We arrived in Tawas late Friday night and I was leaning towards a Sunday swim, so we could have Saturday to make last minute preparations. Looking at the marine forecast, Saturday was definitely a better swimming day if you like calmer water. With winds only 2-6 mph forecast for early Saturday morning, it meant little waves. Sunday morning called for a swim into the SE winds 8-12 mph. After some discussion, we agreed that Sunday's conditions would better prepare me for the unknown and give us more time to pack our bags and relax a bit. Saturday was mostly spent prepping for the swim. I mixed my energy drink in four water bottles, we contacted the Coast Guard (since I was going to be swimming into a shipping lane), warmed and mixed Vaseline with pure lanonlin to prevent chafing, went for a short swim and a two mi dog walk, found time for reading and some jetskiing before going to bed at 8 p.m. I had no trouble falling asleep.
However, it was the reading earlier in the day that presented the biggest threat in my mind for Sunday. I'm currently reading, Wind, Waves, and Sunburn (A Brief History of Marathon Swimming), by Conrad Wennerberg, loaned to me by a fellow Michigan Masters swimmer. That was when I read about Marilyn Bell's 1954 Lake Ontario crossing. It was in her first hour of swimming that she discarded her goggles and shortly after when the first lamprey eel attached itself to her bathing suit. Since she was used to this in her training swims, she simply pinched under its' suckers and plucked the parasite from her suit, like her swim mate, Cliff Lumsden, had taught her. He too, was badgered by the pests on training swims, and once he crushed ones head between his teeth and threw it.
I shouldn't have done it, but I did it anyways. I ran to the computer to Google "lamprey eel-Lake Huron." I remembered reading about how they were problematic in most of the Great Lakes and wondered if they were attracted to light sticks, clipped to a swimmers' suit, say at four in the morning. Just happens I found a study that showed eels were indeed attracted to light. After my Google research session, complete with illustrations of lamprey eels attached to trout, I knew two things were certain. 1- I was bound to have an eery eel encounter and 2- There was absolutely no way I would put an eel in my mouth and bite its head off.
The crew and I awoke at 3 a.m. to the sound of the waves crashing on the sea wall. Each of us were busy scurrying around the house, grabbing some food and loading the car for the marina. Noah, Karen and myself took a less-drowsy Dramamine and by 4 a.m, the crew headed to the Marina, leaving Karen and I at the house. Karen rolled on her wetsuit while I ate a banana and a regular oatmeal packet, along w/ a bottle of energy drink. Next, we attached our lightsticks (see previous blog) with safety pins to the back of our suits (hers on her wetsuit string), and clipped the LED blinking lights to our goggle straps. This was when I ran around saying, "It's great to have a tail--this swim is now called 'A Tail of Two Swimmers." Giddy and ready to swim--yet, hoping I didn't resemble a trout. We stepped into the darknes on the back patio, where we set up the bucket of lanolin-vaseline concoction on some old towels on the lawn. Wearing disposable gloves, all the while our lightsticks were attracting bugs, Karen applied some of the sticky mess to underneath my bathing suit straps and places I was known to chafe in previous swims [learning experiences]. We continued to look out into Lake Huron for the green and white running lights of our escort boat, coming from the Tawas Bay Marina. In the meantime, in anxious nervousness, I must have put my hands on the lanolin six or seven times and ran back into the house to wash.
Karen and I navigated down the sea wall steps cautiously, as the waves smashed against our shins. I looked back at the house and noticed that we left the downstairs well illuminated for the boat to spot us. We waded out to the end of the dock, where the sand ended and rocks congregated. I thought the water would have been cooler than it was. It felt terrific. We saw the green and white lights bobbing in the deeper water waiting for us, so we started swimming out towards the escort boat. I was hoping I didn't swim into 'anything that went bump in the night,' aka Mr. Lamprey Eel.
I had trouble maintaining sight of the bow's red running light if I fell just behind it, so I did tell my crew and we moved a lightstick closer to it. With Karen on my left shoulder, and the boat on my right, I tried to swim parallel to the boat. A few times I heard, "left" and "too close," even with ear plugs. Turns out, the only thing I bumped into in that first half hour was Karen, my companion swimmer. I think we both screamed and apologized. Good thing I didn't have to bite her head off. This was a good practice of sensory deprivation, which initally was the root of some anxiety. I was able to tell who was who on the boat, because of their different colored life jackets and lightsticks. I kept a watchful eye on the boat's lights and the attached lightsticks when I breathed towards them. Every time I breathed to my left to spot Karen's lights, I hoped I wasn't swimming into the boat. I'm thankful I had a companion for my first night swim. Somewhere in the darkness I was able to see the "1 mi" sign that I had printed. Karen placed all of the signs (numbers, sayings, etc.) in clear, protective sheets, and sealed them with clear packaging tape. Laminating them was way too expensive and we're trying to save as much money as we can for the Channel trip. We learned that they also need to be sturdier, so we'll add a piece of cardboard to each one. They are portable and easy to pack, once placed in a 3-ring binder. The first feeding came around mile 1 to practice in the dark. Noah tossed in the TYR water bottle attached to kite string and I couldn't locate it. "Turn the spotlight on the bottle," someone said from the boat. Learning experience.
