As the mid-Atlantic struggles through the 2nd major siege of July heat and humidity (although not as long lived as the first, it appears), some might feel refreshed by the thought of a long, cool swim—a really long and a really cool swim through the blue*.
In mid-August, at the 50-mile wide mid-point of Lake Michigan, a once-local couple now living in the Grand Rapids, MI area, will attempt a staggering 30-35 hour swim across the lake, one never before accomplished by a husband-wife team. Jeff Tow, who, as a youngster, swam competitively in Montgomery County, MD, and his wife Sara, have been preparing for this swim all their lives, you might say, but intensively training for many months now. Jeff’s parents still live in the Potomac area.
Jeff and Sara’s motivation—and inspiration—for this feat is to raise public awareness of perinatal mood disorders (PMD’s) and similar ailments, such as postpartum depression (PPD), which has affected the lives of both Sara and Jeff, each in a different way.
“Team Tow,” as they call themselves, have recently been garnering much attention in the Midwest in the form of TV and radio interviews, etc., and will likely see much more publicity, possibly national in scope, as the big day—on or about August 15th—draws closer.
Although last winter was relatively mild in the Midwest (as it was in much of the country), and Great Lakes ice coverage was far less than average**, water temperatures had been relatively close to normal—until recently, that is. But since the Midwest has been rather toasty of late, water temperatures have spiked. Currently, they range from the upper 50s and low 60s near Two Rivers, WI, on the west side, to the upper 70s and even low 80s near Ludington, MI in the extreme east, with considerable variation in between
What this all means is that Jeff and Sara, who will begin their swim at Two Rivers and (hopefully) end it at Ludington, will probably be swimming, on average, in 60-75 degree surface waters. However, an upwelling effect on Lake Michigan, as well as on the other Great Lakes, is known to occasionally cause much colder waters (40-50 degrees) to suddenly rise from the deep, which could be quite troublesome for the couple.
On the lake, another concern would be the unlikely possibility (because Jeff and Sara will be well supported meteorologically) of encountering a seiche (pronounced “s-a-y-s-h”), which is a sudden, unpredictable rogue wave formed from a strong downburst, usually associated with a thunderstorm. Such a wave hit Chicago in June 1954, causing many injuries and eight drownings.
The weather will be key in making or breaking the crossing, which, on the planned trajectory, is about 2.5 times as wide as the narrowest distance across the English Channel. And water conditions will, more or less, just be a reflection of the ambient weather.
The couple will not begin the swim, of course, during stormy conditions; therefore, they’ve given themselves a time window—August 15-17. But once the team is under way, the support boats (probably two) will have their work cut out, keeping the swimmers on track, feeding them, and watching them closely under spotlights to detect any signs of trouble.
The Tows seem to have covered almost all angles, such as: (1) what to do if they have a medical emergency—they’d be pulled into a boat, then stabilized, and then driven to safety, awaiting a Coast Guard helicopter, if necessary; (2) what to do if one partner cannot continue—the other would go on, as “it’s not an all or nothing swim,” Jeff says; and (3) what to do if the support boats and crew are endangered by rough seas—Jeff and Sara, believe it or not, would grab a previously stocked kayak and “we’d drag it with us to complete the swim….we plan to do whatever it takes to swim the distance and arrive alive.”
Aside from the weather and water conditions, other pitfalls that might be encountered as Jeff and Sara ply their way across Lake Michigan: hallucinations, hypothermia (despite the wet suits), and difficulty in staying awake, as strange as that seems.
On the other hand, even though they will be trying hard to stay awake, Jeff and Sara do expect to sleep at times—even as they swim. Watch the video describing this, as well as how one eats and (ahem) evacuates during this type of swim.
Team Tow believes they are well prepared for the challenge of swimming across Lake Michigan. Many have tried before and some (6-8) have even succeeded, although none, except Jim Dreyer in 1998, has ever completed the swim at the lake’s mid-point. If successful, Jeff and Sara would be the first married couple not only to cross the lake at mid-point, but to do so at any point; and Sara would be the first U.S. female to cross the lake at any point.
All in all, the couple would be only the second and third swimmers ever to swim across mid-Lake Michigan.
In addition, Jeff believes a Team Tow success would represent the first instance of a married couple completing an “ultra-marathon,” as its called, anywhere in the world.
For those interested in keeping up with the progress of “the big swim,” go to Team Tow’s website, “through the blue,” which spells it all out.
In any event, you can count on the Capital Weather Gang to let you know how it all turns out. Also, if any of you, our readers, have experience with long-distance swimming, we’d like to hear from you.
Lastly, for those whose lives have been affected by PPD and would like to support the cause, go to Team Tow’s “sponsor a mile” page.
*The web site of marathon swimmers, Jeff and Sara Tow.
**(In general, according to researchers at NOAA’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory, average Great Lakes ice cover is down 71% since 1973. Further, Environment Canada says that the maximum 2012 Great Lakes ice coverage was just 5%, the 2nd lowest on record! Nevertheless, during some recent winters, such as that of 2008-09, there has been impressive ice coverage on the Great lakes, despite the trend. See below.)