It’s 24.3 miles across Lake Erie’s narrowest stretch, from Long Point, Ontario, to North East, Pennsylvania. Three Erie natives swam it on one day in August.
Amid 2- to 3-foot waves, brothers Tom and Greg Van Volkenburg finished in a record-breaking 11 hours, 15 minutes. Chris Fetcko finished about four hours later. It was the first time three people had ever crossed on the same day.
All three men swam competitively as kids and had coaches who had completed the swim. They wanted to prove they could, too.
“It’s been on my mind for about 40 years, roughly,” said Fetcko, 41, a bank manager who grew up in North East and now lives in nearby Erie. “I thought, I’m not getting any younger, and I’ve got a newborn on the way, so I thought, I’m just going to do it.”
Exactly four years before this year’s border-crossing swim, Steve Wargo of South Euclid was the 16th swimmer to make it, in 19 hours, 7 minutes.
So how do you do it?
The Lake Erie Open Water Swimming Association oversees each attempt across the lake. Swimmers must be accompanied by a powerboat and kayakers, who keep them on track, give them food and water.
No touching the boats
No wearing wetsuits
No swimming if there’s a lightning strike within 50 miles
How do you train?
The Van Volkenburgs and Fetcko trained separately.
The Van Volkenburgs, who both swam in college, had never before swam in open water. They started training in November. Greg Van Volkenburg, 33, lives in Houston and Tom, 28, in Charlotte, but they trained together occasionally, either at Greg’s 50-meter pool or in Lake Erie. Their longest training session was more than nine hours straight in the pool.
Fetcko started swimming again two years ago, in part to ward off seasonal affective disorder during the long winter months.
What’s the lure of open water?
“It’s cathartic,” said Fetcko. “It’s just meditative really. You don’t see anything but water. When you’re stopping for your breaks you don’t see land…. It’s almost like you’re in solitary confinement. You don’t have headphones. You can’t talk to anyone. It’s just you and the water.”
What was the water like?
The conditions weren’t ideal. The Van Volkenburgs had taken three weeks off to find the perfect day. But for the first two weeks, the water temperature was in the 50s. The rest of the third week had chances of thunderstorms.
So they made the call on a Sunday night and gathered their support team of volunteers for Monday, Aug. 1.
Fetcko had taken only one week off.
The swim started smooth, but in the afternoon, the lake kicked up waves 2- to 3-feet high, with waves as high as 5 feet, which drove the swimmers off-course. The Van Volkenburgs estimate they swam about 3 miles out of the way.
How does it work day of?
The open water association had worked with customs and immigration to clear the swimmers before they took off. The day of the swim, they met at the boats about 4:30 a.m. and sped across the lake in about an hour and a half.
In the desolate stretch of beach in Canada, the men applied sunscreen (the Van Volkenburgs used Desitin diaper cream, which wouldn’t wear off) and fueled up. Greg Van Volkenburg ate a 9-inch sub.
American swimmers start from Canada so they can end up on their home turf, on Freeport Beach.
Did the swimmers alternate strokes?
The Van Volkenburgs didn’t. It was freestyle all the way. Every hour, they stopped to tread water and drink an energy drink the crew mixed and threw to them.
What was the worst part?
“We went over the deepest part of the lake, probably where the Lake Erie Monster was,” Greg Van Volkenburg said. “We didn’t see him because the waves were so big, we were concentrating on the next wave, the next wave, the next wave.”
About 20 times, Fetcko thought he couldn’t do it anymore. But he just kept going, even when the sun went down.
“It was pretty freaky in the dark,” he said. “You have that whole ‘Jaws’ feeling. You’re wondering what’s underneath you.”
Fetcko had a hard time drinking his water and energy drinks in the big waves. He ended up in the hospital for three days afterward from dehydration.
What did their families think?
Fetcko’s wife gave birth a month after the swim. She blames him for the baby being breech.
Greg Van Volkenburg owes his wife big time, since he has three boys under the age of 4 – one of whom was born in May.
How fast did they go?
The Van Volkenbergs swam about 2.4 miles an hour. In their training swims in the pool, they averaged about 1 minute, 16 seconds, for every 100 yards. That’s pretty darn fast.
Will they do it again?
None of them plan to do it again – at least any time soon.
“I’ll never do anything like that ever again,” said Fetcko. “I’m not one of those thrill-seeking people. This was a one-and-done thing. I’m not going to climb Mount Everest any time soon.”