Sara Wolf - Mobile Bay
Fairhope to Fort Morgan
33.7 km (20.9 miles)
15 hours, 51 minutes on 2-3 December 2022
Observed and documented by Helen Naylor + Pia Vanheyste
- Support Personnel
- Swim Parameters
- Swim Data & GPS
- Observer Log
- Swimmer Statement
- Name: Sara Wolf
- Gender: female
- Age on swim date: 54
- Nationality: United States
- Resides: Auburn, Alabama
- Eric Baldger - boat captain
- Jim Vanheyste - crew
- Cheryl Corvo Whitehead - coach / crew chief
- Caleb Whitehead - medical / crew (DO licensed in AL)
Helen Naylor - USMS certified official, USA certified open water referee, Safety & Referee experience. Swim the Suck and Bridges to Bluffs (safety official) multiple times; Rat Race and Swim Around Hobbs Island (Referee) multiple times.
Pia Vanheyste - USA swim coach, USMS Coach level II, certified lifeguard (shallow water), certified safety director OW, retired Licensed Physical Therapist (still licensed in NM).
|Hope George||Robalo R245||Gulf Breeze, FL|
- Category: Solo, nonstop, unassisted.
- Rules: MSF Rules of Marathon Swimming, without exception or modification.
- Equipment used: Textile swimsuit (TYR solid Tetra-fit), silicone cap, goggles.
North to South crossing of Mobile Bay from Fairhope, AL to Tacky Jacks in Fort Morgan, AL
- Body of Water: Mobile Bay
- Route Type: one-way
- Start Location: Fairhope Southbeach Park (30.52496, -87.91172)
- Finish Location: Tacky Jack’s Beach (30.23276, -87.99343)
- Minimum Route Distance: 33.7 km (20.9 miles) (map)
No known previous swims of this route. There was a group of 5 men who swam an E-W route across the bay https://www.wkrg.com/news/coast-to-coast-five-men-brave-the-mobile-bay/ in 2016. Their route was ~11 miles long and began at Point Clear, ending at Mobile Yacht Club. There are also news reports of solo swims beginning on the western shore at Arlington Park, and ending at Point Clear (approx.. 13 miles) from the 1930s.
- Start: 2 December 2022, 20:18:15 (Central Standard, America/Chicago, UTC-6).
- Finish: 3 December 2022, 12:10:05
- Elapsed: 15 hours, 51 minutes, 55 seconds.
Summary of Conditions
|Water Temp (F)||60.4||63.9|
|Air Temp (F)||63.9||72.1|
Trackpoint frequency: 30 minutes. Download raw data (CSV).
Nutrition: See logs.
Combined Logs (transcribed)
Original Observer Log
by Sara Wolf
What inspired you to do this swim?
TL;DR version: I used this to prepare for the Channel. I got lots of help from lots of people. I learned lots of lessons. I’m happy to share my checklists with people who might also like to prepare their own swims.
Very long version:
I didn’t start out being a “water baby”. In fact, apparently, I had some trepidation about swimming as a toddler. My mother was the one who introduced me to swimming at a neighbor’s pool, but I wasn’t too sure right at first. Even 5 years ago, I don’t know that I would have thought that a swim like this would be a “good idea.” But, here we are. Finished.
Let’s face it, aspiring to swim the English Channel is a daunting thought. When you combine the challenges of preparation, logistics, and finances, it’s a wonder as many people do it as do. So, I decided that I wanted to swim “The Channel”, but in order to do so, I felt that I needed some solid experience under my suit (so to speak). Therefore, I started looking for USA-based opportunities to approximate some of the conditions that I will likely face in the Channel.
I have a giant body of water reasonably close to me that I can use for LONG swims, Mobile Bay. So, I decided to use that as a target to decide whether I could handle the preparation and logistical planning for an English Channel attempt. Mobile Bay is attractive to me for a number of reasons:
1) It’s close. 3-4 hr. Drive. That means that I can get there, swim, and get home in a single day if needed (for shorter swims), and easily in a weekend for longer ones.
2) I have friends who live there. That means I don’t have to pay for lodging when I go.
3) Given that it’s a southern (USA) body of water, the temperatures are still very doable in the winter. So, I could plan “A” events in two different seasons.
4) It’s unique in OWS as I believe that I am the first to attempt to swim it in this direction and distance. I found a news story about a group of men who swam an E-W route back in 2016, as well as references to solo swimmers who swam a slightly different E-W route in the 1930s.
5) Each of these add up to: Even a big swim in it will be relatively inexpensive.
Describe how you planned for the swim.
