SANDPOINT – Finishing much quicker than expected, a team of marathon relay swimmers arrived at City Beach early Sunday tired but jubilant after traversing Lake Pend Oreille in just over 17 hours.
The 11-member team, led by Sandpoint swimmer Eric Ridgway, initially figured the 36-mile, overnight trip that began at the southern end of the lake would take at least 24 hours. But swimmers reached the Sandpoint shore before most people were awake, emerging from the water at 5:45 a.m. and laying claim to being the first team to swim the length of Lake Pend Oreille.
“My regret was that it ended too soon, not that we finished so fast,” Ridgway said later. “I was having so much fun.”
The trek began a day earlier, at 12:42 p.m., with the 11 swimmers splashing into the lake one by one from the rope swing at Buttonhook Bay, south of Bayview. It was the start of an unprecedented journey, supported by kayakers and accompanied by a houseboat.
Ridgway started the first leg as the other swimmers headed to the houseboat to await their turns. In addition to Ridgway, the team, which ranged in age from 13 to 59, took advantage of Sandpoint’s community of top-notch swimmers.
The team included two standout swimmers from Sandpoint High School – Eric Mann and Paulina Gralow (swimming with a broken arm in a bright pink cast) – as well as Eric’s younger brother Chris and their parents, Dave Mann and Jayne Davis. To round out the team, Ridgway recruited triathlete Keith Hertel, Sandpoint High School athletic director Cheryl Klein, Courtney Sanborn, Meleah Nelsen and Jim Zuberbuhler.
Ridgway, the mastermind behind the Long Bridge Swim, had been thinking about forming a team to swim the length of the lake for three years, but the key component fell into place this summer when he met Ernie Belwood, master of the houseboat “Fancy.” Belwood agreed to provide the support vessel – eventually nicknamed the “mother ship” for its hovering and the tendency of smaller craft to leave it and return. Belwood, not a member of Sandpoint’s swimming community, repeatedly murmured, “You guys are crazy,” followed by, “and there’s no place I’d rather be right now.”
The southerly summer afternoon winds gave the group a lift for much of the route, and swimmers were averaging more than two miles an hour in their first shifts. All wondered whether they could keep up the pace as they swam into the night, many doing so for the first time. Although some were nervous when they slipped into the black water after dark, most reported enjoying the silence and navigating by the shadowy mountain outlines. A narrow moon glowed orange briefly but set well before 10 p.m.
While swimming in the dark, team members wore chemical light sticks tucked in their goggle straps, and the kayakers had light sticks taped to poles in the backs of their kayaks. This system enabled the kayakers and swimmers to keep track of one another and made them visible to their teammates on the mother ship.
Ridgway recalls checking the team’s progress after the swimmers had completed their first legs.
“I had a sense looking at the chart we went a long way and everyone’s only swum once,” he said. “I felt this is guaranteed; unless we have a major storm, we were going to make it.”
The team realized about three quarters of the way through the second rotation that it would be reaching Sandpoint much earlier than expected.
“I was already thinking about how are we going to do it the next time,” Ridgway said.
Keeping the pace, the team found itself in a blue-gray dawn right off its destination. Most of the swimmers re-entered the water to swim the last 100 yards or so together. Only the bravest of family and friends were on hand to welcome them at that newly adjusted hour, but their arrival was celebratory just the same.