The Vicki Keith Swim

The following is a personal account of Vicki Keith’s record-breaking swim of August 15-17, 2005. I was the owner/captain of one of the three boats that accompanied her all the way from Point Petrie to Kingston.

This is the route Vicki swam, slightly over 80km.

How did I get involved in the first place? I casually know Vicki and John Munro, her husband, as we all live on Amherst Island and have many mutual friends and acquaintances. I also happen to own a 27′ Wellcraft express cruiser, named “Lawn Ornament”, that can handle some amount of open lake. More importantly, it has a head and several beds. After Vicki’s failed swim from Oswego earlier that summer, they were eager to try again while she was still in shape, but the effort had to be put together quickly. Ross Haines, a mutual friend, supplied some of the signs they were using and through him I found out that John really needed one more boat for the new attempt. After some phone calls and thinking about it, I signed on. I did have some reservations, as I had used the boat strictly as a daytime fun boat, and had never used any part of the plumbing, nor ever spent a night aboard. The boat would be crewed by myself and Ross, and we had just 3 days to prepare. Ross and Bruce Burnett chipped in and mostly due to their efforts we got most of the plumbing working and a new battery.

There were a total of 7 boats in the fleet. The lead boat was “Free Flow”, a gorgeous older Owen cruiser, about 32′, top speed of 8 knots. Next was “Irish Wake”, a Contessa of maybe 28′, with a 10′ beam, top speed about 28 knots. The last big boat was my 27′ Wellcraft, but with only 8’6″ of beam, top speed about 35 knots. All of us were single-engine (all 5.7 Chevy blocks). The little close support boats were a 2-person kayak and a 2-person zodiac with an outboard and some custom lights on it. There were also 2 other larger motorized zodiacs that were used to ferry people and supplies around.

The original plan was to meet at Wellington Marina, which is just north of the Sand Dunes. We were to arrive there by 5PM on Sunday the 14th to have an organizational meeting and get acquainted. But John discovered the marina was having shoaling problems, so on Saturday he made the decision to meet at Waupoos Marina instead. This was good for us, as the hike to Wellington was considerable. It did mean, though, that we’d have to get started early on Monday to get to Point Petrie by 7AM.

On Sunday the crew and passengers all met at the Amherst Island ferry dock at 2PM. As John and Vicki were catching the 2PM ferry, we could all gather for a few minutes before starting off. Already she was being greeted with signs along the road cheering her on. Although it was raining a little on Sunday, the weather was supposed to clear by our start on Monday, and continue clear through Thursday. Our trip down to Waupoos took just under an hour, while theirs by road took about 2. On the way there we caught up with a boat towing a zodiac and probably going the same way. Another of Vicki’s boats? Turned out to be Irish Wake, who followed us into port. Free Flow was already there, having been successfully diverted while enroute to Wellington.

Due to the speed of construction, the crew may not have been as experienced as usual, but there was certainly enough talent to go around. My boat and I were clearly the least capable; the other skippers were very experienced and very good at what they did. The generally younger folks who were going to man the zodiac and kayak were all fit and able. All in all, it was quite an impressive collection of talent, energy and dedication – a real tribute to John and Vicki’s ability to get talented people to donate their time to a worthwhile effort. We met at 6PM for an hour and John and Vicki went over our instructions. John also distributed food, water and juices to the boats. We had our own supply as well.

The actual roles for the different boats varied depending on circumstances, but the basic format was as follows. The kayak was the primary support for Vicki. It would stay very close and be her primary conduit to the outside world, including supplying her food and liquids. The little zodiac would serve as backup, relief and resupply for the kayak. The two extra zodiacs would be used as needed, mostly for moving people and supplies around. Free Flow, with the navigators aboard, would generally serve as lead boat in front, showing Vicki which way to go. Irish would be off to her side; the staging ground for the zodiac and kayak people. We would keep behind Vicki, keeping her in sight (especially at night) and watching out for other boats. Ideally, there would always be either the kayak or the zodiac close to her, a few meters away. In calm water and daylight, this could be relaxed a little, but on the water things can go wrong quickly, and it was important that someone always be close to her.

Getting dinner at Waupoos turned out to be quite a challenge. Prince Edward County may look, on a map, to be in the center of things, but the reality is that the ends of the peninsulas are quite far from civilization and there aren’t many facilities. Eventually a trip into Picton got the last three pizzas they had. We had about 35 miles to Point Petrie from Waupoos. That was a little over an hour for Irish and Lawn, but about 4 hours for poor Free Flow. The sunset was quite nice, with a half moon that would provide some light until it set about midnight. Everyone tried to get to bed early.

Overnight the weather cleared as expected. Free Flow probably left about 3AM, but so quietly nobody seemed to notice. Irish and Lawn were up at 4:30AM for a 5AM departure. At 5AM, for those of you who aren’t acquainted with the hour, it is still quite dark, with the sun rising at about 6AM. We actually got going shortly before 5:30, so there was a little light as we pulled out of the harbor, for some of us the last time on land for several days. The run around Long Point and down the coast to Point Petrie took about 90 minutes, and we were just barely on time for Vicki’s 7AM departure. She had arrived by car, along with John and the little zodiac, which also arrived by car that morning.

