This is the story of the mid-night gap in my observation log, the missing three hours of Elaine Howley’s 32.3 mile Pend Oreille swim on 30-31 July 2014.
The boat was running. The sky was blushing. Elaine was swimming. I was laughing.
It was dawn, or just about to be. I zipped my light sweater up to the top against the morning’s stiffening breeze. Wearing nothing else except a small wet swim suit, the sweater was both insufficient and more than enough. It could have been worse. The night could have been worse. But it wasn’t. Elaine was still swimming.
I looked down at her from where I sat, piloting a small grey boat alongside my swimmer. It was just the two of us for the moment. The kayaker, crew, and both big boats had all dropped back to regroup after the night’s events. As I watched Elaine swim, I thought I could see her looking back at me with every breath she took. I smiled at her, as if to say, glad that’s over. The smile grew into a laugh, uncontrollable. A laugh that was drowned out by the small two-stroke pushing me along, and the splash of Elaine’s unceasing arms pushing her along.
Three hours earlier, I stood on the top deck of our escort houseboat, snacking on Brie and olives and iced tea to ward off sleep. A sliver of new moon had left us shortly after sunset, and the stars above now gave just enough light to hint at the size of the mountains looming over us. Black silhouettes on a blacker background. The only other light came from our houseboat. Cozy and safe and bright. To shake off the sleep and give Elaine some company, at two hours past midnight I stuck a glowstick in my goggle straps and jumped off the bow to swim with her.
Night swimming isn’t bad once you’ve done it a few times. Getting used to the dark is easy. And good thing, because fifteen minutes after I joined Elaine, the lights on the houseboat flickered and died. Go on, yelled Eric, the organizer who put this swim together. Go on, it is just the generator, we’ll be back with you in a minute.
So we went on, Elaine between the kayak and me. We went on for ten or fifteen minutes this way, and I kept looking back at the house boat, watching its few remaining lights get smaller. When we stopped for the first time, we assessed our situation. Elaine had enough food to last for a while, and I’d been paying attention to the navigation and we all agreed on a course: hug the point up ahead, then we begin to cross the lake. So we went on.
When we stopped again, the houseboat was but a speck of light, discernible from the blinding stars overhead only by its position at the surface of the smooth lake. For a while now I’d been thinking of turning back to get the small grey dinghy tied up behind the houseboat, but it was too late. There was over a mile of pitch blackness between them and the three of us. Elaine told us she was very glad we were both with her. The kayaker said the same thing. I quietly pictured us huddled on shore, waiting to be rescued by some hikers in the morning.
I thought this would be a good time to share the punch line to a joke I’d told Elaine three hours prior. Something to lighten our dark situation. How many tickles does it take to make a squid laugh? was the joke. We went on.
We rounded the point on the east side of the lake and made a slight right turn. We picked our course by the mountains and navigation lights ahead, and we stuck to it. They’d know where to find us when they got the boat running again. I thought of the other joke I’d told to Elaine earlier that evening whose punchline was still waiting to be heard, although this joke would not be concluded just yet.What happens when a red ship hits a blue ship? It would be bad form to talk about crews being marooned, given our present circumstances.
Looking back again, we saw what appeared to be a flashlight moving near the speck that was once a houseboat. Did they finally launch the dinghy? Yes, fifteen minutes later it arrived. We’d been without a boat for about an hour, about two miles.
Eric and the cameraman were in the dinghy, looking down at us. The engine died and I immediately climbed in. I was surprised to see these two, of all the people on our crew. Eric had told me only a few hours ago he didn’t know how to operate a boat, and the cameraman was just along for the ride. Did you bring me a towel? Or dry clothes? How about food for Elaine, a VHF radio, a cellphone, a big flashlight, her crew, or anything useful? Well, at least we had two headlamps and a boat that worked.
I grabbed the starter cord and pulled. Nothing. I’d started this boat a dozen times since the swim began and now, in the middle of the lake in the middle of the night, Elaine was once again swimming away from a broken boat. I tried everything I could think of, which isn’t a lot since I’m not a mechanic. Finally, as Eric’s headlamp swung across the motor, I figured it out. The white line in the water trailing behind the boat perfectly illustrated the importance of securing the painter.
My goggles were still sitting on my forehead. I slid them back on and flopped in the lake. A few minutes later, the bow line was unwrapped from the prop, and I was back in the boat with the motor running, begging Eric to keep the light out of my eyes so I could find Elaine in the dark.
Meanwhile, a call had been made from the houseboat to Bruce, a guy with another boat. He’d woken up, untied his boat, and now we could see him zipping down the lake in our general direction. Having no way to get his attention except two small headlamps, we watched him zip right by. As we followed Elaine, Bruce made his way to the houseboat, and then traced our route back to find us.
He’d brought me a sweater and a muffin, plus some more crew and spare food for Elaine. Still no phone or radio. I asked him to return to the houseboat and get everything – everything we’d need to finish the remaining ten-plus hours of the swim, then come back. In particular, I wanted him to bring my orange dry-bag with my phone and GPS inside. After all, I was here to observe, and my documentation was lacking at the moment. Plus, a phone and GPS would be really handy right now.
We settled into our routine. Elaine was swimming. Eric was talking. The cameraman was filming. I was reflecting.
When Bruce returned, about two-and-a-half hours after I first jumped in to swim that night, he brought news that the houseboat was running and on its way. A few minutes later, with the crew reassembling on the houseboat, I was free to sit quietly in the dinghy and observe Elaine swimming under the dusty-red sky. That’s when the laughter started.
It could have been worse. But it wasn’t. Elaine was still swimming.