Weber acclimates his body to the cold water prior to a July 27 swim around Bean Island in Frenchman Bay. The water temperature in Frenchman Bay was 55.6 degrees. ELLSWORTH AMERICAN PHOTO BY MIKE MANDELL

A cold endeavor: Matt Weber completes daring Frenchman Bay swim

HANCOCK — Matt Weber crouches down as he clings to the rails of a narrow, rain-soaked bridge leading to the Hancock Point wharf on Frenchman Bay. It’s an early Thursday morning, and Weber’s sights are set on the only boat tied to the dock.

The bridge is slanted at an angle that makes walking difficult without hunching over, but Weber traverses it easily. After making his way down to the end of the dock, he approaches the boat and takes his sweatshirt and breakaway pants off to reveal a wetsuit underneath. It’s time for a swim.

“I can’t believe you’re doing this,” Steve Weber, Matt’s father, says as he looks around. There’s not a patch of blue to be found in the sky overlooking the bay, and the rain is still coming down.

Even on nicer days, there aren’t many other swimmers who take to the waters in Frenchman Bay. Even in the peak of summer, the water temperature here rarely, if ever, rises above 60 degrees. On this day, that temperature is a bone-chilling 55.6.

None of that is enough to stop Matt. For almost six months now, the Hancock native has been planning this 3-mile swim around Frenchman Bay’s Bean Island to raise awareness for the Frenchman Bay Conservancy. He knew the cold weather would be a problem right from the start, and that prospect isn’t going to faze him now.

“This place has truly meant a lot to me throughout my life,” he says. “There’s so much here that’s worth preserving, and I want to show that I’ll do whatever it takes to do that — even if it means swimming in this water.”

Weber was a swimmer in high school in Upstate New York and also swam at the Division I level for the University of Buffalo. On vacation from his job as an economic developer in Afghanistan, he figured the summer months would be the only time of year such a swim would be remotely bearable.

Those conditions are the reason no one has made the swim around Bean Island before. Even without taking the frigid temperature into consideration, a swim of 3 nautical miles isn’t an easy one. That’s especially true in Frenchman Bay, where changing tides and marine life — Matt later called himself fortunate to have avoided seals, porpoises and jellyfish — can hinder waterway travel.

“To do it right, we’ve had to do some planning and hope to have the right amount of luck,” he says. “At the same time, I’m a strong swimmer, and my family is by my side. Plus, it’s for a good cause. Just because no one’s done it before doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile.”

To visualize what he plans to accomplish, Matt divides his swim into three parts: to the island, around the island and back from the island. Depending on the tide strength, he predicts the swim will take him anywhere between an hour and a half and two hours.

At about 8:30 a.m., he gets in the water to warm up — or cool down, perhaps, given the water temperature. The wetsuit gives him a little bit of protection, but his visceral reaction to his body hitting the water for the first time is still telling as to how difficult this is going to be.

He begins his swim at 8:46 with the 20-foot boat Steve rented from the harbor in Sorrento for safety reasons by his side. From the shoreline to the middle of the bay, there are lobster pots everywhere. To stay on course, he and the boat must navigate through each one of them.

Looking out at Frenchman Bay from the stern of the beat, one can see why Matt wants to complete this swim. Even with gray skies, the images of Mount Desert Island, Sorrento Harbor and the bridge linking Hancock and Sullivan bring the bay’s trees, water and miles of shoreline into full view.

Throughout his swim, Steve knows Matt is ahead of his pace. He reaches the halfway point at the 28-minute mark, well ahead of the two-hour time for which he’d been aiming before he began his journey.

Matt Weber takes a drink of water after completing a 3-mile swim around Bean Island on July 27 in Hancock. Weber, an economic developer who now lives in Afghanistan, made the swim to raise awareness for the Frenchman Bay Conservancy. ELLSWORTH AMERICAN PHOTO BY MIKE MANDELL

Despite the temperatures and the exhaustion that come with his nonstop swimming, Matt stops only twice for no more than 10 seconds. Both times, his girlfriend, Kathleen Keiser, offers him protein bars and water. Without hesitating, he declines.

At 9:49, Matt reaches the dock to applause from his friends on the boat. At one hour, three minutes, his time is almost a full hour less than what he expected.

After pulling back the cap on his wetsuit, he pulls himself onto the dock. After taking a moment to catch his breath, he looks around him at what seems like an endless body of water. It’s an emotional moment, one that reconciles nature’s awe-inspiring magnificence with the humankind’s strength and perseverance.

“This bay is part of all of us,” he says. “I’ve realized I need to do more to appreciate it and encourage younger generations to explore and attempt new challenges.”

One family member, he says, told him the swim couldn’t be done because of the current. As he shivers in the cold as Keiser hands him a blanket, Matt says that talk has finally been put to rest.

“I think I proved a lot to myself and to everybody,” he says. “If one person can look at this and say, ‘Wow,’ I think it will all have been worth it.”

Mike Mandell

Mike Mandell

Mike Mandell is the sports editor at The Ellsworth American and Mount Desert Islander. He began working for The American in August 2016. You can reach him via email at [email protected]

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