BAR HARBOR — The muscles you use are the muscles you build. The same goes for strength, focus, determination and commitment — athletes need these to train and perform and, in a positive feedback loop, they build more as they go.
On Friday, local open water marathon swimmer Puranjot Kaur swam about 16 miles from Hadley Point to Little Hunters’ Beach. Her plan was to swim all the way around Mount Desert Island, 44 miles in 24 hours, but the team agreed to cancel the swim for safety about 10 hours in when wind, colder water and current brought concerns about hypothermia.
The swim was a fundraiser for Open Table MDI, a nonprofit that focuses on food security and community building that Kaur runs with her husband.
Conversations about the event were overheard at least as far as the airport in Bangor. Supporters came to the shore all along the route to cheer her on.
“Puranjot galvanized our island community around an issue, an adventure, and a sense of place,” said Darron Collins, president of College of the Atlantic, who kayaked by her side. “The island was rimmed with people cheering her on — it felt like the whole island had her back on the swim and in support of ending food insecurity.”
Following the rules of unassisted marathon swimming, she wore only a standard swimsuit, not a wetsuit, and a swim cap, goggles and earplugs. She had a whole flotilla of support boats, but did not make intentional contact with any vessel, object or person during the swim.
For Kaur, the sport is a moving meditation, a reminder that we experience reality in layers and we can shift our perspective by dipping below the surface.
In swimming as in life, she said Monday, “things can be intense and crazy and really a struggle on the surface,” but calm and quiet underneath. Learning how to “come to that inner calm within yourself” is helpful when things get choppy.
Taking the plunge
When the thought, “What if I tried to swim all the way around MDI?” occurred to Kaur, she already had a fair bit of marathon swimming experience. She swam a 10-mile race in Lake Memphremagog in Vermont in 2018 and 2019 and was the first woman finisher in 2019.
She trains year-round, but began training specifically for this challenge in May when the water in Echo Lake and Long Pond warmed up enough that she could stay in it for longer periods. “I added yardage every week, and had a goal for the month,” she said, working up to 10,000 yards (5.7 miles) every day.
“When she announced the swim, we weren’t too surprised because she’s always searching for the next mountain to climb and defeat,” said Sadie Sullivan, a member of the MDI YMCA Sharks swim team, of which Kaur is assistant coach. “She’s always asking, ‘How can I push myself further, how can I level up?’”
She also began assembling a support team, which included “Diver Ed” Monat and “Evil Edna” Martin of Diver Ed’s Dive-In Theater. They and Toby Stephenson of College of the Atlantic brought the two primary support boats, with Monat as lead navigator in the front of the flotilla and Stephenson carrying crew and supplies aboard Osprey in the rear. Gary Allen, Mount Desert Island Marathon founder and veteran of projects such as a solo run from MDI to Washington, D.C., was another early recruit to the team and brought his own small motor skiff. Close friend and fellow marathon swimmer Britt Hulbert was on hand, too.
Natalie Springuel is a veteran kayaker who coordinated a whole group of kayakers for the support crew. She said when she first saw Kaur’s announcement of the plan, “it immediately brought me back to 2002 when I announced an equally crazy plan” to sea kayak from Cape Cod to Nova Scotia with her husband, Rich MacDonald.
“You put a crazy idea out there with passion and conviction, it captures people’s imagination and they want to be involved,” Springuel said.
There were five kayakers signed up to be part of the flotilla at every point of the route, in formation in a pod like a school of fish. “All of the kayakers had the charts of the exact routes Eddie was planning, safety gear and VHF radios to be able to be independent if we needed to,” Springuel said.
The lead kayaker was the navigator, following Monat in his powerboat. The kayaker closest to Kaur was the feeder, staying within a few feet of Kaur so she didn’t have to sight forward very often. The feeder also called a pause every half hour so she could eat. This involved tossing a water bottle on a rope leash with a mixture of Carbo Pro, whey protein, juice and water. She would tread water and drink, then close the bottle so it could be pulled back aboard the kayak.
One kayaker watched for jellyfish and another was the radio contact with the motorboats. The last kayaker was the stroke counter, periodically recording Kaur’s swim strokes per minute.
That stroke count was important data for Mary Dudzik, the doctor on the team, as she evaluated how Kaur was doing.
In meetings before the swim, Dudzik and Kaur talked about “nutrition, hypothermia and the awesome goal of doing this,” Dudzik said. She said she would only pull Kaur out of the swim “if I saw evidence that she was getting into a place where she was at risk of doing herself harm…I could not do what I needed to do without full trust from her. I am so very honored that she gave me that trust.”