7AM Monday, Vicki enters the water at Point Petrie.

A small but enthusiastic crowd watched as she adjusted her suit, cap and goggles and left solid ground for the next 64 hours. As she swims there isn’t much to see. Most of the time, we found her by seeing the splashes her arms make as she does the butterfly. The long trip up the coast from Petrie to Long Point was pretty routine. The crew was getting into the rhythm of it. Vicki was swimming well. The weather was cooperating, it was sunny and in the 20’s. Although the winds were stronger than forecast, at least they were in her favor, and not so strong as to cause us any problems.

A typical view of Vicki, at this point she was stopped to eat. The kayak is just behind her.

Even from the other side of the peninsula, we could sometimes see the tops of the Lennox stacks. As it turned out, we could see the stacks almost the entire trip, right up until we approached Kingston.

Rounding Long Point was quite an experience. Over the point there was another gorgeous sunset, at roughly 8PM, with the waxing moon still high. Quite a number of her supporters were there, complete with music and cheers. The big boats had to stay out due to shoals, but it is surprising how far noise carries on the water. After a long isolated day up the coast and the prospect of a long isolated night in the relatively open water between Timber Island and Amherst Island, it was quite cheering to see how many people were following our progress.

Here’s the sunrise after we passed Long Point and were in the middle of Prince Edward Bay. The white streak was actually there, not sure what it was.

We picked up a new passenger. Malcolm was one of the small zodiac operators, and shortly after he came on board he was on the zodiac, replacing Sheila. She was the assistant swim master (John was the master) and had been on the zodiac since 7AM. Cold and tired, drowned puppy came to mind. She settled under a sleeping bag and promptly passed out. She and Malcolm would swap back and forth for most of the trip. The kayak paddlers had a similar routine, but mostly used Irish and had shorter shifts than the zodiac pair.

Darkness set in as we left Long Point and then Timber Island behind. After the moon set, the darkness would be pretty nearly total. The wind and waves were still there, but not much of a problem. Before it got completely dark, light sticks were attached to both the kayak and Vicki, so if you were close enough you could make out where they were. The little zodiac had real lights, plus a strobe that was really useful when trying to find Vicki. I left Ross in charge and went to bed.

Several hours later (1AM?) I was awakened by a sudden increase in the boat’s movement. The winds had suddenly come up, and now we were in 1-meter waves. Worse, the wind had shifted, creating two problems. First, it was now hurting Vicki’s progress, and second, the waves were now confused, roiling in all directions. Keeping Vicki in sight was quite a challenge, especially now that the moon had set. But, oh was the sky ever magnificent! It was very clear, with more stars than we normally see, the milky way very obvious. On top of that, there were quite a few meteorites (the Perseids) coming down. Scores of them over an hour.

Vicki was having a harder time of it. The temperature turned quite a bit cooler, to the point where we were all wearing jackets. She got quite sea sick and the big confused waves were quite a challenge.

Ross had everything well in hand, I went back to sleep, only to be awakened again by a sudden decrease in the boat’s movement. The winds had lessened greatly, and the waves did as well, surprisingly quickly. The Lennox stacks served as our reference point throughout the night, although we sometimes lost them in the coastline fog and clouds.

Finally the eastern sky started to lighten with Tuesday’s dawn, finding us still south of Amherst. Malcolm had been on the small zodiac the entire difficult night, and now it was his turn to look like a drown puppy. Sheila went back into service, Malcolm went straight to bed. Willie Dog, a 30′ or so twin-engine boat joined us, allowing side trips for the other boats. One of our passengers had to get back to the Millhaven dock, so we left the formation and dropped him off and got more gas at Loyalist Cove. Got a really ugly look from Malcolm as we had to wake him before refueling. At least we got quick trips to the bathroom. Since Waupoos we had burned about 180 litres. Ouch! Back to the group by 8:45AM.

Here’s the enthusiastic crowd at Amherst Island’s Bluff Point. You can see Free Flow off to the left and Willie Dog off to the right, with the yellow top. I’m not sure, but that could be Irish Wake to the left, closer to shore. The closer boat to the right is one of many visitors we got at this point.

Later Tuesday afternoon, someone needed to go back to Millhaven to pick up waiting food, pumps (Free Flow had lost his bilge pump – not a good thing on an old wooden strake boat), batteries, chargers. Being the nominal locals, as well as having the fastest boat, we made the trip – our second to Millhaven that day. By the time we got back the fleet was nearing the Amherst Island bluffs. This was really home territory for some of us, including Vicki and John. A bunch of people on shore, as well as on boats, came out to meet Vicki. What a wonderful greeting! More penguins, more cheering, more music.

The boats left as darkness deepened, but as we went along the north shore of Amherst there was pretty constant commotion from the shore. These were Vicki’s neighbors and friends (and for Ross and me, our wives) and it must have heartened her to see the enthusiasm. I know it heartened me. Lights, fireworks, fire engines. We neared the ferry dock at 1AM, and the crowd was still there. More fireworks, a toot from the ferry, more cheering.

