife exclaimed, “They said it’s like a hurricane out there.” She referred to a communication from the crew, who indicated that the seas were so wild they had devised an alternative landing East of the targeted goal.
Coming ashore twice
Several people who raced over discovered that indeed Theroux came ashore around 3 p.m. not far from the North Light. By this point, Theroux and his crew had added two or more hours to a swim originally intended to take approximately six and a half.
The decision then was to scoop Theroux back onto one of his crew’s boats and carry him to a point approximately 300 yards off the Surf, from which he made a ceremonial swim to the Surf beach.
Between 15 and 20 friends and fellow members of SwimRI, who regularly swim and train with Theroux, jumped in, swimming out to greet and then accompany him the short distance back to the beach.
Waiting, Jenny shouted, “I can’t stand it. I can’t wait another moment,” and rushed in to embrace her husband. From there Theroux, shaking off water and smiling broadly, strode onto the sand amid sustained applause and many cheers.
Asked by friends to make a speech, he declined, quipping, “I wonder if someone has a beer for me!” Immediately one materialized and was put into his hand.
Peppered with questions as to whether he had encountered sharks or jellyfish, Theroux joked about how his friends had threatened to “chum the water” to create a little more drama.
Langevin greets Theroux
On the porch, Representative James Langevin waited to greet and commend Theroux on his amazing feat. Langevin, who had just been to a Democratic rally on-island, took Theroux’s hand and congratulated him for his dedication. “You undertook an extraordinary effort,” he said, “in swimming 14 miles for a great cause!”
Thanking Langevin, Theroux looked directly at Jenny said, “It’s all about family support and Jenny’s been responsible for most of what’s happened. Someone once said if you have one person who loves you, you’re really blessed. Well, seeing all of you here today, you can’t imagine how blessed I feel!”
Langevin, who himself was paralyzed in an accident when he was 16, noted that Theroux had not only successfully faced an amazing physical challenge, but had “raised the public’s awareness of people’s needs.” He added: “What most people don’t know is that it’s expensive being disabled. There are a lot of things people need just to live, and it’s important to raise awareness about how they live and how expensive it is.”
By the Thursday after the swim, Theroux had raised close to $40,000. Persons interested in contributing to RISE, may contact their website at www.backtoblock.org/donate/ .
In a log, Theroux provides a point-by-point depiction of his aquatic undertaking, underscoring the drama of a man challenging the elements and being challenged by them. His account follows:
Thoughts about the Back to Block Swim by Trent Theroux
Low tide was finishing its cycle at Point Judith Lighthouse as I entered the beach. The recessed water exposed 75 yards of slippery, irregularly shaped rocks leading to the surf. My kayaker, Jay Holbrook, and I took divergent paths into the waves. He headed south along the beach to where the waves were breaking slightly less and I went straight out, willing to accept higher surf in favor of a shorter distance.
From the shore, we thought our two support boats were in place. However, they had difficulty getting out of the Harbor of Refuge. My kayaker and I were moving in different directions while the boats moved into position. An observer from shore called one of the boats and using his binoculars directed the boat first to the kayaker, then to me. The 15 minutes of aloneness in the ocean was scary and intimidating.
The first half of the swim progressed nearly as planned. At the four-hour mark we were roughly eight miles completed and within 100 yards of our course line. However, I could feel the slack tide beginning to turn against me. The swells began to reach eight feet as the wind picked up to 20-plus knots.
The increased winds created a secondary set of waves from the south to compliment the waves from the east courtesy of Hurricane Leslie. The dual set resulted in a chop which made breathing challenging, as I couldn’t measure when I was going to be hit. Quite often I found myself knocked a couple of feet under the water, looking up at my outstretched arm in the middle of a stroke, the water up to my wrist. I changed my breathing pattern to breathe low in the water on my left side using my back to shield the waves.
Our revised target was for the bluffs in the northeast section of the island. At the five hour mark, we had the target in sight and the crew got excited about the landing. The currents leading up towards high tide on the island are strongest along the coast because the ocean is pushing against the shore and the water has nowhere to go. The currents were pushing us toward the North Light. At five and a half hours in the water, I asked my kayaker for a position check. He informed me that we only progressed .25 miles in the last 30 minutes trying to head towards the bluffs.
The tide pushed us two miles north towards the North Lighthouse. My crew and I realized that if we didn’t touch by the lighthouse we were very unlikely to complete the swim.
The northern shore is lined with softball sized rocks stacked like a medieval fortress. My crew was elated when we were able to touch the bottom with our feet. Four of us attempted to land on shore by riding a wave to the rocks. The rip tide was sufficiently strong enough to pull us back out into the ocean and we had to try again. The second attempt required lying prone on the rocks, using our fingers and toes to secure our position while the tide ripped back out. We timed our second approach after the tide released us and gingerly made our way up to the shore.
On the shore, we were approached by several locals who offered their congratulations. They told us that there was a big party waiting for us at the Surf. My kayaker told me that it was time to head back into the boat to which I replied, “Can’t we catch a ride with these nice folks?
I was totally elated as I stood on the deck of my support boat, arms raised while the crowd at the hotel, on the street, on the beach and in the water cheered our arrival.
I never could have attempted this voyage without the support of my crew. The communication between the boats, the kayaker, the ferry captains, the Coast Guard and the shore exhibited a superb level of professionalism and confidence in their seamanship.
The unsung hero in this swim was my training coach, Mike Sever. Mike entered the water with me at the one-and-a-half hour mark and stayed by my side through the finish. It was Mike swimming next to me that gave me the confidence that we could finish this event successfully. I was able to watch Mike get pummeled by the same swells I was victim to and keep his aggressive, yet fluid stroke intact. Mike’s longest swim up to September 8 was 4.5 hours. He displayed every bit as much courage in completing this swim.