Bill Bulger recalled years where he swam through rain, hail, and even a waterspout. "But I've never done it in this kind of heat," Bulger said on Thursday as he prepared to start his 25th annual fundraising swim from the Jefferson House on Nolan's Point to KaBobs in Henderson Cove. The heat index had Thursday's temperatures feeling like triple-digits. "It's humid, too... it's going to be a challenge."
Just before jumping into the lake off of the Jefferson House docks, Bulger spoke with two of his grandchildren: Christine Bulger, 20, and Billy (William Thomas Bulger IV), 15, who would be joining him for the trip.
"Don't think about anything but swimming," he said. "And stay close to me the whole time."
Five hours later, Bulger and his grandchildren emerged from the water at KaBob's, together. In fact, his swimming group had expanded to include Bobby Winegar, 9, Amelia Letchford, 10, and Billy's girlfriend, 14-year-old Kayla Swistak, all of whom joined him for most of the swim. Even four-year-old Kaleigh Winegar joined for a stretch. "It's fun to be part of it," said Bobby, who has joined his grandfather for part of the swim five times now.
For the last 27 years, Bulger has made an annual swim around the lake, missing just two years for personal reasons. He has done 24-hour swims, but in recent years has made the trip from the Jefferson House to KaBob's, swimming behind Halsey and Raccoon Islands along the way. The event is almost always right around his birthday; on Sunday, he will turn 68.
This year he is directing the money he raised to support Hopatcong 11-year-old Kyle O'Brien, who has an inoperable brain tumor. "I decided it was best to do this for a local boy," Bulger said. As the swim was about to start, the fundraiser had already netted about $1,400, but Bulger said most of the donations usually come in after the swim is complete. He generally raises about $3,000 to $5,000, he said.
Christine, a student at Centenary College, has watched her grandfather swim over many years, but this is the first time she's joining him. "I swim here and there," she said, "but this is definitely a special occasion, and I haven't done anything like it before."
Bulger's wife, children, and other relatives watched the swim from a pair of boats that stayed alongside the swimmers for the duration of the trip. "I drive the boat every year," Bill (William Thomas Bulger III) said. "That's where you can always find me."
Son-in-law Bob Winegar waited at the finish line with an Irish Mist for Bulger to drink when he stepped out of the water at KaBobs. "It's the first thing he wants when he gets here," Winegar said.
The second thing Bulger did upon emerging from the water was kiss his wife, Mary. And then he spoke for a few minutes on the phone with the family of Kyle O'Brien. "It's a pleasure," he told them. "Give [Kyle] a hug for me."
Then Bulger sat down and reflected on his 25th major swim on Lake Hopatcong. "While you're swimming, you're thinking about the waves, the wind, the sun, the seaweed," he said. "The water was good. I look at the houses and the beautiful lake. Sometimes I lay on my back and enjoy the clouds. And I often think about the little boy we're raising money for."
He smiled for a moment. "Then I get out and get a drink. It's a beautiful country."
Bulger is originally from Brooklyn, but moved to Lake Hopatcong 37 years ago. For the majority of those years, he's made some major swim around the lake—always for a cause that means something to him. He started raising money for the Ronald McDonald House, and then shifted to St. Jude's Research Hospital in recent years. Occasionally, he'll swim to raise money for a local child with a health crisis, which was the case this year.
"It's really all about the kids," Bob Winegar said about his father-in-law. "It keeps him out there. That's why he does it."
In addition to O'Brien, Thursday's swim was also about the kids who surrounded Bulger on his swim—his grandchildren. "I really think they kept him going out there," said family friend Kelly Conlon.
Another family friend, Dan Wiegand, said he thought the grandchildren would continue the tradition in future years when Bulger retires from his annual swim.
"He's an amazing man," Wiegand said of Bulger. "Just incredible."
Donations can be sent to Jennifer O’Brien c/o Bill Bulger; 106 Camp Trail, Andover, NJ 07821.
Billy Bulger, Bill Bulger, and Christine Bulger at the Jefferson House ahead of the swim.
Bulger surrounded by the grandchildren who would join him: Billy Bulger, Bobby Winegar, Amelia Letchford, Christine Bulger, and Kaleigh Winegar.
Bobby Winegar (9), Amelia Letchford (10), and Kaleigh Winegar (4).
Bulger gets one final pep talk from his son, Bill Bulger III, before hitting the water.
Bulger gets in the water, and won't emerge again for five hours.
Christine Bulger jumps in to join her grandfather.
Billy Bulger leaps into the water.
The trio begin their swim.
The Bulgers around the back of Halsey Island on a very hot Thursday afternoon.
All of the swimmers on the home stretch in Henderson Cove.
Bulger as he approached the end of his annual swim.
Billy Bulger, Kayla Swistak, Amelia Letchford, and Bobby Winegar.
Friends, family, and members of Kyle O'Brien's family wait for Bulger on the KaBobs dock.
Bob Winegar waits with an Irish Mist for Bulger.
The swimmers approach the ramp at KaBobs, marking the end of their marathon swim.
Bulger exits the water, after five hours, with Christine by his side.
Winegar delivers the Irish Mist to Bulger.
Dozens gathered to watch the end of the swim at KaBobs.
Bulger kisses his wife, Mary.
Bulger speaks to the family of Kyle O'Brien, whom the fundraiser benefitted. O'Brien is an 11-year-old Hopatcong boy with a brain tumor.