We slowly continued east along the shore with the ferry dock visible behind us. Then Vicki seemed to come to a stop. General hubbub (including a couple of warnings from the Coast Guard for improperly chatting on the radio) for the next few hours as every effort was made to get Vicki, who had become disoriented and discouraged, going again. By this time everyone else on Lawn was asleep, so it was just me. And the odd thing was, I got disoriented as well. And this is a shoreline that I know very well, only a km from my mooring, 2 km from home! I could recognize where I was well enough, but I couldn’t really process the information. So Lawn went into a safe holding pattern, back and forth between lights on Amherst and the mainland until Vicki got going again. And I have to wonder – here I am, safe and warm in a boat, moving around curtesy of the dinosaurs, and I get confused. It is hard to imagine what Vicki was going through.

Wednesday dawn arrived not a moment too soon, but my disorientation continued. Finally Ross woke back up and I immediately went to sleep. Vicki, who has to be one of the strongest people around, had increased her pace and we crossed the North Channel to the mainland and Fairfield park. Another wonderful reception, momentarily waking me up. From now on, Vicki’s journey would be followed by people on the shore and boats in the water. A trip to Collins Bay marina for more gas, 170 litres. Another ouch! Oh well, in for a penny, in for a pound. The rest of Wednesday was occupied with slowly making our way towards Carruthers Point, just east of the DuPont plant. As you round Carruthers, you can see Kingston, and Vicki wanted to make it before dark. She did, just barely. About this time Free Flow ran out of gas, and got towed by one of the bigger zodiacs back to Collins Bay to refuel.

Here’s yet another crowd at Fairfield Park on Wednesday. Malcolm is in the Zodiac to the left.

Being the nominal locals (and having a fully operational boat, as by this time Willie Dog was having problems with one of her engines), we went ahead to scout out a landing spot. By this time Vicki’s supporters were parking along the shore, pointing their headlights out to sea. This was appreciated, but we still had to insure that she picked the proper spot. K-Rock had by this time announced Ontario Park as the landing spot. As we went by Ontario Park the first time it looked as though there was nobody there. A closer examination showed just a few couples. How disappointing, after all the activity at every close approach to shore! So we called out for anyone there and the response from a hundred voices let us know that she wouldn’t be landing alone.

As the minutes passed, more supporters gathered in the Park, aiming their headlights towards us. What a sight! All the way up the hill, like a pyramid, a large triangle of lights looked out on us. While it raised our spirits, it was becoming more evident that Vicki was reaching the end of even her amazing endurance.

As Vicki neared the breakwater protecting Ontario Park, and the currents along the breakwater stopped Vicki’s progress, even pulling her back, John decided to have her land on the shore just opposite the shallow western entry around the breakwater. After 77 kilometers and an astonishing 64 hours in the water, Vicki was on land again.

We didn’t see much of the finale. Free Flow had developed engine troubles and we went back to offer assistance. None needed. Mark, the captain of Irish, was using his zodiac to tow her towards Ontario Park. So both he and Brad, the captain of Free Flow, missed the finale also. It was a real shame that the guys who had two of the most important support jobs didn’t get to see the end. I may not have seen it either, but my contributions were an order of magnitude less than theirs. I guess Willie Dog managed to limp in and see it.

The four boats gathered at the edge of the Park, said our goodbyes, and reclaimed as much of our equipment as we could. In our case, we were less than half an hour away from Amherst’s ferry dock, where I tied up for the night and was in my blessed bed by 1AM. I imagine that the other captains had a longer night ahead of them.

How many times in our lives do we have an experience that stays with us forever? For me, this was one of those. In a world surrendering to cynicism and indifference to others, it was refreshing to get re acquainted with the genuineness of Vicki’s supporters, John, all the support crew, and most of all Vicki herself. She may thank me for the efforts I put into the trip; but really it is I thanking her for allowing me to come along for the ride. Go, Vicki, Go!

UPDATE! As mentioned in the narrative above, Free Flow ran out of gas late in the swim and was unable to stay with the rest of the fleet. Unfortunately, the navigators who directed, plotted and measured Vicki’s swim were aboard. So at the end of the swim John didn’t really know how far Vicki had gone, and had to estimate (well, guess) that she had completed 77 kilometers. As it happened, I had my GPS on during the entire 3 days, and it was recording our track. After hearing of the uncertainty, I went through the track and identified points where Vicki certainly would have passed very close to, probably within 50 feet. Our track was certainly not the same as hers (no big boat could really follow her track completely) but there were places where our tracking patterns could be reliably tied to her actual path. So I came up with 11 points, starting at Collins Bay, where I was confident she had been at. Checking them against the charts and our recollections of the swim, the 11 points appeared to be realistic. The navigators then added my 11 points to all the points they already had. The final distance was then calculated to be 80.2KM! Not only was the swim a new world’s record, but it broke the 80KM barrier as well.