MOUNT DESERT — Three miles is a measure of distance. Depending on the mode of travel, it can seem instantaneous, endless or anything in between.
Between water conditions and the exhausting nature that comes with any 3-mile swim, the stretch from Northeast Harbor to Great Cranberry Island is on the latter end of that spectrum. Nevertheless, two men made history when they made the journey across the Great Harbor late last week.
Rob Benson of Bar Harbor and Scott Allender of Chadds Ford Township, Pa., completed the swim Friday morning after beginning at the Northeast Harbor town dock and finishing at Great Cranberry’s Spurling Cove. They are the first swimmers known to complete such a swim.
“For the most part it was what I expected it would be,” Benson said. “It was cold, but we had people by our side all the way. We just needed to be cautious because it wasn’t something anyone had done before.”
The two completed their swims as part of the Run 2 Respond Relay, which began Aug. 10 in Maryland and concluded Friday after reaching Ellsworth, Mount Desert and Great Cranberry. The eight-day relay race raised money for firefighters and other first responders.
The penultimate leg of the race brought competitors to Northeast Harbor, where a ferry was waiting to take them to Spurling Cove for the Great Cranberry 100-Mile Race. As always, island running enthusiast Gary Allen had a hand in organizing the whole shebang.
“I think I told Gary about a month before that this was something I was interested in doing, and so when [the] time came, I was pretty prepared,” Benson said. “I’ve been swimming for more than 40 years, and it was something that would be a fun adventure when the time came.”
Benson has made long-distance swims in warmer waters such as the Florida Keys and Long Island Sound before, but those passages didn’t require the use of a wet suit. Covered from head to toe, he and Allender took to the cold seawater and started swimming south at 9:15 a.m.
“This was my fourth year of doing Run 2 Respond, and I’ve been a swimmer all my life,” Allender said. “When I saw the swim stage, I was excited, but I needed information from Rob about water temperature, currents and water critters.”
Currents and a water temperature of 59 degrees were an issue. So was the boat traffic throughout the 3-mile stretch from island to island.
“The path of boats was a huge concern,” Benson said. “It’s not a place that’s used to swimmers, and you’re swimming through there for a few miles in a path they usually pass right on through. That’s why we needed to have people surrounding us the whole way.”
Two kayakers and two boats accompanied the swimmers throughout the course of their swims. Benson made it to the shore in 1 hour, 6 minutes, and Allender arrived about a half-hour later.
The end of the swim, Benson said, was the roughest part. After completing the first two-thirds of the swim “well ahead” of the pace, changing currents in the final stretch created additional obstacles.
“It’s easy when you’re out there swimming, but you have to have the right conditions and people keeping an eye out to make it happen,” Benson said. “There are a lot of people out there who can swim that distance, but the boats and the conditions in and above water once you’re out there is what makes it hard. The cold really plays with your mind.”