December 2006

Goal: To swim around the island of Key West each month for 12 consecutive months.

Tangled Up in Blue

Swim #6
Saturday, December 2nd, 2006
High Tide 8:04AM; Swim Start: 5:47AM

I am moving into what I fully expect to be the most difficult months in my quest. We are into the colder months. The weather recently has reflected that reality. The last week of November was quite cold by Key West standards. The temperatures got into the upper fifties and sixties. To many, that may not seem too cold, but the water temperature begins to reflect the air.

Ten days before my sixth swim, the water temperature was down to sixty-five degrees. You can imagine that this made this warm-water swimmer quite nervous. I forced myself into my canal at that temperature and lasted about ten minutes. I had on two swim caps and silicone ear putty in my ears – my effort at maintaining some warmth. I got out of the water shivering. I immediately plunged myself into my hot tub for about fifteen minutes.

Gradually, the water temperature began to rise. I thought to myself, “It is important to go into the water every day and to try to extend my duration.” My reasoning was: If I can stay in 67-degree water for thirty minutes, I should be able to stay in 70-degree water for an hour and 72-degree water for even longer and so forth. Each day, with the days slowly warming as the cold front passed through, I tried to extend my swim time. When the water got up to 73 degrees, I forced myself to swim 4 miles. I think I was in the water for 2:45 that morning. I realized at that point that this cold water was affecting my distance training. I was into a new kind of training, dealing with the chilly water!

When the water reached 75, I was not feeling great, but I can say I was swimming without constantly thinking about how uncomfortable I was. This introduction leads me to tell you why I jumped at my December 2nd date.

I had plans to travel with my son-in-law Terence to travel to Huntsville, Alabama, to run the Rocket City Marathon on December 9th. We both had been training for this event for the past few months. That fact, coupled with the thought that the weather may likely get colder as we progress
into December, drove me to an early swim date. I checked the tide charts and found a decent tide on Saturday the 2nd. The only problem was my starting time would have me to begin in the dark.

I did hear some disconcerting news a few days before the 2nd. I was listening to a Miami radio station and the news reported that swimmers should stay out of the water due to rip tides and Portuguese men-of-war. It wasn’t the bit about rip tides that unnerved me; it was the men-of-war! It had been many years before, but I had a personal encounter with the men-of-war, and it was far from pleasant. To become entangled in the long blue tentacles is a shockingly painful experience, one that lingers too long! I also learned that another cold front was to pass through, but not until late Sunday. Hearing that encouraged me all the more since at this point the water temperature had reached about 77 degrees. Seventy-seven seemed like a dream! I lined up my 19-year-old daughter, Christiana, who was very willing to volunteer her services. Assisting her this time would be my son-in-law and fellow marathoner, Terence White. Since it was a Saturday morning, Terence would be free from work.

My customary time for launch has been 2:15 before high tide in the Key West Harbor. Based on that formula, I was looking at a 5:49 start. Christiana and I were up at 4:45AM. Since it was the middle of the night, it was pitch black outside. I had everything ready before I went to bed, which unfortunately was after 11:00PM. That means less than 6 hours sleep. Be that as it may, there
was work to do. We quickly loaded the Explorer. The two-person kayak was secured to the lid of the SUV. Into the dark, we drove, stars glowing over our heads.

We arrived at Smathers Beach before Terence. We began to unload our kayak and equipment and as we did, Terence arrived on his bike. We wasted no time, as the tides wait for no man. We chose to begin on the north side of the jetty, since this is the place we will begin the next Annual Swim Around Key West on June 16th. When we got to the shoreline, we found the seaweed was piled high. To get to the water, I had to wade through this thick and wide barrier of natural, organic sea garbage. Kind of gross, but never mind, no time to think about that, the clock is running. But who can see the clock? It is still pitch black out here! I had on Terence’s watch; he had my Timex Ironman watch and the GPS. Terence called to me, “It is 5:46!” With that, I was swimming in the dark liquid.

