CH 5: Open Water

Saturday, Sept 10, 2022 – Swim to Alligator Lighthouse

At the start whistle, I swam out of the starting gateway with the group which began to spread out within the first 100 yards. We veered toward the first buoys where swimmers were required to merge with their support kayaks. Luckily, my kayaks spotted me quickly and waved.

Man, I had thought the water was choppy in the roped off starting area. Dude. Once we were out past Buoy #1, my arms were moving but I could swear I wasn’t going anywhere.

Due to the rough chop, a few things happened:

  • First, I struggled to get into a good swimming rhythm.
  • Second, every other wave was a punch in the face, which was fine, except it either went up my nose or in my mouth due to the unexpectedness. The water itself wasn’t the issue though.
  • Third, the salt was murderous.

Backstory: I swam competitively from age 7 to 18, and then played water polo from age 15 to 21. I currently swim and do polo drills for fitness. It’s ingrained in me that if I get a mouthful of water on a breath, I calmly swim with my face down for a few strokes and cough it out, and then catch a clear breath on the next one. The key is staying calm, and moving on. But, as I realized that day, that tactic only works with pool water. Not saltwater.

When the saltwater entered my nose or throat, the painful salt content seized my throat. I legit choked repeatedly, which pissed me off more than anything, however it was severe enough that I needed to stop whenever it happened. (Kinda like trying to run while puking, your body doesn’t want to let you do both.)

In the kayaks, we carried squirt water bottles for the sole purpose of rinsing out our mouths. Thank God we did, because it would’ve been hell without them.

In hindsight, the waves may have been easier to navigate if my attention hadn’t been so divided (I was constantly looking out for my kayaks, other swimmers, other swimmers’ kayaks, the buoys, ocean animals, etc.). That’s my bad. Should’ve been more focused, or something. (I don’t know, this was the farthest I’d ever swam out into the open ocean. It’s different when you swim parallel with the shore vs open water.)

Sighting

“Sighting” is when you pick up your head every few strokes to ensure you’re swimming in the correct direction and adjust course as needed.

Whenever I picked my head up to sight, the waves blocked my view of the marker buoys. (I’m very good at swimming with my head up, and sighting—that skill is a staple in water polo. I can swim heads up as comfortably as I can heads down). If I can’t see the buoys, I had no clue which direction to swim.

The new challenge: swimming for a target with no landmarks, essentially swimming blind.

At first, I paused to ask one of my kayaks if they could see the next buoys. They could, and pointed. I had to this almost continuously.

Irked by the throat-punching saltwater while trying to sight, I rolled over to swim backstroke for a reprieve. After only a moment on my back, I got an idea.

My New Swimming Strategy

I decided to swim backstroke instead of freestyle. Why? Sure, I couldn’t see where I’m going on my back but I couldn’t see anything over the waves anyway and it was easier to keep the water out of my nose/mouth (easier to breathe, period) while swimming on my back.

Here’s what it was like: When swimming backstroke, I felt a wave slap the top of my head which gave me a fraction of a second to shut my mouth and hold my breath, and either power over for through it—and to really focus on swimming.

I stopped for a mouth rinse and asked the kayaks to paddle on either side of me and slightly behind so I could see them at a glance. The kayaks, especially the inside kayak (Anton), would stay on course and I would guide off of them, staying between them. They’d also be in a position to wave at/alert me for any reason.

It worked wonderfully and, for the next ~1.25-ish miles, that’s what I did.

(Dude, back in the day I was a breaststroker and I.M.er, which naturally made backstroke my nemesis. During this event, I probably did more backstroke in this one race than I voluntarily did in my entire swimming career!)

About 1 mile out Maddie, who works for the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), pointed at the water. “A moon jelly.”

A moon what what?

“A moon jellyfish.”

They’re clear animals with pale purple ruffles that are invisible unless you’re right over them. Spotting them was like trying to see a submerged clear plastic bag. (The day before at the safety meeting, we had seen a dead moon jellyfish washed up on shore. I had completely forgotten about them.)

