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.