I maneuvered around the jetty and headed for White Street Pier. One problem: I couldn’t see the pier! I just swam straight, realizing that I would have to swim out to the left to get around the pier. I knew there would be no light for 45 minutes, then there would be twilight. After about 30 minutes into the swim, Terence had to get my attention as I was heading directly for the pier. With that, I adjusted my aim and made it around the pier. Apart from the dark, all seemed to be going well until … I was just past the pier and I let out a blood-curding scream! My great fear had become my painful reality. I had men-of-war tentacles wrapped across my chest. My natural reaction was to immediately stop and unravel these stringy stingy things from my flesh. Terence was terrified thinking I had been attacked by a shark! The dawn was slowly lighting the morning, and Christy and Terence were amazed at what they saw: hundreds of Portuguese men-of-war all around us. My kayakers were gravely concerned. I continued to writhe in pain. I was concerned with my immediate situation. I had on my smoked lens goggles, so even though it was beginning to get light, it was still just as dark to me. I put my goggles up on my forehead and was pleased to see some light. I was hurting. Terence wanted to know if we should head back.

It is funny how things run through the head. I said, “No! We can’t turn back. Let’s go on…” That rosy optimism was based on my ignorance of the situation. I was still smarting, but I swam on. And then there was another hit, and another. I was howling as I stripped off the tentacles. (Note: Some of you readers maybe contemplating swimming in the June 16th Annual Swim. I, in no way, wish to scare you. This man-of-war challenge only exists from December through February. For you who do not know anything of these creatures, let me fill you in. Click here.)

I was feeling pain all over, except for my face. I believe if I had gotten hit anywhere on my head I would have been forced to give it up. Though my body was glowing with a sensation like I was being electrocuted, I had no desire to retreat. Even though we were only 45 minutes into the swim, the thought of getting out and going home and then choosing another day in December was even more disconcerting. Would the water temperatures be this warm again? That was questionable. I also really wanted to get this swim out of the way before I ran the Rocket City Marathon the next Saturday. With all this in my head I told Terence and Christy my desire was to press on.

At this point, we employed a new approach. I was in a minefield of men-of-war. Terence took the bull by the horns. He began to direct me through the maze. “Go to the right.” “Now to the left.” “There is one at 2:00,” etc. This meant I swam a sloppy breaststroke. I had to keep my head out of the water to hear him. My goggles were on my forehead to allow me to see better. My hope was that once we made the turn out of the Atlantic into the Gulf, we would leave these pestilent creatures behind. This new strategy worked for the most part. Although I did incur more stings, they were not direct hits and, hence, less severe. Although I vibrated with a stingy pain from my neck down, I didn’t feel shocky or dizzy. My thinking remained clear. (If you can consider someone who chooses to continue such a swim as lucid.)

We made it around the second mile, past the military base, and I began to swim crawl stroke again before we moved into Key West Harbor. I looked up and there was a massive cruise ship heading into Mallory Square. It was about a half mile in front of me. I think it is a law of the seas that cruise ships have the right of way over kayaks and swimmers. We being law-abiding citizens, yielded that right of way. The cruise ship passed and we entered into Key West Harbor. I didn’t know it then, but Terence later informed me that there were men-of-war throughout the swim, although on the Gulf side there were far fewer. I swam through the harbor and the current was good. No fresh stings! The initial stings continued to smart, but less as time unfolded.

We got around the docked cruise ship and through the harbor and swam into Fleming Cut. It was good to be swimming again. I knew there was a five mile race on Fleming Key, and as we approached the bridge, we saw friends and my wife wave to us while running across at the mouth of Fleming Cut.

There was little wind on the Gulf side. I made it around Sigsbee and headed toward Cow Key Channel. I always love to see that Channel Bridge. It means there are only a few miles left to the finish. This time, however, my joy was tempered by knowing that as I exited the Channel and entered the Atlantic, my sinister adversaries would be waiting for me. The water in Cow Key was very shallow, so we swam far left to find deeper water, which we did. We seemed to go way out of our way, but having deeper water made proper swimming possible, and so I don’t think we lost any time.

The last couple miles to the finish line were very uncomfortable. The wind was blowing these men-of-war toward the shore, right across our path. I had to revert to the sloppy, awkward breaststroke with my head out of the water and goggles on my forehead. We were back in the thick of it. Terence once again coached me along. “There is one on the left at 10:00.” “Another to the right at 2:00.” This went on for the next nearly-2 hours. My body ached. My shoulders were killing me. The men-of-war made some hits, but nothing as serious as the original hits at the swim start. The one thing that kept me going was the knowledge that I was growing closer to the finish line. The amount of men-of-war was legion.

