Julie Madison Completes Circumnavigation Swim Around Longboat Key

Julie Madison Completes Circumnavigation Swim Around Longboat Key

On April 21st, Julie Madison and her trusty Hogfish Support Team set out for the first circumnavigation swim of Longboat Key, Florida. Longboat Key is a town in Manatee and Sarasota counties along the central west coast of the U.S. state of Florida, located on the barrier island of the same name. Longboat Key is south of Anna Maria Island between Sarasota Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.

Madison completed the 37.3 km swim in 11 hours 25 minutes 10 seconds. She described her swim, “The morning was calm and quiet, Garry Fenimore (boss Hogfish and captain of Land Logistics), Laura Elliott (observer and record keeper), Karen Kersch Tone (photographer), and Wes Tone (navigation expert), were there for the send off.”

Her start time was 7:28 am when she departed from the public access 3495 Gulf of Mexico Drive on the gulf/west side of the island. She head north with the first shift of kayakers Amanda Girton and John Davis, as well as two swim friends Gregg Meyers and Jordan Valenza. Madison explained why, “Because if you are going on an adventure, you should always invite your friends.

The gulf side of the island was smooth, winds coming from the east were approximately 11-14 mph, but heading north close to the island was protected and calm. At one point, the group was approached by a pod of 50 dolphins enjoying the watery playground. Gregg and I swam neck-and-neck for the first leg of the swim, 5.41 miles of a steady competition where I was able to stay just a little ahead. Stops were every 30 minutes or so to feed, all liquid calories to help stay ahead of the game. Laura Elliott walked the beach, recording what she could see, as well as getting text updates from the kayakers.

At the northern tip of the Island, the kayak team of Nikki Pearce and Michael Friedman were already waiting to take over. Shane, from the Happy Paddler based out of Bayfront Park on Longboat Key, delivered all kayaks and helped with prep work for the day. The importance of having the kayaks ready and waiting was imperative to the success of the swim this day, any waiting around and hypothermia would probably have been detrimental to the odds of succeeding. I was still at a comfortable temperature as the team headed through the pass and into the bay around 10:00. Prior to entering the channel, Gregg headed into shore along with the kayakers Amanda and John. High tide was 2:00 that day, so as Amanda, Michael, and I headed into the bay, the tide helped push us along.

Heading south on the east side of Longboat Key became increasingly difficult. The wind which had been 11-14 mph began to pick up to 15-20 mph, as well as the added complication that the route the team had to take was directly located next to a high traffic/high speed boating channel. The kayak team had to face waves so big they had to turn facing into the waves and then catch up after the waves hit.
At about 11:00, Laura and my husband appeared on the motor boat. My husband stayed with us for a while and then pulled ahead to Whale Key (which was also the next kayaker exchange), parked the boat and came out to meet us in the kayak. It was a huge mental boost to see him at this point, as I was starting to get cool here and knew it was going to be about another 7 hours of swimming.

The shallows on the bay side of the island were timed perfectly. It was high tide so there was no knuckle dragging, which was appreciated. Additionally, despite the high winds and choppy waters, the current was in my favor (or at least not working against me) for the entirety of the swim. When planning intercoastal island swims, it’s important not just to take the channels into consideration, but what impact those channels will have on the rest of the intercoastal part of the swim. What I have found to be a good starting point is to plan for high tide to occur when you are at the dead center of the island, as the water will start pulling towards the closest channel.

Interesting fact as well when determining water temperature. Shallow and deep water are not necessarily warmer or cooler. For this swim, the gulf was warmer by almost 10°F in some areas, topping out around 81°F (27.2°C), and the bay was about 72°F (22.2°C) at its coolest. As Gregg and John took back over for the third kayak shift right next to Whale Key, this temperature shift became significant as my lips started turning blue and my jaw started to chatter, being only halfway through the swim this was a considerable concern. I was physically feeling nauseated, but increased food stops to try to help keep my body temperature up. This was effective, as I was able to complete the swim, although it was a struggle for the rest of the swim. 

The next 6 miles were brutal…and that’s all I have to say about that.

