March 2007

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

Saturday, March 24th, 2007 (Tide: 1.8 ft.)
Start: High Noon!

The wind had been blowing steadily for a good week. The weather radio daily gave out the small craft warnings. I was becoming a bit anxious. It was already past midmonth. I wanted with all my heart to avoid the last day of the month attempt situation I faced last month. Last month’s last day of the month swim makes for good drama, but is hard on the system. I prefer some room to breath. I like a little elbowroom.

The wind was keeping things cooler than I prefer. The day temperatures were generally in the upper 70’s and the nights in the upper 60’s. This is great weather for normal people, but for fishermen who prefer calm waters and for me who prefers calm and warmer waters, it made me jittery. The temperature of the water in the mornings was hovering about 73 degrees. I listened to the weather radio religiously, hoping to hear of a break in the wind. I checked the tide charts. My possibilities were as follows: Monday, March 19th start at 8:02AM; Tuesday, March 20th depart the beach at 8:33AM; Wednesday, March 21st leave at 9:07AM; Thursday, March 22nd swim off at 10:21; Friday, March 23rd depart at 11:07AM and Saturday, the 24th I would have to begin at noon. After Saturday, the next time I could swim would be the last day of the month. That is, if I wanted to start in the morning light.

As the week of the 19th passed with the persistent, continuous, monotonous wind, I had to make a decision. I settled on Saturday. Regardless of the conditions, I was going to go. I anticipated the water temperature would be at least 75 degrees. I would be uncomfortable with that, but I knew I would not be hypothermic. The waves were another thing. I couldn’t send my kayaker out in these conditions. The November swim was a windy one and I lost my kayakers coming around Sigsbee. I swam on my own the last 5 miles. I wanted to avoid any repeat of that.

I mentioned my quandary to my Tuesday evening Bible study class, and one of my people, Chuck VanSoye, graciously offered his services to assist me. He has a 21-foot motor boat, and he would be happy to guide me around the island.

I should add that I took on another personal challenge. I had been thinking for years about attempting to swim across Tampa Bay. I reached the point where I decided to stop simply thinking about it and to register. On Thursday, March 15th, I sent in my entry form with my check. Now my swims around Key West have become training swims for the April 21st, 24-mile swim across Tampa Bay! I know I can’t wait for weather pleasing to me. I will swim Tampa Bay regardless of the water temperature or wind. I pray for ideal conditions, but after I pray, it is in the Lord’s hands. That made my commitment to swim March 24 all the more sure. Add to that my necessity to get my April swim done as early as possible in that month. If I swam the Saturday date I would have 9-10 days to rest before my next Key West swim (April 2nd or 3rd) and then just short of 3 weeks to prepare for the Bay marathon swim.

I had never started a swim around Key West this late. High noon has advantages and disadvantages. It is sure nice not to have to get up before light and hustle down to the beach. It is pleasing to “sleep in.” It is nice not to have to rush. I woke up about 8:00AM on Saturday, March 24th. I went to the refrigerator and poured a glass of rice milk and added a scoop of protein powder to it and drank it down with my glucosimine and chondroitan sulfate. I took my msm, my Ambrotose power and the rest of my vitamins and supplements. (A ritual I participate in each morning and evening!)

Then I went for my Bible and I read Paul’s Letter to the Colossian and prayed. I had prepared my Hammer Perpetuum drinks the night before. At 10:30AM, my daughters Julianne (17) and Georgia (14) got in my Ford Explorer to head for Mr. VanSoye’s home at Sunset Marina on Stock Island. The plan was for us to meet him at the dock outside his condo, and we would motor to the start site at the south end of Smathers Beach. It was very cool to head out without tying the kayak to my car’s roof rack.

We got to the marina at 11:05 and headed straight for the boat. Chuck was ready. He was already in the boat. We loaded the items we brought and were ready to go. I prayed for our safety and success and we were off. The wind was gusting from 25 to 30 knots. I had Georgia lay the zinc oxide on my back thick. I coated my face. Generally I was close to finishing at this time of day, and now I hadn’t even begun.

I decided to wear one cap and not to use anything in my ears. Chuck’s boat was equipped with a GPS and a fish finder. The fish finder gave readings for water temperature and depth. The water temperature was 75 degrees as we headed out of the marina and headed for the start site. It took us about 20 minutes to arrive. Now it was only 11:45. We still had 15 minutes until I was to start. We drove in circles. At 11:57AM I jumped into the choppy water and fixed my goggles. The water was pretty shallow. I looked at my watch and right at high noon, I took my first stroke.

