It was just after dawn when Coco Robicheaux leaned over the side of the boat, dipped his Bloody Mary in Lake Pontchartrain and took a sip. He ran his hand over the pistol holstered on his belt and chanted "Stroke! Stroke!" like an over-motivated swim coach.
Robicheaux, the half-Choctaw bluesman and raconteur, was playing cheerleader for the day. He had been enlisted by a pair of adventure swimmers and philanthropists for an uncommon journey on the lake.
Just before 7 a.m. on April 23, two Colorado men, Matt Moseley and Glynde "Mango" Mangum, dove into the lake for a four-hour-plus swim that would take them from the once and future site of the New Canal Lighthouse, past Pontchartrain Beach and back.
"When I was growing up the lake was something like Lake Tahoe," Robicheaux said as he sipped his Pontchartrain-infused cocktail, the dawn breaking in the shoreless distance. Since Robicheaux was born here 61 years ago, the lake's banks have degenerated from that Tahoe-esque vista to a polluted and seldom-trafficked wasteland, and now back again. Today the water in Pontchartrain is as clean, if not cleaner, than it was during its heyday when Elvis Presley played at Pontchartrain Beach and the summer brought hordes of families to the lakeshore.
Moseley — a political spokesman, father of two, and author of the forthcoming book Dear Dr. Thompson, the story of the late Hunter S. Thompson's crusade to free a young woman wrongly convicted of felony murder — conceived the 9-mile round-trip swim, more or less, as a lark.
"Originally we just wanted to get in the water," said Moseley, a 41-year-old from Boulder, Colo., who was born in New Orleans and bred in Lafayette, where his parents ran a bed-and-breakfast. "I was coming down for Jazz Fest and thought I wanted to do a big swim while I was here."
He and Mangum are no strangers to extreme swims. Several years ago the pair took on the first descent of a 47-mile stretch of the Colorado River through Utah and Colorado. Mangum, 46, was an All-American swimmer at Southern Methodist University who came within seconds of qualifying for the 1984 Olympics.
Over the last six months, as Moseley did research on swimming the lake, he came across the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation, a grassroots group founded in 1989 and dedicated to improving the water quality in the lake and, since Hurricane Katrina, raising money to restore the New Canal Lighthouse. The lighthouse, built in the 1890s, was reduced to a pile of splintered wood after the 2005 hurricane (its remnants are currently stored at a warehouse in Kenner). The Pontchartrain foundation staff believes it can rebuild the 60-foot structure with $800,000 and has raised $300,000 since it began collecting funds.
Moseley hitched his wagon to the foundation, took in donations for the lighthouse swim at a dollar-per-mile on the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation Web site (www.saveourlake.org) and enlisted Mangum, Robicheaux and riverboat captain Allen Buras to join them. The foundation says the swimmers have raised $2,000 in donations so far.
By the time the swim support crew and Buras pulled up in his catamaran, "Plumb Crazy," the news had made some waves around town. A third swimmer, Metairie-based attorney Laurence Cohen, heard about it and hopped in the lake shortly after Moseley and Mangum did, making it most of the way through, hopping out for a break near Pontchartrain Beach.
The day before taking on the lake, Moseley and Mangum addressed a pre-Jazz Fest crowd at a Wednesday at the Square concert featuring Kermit Ruffins. "The lake is a great recreational resource," Moseley told the audience. "Go out and enjoy it."
One cynic in the audience snickered and said, "I thought you would grow a tail if you got in the lake."
That's the perception the lake's proponents are up against. Mixed drainage and sewage pipes feeding into Lake Pontchartrain turned it into a petri dish of fecal pollution by the 1980s. But today it's clean, ready for swimming and primed for the revitalization of Lincoln and Pontchartrain Beaches, says Andrea Bourgeois-Calvin, a University of New Orleans-trained geochemist who tests the water quality there regularly for the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation.
"The water looks brown from sediment, but it's not contaminated at all," Bourgeois-Calvin said the morning of the Moseley-Mangum swim, when she tested the water quality and reported scant traces of pollution.
The course of their swim went in a wide arc, launching from the shore at the former site of the lighthouse, where Landry's seafood restaurant stands, and turning around about a half-mile past Pontchartrain Beach. Robicheaux, who struck up a friendship with Moseley after they met at a Radiators concert years ago, brought his boundless energy and his loaded mini-revolver — "just in case there's a shark."
There were no sharks, just mullets jumping from the water and pelicans diving between Moseley and Mango. Two hours into their swim the men were treated to a saxophonist playing on a jetty, and both stopped to tread water and listen briefly.
It was a rare break for the swimmers, who enjoyed calm waters at the outset but battled choppy surf in the second half of the journey. Their six-person support crew in the boat wondered how the men kept their minds occupied during more than four hours in the water.
"A lot of the time I was just thinking about how good I was feeling and wondering how everybody on the boat was doing," Mangum said on the shore, chewing on a post-swim softshell crab po-boy. "For a while I was thinking about how we just had Earth Day, and how most of the earth is covered by water. But, honestly, a lot of the time I was just wishing I had a good song in my head."
Robicheaux helped out a bit in that regard, serenading the swimmers from the boat during the race with "Saturday Night Fish Fry" and other tunes. Clad in snakeskin boots, a purple dashiki and matching beret, Robicheaux did not cut the profile of a typical sailor. But his presence helped, the swimmers said.
"Knowing the crew was there and supporting us just kept me going," Moseley said. "When my shoulders were getting sore or the sun was burning my back up I just had to think of those guys and Coco keeping everybody laughing and it got a lot easier to push myself through to the end."