After a couple of miles of open-water swimming, a kind of zen-like calm falls over Bar Harbor resident Puranjot Kaur. After 10 miles, she’s still in that mindset, each stroke methodically falling in front of the last as she cuts through the water.
And hopefully, by the time she reaches the 43rd mile of her nearly 44-mile swim this Friday, as she attempts to become the first person ever to swim all the way around Mount Desert Island, that meditative state will remain in place, despite the perils of jellyfish, tides, boat activity and cold Maine ocean water.
“It’s very, very meditative and calming. I think a lot of athletes get into this zone where you’re in this interesting mental battle with yourself,” said Kaur, 40, a Rhode Island native who has lived in Bar Harbor since she was 18, and came to the island to attend College of the Atlantic. “You just have to get out of your own way, and focus on your breathing and on the moment.”
Kaur will start her marathon 43.6 mile swim, dubbed the “Round the Rock Swim,” at 7 a.m. Friday. Over the course of an estimated 24 hours, she will swim through Bar Harbor, past the Cranberry Islands, over the tricky sandbar at Bass Harbor, through the many islands that dot the western edge of MDI and under the Trenton Bridge, until she finally ends up where she started at Hadley Point, off the Mount Desert Narrows.
The Marathon Swimmers Federation, an international body that ratifies marathon swims worldwide, says Kaur’s swim will be the first time someone has circumnavigated Mount Desert Island by swimming. If there have been any other attempts in history, neither Kaur nor any of the people on her team are aware of them.
A team of around 30 people on two boats and many kayaks will accompany her on her swim, including her husband, Mahandeva Singh; Toby Stephenson, captain of COA’s research vessel, the M/V Osprey, which he will pilot for most of the race; and Dr. Mary Dudzik, who will monitor Kaur’s physical condition.
While the bigger boats on her crew won’t be able to get close to her, the kayakers will be able to remain much closer by.
“I’ve got this awesome army of sea kayakers who will be rotating in and out and taking different shifts,” Kaur said. “It’s become this really beautiful community-building adventure.”
Kaur’s key partner on her quest, however, has been Ed Monat, a scuba diver and tour boat operator known locally as Diver Ed, who for decades has taken tourists and locals alike out on the water each summer to look for marine life. As Kaur said, Monat knows the waters around MDI like the back of his hand, and she enlisted him as her primary navigator.
“I’m the kind of guy that does crazy things all the time without organization. But Puranjot, she’s a machine. This whole thing had to be super organized,” Monat said. “I know every corner of MDI, so it was a lot of figuring out how to navigate all the tricky spots, like Bass Harbor, when to start so she can be in daylight when she’s in the coldest parts, that sort of thing.”
Kaur has only been open-water swimming for about three years. Though she swam from a young age, she was always more of a distance runner, until several knee surgeries forced her out of running marathons and other races. Her husband suggested she try swimming, and though she was initially skeptical, she quickly fell in love.
Nearly every day in the warmer months, Kaur can be found swimming in Echo Lake or in Long Pond, both on MDI, as well as in the ocean. She is also the assistant swimming coach for the Mount Desert Island YMCA Sharks swim team. Typically, she’d be working with swimmers in the YMCA pool, but with the facility closed due to the pandemic, she’s been taking her team to swim in Echo Lake along with her.
So far, the longest Kaur has ever swum is 12 miles, and she admits that 44 miles is quite a jump. She’s also competed in the 10-mile Kingdom Swim on Lake Memphremagog in Vermont twice, winning the women’s division last year. She started training for her MDI swim in March, and though she was always planning on doing it in late August, the specific date of Friday, Aug. 28, wasn’t set until this week, thanks to favorable weather and tidal conditions.
“Once we set a firm date for the swim, it was a bit of an emotional rollercoaster, even though it was also a relief to have a particular day,” Kaur said. “But now I feel a lot calmer. Now it’s time to eat a lot of pasta and hydrate myself and put myself into the right place.”
According to the Marathon Swimmers Federation, a marathon swim is one that is longer than 6.2 miles. In order for a swim to qualify for inclusion in the international list of open-water marathon swims kept by the federation, swimmers are not allowed to wear a wetsuit — even in the waters around MDI, which in late August hover around 60 degrees. Kaur will wear only a regular bathing suit and cap, goggles and earplugs.
She must remain in the water for the duration of her swim, but may stop actively swimming every 30 minutes, to briefly float or tread water and replenish her body with juice, chocolate milk or electrolyte drinks fortified with a high-carbohydrate powder.
“It’ll be a liquid diet,” she said. “I’ll probably be fantasizing about food the whole time.”
In addition to the cold water and concerns about tides and swells, there’s the fact that jellyfish can be found in many parts of the waters around MDI. While their stings are not fatal, they can be quite unpleasant. Kaur said one of the jobs of her kayakers is to direct her around clumps of jellyfish, as well as any other marine life she might come across, such as the mother and calf porpoises she had a close encounter with earlier this week.
Another crew member will keep track of her speed, the water and air temperatures, wind speed, the number of strokes she completes in one minute and her overall progress. That data will be submitted to the Marathon Swimmers Federation, who will then decide whether to ratify her swim to be included in the historical record, alongside other historic swims such as crossings of the English Channel (21 miles) and the Catalina Channel in California (20 miles).
As Kaur said, her mental state will be equally as important as her physical state during her 24-hour swim.
“She’s just got the mindset to do this sort of thing,” Monat said. “She’s super sweet and all smiles when you meet her, but she is just really, really tough. And she trusts people to do their best. I know she trusts me. It’s pretty easy to see that she’s got what it takes to see this through.”
Though motivated by her love of swimming and the desire to push herself, Kaur is also using her swim as a chance to raise money for the organization she and her husband founded: Open Table MDI, a nonprofit that hosts weekly community suppers and delivers food and prepared meals to members of the Mount Desert Island community. So far, she’s raised close to $9,000.
“In this time where so much feels like it’s going wrong in the world, this is something that feels like people can get excited about and rally around,” Kaur said. “That feels very, very cool.”
Spectators can track Kaur’s progress by visiting her Track.RS site.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated Kaur’s role with the Mount Desert Island YMCA Sharks swim team.