Dudzik researched hypothermia and cold–water swimming, consulted local and worldwide authorities, and put a plan in place for what to do if Kaur had to be pulled out of the water. The team, she said, was “all focused on one goal: To get (Puranjot) as far as we could get her, to help her as much as we could, and allow her to do what we know she is capable of.”
Talk of the town
The swim began at 7 a.m. Friday at Hadley Point. There, and all along the route, supporters gathered with signs and cheers. Kaur’s husband, Mahandeva Singh, estimated 75 people cheered from the Shore Path when the group reached downtown Bar Harbor. Many more gathered along Ocean Drive and on nearby hiking trails.
“It was such a beautiful sight,” Singh said in a Facebook Live video from Allen’s skiff. The swim, he told the folks following on Facebook, is “done from spirit and heart and totally fueled and powered by your love and excitement.”
Members of the MDI YMCA Sharks swim team that Kaur coaches were among the group that gathered to cheer at the start.
“It was fun cheering her on,” said team member J.J. Cistone. “She made doing the impossible look so easy.”
Team member Sullivan was at work at the Pink Pastry shop in Bar Harbor, so she wasn’t able to cheer in person, but she said customers would start conversations about the swim based on the swim team gear she was wearing.
“They’d ask, ‘Are you a swimmer for Puranjot who’s in the water right now?’” Sullivan said, adding that it was “really cool” to see so much interest in a swimming event, since the sport often doesn’t get a lot of public attention.
“It was something so incredible, for the community and personally,” she said.
Grace under pressure
Kaur reached Sols Cliff in the afternoon, 12 minutes ahead of schedule. But as soon as she rounded Otter Cliff, conditions changed quickly. A strong wind from the southeast that hadn’t been in the forecast hit when she rounded the cliffs. She had seen some choppy conditions in training swims, but that was in water that was as much as 15 degrees warmer than what she was in Friday, according to Monat.
“I did some sighting and thought to myself, these waves are really big,” Kaur said. “I started to really notice my stroke rate. I started shaking and shivering, started to get sick.”
She swallowed some seawater, which along with the wave motion made her nauseous. Her progress had slowed enough that when she paused, the current pushed her back and wiped out her gains. That made it harder to stay warm.
Collins said, “I watched her vomit while treading 55-degree water, struggle through violent shivers to choke down something to eat, vomit again, and then put her face back in the water to power on.”
There were “moments of doubt, for sure,” Kaur said. “I thought to myself, I’m tired, or I’m cold, or this really sucks.” But then she’d think about Open Table, or the Sharks kids, and keep putting one arm in front of the other.
“I felt super held throughout the whole experience,” she said. “Closer to the end it was just this will to keep going and see what happens. I thought, I’m just gonna keep going until someone tells me to stop.”
“Like her, I am an endurance athlete and a mother,” Dudzik said. “I know what it means to push yourself to new limits, and what it is like to push your body beyond what is reasonable and can become dangerous. As an athlete, I wanted to give (Puranjot) every opportunity to finish this swim. As a doctor, I wanted her to do it without causing herself any life–threatening harm.”
So when Kaur mentioned that she was having trouble speaking, Dudzik made the call.
“There was something really liberating in being able to let go and put complete and total trust and faith in the team that I had assembled,” Kaur said. “I needed to be okay with them making that call. That’s important for anyone going into something like this.”
Dudzik had already prepared the Osprey’s cabin: heat on in the cabin, towels, sleeping bag, tarp, hot water bottles, clothes. They launched a Zodiac and Dudzik, Hulbert, Singh and Adaline Huckins used the Osprey’s underarm sling to get Kaur out of the water.
“Everyone did an amazing job,” Dudzik said. “We had a plan and we executed it. I know it probably felt very scary for them, but they showed poise and grace under fire.”
The Zodiac met a Northeast Harbor Ambulance Service crew in Seal Harbor, and they took Kaur to MDI Hospital to be treated for hypothermia. Her body temperature was 86, she said in a Facebook video the next day.
“They got warm IV fluids in me and put me in this really cool contraption called a bear hugger, which is like this blanket thing that blows hot air onto you,” she said.
Messages of encouragement started to pour in online, and late Friday night a few supporters had an idea. They spread the word to gather at 7 a.m., when they had planned to meet at Hadley Point to cheer the finish of the swim, in the hospital parking lot where she could see them from her room. They held signs and cheered and Ursa Beckford played the bagpipes.
“When I am thrown against the shore and caught between the rocks and a hard place, I want to rest there until I can find the strength to do what is next,” wrote Bernadette Noll in a favorite poem of Kaur’s. “Not stuck — just waiting, pondering, feeling what it feels like to pause. And when I am ready, I will catch a wave and let it carry me along to the next place that I am supposed to be.”