My soul was heartened as we came upon the first of the ten poles at Smathers Beach. With my new start spot, the final pole would signal the completion of the swim. I had only to endure about a half mile. I honestly can say I couldn’t wait to get out of the water. I was tired, cold, sore and mentally drained.

We finally came to the last pole. I had completed my sixth swim. My time was 6:30:54. Not too bad considering all we endured. Praise God! Six completed and six to go!!

At the finish I laid my body on the back of the kayak. It felt like we were about to sink under my weight. I did not want to come near another man-of-war. Terence and Christy paddled into the beach. What a surprise to see the seaweed that littered the shore was covered with beached blue Portuguese men-of-war. There were literally hundreds of them along the shore. I wondered how many of them were there when we began our swim in the dark of night. I was amazed that we got in and I swam a good half-mile before my first sting. I thought if I had gotten stung as I entered the water, I would have most likely quit on the spot.

When I exited the water, we were met with friends Don and Maryann Nelson. They were some of the five milers we saw running across the Fleming Cut Bridge. Don is a major helper in our Annual Swim Around Key West. My wife Sessie was also present on the beach. She also ran in the five-miler and was concerned when she heard from Terence by cell phone that I was stung up by men-of-war. My daughter Abigail, Terence’s wife, was also was present to welcome us.

As I surveyed my trembling body, I felt so cold and I looked like Zorro had used me for sword practice. Abby poured vinegar on me, but oddly enough most of the stinging had ceased by that time. It was now time to head home. I bought the steaks. His job was to grill them. I could hardly wait!

Let me add here that Terence and I left the next Thursday and flew to Huntsville, Alabama. When we arrived, it was 19 degrees above zero. Undaunted, we rested up on Friday and were ready to run at 8:00AM on Saturday. It was 18 degrees when the gun went off. Terence remarked that of the 1,000 runners entered, we were probably the most unprepared for the climate. Thankfully there was no wind and the sky was crystal blue.

Many wore running tights, but not us guys from Key West. We went with bare knees. I had some earmuffs and we both wore ski caps we bought at Walgreen’s for $1.50 each. We had on $1.50 work gloves from Wal-Mart. I wore a sweatshirt with a hood I bought at the Salvation Army Thrift Shop. My plan was to dispense clothes as I warmed.

The temperature steadily rose. It was 38 degrees when we finally completed the 26.2 miles. I dumped my sweatshirt at mile 13. I stuck my gloves and ski cap in the waste band of my “Race Ready” shorts. I must admit that I enjoyed the weather and the course. The race was well run by the organizers and the police were superb in traffic control.

At the start line I met a German couple that had recently moved to Huntsville. We ran together for 24 miles. They had a much better pace than I would have run, left to myself. A couple times they left me behind, but I caught up. At mile 24 they stopped for some reason, and I continued running. After I finished, I saw them again. They were the next two behind me to cross the finish line. My gun time was 3:50:11. That was the best time of my three marathons. My first was Tybee Island, February 2005 (4:20). My next was Negril, Jamaica, last December (4:03). Terence was there to cheer me on as I approached the finish line. I learned that he ran a 3:13. That was a time good enough to qualify him for Boston.

I preached at Providence Orthodox Presbyterian Church of Huntsville the next morning. We flew back Monday morning. We had a great time.

I must tell you that for the next couple of weeks, my shoulders were very sore, (both, but especially my left, my surgeried shoulder). So sore was it, that I began to get nervous. So sore was it, that I thought of calling my surgeon. I prayed, did much ice, rubbed DMSO on it. I began to think that I might not be able to do another swim. What was the cause? I am not exactly sure, but I think it was a combination of that sloppy breaststroke on the “tangled up in blue” swim. Then, lugging the luggage to Huntsville and back, and the marathon.

I am pleased to report that on December 26th I swam for 3:50 minutes (about 6 miles) in my back yard canal. I enjoyed the swim and my arms feel pretty good today, December 28, 2006. I expect the next two swims to be the toughest to pin down. My challenges are varied. The tide this time of year is very low. It is hard to predict the weather and the water temperature. When I swam this past Tuesday, the water was 77 degrees. Today it was 70 degrees. Assuming I can get water warm enough, what will the men-of-war picture look like? The men-of-war will disappear in February, when the sea turtles begin to spawn. I am told that the turtles feed on them. At this time I will have to take a wait and see posture. My preference is to swim early in the month and get it out of the way. We shall see what January brings …