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Wednesday, July 17, 2024
Long-distance swimmers fail in quest to conquer Lake Ontario
Five-year-old Audie writes a message on dad Jason Kloss' hand before he hits the water. EVAN LOREE

Two long-distance swims burned out on Lake Ontario over the weekend. 

One of them almost literally went down in flames.

Jason Kloss and Greg Maitinsky both entered Lake Ontario on Friday, Aug. 11, just after eight in the morning. 

After almost 16 hours and 37 kilometres, Maitinsky was forced to quit after being slowed to a crawl by a strong current.

He was about 14 kilometres from the end.

Two hours later, Kloss also stopped, after covering about 35 kilometres.

Solo Swims Ontario supervises all individual swims across Lake Ontario to keep swimmers safe and it requires that every person who attempts the crossing is accompanied by a team that follows the swimmer by boat.

Christine Arsenault and her crew had just pulled Maitinsky out of the water and were preparing to head back to shore.

After getting seasick, the swimmer and a few other crew members went down into the cabin of the Rest and Relaxation for a nap.

“We woke up to smoke,” said the Hamilton swimmer.

When he climbed out of the ship cabin, the nine-person crew was putting out an electrical fire and had sent out a distress call.

Arsenault told The Lake Report she was driving the ship to shore, travelling at about 16 kilometres per hour when they were plunged into darkness.

“All of a sudden I lost power,” she said.

Then she heard a popping noise and “the whole boat died”

“There was smoke everywhere,” she added.

Looking to the back of her ’89 Santiago Carver, she saw there were flames rising from one of its storage hatches. 

“I was terrified,” she said.

Arsenault grabbed a couple of fire extinguishers to put it out as a crewmate called for help. 

Fortunately, officers of the Toronto Police marine unit were nearby and arrived on the scene within a few minutes.

Maitinsky described Arsenault as being on the verge of tears throughout the fire but was amazed at how well she dealt with the situation.

While the incident was scary, Maitinsky said the crew’s professionalism “saved the day.”

Arsenault said she’d just had the electrical systems reviewed and tested two weeks before the incident.

A marathon swimmer herself, Arsenault has been helping swimmers cross Lake Ontario for about eight years and had never had a fire aboard.

All the same, she had doubled up on fire extinguishers and other safety equipment as she often does for marathon swims.

She arrived on shore barefoot, having little time to recover her things while the ship was on fire.

Arsenault said it was almost 3:30 a.m. Saturday before she got back to her home in Port Colborne.

Top of mind for Arsenault was that three other swimmers were depending on her to help them cross the lake this summer.

With the Rest and Relaxation written off, she worried she wouldn’t be able to support them.

Arsenault said King Slayer Sportfishing, a Niagara-based fishing tour service, generously shared a boat with her so she could continue supporting this year’s lake crossers.

Like Maitinsky, Kloss got caught in a current that held him far from shore. 

Before his swim, he thought the cold temperatures would be his biggest hurdle. 

Having fought tooth and nail for the first half of the swim, when he decided to call it quits he estimated it would have taken another 13 hours on top of the nearly 18 he’d already swam.

“I swore at the lake and knew I was defeated,” he said.

“Some things are just out of your control and you just have to be OK with that,” he said.

Tony Chisholm, a Niagara-on-the-Lake resident who volunteers with Solo Swims Ontario, said at least half of all attempts get cut short. 

“No matter what the capability of the swimmer is, it’s whether the lake allows you to do it or not,” he said. 

While there are numerous barriers to extreme swimmers, the weather is one of the toughest hurdles for them to clear.

“It can make or break the swim,” Chisholm said.

Kim Lumsdon, 65, was going to cross the lake this year, but postponed her swim until next summer because the weather was “not co-operating.”

Chisholm explained swimmers get a boost from the strong currents of the Niagara River flowing into the lake when they leave the shores of Queen’s Royal Park, but the opposite happens as they near Toronto.

The Humber River flows into Lake Ontario near Marilyn Bell Park, where the crossing ends, and its current works against swimmers as they near the Toronto shoreline.

And being at the end of the swim, it comes at a bad time because “that’s when they’re exhausted,” Chisholm said. 

Swimmer Maggie Regan is scheduled to attempt a crossing this weekend, said Arsenault.

John and Joe Zemaitis had to postpone plans to cross the lake Tuesday night because of weather warnings but hope to reschedule later in August.

Chisholm said Solo Swims Ontario may start hosting swims in July to give swimmers a wider window to cross the lake.

He noted there have not been this many attempts to cross the lake since before 2019.

Maitinsky told The Lake Report “COVID really killed it” for long-distance swimmers.

While crossing the English Channel has drawn “thousands” of adrenalin junkies, Maitinsky said people are beginning to see Lake Ontario as a potential challenge.

The 47-year-old conquered the lake last year but remembers hitting a wall after the first 30 kilometres.

Swimming at about five kilometres an hour, Maitinsky said he was on track to set a record before he called off the latest swim.

With the currents working against him, it would taken him another seven to eight hours to finish.

“Honestly I didn’t have that in me,” he said.

Still, he left the lake with “no regrets” and “nothing to prove.” 

Lumsdon has tasted defeat in the waters of Lake Ontario too, having tried and failed to cross it in 2013.

She said she doesn’t focus on the past, though.

The elements of the lake are always challenging,” she said in an email, adding that good training goes a long way.

The lake is always going to be there.” 

The best a swimmer can do in this situation is “Recover, recharge and re-evaluate your goals,” she said.

And Kloss said while the weather was not on his side, he doesn’t think he’s done.

Though he was “defeated” by the lake, Kloss and his team raised $57,000 for the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.

Kloss watched his grandfather Dick Kloss, also a marathon swimmer, die of Alzheimer’s disease in 2021.

The next year, his friend Mike Kuipers died by suicide and the two tragedies inspired him to make mental health the cause of his swim.

In 1991, at the age of 50, Dick Kloss swam 42 kilometres across Lake Huron and that feat inspired his grandson to swim Huron in 2011. 

“He taught me a lot of valuable lessons in life about hard work and discipline,” the 36-year-old said.

“A lot of who I am is because of him.”

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