​Swimming Researcher Recaps 652-Mile Swim

by Kevin Cummings, Messenger Staff Writer

As the first guest speaker in Sewanee’s “The Year of Water” series, professor Andreas Fath addressed a packed Gailor Auditorium on Aug. 30, one day after completing a record-setting 652-mile swim of the Tennessee River.
Fath, a professor at the University of Furtwangen in Germany, finished the swim in Paducah, Ky., where the Tennessee meets the Ohio River, setting a new world record by completing the feat in 34 days. Fath and Sewanee geology professor Martin Knoll partnered on TenneSwim to raise awareness of water quality and perform scientific testing all along the river.
“In the months to come, as the analytical results come trickling in from all the water samples we’ve taken, we’ll really be able to have an unprecedented look at the quality of the water in the Tennessee River and in the Tennessee River Watershed,” Knoll said.
The project includes testing for things like pharmaceuticals, industrial and household chemicals, microplastics and other pollutants in the watershed, which is home to about 5 million people, including those in the Sewanee area.
“This will make people aware of their impact and how they can change their behavior,” Fath said.
Fath’s “swim for science” started on July 26 north of Knoxville, and those helping along the way included family members, scientists, Sewanee students and others. Zach Blount of Sewanee and his friend Sam McNair swam with Fath on the river west of Nashville for two days of the expedition.
Blount said he swam about six miles each day, but could not keep pace with Fath.
“I think Sam and I both consider ourselves pretty strong swimmers as it goes, but I remember it was the last day I was on the boat and I hopped in to swim Andreas’ last mile of the day, so it was mile 16 for him. I couldn’t hold his pace at all, he was just gone,” Blount said. “It was so humbling to see such an amazing swimmer accomplish this feat.
“He seemed not to be touched by it all, he was just there doing his research. He’s a very humble person,” Blount added. “It was just a great experience to be a part of such a cool project.”
Three years ago, Fath swam the 766-mile Rhine River in Europe in a similar swim for science that took 28 days. During his talk at Gailor, Fath explained that the Rhine is not only longer than the Tennessee, but also colder and faster, and the watershed is much more populated, with about 50 million people, which impacts the level of contamination. But he noted that he expects to find the same types of pollutants which are common to life both here and in Europe.
Knoll said the Tennessee River appears clean visually, and Fath said initial testing shows that the Tennessee is below allowable levels for nitrates and phosphates in drinking water, but there were a few hotspots with high levels or organic materials, which further testing will help explain.
Among the testing equipment was a small membrane attached to Fath himself, called a passive sampler, which collects materials that come in contact with the swimmer.
One area the researchers are especially interested in is microplastics, which can break down into harmful substances. Other pollutants also adhere to the small plastic particles, which are consumed by fish.
“We only took (plastic) samples 15 centimeters underneath the water surface, so you find mainly plastic particles which have a lower density than water, so polypropylene polyethylene and polystyrene are floating. If you do a depth profile you will find other plastics as well, heavier plastics,” Fath said.
The swimming scientist noted that the journey saw very few thunderstorms, but Knoll said one storm was encouraging in the lack of debris it generated.
“We did have some severe storms when we went by Huntsville, Ala., and there was some flash flooding so I expected with that storm water runoff from all those parking lots and roads, a huge raft of garbage, and we didn’t see that. We saw hickory nuts, leaves, twigs, (grass clippings) and all that kind of thing, so that was a pleasant surprise.”
Responding to an audience question, Fath downplayed the exertion of swimming roughly eight hours each day. He said he had time to think about things like water treatment projects and his family’s next vacation.
“When you’re riding a bicycle you have to care about the traffic,” he said. “In the water it’s only you, and the water carries you. You see the shores, you see nature, you have your family beside you, your son beside you swimming, and it’s a nice experience that you will never forget. For me, if you are used to it and you know how to glide on the surface a bit, it’s not that hard.”
For more information visit tenneswim.org.