The Inherent Danger Of It All

The Inherent Danger Of It All

Courtesy of WOWSA, Huntington Beach, California.

Just as ice swimming requires certain rules (e.g., no flip turns, experienced re-warming procedures), we believe that tropical swims demand certain considerations and protective rules in order to maintain safety.

In an apparent contradiction, we also believe that rules pertaining to swims in the 50-82ºF (10-27ºC) water temperature range are entirely reasonable and should not be changed. In other words, the purity of the sport is something wonderful to admire, but safety considerations are also something important to implement on its extreme ends.

Because when water temperatures drop below 10ºC or rise above 27ºF, things start to get dicey, dangerous and potentially deadly in the open water.

While we understand the necessity for rules and the desire to maintain the same rules for open water swims conducted in the 0-32ºC (32-90ºF) range, the practicality of keeping the same rules can lead to problems. Our view is that to equate swims within the 10-27ºC water temperature range with swims conducted in water below 10ºC or above 27ºC is to compare two different disciplines within the sport of open water swimming.

Over the last few years, swimmers like Chloë McCardel, Penny Palfrey and Diana Nyad on the warm side and Ram Barkai, Henri Kaarma and Matías Ola on the cold side have challenged themselves and the open water swimming community to extend the boundaries of human endeavors. We applaud these efforts; they are admirable and inspirational. But what these superhumans can do and have shown possible can lead to others attempting the same things without the proper preparation, acclimatization experience, safety controls and support crew. This is where problems can occur, especially if the community encourages no modification of its rules, customs and protocols on the extreme temperature ranges.

29-year-old McCardel demonstrated that a 42 hour 30 minute 126 km marathon swim in the Bahamas can be done. 48-year-old Palfrey demonstrated that a 40 hour 41 minute 108 km swim in the Cayman Islands can be done. 64-year-old Diana Nyad demonstrated that a 52 hour 54 minute 110 km swim from Cuba to Florida can be done. But the effects of the tropical sun, marine life and exposure to the elements wrecked havoc on their bodies [see photos above].

In particular, McCardel swam without any protective wear where she was reportedly hit with local sea wasps. Her chief crew member and husband Paul McQueeney reported on Facebook on his wife’s post-swim condition a few days ago. “[Chloë] has been readmitted to hospital today – and is expected to be in there for 3-4 nights. Chloë got stung close to 15 times on night 1 of the swim and a large number of those stings got sunburn on day 2. Despite treatment post swim, a number of these stings have become infected and are weeping. Chloë is in a lot of pain but still on a very positive mental high from the swim and everyone’s amazing support.”

While others will undoubtedly follow McCardel’s wake and will attempt such difficult swims in tropical waters as McCardel did without protective swimwear, we encourage them to consider swimming with stinger suits or other protection.

The downside and inherent danger of getting stung without protective is to tempt fate.

But of course, this is precisely what drives these intrepid adventurers like Paul Lundgren across Mexico’s Sea of Cortez twice or Palfrey across the Kaieiewaho Channel between the islands of Kauai and Oahu twice.

If it were easy, it would have been done already. If it were without inherent risk, it is not for them.

Extreme cold or extreme warmth; extreme distances or extreme marine life: these are what attracts extreme swimmers and makes heroes out of these athletes of extraordinary grit.

Despite the risks, perhaps these athletic exceptions in contemporary times will become the rule over the next 100 years? Just as Captain Matthew Webb was seen as the exception in 1875 when he crossed the English Channel, now hundreds of contemporary individuals from all walks of life annually make crossing the English Channel seem entirely doable.

So perhaps what Chloë McCardel did – and is currently enduring in her post-swim discomfort – will become the norm over the next 100 years?

We can certainly envision that future where individuals are extending themselves all over the world, but we also encourage those who try to consider alternative means to protect themselves against sea wasps, box jellyfish, blue bottles, and Portuguese man o war in addition to the innumerable poisonous sea snakes and fish that inhabit the world’s warm tropical seas.

The inherent danger of it all demands all kinds of considerations.

Upper photos show the post-swim conditions of Chloë McCardel, Penny Palfrey and Diana Nyad respectively. Lower photo shows the finish of Penny Palfrey on Grand Cayman Island geared up in her stinger suit.

Copyright © 2014 by World Open Water Swimming Association