Mighty Mac Swim: ‘The water is just freezing’

Paul Barber of Ortonville.

By David Fleet
At 54, Paul Barber has completed his share of challenging races.

But this Labor Day, as thousands walk the five mile span of Mackinac Bridge, Barber will attempt to complete the same distance hundreds of feet below, swimming in the frigid water of the Great Lakes.

“It’s going to be a challenge no doubt,” said Ortonville resident Barber. “But I’m going to do it.”
Barber, along with about 80 other swimmers, will participate in the second annual Mighty Mac Swim across the Straits of Mackinac. The swim route will be north to south, just outside a 450-yard security zone maintained by Homeland Security on each side of the Mackinac Bridge. Whether they swim to the east or west of the bridge will be determined by the direction of currents on the morning of the swim.
Sanctioned by the World Open Water Swimming Association, and members of both the World Open Water Swimming Series (WOWSS) and the Global Swim Series (GSS), the Mighty Mac Swim has now been placed promi

Pic - Freighter & Loose Swimmers
A swimmer in Lake Michigan during the 2015 Mighty Mac.

nently on the world stage. Named the “Michigan Open Water Championship,” the Mighty Mac Swim supports the good works of Habitat for Humanity of Michigan, by funding the Mighty Mac Grant to revitalize communities and positively impact lives.

“Over the past twenty years, I have participated in numerous triathlons, biking and running events,” he said. “I have completed 14 half Ironmans and four full marathons. Right now I’ve worked up to about three miles in the Brandon High School swimming pool. I know it’s not the straits, but I plan on heading out to a Great Lake to practice in a few weeks.”

To make this swim a reality, Barber needs the support of individuals by donating to Habitat For Humanity Michigan. Contact Barber at barber@charter.net or http://www.crowdrise.com/paulbarber/undraiser/habitatforhumanityMichigan
“I hope that you will consider supporting me in the Mighty Mac swim,” he said. “I guarantee that I will give it my all.”

Habitat for Humanity Michigan (HFHM), established in 1993, is a statewide non-profit organization whose main purpose is to increase the capacity of Michigan Habitat for Humanity affiliates to build simple decent homes in partnership with people in need.

Last year the Mighty Mac Swim raised more than $400,000 for HFHM.
While the challenges of raising funds for Habitat for Humanity Michigan are at the forefront of the Mighty Mac Swim—the unique environmental gauntlet thrown down by the unpredictability of the Straits of Machinac are unparalleled.

Mighty Mac Swim race organizer Katrina Murphy said water temperatures in early September on average are in between the high 50s to mid 60s. Currents and wind also play large roles in the event.
“The water is just freezing,” said Murphy. “We try to emphasize to all our swimmers to prepare for the worst and hope for the best.”

The currents are impossible to predict.

“It’s crazy,” she said. “We started last year at 3 a.m. to determine just what direction the currents were going. They (currents) can go from very minimal to strong in just minutes. Swimmers can get pulled out in Lake Michigan or out in Lake Huron. It’s not like you just jump in the water and start swimming toward Mackinaw City.”

Murphy made the swim on her own about three years ago, just as a personal challenge, and ended up going seven miles to cover the four miles between the upper peninsula and lower.
“At times the currents can be almost unnoticeable, but that can change in seconds. You can go from having almost no current to very, very extreme currents that push you way off the course you want to go. The direction of currents can change drastically. My advice to swimmers or to anyone is: Don’t fight the current—you’ll lose. If you do try to battle them, you’ll be exhausted real fast. Just go with it and ride it out.”

The race includes a group of support boats that corral about six swimmers, helping them stay in a straight line so they don’t wander off course.

“We had swimmers in the water seven hours last year,” she said. “There’s a real good chance for hypothermia, so this year all the swimmers must get out of the water in six hours. If you’re not done by then, it’s time to wrap it up.”

Murphy said the freighter traffic in the straits are a big part of the equation. The arrival times of ships passing through the straits will be known that morning, and may contribute to a swimmer’s racing strategy. While this possibility would not likely affect all swimmers equally, and could affect the outcome of the race, this is a known obstacle in the Straits of Mackinac, and contribute to making this swim unique.

“The freighters can disrupt the whole race,” she said. “The Coast Guard notifies us when the freighters are moving through the area. Believe me, the freighters don’t stop for anything—including swimmers. As a matter of Homeland Security, freighters moving under the bridge have to be inspected with dogs as they approach. So the safety and security are part of the race.”
Paul Schmude is a Lapeer Township resident and doctor who participated in the inaugural 2015 Mighty Mac Swim.

“I’m a tri-athlete and competed in Iron Man races,” said Schmude, who was 40-years-old when he raced. “But swimming was always my weakest event. Still, it was a neat event and for a very good cause, so me and a buddy decided we’d give it a try.”
Schmude sailed his 39-foot Sea Ray from Lake St. Clair to the straits a few days before the Labor Day Race.

“To be honest, it was a very tough swim,” he recalled. “The currents were very powerful and at times the waves were about five feet high—so high that when you’re at the bottom of the swells you could not see out. It’s all water around you. Those waves really beat me up—it was very demoralizing at times during the race. Then you could really feel the current pushing you all over. I would swim a few strokes and look up and the boat I was following was like 20 yards away from me.. We were way off course all the time—it was a zig-zag pattern, never a stright line. Also if I ever do this race again, I’d drink less lake water.”
Schmude said the freighters were an issue, too.

“Once they ordered us out of the water because the freighters were moving through,” he said. “We were just too close when the freighter passed.
Schmude figured he swam about nine miles to cover what would have been four and half miles of the race had he gone in a straight line.

“The water temperature was about 60 degrees when we started the race. I had a wet suit on, but was not numb or anything due to the cold. It worked well. I was in the water from 8 a.m. and got out a little after 2 p.m. We spent some time treading water out there, but it was not all that effective since the current and waves pushed you all over the place. At one point we were about a mile off Mackinaw City, but about a half-hour later we’re a mile-and-a-half away.”
Schmude finally climbed out of the water east of Mackinaw City.

“We came ashore in Mackinaw City in someone’s backyard,” he said. “The homeowner came out and looked rather puzzled then asked where we came over from? I told him ‘St. Ignace’ and just kind of walked away. I really did not want to talk about it at that point.”

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