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Newton resident swims Boston Harbor to test the waters for upcoming Sharkfest

Posted by Jeremy C. Fox  June 6, 2012 07:11 PM

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The temperature in Boston Harbor was 51 degrees Monday morning, and winds of 15 - 25 miles per hour whipped up whitecaps, but that didn’t stop Jothy Rosenberg.

Very little does.

At 10:32 a.m., Rosenberg, 55, jumped off the dock at East Boston’s Piers Park Sailing Center and swam across Boston Harbor, climbing up a ladder outside the John Joseph Moakley United States Courthouse in South Boston 27 minutes later.

He said he could have shaved off a couple of minutes if the wind had been calmer.

“I felt great,” said the 16-year Newton resident. “It’s a great course. It’s really easy to see.”

Rosenberg said the curved glass of the courthouse building was easy to spot from a distance and helped guide him to his destination.

Rosenberg was just the first. This September, David Horning expects to see more than 400 swimmers traverse the 1,500 meters from Piers Park to the courthouse as part of the first Boston Sharkfest. Horning, founder of California-based Enviro-Sports, has organized the Alcatraz Sharkfest for almost 20 years.

The event grew out of Horning’s own love of open-water swimming. Horning, 64, first swam from Alcatraz to San Francisco in 1981, and later appeared on the TV show “Unsolved Mysteries” to explore whether it was possible for convicts on Alcatraz to escape the prison and make it safely to shore.

After competing in the Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon, it occurred to Horning that some people would enjoy just swimming from the island to the city without the foot race or bicycle competition. The Alcatraz Sharkfest swim was born.

More than 20,000 swimmers have participated in the Alcatraz Sharkfest since 1993, and in recent years Horning has begun bringing such open-water swims to other areas. With the approval of the US Coast Guard, which has agreed to shut down Boston Harbor for a brief time for the swimmers’ safety, Horning will hold the inaugural Boston Sharkfest on Sept. 22.

Registration will open on Monday, June 11 at

“Fortunately, we only use the name Sharkfest totally in jest, and we’ve never had to worry about a shark,” Horning said. “If we had to worry about sharks, we wouldn’t be in the water.”

Sharks or no sharks, it’s a daunting swim, but Rosenberg isn’t an athlete who’s easily deterred. He’s participated in the Alcatraz Sharkfest since the beginning, despite having only one leg and one lung.

Rosenberg lost his right leg at age 16 when it was amputated due to osteosarcoma, a rare bone cancer that usually attacks teenagers during the period of rapid adolescent bone development.

At 19 he had to have a lung removed when cancer reappeared there. Rosenberg might not have survived at all, he said, had he not been among the early cancer patients subjected to chemotherapy shortly after it was first developed at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

“They didn’t know if it would work,” Rosenberg recalled. “So they said to me, ‘Oh, you have zero chance of survival, but we’ll try this anyway.’”

Rosenberg said he began focusing on sports to rebuild his strength and boost his self-esteem after his amputation, and that his success in athletics gave him the confidence to succeed in business and other aspects of his life, eventually founding eight successful technology startup companies.

“When you have a disability … you’re reminded of it every day,” he said. “And you need something constantly to kind of build you back up. … You always have to keep kind of recharging the battery.”

But what he didn’t know as a determined teenager and then a young man trying to prove his abilities, was that his successes would help inspire others to overcome their physical limitations or to appreciate their own abilities.

“And it was like all these two-leggers said, ‘Oh, he just passed me on a hill riding a bike. I’m not going to whine anymore. I’m going to just kick it into higher gear,’” he said.

Rosenberg’s determination also drove him to write about his experiences in the 2010 book “Who Says I Can’t? A Two-Time Cancer-Surviving Amputee and Entrepreneur Who Fought Back, Survived and Thrived,” which he is currently developing into an online reality series that will highlight others who have overcome adversity.

The Boston swim is particularly important to Rosenberg because it will benefit the Piers Park Sailing Center, where he serves on the board of directors. The sailing center offers sailing programs for underprivileged children and the disabled, expanding opportunities to those who might otherwise never step on a sailboat.

Email Jeremy C. Fox at
Follow Jeremy C. Fox on Twitter: @jeremycfox.
Follow East Boston on Twitter: @YourEastBoston.

Jothy Rosenberg Boston Harbor.jpg

(Jeremy C. Fox for

Swimmer Jothy Rosenberg’s head was just visible across from Rowes Wharf as he swam across Boston Harbor on Monday.

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