I began planning for the swim in 2021, during the winter when I was home with my mom for her cancer surgery. I spent a lot of time on google maps and started looking for links to marinas and charter boat services. Once I got back home, in early March, I scoped out charter boats – managed to convince two of them that I wasn’t insane. I spoke with one of the Navy ROTC surface warfare officers on campus for general advice about the bay and routes. I originally thought that I’d do an “out and around an island” route, but that would have me crossing the shipping lane twice. While she doubted that that would be a huge navigational problem, nor would I necessarily have to obtain prior permission (we hoped), she suggested that I use the Fort Morgan area at the mouth of the bay as an ending point. I could get the same-ish distance, without having to transit the shipping lane. She said that if I wasn’t in the shipping lane, no one would really care what I was doing, as long as I didn’t steal their oysters from the oyster beds! I decided that the route would be from Fairhope (where my friends live) to Fort Morgan.
Fairhope sits a little more than halfway between the mouth and the source of Mobile Bay on the eastern shore. I initially wanted to swim the entire length but decided that much north of Fairhope and the water quality is questionable, in addition to being really shallow. Mobile Bay is an estuary, so the northern portion of the bay is fresher than the southern portion, but also very marshy… not conducive to swimming events. Overall, the salinity of the Bay is not anywhere near the English Channel, though. Due to the geography of the Gulf of Mexico and the Bay, it also has only one high and low tide per day, rather than two. The difference between high and low tide is round about 1-1.5 feet, depending on the specifics of a particular tide, which is also not nearly as great as the Channel.
I also decided to do the swim in the winter, December or January, depending on tides, weather, and other factors. That’s the break between Fall and Spring semesters, so I wouldn’t have to take formal time off work to do it, and most of my crew are affiliated in some way with universities with a similar schedule. Plus, there’s less of a chance of e-coli and red tide contamination in the winter with the colder water. I also wanted to get as close as I could to 60 degree water, to approach replicating Channel swimming temperatures. The benefit of living in Alabama is that I can swim outside all year round. The drawback is that summer swimming is HOT swimming.
I was working with my coach, Kyle Burnell of PBM Coaching, on getting yards in the pool and nearby lake. I entered and completed the Boston Light Swim (longest saltwater swim to date for me), as well as Swim the Suck (longest swim for me at all, but almost doesn’t count because the flow was so fast!) Everything was going pretty well.… Until 5 days after Swim the Suck.….October 14, 2021.
I fell at the gym and broke my arm with a compression fracture to my right radial head. And sprained my ankle, bruised my hip & back, and sprained my wrist. 1 fall, 5 injuries. If you’re gonna fall, do it right! The doctor said “no swimming!” I said, “ORRRRRRRRRRRRRRR.…. how about kicking?” He agreed to that, and after 10 days for the biggest part of the pain and swelling to subside, I started the longest set of kicking workouts I’ve ever done. Between October and Mid-February, when I was cleared to swim with my arms again, I completed over 65,000 yards of kicking. It was important to me to stay in the water to maintain some aerobic fitness. Also, I historically have a pretty crappy kick. So, the tiny bit of lemonade out of the fall of the lemons is that I learned to kick. I’ll never be a sprinter with my kicking, but I can do it now, and can turn it on and off when needed.
The 2021 Mobile Bay swim – cancelled.
I decided that 2022 would be just as good.
I started building up my yardage again. I entered our local Master’s meet only 5 weeks after being cleared to swim just to see where my fitness was in the mile and 500. Not bad. I hit the lake to reacquaint myself with cold water. That was rougher than I thought it would be. The previous winter, I’d managed to swim down to the colder temps. I was grounded from swimming this winter, though. So, I had to jump in. Yeah. Note to self. Don’t take off in the winter if you want to keep the ability to swim in the cold!
Luckily, I hadn’t formally engaged a charter boat prior to the fall, so I didn’t have to worry about cancelling that reservation. Then, my friend and other coach, Cheryl Corvo, said that her brother and sister-in-law had a boat. She asked if I wanted to see if they’d do the escort. Sure! So, she did, they said yes, and for the price of gas and food, they agreed to it – because it sounded fun to them. Bonus for me, Cheryl’s sister-in-law is also a registered nurse. So, having someone who knows something about medicine on the boat during the swim helped check a safety box for me, and made my mother feel better too. It turned out that Ashely didn’t come on the swim, but Cheryl’s husband who is a doctor did. So, I still had on-site medical supervision.
In the months leading up to the swim, from late spring onward, I had two organized events as prep. The first was a fun and short event that wasn’t intended to be more than a fun trip to the gulf area. It ended up being a good practice for swimming into a 20 mph headwind. My regular lake swim the week before had also been windy, so I was able to handle the conditions well. Still, I did learn that my eyesight limits my ability to sight accurately at times. So, I have to be careful to have more obvious landmarks to sight on, other than smaller orange turn buoys.
