In his effort to highlight the historical significance of Florida Keys lighthouses, Larry Herlth, 52, dove headlong into his passion Saturday by swimming from shore, around Alligator Light and back in five hours and 11 minutes.
Along the way he encountered a waterspout and was slowed by a passing barge, but said he felt good the entire time as he doubled his previous best distance.
"What a great scene," he said of the waterspout that never threatened him or the support boats that included an official escort from the Monroe County Sheriff's Office and a contingent of paddleboarders, kayaks and four other swimmers. Herlth was the first person ever to swim the entire eight miles.
He departed from Lazy Days Restaurant in Islamorada and entered the water at 9:19 a.m. He had previously practiced by swimming from shore to the aging structure, just half the distance he covered Saturday.
"I felt pretty good the whole time. Over the last mile or so my shoulder got a little tight," said Herlth.
The Keys native, welder and artist has built several lighthouse replicas, most 20-feet high. Several can be seen at various businesses along the Overseas Highway on Upper Matecumbe Key.
Herlth rested in the water every half-hour or so, pausing to drink Gatorade. His lunch consisted of a protein bar while swimming around the lighthouse.
Part of his training used to include towing around his youngest daughter, Kyia, now 15, when she was a toddler.
"I would swim with her in a float tied to my foot, dragging her behind as I swam. It was a way to babysit and strengthen my stroke," he explained.
About 50 people greeted Herlth with cheers as he swam ashore at about 2:30 p.m.
"This is a good start for an annual event," he said. "Conditions couldn't have been better."
His stated purpose is to launch what he hopes will become an annual event that will not only boost interest in saving the chain of navigational structures along the length of the Keys, but help boost Islamorada's economy. He pointed out that the century-and-a-half-old structures are in dire need of repair.
"I really think next year we could easily have 200 swimmers," he said. "This can be over the top. It can fill every hotel room in Islamorada," he said. "The icing on the cake is the attention Alligator Light will get from this. Hopefully this gets the word out to save the six national treasures off the Florida Keys."
Alligator Reef Light stands about four miles east of Indian Key, which is near Matecumbe Key. It was built in 1873 and named after the Navy schooner Alligator that sank on the jagged coral reef in 1822. The lighthouse still contains its original Fresnel lens and has a range of about 12 miles, according to the Coast Guard.