Barrington man ready to swim through Atlantic currents, possibly sharks to help ALS research
Barrington resident Doug McConnell is prepared to navigate through strong currents and possibly sharks for what could be the first Atlantic Ocean swim on a specific route to raise money to help ALS patients.
McConnell, 61, is to begin the 18-mile open water marathon Monday morning between the Massachusetts islands of Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard. He'll be escorted by a team of local boat captains, navigation experts and ocean kayakers during the swim projected to take 10 hours with a goal of raising at least $100,000 for his nonprofit, A Long Swim.
"It's a reasonable distance," McConnell said. "One of the crazy parts of it is that after we chose it, usually when you pick a swim like this, all you have to do is call up the last guy that did it and he'll tell you everything. Watch out for this, don't worry about that, keep your eyes open for whatever.
"And we couldn't find somebody who's done it. We looked at all the lists and all the databases and stuff. And I was just amazed to find out that nobody has done this swim."
He'll be prepared for the possibility of sharks by wearing a high-tech ankle device that interferes with the animals' electroreception to find prey. His swim from Nantucket's Eel Point will end at the Edgartown lighthouse on Martha's Vineyard about 4 miles from where police announced a shark sighting July 30 that temporarily closed the city's South Beach.
Jellyfish and strong currents are other expected obstacles.
"It's going to be a real challenging swim," McConnell said.
According to the Vineyard Gazette, Deb Taylor Blair and James Pittar were the first to swim the channel between the islands in 2000, but they went in the opposite direction to Nantucket. McConnell's swim will be longer.
The investment banker is no stranger to using long-distance swims to raise money for Northwestern University's collaborative research of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also know as Lou Gehrig's disease. It's a progressive neuromuscular disease without prevention or cure.
After swimming the English Channel under strict rules in 2011, he's gone around Manhattan, Molokai Channel in Hawaii, Catalina Channel in California and the length of Tampa Bay. The jaunts have led to about $500,000 in donations to A Long Swim for the ALS research.
Longtime friend Don Macdonald, a former Barrington resident, will be in one of the kayaks accompanying McConnell as part of the crew monitoring McConnell's stroke rate and watching for signs of disorientation and dehydration. McConnell will swim under the English Channel rules, which include not touching a boat or anyone on it and feeding only from a drinking bottle the crew tosses to him.
"It's all about his safety," Macdonald said. "There's a lot of obstacles and issues you have to deal with."
To train for the Nantucket-to-Martha's Vineyard marathon, McConnell joined a group to swim about 2½ miles around Lake Zurich in the middle of the village three times a week. He also went to a Winnetka beach for Lake Michigan swims on the weekends.
McConnell's wife and team captain, Susan, said she'll be on the ocean with duties including stroke counts and handling video for Facebook Live when the swim starts at 7 a.m. Monday, weather and other conditions permitting. Those wishing to follow may seek the video feed at A Long Swim's Facebook page and the track.rs/ALongSwim website that'll be live in time for the swim.
Ellen McConnell Blakeman co-founded A Long Swim with her brother in 2011. A gifted athlete who ran marathons, Blakeman was 63 when she died in 2018 after a lengthy fight with ALS.
Doug McConnell's father, David, died from ALS in 2006. David McConnell was a well-known veterinarian who served as an East Dundee village trustee from 1987 to 1993.
If all goes according to plan, an early evening party will celebrate McConnell's swim from Nantucket to Martha's Vineyard at the Harbor View Hotel near the Edgartown lighthouse.
"This is really a team sport," he said. "I happen to be the guy in the Speedo. You couldn't possibly do this without a team."