Maddie explained moon jellies usually drift in large groups that an ocean swimmer could cruise over their face first and not realize it until they’re up to their eyeballs in them. Moon jelly stings aren’t considered to be dangerous to humans, but that didn’t make a difference. I still flinched every time anything (e.g. piece of seaweed) touched me, expecting to see a jelly.

Remember this thing? Moon jellyfish.

First Swimmer/Paddler Switch

At the barge anchored halfway to the lighthouse, Maddie and I switched positions. I hung onto the tandem kayak as she put on her neon orange swim cap and goggles and slipped over the other side into the ocean. The kayak was more stable than I thought it would be when I climbed into it.

Earlier, we had seen another team’s kayak roll over when they were switching out their swimmer/paddler. It happened to a 2-person team. We guessed that the kayaker had stopped paddling to put on their swim gear and the swimmer in the water didn’t or couldn’t prevent the kayak from being pushed sideways by the waves which then capsized it, rolling it over sideways.

On the Kayak

As soon as my butt was in the front seat of the tandem kayak, I became noticeably nauseated.

I’m prone to motion sickness in planes and occasionally on stationary watercraft typically anchored out sea, however I had never ever been seasick in a kayak. And we kayak a lot (I have my own kayak, that’s how often we kayak!!).

It hadn’t occurred to any of us to bring motion sickness medicine—and Vanessa, who sat behind me in the second seat of the tandem kayak, was SICK. Listening to her gag and vomit behind me didn’t help my own sea sickness.

Regardless of feeling ill, I tried to enjoy myself. Every twenty seconds or so a wave rolled under us that caused the nose of our kayak to catch some air before splashing down. It was so cool to be out that far. I spotted one moon jelly, but only one.

Maddie swam opted to swim freestyle. She’s stronger than I man and powered forward well. The waves were supposed to calm by midday, but hadn’t yet. She kept swimming off course, too, by deviating to the right and cutting across the nose of our kayak. She eventually traded her green Swedish goggles for my clear Speedo goggles. She quickly understood why I paused so often to rinse my mouth and did so as well.

The End of the First Half

Mile 4 brought us to the light house which is a simple metal structure.

By then, I had managed to consume only half of my first 20 oz bottle of Gatorade, one swig at a time, since starting to paddle. I felt too nauseated to drink much more. Eating anything sounded awful. This was dangerous because it was 93 degrees Fahrenheit (33.9 Celsius) outside with no cloud cover. I knew it was imperative for me to hydrate and reapply sunscreen, but that knowledge didn’t make doing either any easier.

Vanessa, who had become sicker, had ceased paddling altogether. If I stopped paddling to reach for sunscreen or pick up my bottle then our watercraft would drift perpendicular to the direction of the waves and the bobbing of the kayak would worsen my symptoms. We couldn’t afford for both of us in the tandem to be incapacitated. (Besides, I was determined not to hurl. DETERMINED. I hate puking so much.)

Around the back side of the lighthouse, a large white dive boat was anchored just behind it. It was present to support the event participants, and was able to contact race authorities in case of emergencies. I eyed it as we passed. (“Should we stop?” “Vanessa hadn’t even gotten to swim yet.” “Can I paddle the next 2 miles until her turn to swim?” “Can the rest of the team continue if one person has to stop?”)

Maddie grabbed onto Anton’s kayak to keep it still as Anton pulled on his neon orange swim cap and goggles as he prepared to switch out as the swimmer. Once he swung his legs over the wide and slipped into the water, Maddie climbed into the kayak, which he steadied from the water, and she put on the hat he had been wearing, a shirt to be protected from the sun, and picked up the paddle.

I wrestled the tandem kayak to travel with the waves since the course required us to double back along the north side of the buoys. As soon as the first wave rolled underneath us, my stomach lurched. Badly.

Super seas sick, Vanessa was no longer paddling. I was seconds away from throwing up the meager fluids I had ingested and doubted my ability to avoid dehydration with another 4 miles/3 hrs ahead of us while pulling a second person who’s bigger than me.

Anton and Maddie, on the other hand, were fine and ready to roll.

We needed to decide how to continue.

TO BE CONTINUED

OR READ FROM THE BEGINNING

2 thoughts on “CH 5: Open Water

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