How 6 friends made ‘Epic Swim’ across Lake Michigan

After years of planning a swim across Lake Michigan, the 55-mile open water adventure turned out better than Jon Ornée anticipated.

Ornée and five friends — his brother David, Nick Hobson, Jeremy Sall, Todd Suttor, and Matt Smith — swam Lake Michigan in relay fashion in just under 21 hours, far less than the 24-30 hours they anticipated the journey would take them.

The swimmers — all of whom live in the Holland-Zeeland area — left from Two Rivers, Wisconsin, at the Rawley Point (Twin River) Lighthouse, at 7:15 p.m. Aug. 11, and landed in Ludington, Michigan, near the Big Sable Point Lighthouse, at 4:10 pm. Aug. 12. They made a little history, becoming the first-ever relay crossing and the fastest-ever mid-lake crossing at 20:50 hours.

‘Pretty stinking cool’

With the exception of their starting point in Two Rivers, where the water had dropped to a chilly 51 degrees, lake temperatures hovered around 70 degrees. Waves were light except in the middle of the lake at night, when swimmers encountered up to 4-foot waves, and the wind direction was mostly favorable, out of the west.

The Epic Swim Team: Todd Suttor, Jon Ornée, Jeremy Sall, Nick Hobson, Dave Ornée, and Matt Smith

The team enjoyed the entire swim, but the darkest hours were when they experienced the most awe-inspiring moments.

“One of the coolest, most unique parts of this whole deal was swimming through the night,” says Ornée, who turns 39 this week. “We were literally out in the middle of Lake Michigan with no shore in sight. The experience of being out in the middle of nowhere was pretty surreal. The stars were amazing. It was during the (Perseid) meteor showers, so there were shooting stars. It was pretty stinking cool.”

Swimming as the sun came up was also glorious, he adds.

A straight line

They were prepared to swim up to 60 miles but ended up going 54.5 miles because they swam so straight. The strategy during the swim evolved to each person swimming 30-minute sessions — instead of the 20 minutes they had planned — which gave them each two-and-a-half-hour rest breaks.

The Epic Swim team crossed Lake Michigan in just under 21 hours.“The wind and currents were with us for most of it, which allowed us to really cruise pretty quick. We ended up averaging 1:18 per hundred yards, which is faster than many pro-triathletes racing Ironman. It was a 2.6 mph average for the whole thing,” Ornée says.

Having two boats helped with efficiency. The lead boat was a 28-foot Pursuit, and the swimmers were on a 39-foot Sea Ray Motor Yacht.

The Pursuit pulled a 25-yard water polo lane line behind that served as a directional guide so the swimmer didn’t have to look up constantly to check direction.

Safety precautions

During the night, the lane line was lit with glow sticks. Each swimmer wore LED lights at the back of their heads and glow sticks on the back of their wetsuits. The safety buoy tied to their waist was also lit up.

“All our safety precaution stuff was in place. We had no close calls or scary moments. It was really clear sailing,” says Ornée.

Each swimmer had a spotter in communication with the boat captain, who was constantly adjusting the speed. If a swimmer slipped too close to or too far from the boat, the captain would speed up or slow down to keep the swimmer right in the middle of the lane line.

Along with the six swimmers, there was a crew of seven, including five captains, a medic who doubled as a spotter, and a filmmaker to capture the experience.

Less tranquil, more fun

The Lake Michigan relay swim was different from Ornée’s record-setting 7-mile swim to North Manitou Island near Sleeping Bear Dunes last year, which was just four months after he was hit by an SUV during a training cycle ride, causing trauma all over his body and severely damaging his right arm.

“It was more tranquil and kind of meditative on the solo swim,” says Ornée. “It was also kind of a redemptive experience for me after the crash. This was just honestly a lot more fun. Doing something with a team is always more fun. There's a lot of camaraderie.”

But that’s not to say there wasn’t a little drama before the start. Even with months of training and planning, some things fell apart, only to come together at the last minute.

“We planned really thoroughly for everything, and it really paid off,” says Ornée. “We were patient with the weather. We all trained together for months and worked on putting this together.”

Putting this together involved finding sponsors, boats, and a crew. Hobson, a swimmer on the relay team, had planned to make a solo swim across the Big Lake last year, only to call it off because the boat captain’s schedule didn’t line up with the weather window to swim. Ornée, who was on Hobson’s team, took a lesson from that experience. In the beginning, they set up a
three-week weather window — July 24-Aug. 16 — for the swim and then waited for the right conditions.

“You don't really know what the weather's gonna do till you're 48 hours out, so we were constantly working on plan A, B, C, D, and E to make sure we have the right team in place,” Ornée says.

Last-minute details

There were other details that didn’t come together until the last moment because the lack of a set date meant two of the boat captains, a second boat, the medic, and the filmmaker weren’t confirmed until the last week.

“It was a mess,” says Ornée of the behind-the-scenes work putting together the operation. “We were just constantly planning and replanning.”

Related: 6 friends prepare for 60-mile ‘Epic Swim' across Lake Michigan

The morning they arrived in Wisconsin, the boat’s generator wasn’t working and they had to wait three hours for a repair.

“As the person who organized this whole thing, my anxiety level was pretty high,” says Ornée. “But as soon as we started the swim, it was just pure joy. It was tons of fun.”

Taking in every moment

No one got much sleep, partly because everyone wanted to take in every moment of this once-in-a-lifetime experience.

“I think, especially in this strange moment in history that we all find ourselves in, the joy of camaraderie and doing something as a team — especially in the season when personal and social interactions are at a minimum — really made it more fun and special,” Ornée says.

This was the first athletic pursuit he let the public know about ahead of time. More than 1,000 people followed the swim through live tracking. The Epic Swim website and Facebook page provided the tracking, along with photos and videos capturing milestones along the way.

With the Epic Swim in his wake, Ornée says he came through the journey with three takeaways: pursue your curiosity, work hard to make your dreams a reality, and when an opportunity presents itself, grab it - don’t miss it.

Learn more about the swim and Jon’s story at EpicSwim2020.com and JonOrnee.com.
 
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