Eastern Lake Erie
The 19.2 km route from the beach just east of Sturgeon Point, Angola, New York to Crystal Beach, Ontario is one of SSO's most popular routes. This route can be swum in either direction, depending on the winds. This route is shorter and warmer than Lake Ontario and is suitable for swimmers new to the sport. The trial swim for this route is 7 km.
A longer route is 26 km is Port Colborne, Ontario to Sturgeon Point, N.Y. The trial swim for this route is 9 km.
Central Lake Erie
Trial swims for these routes are 1/3 of the total distance, rounded up to the next kilometer.
There is a 43 km route from Dunkirk, N.Y. to the Port Maitland, Ontario area (Mohawk Point or Rock Point).
The longest route across Lake Erie is 52 km from Presque Isle, Erie, Pennsylvania to the base of Long Point, Ontario. This route crosses strong currents due to mid-lake circulation pattern currents as well as an underwater ridge. The area on the west side of Long Point is too sandy and shallow for large boats to approach close to land. Hand held GPS and extremely bright flashlights are recommended for the inflatable boats as they will be on their own with no lights on shore in this remote area. Several sandbars have to be negotiated before land is reached. Finally, Long Point Provincial Park is 25 km from Port Rowan and 40 km from Port Dover so the weather window has to allow extra time for the boats to reach the shelter of port after the swim.
Western Lake Erie
Pelee Island to Leamington, Ontario is a 22 km route. This is not a lake crossing as it starts from an island.
Lake Erie Weather
Lake Erie is significantly warmer than Lake Ontario, averaging over 70°F (21°C) in the summer. It is usually warm enough for a crossing in July or September, while warm water is virtually guaranteed in August. With an average depth of 62 feet (19 m), by August the warm water extends to the bottom in all but the deepest spots.
The biggest challenge in swimming Lake Erie is the waves! Calm days are rare events on Lake Erie. The trick to Lake Erie is to go when the winds are in a favourable direction. There are 4 reasons why Lake Erie is choppier than the other Great Lakes:
1) It is the shallowest Great Lake.
2). Lake Erie is oriented in a southwest-northeast axis, which is the same path as the prevailing wind. Thus, it doesn’t take much wind to create “the infamous short steep wave pattern peculiar to Lake Erie”. The “fetch” (distance the wind has been blowing over water from the same direction) on Lake Erie is sufficient to generate maximum wave height (like on the ocean) at the east end of the lake. At 388 km, this prevailing wind fetch is longer than any other Great Lake.
3) Even after the wind has died down, the “seiche” action adds to the turbulence. A seiche is the oscillation of water in a basin initiated by wind set-up (water that piles up at one end of the lake after the wind has been blowing in the same direction for several hours) or storm surge. The water sloshes back and forth across the lake before it is dampened out by friction. Seiches take 14 hours to slosh across Lake Erie and can continue back and forth for 1-2 days. Seiches are a significant factor on Lake Erie because of its shallowness. The wind set-up from a 30 knot wind at the eastern end of the lake reaches 2.3 m on Lake Erie but only 0.2 m on Lake Ontario. At 20 knots, the level is still raised 1 m at the end of Lake Erie and only 0.1 m on Lake Ontario.
4) The study of the contour of the bottom (bathymetry) of Lake Erie reveals some pertinent facts. There is a shallow ridge splitting the lake along the Erie to Long Point route. Also, the lake is shallow under the Crystal Beach – Sturgeon Point route, averaging less than 20 m. This does not help reduce the turbulence.
Lake Erie also seems to lie in the path of summer thunderstorms moving across the continent, more so than the northern part of the Niagara peninsula. Storms on Lake Erie can be sudden and vicious. For Lake Erie swims, the weather forecast on both sides of the lake need to be taken into consideration as there can be more storm activity on one side of the lake than the other.
Lake Erie also has 5 times as many water spouts as Lake Ontario due to its warm water. A water spout is a slender tubular extension below a dark cloud base that reaches down to the lake surface. It looks like a tornado but is not as dangerous, is 7-20 meters in diameter, and lasts up to 10 minutes. Waterspouts occur during periods of very cool, unsettled weather from mid-July to late October with cumulus clouds with or without showers. The most common time of day is from dawn to early afternoon. They rarely do much damage but can flip a boat if they make direct contact. Boaters should move away at right angles. In a study over 17 years, 4 waterspouts were observed on western Lake Ontario, whereas 24 were seen on eastern Lake Erie.
In the face of all this wave and storm activity, extra precautions need to be taken. The swimmer and pacers should practice in Lake Erie in high wave conditions. In organizing equipment, it is imperative that the large boats all be over 30 feet in length. Sometimes people mistakenly think that a shorter swim requires shorter boats. Similarly, an inflatable boat less than 14 feet will not hold up to high waves. It is strongly recommended that anyone who is at all prone to seasickness should take anti-nausea medications before boarding the boats.
Customs and Immigration considerations
Approximately half of a swim across Lake Erie is in American waters. The swimmer must obtain permission from the U.S. authorities. Passports are required for everyone.