Peaks to Portland: Portland's Traditional Swim Race

Swimmers in the Peaks to Portland Race. Photo Credit: Press Herald

Swimmers in the Peaks to Portland Race. Photo Credit: Press Herald

The frigid waters of coastal Maine are famed for their lobster-nurturing cold temperatures, but this region-renowned chilliness doesn’t stop Mainers from enjoying endurance swim races, at distances you might expect in warmer water climates. This race is the Peaks to Portland race, a regular race that challenges swimmers to a two-and-half-mile trek from Peaks Island to Portland’s East End Beach. The race is  another aspect of Portland Harbor’s busy, unique life.

A Cherished Tradition 

The race’s recent history dates back to the early 1980s, when the race became a codified, regular event managed by the local YMCA but the tradition traces back much further than the 80s. Photographic evidences places the race as being as old as 1927, when Portland man Mitchell Williams won the race. Other notable years include 1947, when an oil tanker exploded off the harbor during the race. In true hardy Maine fashion however, the swimmers continued unfazed by the fireball in the harbor.  Since being revived in the 1980s, the race has reached a new level of popularity, with 400 swimmers participating in 2014. Sponsored by the YMCA, the race is a major fundraising operation. Participating swimmers are charged a small entrance fee, and those athletes who raise money for the event are given “Peaks to Portland” themed towels and attire. 

A Little Help From My Friends 

Not all the swimmers do it alone. Most are aided by a spotter (in a kayak or rowboat) who helps by paddling alongside them and providing them guidance in the cold, disorienting harbor water. Utilizing this method is Scott Yeomans, a 50 year old swimmer who has won the race for the past few years running. Yeomans has a regular kayaking partner who he taps for the race, but for those who don’t have a kayaking buddy, the YMCA can send a volunteer kayaker to help you along. Volunteers also man food tents at the end of the race and bring towels for the swimmers when they emerge from the frigid waters. Local coast guard officials also assist, monitoring the mass of swimmers for any who can’t go on. The race commonly is not a short event, and swimmers can be the water for as long as two hours. 


Are you interested in Portland’s rich maritime culture and heritage? Come see Tall Ships in Portland Harbor from July 18-20th! Tickets are on sale now!