The six swimmers completed a 36-mile relay between Canada and the United States.
Somewhere in the middle of Lake Erie, during the 14th hour of our swim, silliness kicked in. It started with really bad jokes.
How many tickles does it take to make an octopus laugh? Ten-tickles.
Then four of our swimmers started a memory game. Each person added an item to a list in alphabetical order until someone forgot an item. The statement began, “I went on an 18-hour boat ride and brought along...”
I watched from the sidelines as the list of crazy items grew longer and longer and they gave each other hints to help complete the list. They laughed and joked as the game went around their circle. By the time they reached the letter “Z” — a zebra-striped swimsuit — it was time for the next swimmer to join the relay.
As Ashley dived in to take over the swim from Jay, I realized that I had gone on an 18-hour boat ride and brought along an incredible group of friends.
The idea for our 36-mile relay swim across Lake Erie began in 2015 while we were training for the Big Shoulders 5K. I approached Kristen Bergmann, Jay DeFinis, and Ashley Braniecki with the idea. They all agreed it sounded like fun. C.C. Skoch and Kevin Kelley joined our team soon after and we started to make plans.
Jay was the one who suggested that our fundraising focus on the Swimming Saves Lives Foundation of U.S. Masters Swimming. As Masters swimmers, it made sense to give back to the organization that has given so much to us.
Over the next months, we recruited Kevin McCardle and Mark Schenk to be our support kayakers. Michael Bergmann and Joe Colling offered their boats and piloting skills and Josselyn Verry agreed to be our official observer. Our team was complete.
There were only two weekends last summer when everyone was available. The first was in late July and the backup was in mid-August. Because of the potential for toxic algae blooms in Lake Erie during the summer, we knew that our best opportunity for a successful swim would be the July dates.
Ten days before our July weekend, we started watching the weather, knowing that no matter the forecast, it was going to change.
Early forecasts promised strong winds from the west. Then thunderstorms were added. We were concerned we might have to postpone. Then as the weekend approached, the forecast improved to clear and hot with relatively calm winds. We decided to cross to Canada on July 22, 2016, and swim back the next day, a Saturday.
We traveled to Ontario in two boats: the 39-foot Mistral, which had kayaks strapped to the rails and left from Cleveland, and the 24-foot Mermaid Tow, which left from Vermilion, Ohio, about 40 miles west of Cleveland.
We arrived at Leamington Marina within minutes of each other and took care of customs with a phone call, filled up with gas, and checked into the SeaCliffe Inn.
After a dinner of local fried perch, a couple of group photos, and a stop at an ice cream shop, we retired early in preparation for our 2:45 a.m. wake-up call. We had no way of knowing that a live band would be playing under our windows until after midnight.
So much for a good night’s rest.
Point Pelee, Ontario, is a national park so there are no lights at 4 a.m. The remnants of a moraine from the last Ice Age, the peninsula extends 10 miles into Lake Erie from the northern shore. It’s best known as a haven for birdwatchers during the spring and fall migrations. There are strong warnings against swimming off the southernmost point due to dangerous currents.
After a short trip from Leamington, our boats were positioned in the darkness about a mile north of the point on the west side of the park. A northwest breeze pushed waves against the shore.
Kristen and I were in the Mermaid Tow, ready to take on the first and second legs of the relay. The other swimmers waited on the Mistral. Viewed from the boats, the narrow beach was slightly brighter than the trees and the water by the light of the moon.
At 4:38 a.m. I turned and shouted to Kevin, “Let’s do this!” Kevin sounded his air horn, and I waded in and started the first leg of our swim.
Each swimmer swam for an hour at a time. A few minutes before the relay exchange, the new swimmer took position swimming behind the active swimmer. At a signal from Josselyn and the kayaker, the swimmers high-fived and the new swimmer began. This exchange happens seventeen times over the course of the swim.
Our kayakers switched off every three hours or so, often with some overlap. Kevin and Mark had the toughest jobs, sitting still in a confined space for hours at a time while the hot sun beat down on them. They safely guided us on our journey across the lake, staying on course so we could focus on the task of swimming. They encouraged us, giving a whistle signal at the 30-minute mark and with five minutes to go.
Over three hours into the swim, with Ashley in the water, we encountered our first freighter. We saw it to the west, steaming through the Pelee Passage.
We made an adjustment to our course so that the huge ship could pass safely in front of us. White letters on its red hull read CANADA STEAMSHIP LINES in the bright morning light. Ashley, flanked by kayaks with an escort boat in front and behind, became part of the coolest photo op of the journey.
With five hours between swims, there was a lot of time to chat, sleep, or eat on the Mistral. We came prepared with oatmeal, bagels, muffins, pasta salad, chicken, cheese, cookies, candy, and lots of water. We were lucky to have some amazing cooks on our team.
