Capital campaign to replace two helicopters

Making waves across Penobscot Bay: LifeFlight’s annual Islesboro Crossing beats fundraising record

Posted:  Monday, August 21, 2017 - 1:15pm

PENOBSCOT BAY was a palette of grey and silver Aug. 19, with fog hovering over the Northport hills, the kind of day when the water blends into the sky. Except, however, for a three-mile stretch between Lincolnville and Islesboro where 134 swimmers, each with their own paddling partner — in kayaks, rowboat, or on paddle boards — lit up the landscape with neon yellow, pink and green, and cheerful banter. Even seals took note, swimming alongside the intrepid swimmers. 

The fifth annual fundraising swim from Point Lookout’s small beach in Northport to Grindle Point, on Islesboro, is reaching toward its $250,000 goal this year, the most ever. And, the number of swimmers likewise swelled, from 100 in 2016 to 134 in 2017.

Those numbers please LifeFlight of Maine, the Camden-based nonprofit emergency medical helicopter service.

The nonprofit is in an $8 million capital campaign to replace two older helicopters of 2005 vintage. 

The Islesboro Crossing is LifeFlight’s biggest fundraiser, and draws participants from across the country (even the U.K., this year), as swimmers raise money that goes directly into the capital campaign.

And everybody does their part: Swimmers take to the community to hit up their neighbors, and the pocketbooks, while hundreds of volunteers help with myriad tasks.

This year’s top fundraisers included swimmer Wade Smith, of Camden, who raised $10,380 by going door-to-door, and Jane Roberts, of Port Clyde, who raised $7,800.

She was inspired by the Port Clyde helicopter mamas, and decided to do the swim this year, as well.

At the Northport beach, early Saturday morning, the swells from an offshore storm were still breaking over the rocks.

The spotters each climbed into their small vessels and waited for their swimmers to make final adjustments to goggles and caps.

The air temperature, at 67 F, was just a few degrees more than the water temperature, hovering around 62 degrees F. The sun refused to make an appearance that day, but it didn’t matter; swimmers said the water was warmer than the air, anyhow.

Many wore wet suits, but there were also those making the crossing in their bathing suits.

Some had trained for months, some just took it as another day of swimming in the Atlantic, part of their Maine summer routine.

And they all, sooner or later, fell into the zen of swimming the distance, concentrating on their breath, their limbs, their buoyancy. 

Beside each of them, their spotters kept watch, and peered toward the horizon line. In the distance, the pine-spined Islesboro slowly took form, and a crowd had gathered on the rocks. A volunteer flagger waved from the end zone, encouraging the swimmers to the finish.

For Drew Darling, of Camden, that relative blindness can be soothing.

Darling said he fell into a zone as his body moved through its repeated motions. He didn’t notice how long his swim was taking. He was just there, in the moment.

The same experience held for a visiting Minnesota swimmer.

“I just concentrated on swinging my arms loose so my shoulders wouldn’t get tired,” said Natalie Lugg, of St. Paul, Minnesota.

She swam the bay with her old buddy, Lianne McCluskey, whom she hadn’t seen in six years. It was their first open water distance swim.

Lugg saw on social media that McCluskey was swimming, and because they used to compete together on the same college team, Lugg got in touch, said to herself, ‘why not?’

While McCluskey swam Rockport Harbor to prepare for the distance, Lugg trained in pools in Indiana, before flying east.

And then there was Thomas Nuckton — Dr. Nuckton, to the LifeFlight crew — who studies the effect of cold water on human physiology. He lives in San Francisco, and visits Belfast every summer. In 2016, he made his first Islesboro crossing, this summer, his second.

He swims year-round in San Francisco Bay, with the Dolphin Club, and practices critical care at San Francisco hospitals. Given that background, LifeFlight invited him to give a talk this week on cold water immersion and effects to the medical crews at the nonprofit’s Bangor hangar. 

Nuckton moved along at a clip across West Penobscot Bay, with volunteer kayaker Julie Waters, of Camden, beside him, keeping him on the path to Islesboro.

