In March, EverWalk proudly launched the 110.86 Mile Club — a virtual walking program that enables walkers to share an online adventure with walkers from all over the world. We named our club after the distance I swam from Cuba to Key West. Accompanying each milestone was an email describing my journey. For those of you who missed out, I wanted to share it with you here — in this three-part blog. This is part two.
In 1997 at age 22, a 22-year-old Australian woman named Susie Mulroney swam 118 miles from Cuba to Florida for 24 1/2 hours inside a 28-by-8-foot cage for protection from sharks before climbing out of the surf at Fort Zachary Taylor State Park in the Florida Keys, badly sunburned and covered with welts from jellyfish stings. I vowed to myself, if I were to ever go back to Cuba and try again, I would not use a cage. I never criticized Susie, but a cage puts an asterisk next to your name. The swim is considered “aided” because the cage actually adds speed to the swimmer’s progress.
At the same time as I was attempting my crossings from 2011 to 2014, two very strong Australian women, Penny Palfrey and Chloe McCardell, made their own attempts at the Cuba Swim, both unsuccessful.
But I honestly never gave quitting a minute’s thought. I am not afraid of failure. As a matter of fact, I relish failure, if the quest is noble and worth taking the journey. The Cuba Swim was deemed not only impossible, but an even dangerous mission. But the resolve was too strong. I went back over and over again, suffering through massive stings, shark scares, 60-mile-an-hour tropical storm winds, powering across the mighty Gulf Stream which pushes due east when the swimmer needs to make due north progress. My answer when asked why I succeeded at this harrowing swim when others didn’t: “I guess the person willing to come back five times, to take the heavy risk to life five times, to travel a learning curve that helps each subsequent attempt, is the person who in the end deserves to be successful.”
I and my team made three more attempts between 2011 and 2013 before completing the Cuba-Florida swim in 2013 at the age of 64.
On my final attempt, I was followed by three oceanic whitetips, two very large hammerheads, and a large bull shark that was at least eight feet long. The most dangerous shark in these waters is the oceanic whitetip. Considered “the most dangerous shark in the world” by famed marine biologist Jacques Cousteau because of its ferocious group hunting style, humans rarely see them because they are usually only found in the deep, open waters of the tropics.
My safety team was comprised of kayakers next to and behind her, the hulls of their boats carrying a Shark Shield, which emits an electric pulse and creates and elliptical field of electricity around me. Sharks for the most part feel pain when that field sparks their sensitive sonar, but a hungry animal that may not have eaten for a week or two will bust right through that field and take a leg. The next wave of shark defense was my dive team. Brave, in the pitch black of night, using no lights because lights attract both sharks and jellyfish, these divers were looking out for the luminescence of the sharks eyes, ready to push them in their snouts with triangles of PVC piping. I continue to ask myself to this day: “How will I ever thank those guys? They put my life ahead of theirs.”
The straits of Florida, between Havana and Key West, are affected by both wind and water currents from literally all over the world. You can stand on the docks of both Havana and Key West on days the wind has been blowing steadily from the east and feel a sensation of a crunch in your mouth. This is called the Sahara Dust. It is literally particles of sand that have blown 6,000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean from the Sahara Desert.
The Gulf Stream emanates just below the Yucatan Channel and squeezes through that Channel and drives hard to the east right between Cuba and Florida, before it makes its northerly turn up the U.S. Atlantic Seaboard. The Stream between Havana and Key West is most days a big fat mass of raging current, taking up about 80 of the 100 plus miles. So a swimmer is constantly fighting to push north, at an average speed of 2.2 mph, across that stream that is tugging east at about 6.6 miles per hour. Every little moment treading water (never allowed to
touch the boat or hold on to the kayaks or any person) to take down sustenance or to deal with hallucinations or hypothermia or any number of crises, the swimmer is dragged due east and loses the chance to stay on course.
We had a genius mathematician of a navigator, John Bartlett, who literally plotted a different northerly course every fifteen minutes. The whole expedition team was dedicated for years, none of them ever paid a dime. There was the navigation team, the boat driver team, the medical team, the shark team, the jellyfish team and the personal handler team, Bonnie at the helm of all of them.
There are thousands of species of jellyfish, none of their stings pleasant. But even the very painful Portuguese Man O War, which can cause extreme nausea and minor shock, does not kill. The Box jellyfish, on the other hand, emits the most potent venom on the planet. Most people who have ever been touched by the Box have died instantaneously. Especially with the advent of global warming, the Box have gravitated toward warm oceans all over the world, including the Florida Straits.
I swam into a swarm of Box in my September, 2011 attempt. Each animal is no bigger than a sugar cube, its wispy tentacles no thicker than a strand of human hair. But the sting is cruel. Bonnie reports: “Diana went immediately into shock. They attacked her central nervous system, attempting to paralyze her spinal cord. She screamed out to me: “I’m on FIRE! Bonnie, Help Me!” She later said it was if she was held under in a vat of burning oil. The first stings were at dusk. The University of Miami Med Steam, ER docs, reached over (with the rules) to administer oxygen masks, give epipen and steroid injections, try everything they had on board to open Diana’s airways. She swam through the night, unreal to all her teammates on board the five accompanying boats. She swam through the entire next day, but debilitated, making poor progress. Then at dusk the next night, WHAM, stung again. Swam again through the night and most of the next day, at which time she and I and Bartlett conferred and accepted that we would have to come back another day. The medical team said afterwards that Diana was able to continue because of her iron will. She should have died.”
CHECK BACK NEXT WEEK THE THIRD AND FINAL PART OF THIS BLOG.
About Diana Nyad:
A prominent sports journalist, filing for National Public Radio, ABC’s Wide World of Sports, The New York Times and others, Diana has carved her place as one of our compelling storytellers and sought-after public speakers.