When we approached the US Gypsum crib in the dark, all I could really see was the bright red light on top. I couldn't see any of the wires or interesting objects on the bottom. The first time I ever swam to the US Gypsum crib in Tawas Bay, I was so proud. I climbed aboard the jet ski, my husband handed me a lifejacket to put on and then a seagull pooped on my face to welcome us. I have photos. This time I think we snuck past the sleeping seagulls. Karen stayed in the water for the first 90 minutes and then Noah hopped in, wearing his wetsuit. Once we got past the crib, I noticed the waves picked up and the boat was getting tossed like a salad. I even said to the crew, "if it's too wavy, we can turn around and swim to the other lighthouse and back." Lynn replied, "It's okay. Keep swimming." I could just start to see the faint reddish glow to the sky, which brought comfort. Noah swam a half hour and then he disappeared into the boat. He later said he was feeding the fish the entire half hour but wanted to serve his time in the water with me. I love him. And for the record, no lamprey eel sightings or touchings at that point.
The next few hours were a constant battle with four foot waves. I saw my husband wearing a blue hoodie with his head hung over the far side of the boat and knew he was seasick. I was later told it had rained three times on the crew and it was quite cloudy. Every feed I drank my energy mix and every other feed it seemed I was offered small amounts of something different. With every new mile card, I saw Lynn move to the stern. Classical conditioning was in effect and naturally my behavioral response was "Food is coming!" Every other feed she would reach out a metal basket on a long pole, holding a small green plastic cup, also attached to kite string. Twice I discovered diced peaches in heavy syrup, twice I was given a Peter Rabbit Organic fruit snack, a few Jellybelly SportBeans, once a few tiny Powerbar protein balls, once a tiny bite of Milky Way candy bar (turned that down), and once a hard boiled egg (turned that down faster than the candy). Breakfast and lunch in Lake Huron. I was asked to drink a half a water bottle at every feed and did note that while fighting the waves, fish are fed after every feed.
I remained in good spirits the entire swim, which is credit to my wonderful crew and family and the energy drink. I swam many hours by myself and just kept my head down. When someone on board said, "We can see Charity!" and asked "Can you see it?" I did a few forward sightings and responded, "I ONLY see a lot of water." I didn't waste any more time trying to spot it because all I could see were giant waves heading my way. I was too worried about how to learn to pee while swimming instead of wasting time during a feed. Several feeds I told jokes or commented that they should call ahead to Charity Island and make a swim-ahead reservation for table #5. When Lynn showed me the sign that said, "Great day for a swim," I saw nothing but cloudy skies and lifted my head and joked back, "Great day for a nap." Towards the end, I also told the crew to change that dinner reservation to a bed & breakfast. I also kept thinking about getting a carmel apple at the Village Chocolatier.
Finally at mile 13, I could see the Charity Island Lighthouse and a bunch of fishing vessels. Karen re-entered the water with me at mile 12 for a half hour and again when we had about a half mile to go. The clouds were starting to break-up and the rocky bottom was becoming more visable. One of the Coast Guard guys in Tawas told us that Charity Island was very rocky so I pictured big boulders. Once it was too shallow, the boat stayed in the deeper water while Karen and I swam as far as we could, which was about 75 yards from the shore. We had to do some shallow breaststroke pulls to glide over the rocks that our freestyle fingers were touching. Each of us hand selected a few rocks. I stuffed one in my suit and Karen jammed a few in her wetsuit to swim back to the boat. Finally I kneeled, then stood up slowly and we raised our hands in celebration of the successful swim. We swam back to the boat, showed them our rocks and exchanged hugs. I drank two bottles of water and had a piece of turkey after putting on a wool hat, neck gaiter, fleece shirt and pants for the swift boat ride back to the Tawas Bay Marina. Thank you, Lynn, Mark, Noah, and Karen and the people in the Tawas area for your support and kind words. I did later get that carmel apple. But I was too tired to eat it. This Saturday I think I'll take that dinner boat cruise to celebrate my birthday and enjoy the ride. Thank you for reading and please leave a comment. :)
p.s. Many people have said, "WHY?" I will leave you with this quote... "The more you do, the more you discover you can do, and the more you want to do." On this day, I swam 16 miles to Charity Island. Marathon swimming is a battle, the biggest test of human spirit I've come across in athletics. Every small victory yields further challenges.