The wind was out of the northeast. That was good in that it was pushing me. It was bad because I was being buffeted. I really had to lift my head up to see where I was going. There are points on which I fix my eyes to swim as straight as possible. I do my best to avoid zigzagging.

I passed White Street Pier at 18 minutes, and at 36 minutes I passed the radar dish at the Truman Annex Naval Base. I made it around Fort Zachary Taylor and headed into an incredibly billowy Key West Harbor. Surprisingly, there was quite a bit of boat traffic in the harbor. Chuck had affixed a dive flag to his boat and he put a flashing yellow light on the front of the sunroof. He would turn it on if a boat heading toward us was getting too close for comfort. He told me later that he turned it on quite a few times during my time in the water.

There was a huge cruise ship docked at Mallory Square. I was feeling the need for some Perpetuum but I chose not to stop in the harbor to drink. There was a pilot boat near the cruise ship and I prayed that I would be well clear of the harbor before the ship decided to leave. I was 1:43 into the swim as I passed the Ocean Key House. I had to really strain to see the entrance into the Fleming Cut. I figured it would be best to relax and as I got closer, it would be more easily seen. Boats were zipping by. I was especially nervous as we headed through the Cut.

Twenty-four minutes later, I was under the bridge, about 5 miles into the swim. I grabbed my drink just after the bridge. My stomach felt fine, not like the last swim. I arrived out to the edge of Sigsbee at 2:50 into the swim. Retrieving my nourishment from the boat made it more difficult than the traditional kayak. We had a string tied onto the bottles and Julie would lower the bottle to me. I took my fill and she pulled it back aboard. My physical sensibilities were not as accurate as Chuck’s temperature gage, but he later told me that the water temperature fluctuated as we arrived at various areas around the island. The gage went up from 75 to 76 in the Key West Harbor. When I finally made it into the Cow Key Channel I was in 80-degree water.

When I finally came around Sigsbee and headed for the Cow Key Channel, Chuck had to stay in the channel and I made a straight line. The water was deep enough for me to swim but not for him to boat. Before we parted ways, I had a good drink.

It would be about 45 minutes until we met up again heading into the Cow Key Channel. As I entered the Cow Key I noticed immediately that the water was so much calmer. It was 4:23 as I swam under that bridge. I appreciated Chuck’s protection as we went through the Channel and headed to the Atlantic Ocean. That 80-degree water felt good, but I noticed that my neck and right shoulder were quite sore. I wondered why. I thought to myself, you have only come some 9 miles and you are sore. At this point everything is being viewed for a mind thinking about Tampa’s 24-mile swim, not Key West’s 12.5-mile swim. I found myself trying to imagine what it would feel like to swim 16 miles and how I would feel at 18 or 20 miles. I wondered if I could make it 20 and was feeling extremely sore. Would I tough it out for the final four? Do I have the mettle, the fortitude, the perseverance for a 13-hour swim? Once I leave the Cow Key Channel, I know I have only 2 miles left to swim. I grabbed another drink and then Chuck and the girls would have to stay out further. I determined I would stay closer, but I knew that that drink would hence be my last until I finished. I found a good depth and I swam with wind at my back. I was once again in the chop, and though my neck and right shoulder ached, I knew I was getting closer and closer to my goal, to my destination.

I looked at my watch and I thought I could beat 6 hours. That sounded good to me. I stroked and stroked. The wind blew but it was now in my favor. I looked up and finally saw what I was looking for. There was the first of the 10 poles that separate the swimmers of Smathers beach from the boat traffic. My goal was to reach the last of the poles, which was the first when I began. It was my starting point and now my finishing. It took me 16 minutes to swim the distance between the first and last pole. As I was bearing in on the conclusion of the swim, I thought to myself, “What would it be like to swim this far and then have the pilot of the boat catch my attention and shout, ‘You are doing great, you just passed the half way point!’?” I was spent. But, happily, I was also finished with my ninth swim around Key West in nine consecutive months. My March swim was completed. My finishing time was 5:49.38. Since I started at high noon, that was the time my watch read as well.

Chuck brought the boat near me and lowered the ladder. I climbed back into the boat and we began our 20-minute ride back to Sunset Marina. I was tired. I wondered about my neck and my right arm. Understanding then came to me. My ache was due to trying to lift my head out of the water to see over the waves and my right arm is my lead arm, so I was unnaturally lifting it higher than usual. That made me realize all the more that if I stand a chance to complete Tampa Bay, I was going to need ideal conditions. My next swim, number 10, is now scheduled for Monday, April 2nd at 8:15AM or Tuesday, April 3rd at 8:36AM. Tomorrow is March 29th, and the predictions are that the wind is finally supposed to lay down. I hope that is the case.