Dangers of Open Water Swimming

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On Wednesday, June 12, 29-year-old Australian swimmer Chloe McCardel attempted to become the first person to swim the grueling 100 miles from Cuba to Florida without a shark cage or wetsuit for protection.

But the glory was short lived. Eleven hours elapsed and the swim was over within the day. McCardel was severely stung by jellyfish and she pulled the plug on her quest.

Say Whaaat? Days upon days of endless laps and planning flushed down the toilet because of a little jelly nibble? As a competitive swimmer and a true blue Florida girl, let me just say that you don’t know what pain is until you’ve had a Portuguese man o’ war wrap its bright blue tentacles of death around your body. Ever heard of box jellyfish? Yeah, they’re cute and cuddly too, until they sting you and you’re dead.

With that being said, this marks the fifth failed attempt to cross the Florida Straits due to strong currents and jellyfish. The only person to make it was Susie Maroney in 1997, and that was with a shark cage.

What is it that makes this swim so tough? Or really any open water swim for that matter? It’s not just an easy paddle across the sea, that’s for sure, and there are many factors that swimmers must take into account when it comes to leaving the pool for open water.

Temperature
This is a huge factor that if not addressed properly, can wreak havoc on the body and end a race real quick. In 2010 distance swimmer Fran Crippin passed away while competing in the FINA Marathon Swimming World Cup in Fujairah. It was unexpected and a great loss to the swimming community. He had developed hyperthermia- sweltering temperatures that caused his body to shut down and he drowned. It was an eye opener for the swim world and resulted in FINA drafting guidelines pertaining to the importance of monitoring air and water temperature.

Let’s not forget Hypothermia, which develops in cold conditions that chill to the bone. Wetsuits are worn for protection, but once the body dips below 96-99 degrees Fahrenheit, symptoms manifest, signifying mild hypothermia has begun to set in.

It is important to recognize symptoms for both and respond quickly by stopping all activity. For hyperthermia look out for heat exhaustion, cramps or loss of coordination. Find a cool, shaded environment and slowly ingest a cool beverage. For hypothermia look for shivering, slurred speech or lack of coordination. Move to a warm dry shelter and layer on clothing and blankets. Ingest warm beverages.

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Dangerous Marine Life
Sharks, jellies, sea monsters OH MY! Welcome to the big blue sea. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, it covers more than 80% of the earth and is home to a myriad of aquatic organisms, some of which, are scary as hell. Just use common sense and educate yourself on where you’ll be swimming to learn what types of animals frequent the area. You can always check conditions, as lifeguards will post updates on current active marine life as well.

Shark cages are used for strenuous swims across the ocean and though McCardel didn’t use one, she sported a special electromagnetic shield to keep toothy predators at bay. Stinger suits offer full body protection from jellies and McCardel’s team studied the best times to cross the straits when migrating schools wouldn’t be likely. They picked June as the best bet, but the jellyfish still managed to get her. Ironic?

Don’t Panic
When that starting horn sounds, hundreds of amped bodies shaking with adrenaline rocket into the waves, and it’s like a loaded gun. You must be mentally prepared and an experienced swimmer to not get overwhelmed. With so much thrashing and splashing going on, not to mention battling shore break, water visibility and strong currents, focus on your body, rhythm and get a pace established. You always have those individuals bulldozing their way to the front of the pack, wherever that may be, or those bumping and careening every which way. Keep your wits about you, panic can wreck your day and have detrimental effects that could lead to drowning. If you get cramps, choke on water or feel too tired, swim on your back for a minute or find a lifeguard- they usually follow the group on paddle boards and you can hang on until ready to resume.