LifeFlight had organized the swimmers into three waves so as not to bunch up as they hit their stride in the open water. 

Organizers had appropriated that section of West Penobscot Bay for several hours, and the only boats in vicinity were the 12 volunteer vessels helping out to monitor and assist, if necessary. Tanker traffic to and from Searsport had agreed to route up the east side of Islesboro on East Penobscot Bay.

Maine Marine Patrol was on the scene, with its fast response vessel, as was the U.S. Coast Guard, standing by on the north side of the crossing, alert to any boat traffic unaware of the event.

There were no calls of alarm, although some swimmers did pull out for cramping muscles. Some took a break and then continued.

“I was losing feeling in my lower extremities, and I was thinking ‘I’m not sure I can make this,’” Cab Grayson said after the Islesboro swim Saturday, Aug. 19.

Grayson suddenly endured painful cramping as well as numbness below the hips about two thirds of the way through the three-mile swim.

For five minutes, as he took a mid-ocean break by talking with his “hero,” support kayaker Abby Wilder, he kept repeating to himself, “Man, this hurts.”  

“After that,” he said. “I was fine.”

Grayson was one of three residents of Washington D.C. who swam from Lincolnville to Islesboro. For three years, he and his friend, John Redmond, who has family on the island, have trained in 90-degree Maryland waters in order to push blindly through the crisp Maine tides.

“For most of the swim you can’t tell where you are,” said Redmond, a four-year participant. “You have no clue. You can see another boat, maybe another swimmer. That’s about it.”

For Katie Schenk Urey, of Camden, the crossing was inspiring and necessary. Her friend, Cheryl LeBlond, of Rockport, had been in LifeFlight’s care twice, and she knows how important the service is.

“I feel awesome,” said Urey. “And there were seals with us, just 20 yards away.”

Rockport swimmer Nick Citriglia, standing next to his spotter, Michael Morse, looked back over the stretch of water that they just crossed. 

“Not much of a current and overall, a beautiful day,” he said, taking a sip of something hot.

And for the family of first-time participant, 60-plus-year-old Sandy Alexander, the matching T-shirts on family waiting for him to appear evidenced the island’s excitement of his pending finish.

“My brother, Sandy Alexander, lives out here on Islesboro. Not a swimmer,” his brother said matter-of-factly. “We’re really impressed that he’s doing this.”

In fact, Alexander’s daughter-in-law, Carly, created white T-shirts with a silhouette of a helicopter in one corner, and the words: “Go Pop Go.”

“I watched people come in the last couple of years,” Alexander said. “I said ‘maybe I could do that.’”

So, he did. The Belfast Y’s pool became a familiar location for him, starting last December. By early June, he’d taken his training into Penobscot Bay. Pushing, improving, and awaiting this day.

Out of the water he came, following top fundraiser Wade Smith onto the rocks.

The islanders and family cheered as he forced his unsteady land legs to function again.

He stood, wrapped in a body warmer, cold, wet, and shivering. Not a word of negativity came from his lips. All he could do was grin.

LifeFlight of Maine operates three twin-engine Agusta helicopters.

Two are 109E models purchased new in January 2005, and the third is a 109SP purchased new in May 2017.

These helicopters travel at an average speed of 165 mph, making the trip from Bangor to Caribou in less than an hour.

LifeFlight operates three bases: Bangor (Eastern Maine Medical Center and Bangor International Airport), Lewiston (Central Maine Medical Center and Auburn-Lewiston Airport), and Sanford (Sanford Seacoast Regional Airport).

The helicopters based in Lewiston and Sanford have been configured to accommodate 3 crew members and 2 patients. The other helicopter, based in Bangor, can carry 3 crew members and 1 patient and has an additional fuel tank to accommodate longer trips from Fort Kent to Boston.



Top individual fundraisers

Wade Smith, of Camden, $10,380

Jane Roberts, of Port Clyde,  $7,800. 

Matthew Russ & KC Ford, $7,078

Lincoln Graf, $6,725

Owen Howell, $6,320

John Rex-Waller, $6,250