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How to safely herd swimmers across the Straits of Mackinac

Looking underneath a bridge at sunrise, a group of boats in the water surround several swimmers attached to orange buoys.
Kaye LaFond
Michigan Radio
Just after sunrise, swimmers in the water in the Straits of Mackinac during the Mighty Mac Swim.

More than 300 people braved the Straits of Mackinac Sunday for the 13th annual Mighty Mac Swim.

Michigan Radio’s Kaye LaFond rode along on a security boat and got a first-hand look at what goes into herding swimmers across four miles of the straits.

The day starts with a beautiful sunrise, at 6:34 a.m. Shortly after, about 340 swimmers are in the water, all attached to big orange buoys for visibility.

An announcement comes over the radio on the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa’s fisheries enforcement boat: “As you can see, the swimmers are underway.”

This boat is one of 12 law enforcement vessels on the water, representing the DNR, four tribes, the U.S. Coast Guard, and others. There are also more than a dozen civilian support boats.

The straits are closed to general boat traffic during the four-hour swim, so part of our job is to make sure nobody else gets too close to the race area.

We're also on the lookout for swimmers who need to be pulled from the water. The first person runs out of steam within the first 30 minutes.

“Swimmer is tired,” announces a support boat. “Swimmer is ok. I’ll be transporting to the ferry.”

The water starts calm, but gets progressively choppier. Swimmers have to make checkpoints within a certain timeframe. They also have to stay within a certain distance of the bridge.

Grand Traverse Band Conservation Officer La’Kota Raphael honks his horn and yells out to a swimmer that has gone off course.

“Sir, you gotta move over! You gotta get back in the lane.”

As the swimmers get closer to St. Ignace, many start to drift too far east due to the currents, meaning they have to be pulled from the water.

Some don't go willingly. Support boats ask for advice on how to proceed.

“If they don’t wanna do it for themselves, please tell them they are putting others in danger,” security responded over the radio. “They need to get on that boat.”

After the race, I catch up with a swimmer named Chris Gates, from Grand Rapids. He says a lot of people had trouble staying on course.

“If you weren’t swimming kind of at a 45 degree angle, you’d actually kind of get sucked out because of the current. So if you just swam straight you’d be, you know, kicked way out east,” Gates says.

But, at the end of the day, nearly 300 of the 340 or so swimmers were able to finish, the fastest in an impressive hour and 30 minutes.

Kaye is an alumnus of Michigan Tech's environmental engineering program. She got her start making maps for the Traverse City-Based water news organization Circle of Blue, and, since then, she's been pretty devoted to science communication and data visualization.
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