There were fairly limited opportunities for real air, even stopping the waves smashed my face from both directions. I chose not to follow my kayakers line, settling in between the boat 15 meters on one side and the kayakers about 15 meters on the other. If I’m honest, it was because I am stubborn and I am ‘that’ swimmer that thinks they know better, I really need to work on that. 

About 3/4 of a mile prior to the southern tip of Longboat Key, the kayakers were able to guide me to a shallower area that helped smooth the water a bit. At this point I was truly done, and really would have given almost anything to stop here, but Gregg kept saying 500 more yards, and I kept believing I could do 500 more yards. 

We passed into the channel, at this point clearly helping me along. John told me this was my victory lap, so smile and enjoy it; and I laughed inside my head ‘who in their right mind takes a 5 mile victory lap?’. Even though I thought it was the silliest thing, that one piece really stuck in my head and helped me through to the finish. 

It was truly exciting passing through the channel. Garry was ringing cowbells, and my husband was beeping the horn. Bystanders who didn’t know me were waving and cheering, I’ve never had that before on something that I’ve done as a solo event. It convinced me not to quit in front of them. As I was floating/swimming through the channel I couldn’t help but think, all I have to do is make it around this rock and I can quit. No one would have said anything except ‘you tried’ and probably ‘you’re awesome, it’s still way more than I could do’. In my heart of hearts, that’s what kept me going, I swim for awareness for our veterans struggling with PTSD, in their darkest hours, if they chose to quit, there’s nothing else that I could say to them other than ‘You tried, you deserve the rest’ or ‘you’re awesome, it’s still way more than I could do’. If they quit though, we lose them, we lose that strength, courage, and integrity that they bring to the table again and again. They don’t have to, it’s easier not to, but they do anyway, and I truly want to encourage them to keep doing so because the light is truly brightest after the darkest night. So I buried my head and kept moving forward, shaking out with a few backstroke here and there as my shoulders were starting to freeze up. 

I didn’t think I would make it till I was about a mile out. I could see my kayakers beginning to smile, I could see my welcome committee. Everyone positioned to the North of the 3495 sign so that I could get my full loop. I didn’t take my foot off the gas until I hit land, I was afraid if I stopped or slowed any earlier, I just wouldn’t have it in me to get the rest of the way. When I hit land, my body quit, my legs felt like jello underneath me. Standing took extreme effort, and my friends wrapped towels and blankets around me as my husband held me up. It was just a moment of intense gratitude. 

The after party was amazing. Yes, I made it to the after party. I couldn’t really eat because I was nauseous, but being around everyone so happy for me was an experience that I will carry with me for the rest of my life. 

If you are considering a circumnavigation swim, some of the things that went into the planning of this swim: four months of bi-weekly meetings assessing conditions, a team with a fair amount of water knowledge (swimmers, sailors, ex-boy scouts). Four shifts of two kayakers apiece approximately 6 miles or 3-hour shifts were picked because this was believed to be the best support situation to ensure a successful attempt under the worst acceptable conditions for a kayak team, if boat support was unavailable. There was also one boat scouting trip with most of the kayaking team, and the other kayaker, (Gregg) was dragged to swim the east/bay side of the island so he was familiar as well. I had also swam this side twice before in full to have a basic comprehension of concerns, best route, etc. If anything comes from my swims, I truly hope it inspires other swimmers to look outside of the box for new and amazing swims in a safe and responsible way.

If you would like more open water experience or enjoy fun swim events with great people, I run the Fresh Start Swim Series in Florida. Three swims a year, Madeira Beach, Honeymoon Island, and St. Pete Beach. Each event is different in what it provides. Our next event June 4th at Madeira Beach is a 1-mile Run/1 mile Swim/1 mile Run; a 5 km Swim, and a 10 km Swim. All proceeds go to Forgotten Coast K9 helping veterans and first responders to receive service dogs and Open Water Open Arms which helps bring swimming to underprivileged communities. Hope you consider joining us.”

For more information, visit www.freshstartswimseries.com.

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Steven Munatones