We thought about all the hours we put into training for this swim. So many early mornings at Columbia Beach, swimming in Lake Erie as the sun rose. The day in July that we swam three times to recreate the conditions of our relay, just to be sure we could do it. The week Jay swam 22.7 miles. Picnics overlooking the lake from Kristen and Michael’s backyard. The day a Canada goose swam with us for 2 miles, drafting off Kevin and me to keep up. The rough days when Ashley tried different methods to overcome her seasickness, knowing that she would have to push through it.
As the swim progressed, the lake surface calmed and became a clear, deep blue. It was a very warm day and the water was refreshing. Sunbeams streamed into the depths. There were wonderful cool spots where the temperature dropped at least 5 degrees. An hour in the water went by way too quickly.
Josselyn recorded all of the events of the day. She tracked the start and end time of each leg, our GPS coordinates, weather and surface conditions, air and lake temperatures, positions of the boats, and any other interesting data that helped document our swim. At the time of each relay exchange, she climbed onto the deck of the Mermaid Tow and sounded her air horn.
In the middle of Kristen’s second swim, Joe called out that we were crossing the Canada-U.S. border. The water didn’t look any different. Someone suggested we wave our passports just in case.
After each of his swims, Jay climbed over the transom with a huge grin on his face and said, “This is amazing!” His enthusiasm was infectious and reminded us that we were on a life-changing adventure, each of us pushing ourselves to do something we’d never done before.
Our pilots, Michael and Joe, spent a long day keeping us on course and making sure we were safe. They guided us with their vast knowledge of the lake, provided a base of operations, and gave us a quiet place to rest between swims. The trip would not have been possible without them.
Late in the afternoon, Kevin Kelley’s brother, Mark, joined our small flotilla in his fishing boat. Mark traded banter with his brother, shot lots of amazing photos, and wrote a big check to the Swimming Saves Lives Foundation. Mark and Hal Hawk (owner of Crown Battery) were the largest supporters of our cause.
As the sun set, 3 miles from Vermilion, C.C. dived in for her last relay leg. She exchanged with Ashley and the Mistral cruised ahead 2 miles to wait. C.C. was visibly upset when she swam up to the Mistral an hour later. Through sobs she explained what happened.
Five minutes into her swim, a sea lamprey attached itself to her thigh. She reached down, felt the foot-long slimy creature, screamed, stuck her finger in its mouth, and pried it off. She then found the courage to swim another 55 minutes in growing darkness. C.C. officially earned the merit award for bravery for our trip.
Kevin swam the last leg to Main Street Beach at Vermilion. There was a festival going on, unrelated to our swim. A reggae band played, fireworks lit up the sky, and a group of family and friends gathered on the beach to welcome us home. We could hear cheering and see cameras flashing as Kevin reached shore. He arrived 17 hours and 25 minutes after we began.
Kristen and Jay also swam to shore to greet their families. There were homemade signs congratulating us and welcoming us back to the USA. We felt like heroes.
Everyone returned to the boats, and we docked at the public wharf in Vermilion. Our supporters greeted us and offered words of congratulations. We ate well-deserved pizza, drank prosecco, and reminisced a bit. We were tired and happy and the long day ended in a blur. We all went our separate ways into the warm night.
In the end, we raised more than $8,600 for the Swimming Saves Lives Foundation. Through the support of our sponsors, including a generous donation from O*H*I*O Masters, most of our expenses were covered.
In a sad moment of irony—and as if to underscore the importance of the Swimming Saves Lives Foundation—a 25-year-old man drowned in Lake Erie off the East 72nd Street Marina in Cleveland the night before our swim. If our efforts lead to one person learning to swim and avoiding a similar fate, then it was worth every minute.
The Lake Erie Relay Team now holds the world record for the Mixed 240-279 Relay from Point Pelee to Vermilion. We encourage all members of U.S. Masters Swimming to find creative ways to support the Swimming Saves Lives Foundation. And if you want to try to break our record in the process, we’ll be happy to help you make that happen.
Thank you to everyone who supported us through donations to the Swimming Saves Lives Foundation. Special thanks to our sponsors who helped us defray the costs of our adventure: Dennis Auckley, Bob Babiak, Margaret Beatty, Luise Easton, Lori Luken, Judi Norton, Nicholas and Sandra Nott, a few anonymous friends, Move Into Your Power, Northwestern Mutual, O*H*I*O Masters Swim Club, and Sweet Pea Properties of Westlake.
We also appreciate the support and guidance of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the U.S. Coast Guard, the City of Vermilion, Ohio, and Parks Canada.
Thanks to Mark Kelley and Patrick Wilson for their images from the day. You can view more images of the Lake Erie Relay Swim on Facebook.
You can continue to support the Swimming Saves Lives Foundation by donating. (You can do this when you renew your USMS membership.) Be sure to reference the “Lake Erie Relay” in the Organization line. With your help we can get our donations to top $10,000!
- Open Water
- Human Interest