By Gabriela Carroll
For 12 years running, the Montauk Playhouse Community Center Foundation has hosted the Montauk Ocean Swim, one of the only guarded ocean swims on the East Coast. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, like many iconic East End traditions, the Ocean Swim is going virtual as the Montauk Swim Challenge.
The Swim Challenge encourages participants to swim in whatever body of water they have available: the ocean, a pool, or the bay. The Ocean Swim was conducted in three distances, a half-mile, a full mile, and a 5K, and the Swim Challenge kept those three categories.
The challenge began on August 15, and participants can swim at any time through August 22, and when done can post their times on EliteFeats to discover where they placed. EliteFeats is a popular online tracker for virtual runs, which the platform adapted to work for the Virtual Swim Challenge as well.
The challenge goes toward raising funds to build an aquatic center in the Montauk Playhouse, an ongoing project to build a cultural center in Montauk.
The aquatic project hasn’t yet reached the construction phase, and the Playhouse is not yet open, so it’s been able to mitigate the financial challenges the pandemic brought to many businesses, but it has embraced digital development strategies in place of in-person events.
“We’re not able to have traditional fundraising events,” said Montauk Playhouse development director Julia McCormack. “We’ve been doing most of our community outreach this past year through a newsletter that we’ve been publishing since the spring. The way we reach out to our supporters has had to change very dramatically.”
Montauk Playhouse made the decision to move the event to a virtual format after communication with the Town of East Hampton, which declined to grant a gathering permit for the event, but the move to a virtual challenge helped broaden their reach, McCormack said.
Participation remained steady from last year’s in-person event, according to McCormack.
The virtual setting allowed for more people across the East End to participate, because one can swim wherever they are, not just at the big event in Montauk.
“One piece that was very helpful, and that I’m psyched about for this event, is that in the past, everyone was at Ditch Plains Beach,” McCormack said. “But now we have swimmers who will be participating this weekend, and through next week, who are all up and down the East End, because, in fact, being virtual has given us a slightly larger venue.”
Local businesses like Hampton Coffee Company, Montauk Clothing Co., and Sound Aircraft Services sponsored this year’s iteration of the event, to provide T-shirts for participants and support the Playhouse’s ongoing construction.
“For us, given the pressures that have been put on all businesses out here, we have found their support especially meaningful,” McCormack said. “Everyone’s support matters a great deal to us, but the fact that local sponsors have also come in has been very gratifying for us.”
The event’s long term goal is to fund the full construction of the Montauk Playhouse and specifically a future aquatic center, but in the short term, McCormack said the main goal of the event is to unite the community, over a specific fundraising goal.
“Our goals are to keep people swimming safely, and to continue to bring our community together, particularly during this very different year,” McCormack said.