Second prep event: 3-rivers marathon swim (September): What an amazing swim! I learned lessons in staying in the moment, combating “bubble gut”, and “swimming your own swim.” And, the 12 hours I was in the water imitated the approximate time that the Mobile Bay swim would likely be.
First nighttime swim (October): On the advice of Sarah Thomas, I organized a training swim that would be at night, to be sure that night swimming wouldn’t freak me out. It appeared that the Bay swim would be mostly at night, due to how the tides were behaving at that time, so it would be important to be comfortable in the dark. Turns out, it wasn’t as freaky as I was worried it might be. I learned that “squishy things are ok to touch” as long as they don’t sting you. I learned that the glow sticks I had strung on the side of the boat weren’t as visible as I would have liked (they were a crap brand, turns out). And, I learned that I can change out of a bathing suit and into dry clothes in a port-o-pottie without falling nor dropping anything on the floor. That last lesson certainly wasn’t intended, but seems to be a good skill to have.
During the end of summer and fall of 2022, I engaged in harder-core planning. I was pretty much operating from a position of ignorance, except for what I could read from others who have planned long events. Sarah Thomas’ write-ups of her swims, as well as the wealth of information on the MSF forums gave me a great place to start. I did also consult with Sarah, to be sure that decisions I made were reasonable. She also helped me be sure that I didn’t leave anything off of my race checklist.
The thing that I did which surprised me was to tell people about the swim well in advance. I don’t feel like I’m very good at self-promotion, so advertising my goal was a bit outside of my comfort zone. Turns out, it was the best “new” skill that I attempted. Throughout the course of planning, beginning with he first aborted attempt includes the following people:
Navy officer (faculty in our NROTC program) – assisted with initial route planning and interpretation of navigational charts
ALL of my coaches, of course – workouts and recovery from the broken arm
The mayor of Fairhope, AL – Confirmed that I didn’t need permits; connected me with a meteorologist; connected me with kayak group to find various paddlers for training swims, etc.
John Oldshue, meteorologist w/ a Mobile TV station – agreed to forecast for me, AND offered one of his rental houses for the crew and me to stay in after the swim at a very discounted price. Also said he’d do a story for the station about the swim, and get some drone footage. Talk about being outside of my comfort zone! Also connected me with one of the owners of the restaurant where I was planning on landing.
Ken Kichler, CFO of Tacky Jack’s (landing spot) – confirmed it was ok to land on the restaurant’s land, offered to double check with the marina that it would be ok to land/dock there. The marina is a city owned location, and public, but just to be sure it was certainly nice to get the confirmation. Also said he’d see if his kid’s age-group swim team might like to be there for the finish. Super nice!
My best friend, Ande, a physician assistant with the US Air Force – General advice and guidance about putting together my medical kit, as well as agreeing to crew (as the needs of the Air Force would permit).
Sarah Thomas – general support and advice. What a generous person!
Helen, Pia, Jim, Cheryl (one of my coaches) – A wonderful crew!
Eric (Cheryl’s brother-in-law) – who agreed to pilot, and whose boat has a bathroom (the VERY first “deal breaker” ingredient for the swim)
To a person, except for my coaches and Sarah (all of whom took it in stride), every single person first asked “Why?” then basically nodded their heads and said “cool” when hearing about the event. Explaining the motivation and reasoning for all those people was good practice in self-promotion. All of these people, their generosity, and sense of giving/adventure prove that swims of this nature really are team efforts, even if the members of the team don’t know each other at the beginning.
By the time the swim was two weeks away I had some decisions/tasks completed, but still a good number that were “to be finalized”.
Route – still to be fine tuned w/ Eric; Launching and Landing spots confirmed.
Medical kit – audited and updated with non-expired medicines
Grocery list – confirmed with crew; coffee to be supplied by coffee- drinkers on the crew because I don’t do coffee and would not know what/how to do it.
Swimmer lights (head and suit) – purchased, tested, and working
Electric, silicone tea kettle for crew use on boat (borrowed from a friend)
Swim Manual (Tell me you’re a teacher w/out telling me you’re a teacher)
To be finalized:
Lodging for crew – reasonably sure this is set, but details still needed. This being up in the air makes me a bit anxious
Various logistical issues (groceries, launching procedures, etc.)
Final weather forecast (watching the weather for two weeks prior to a swim is a bit of a stressor! The wind couldn’t decide which direction it wanted to blow, and, every other day rain would be in the forecast. Finally the rain decided to stay gone…but oof! The wind).
Finally, the day before the swim came. I packed the car and headed down south. The meteorologist kindly offered a place to stay for the crew and me, as well as said he’d create an hourly-based forecast for us. He also said that he would meet with the pilot before the start to let him know about known obstructions (namely, a sunken barge that is a hazard to navigation right near the start), and other aspects of the water. He also said he would remain available all through the swim if the boat had a concern or needed to know anything about what the weather was doing during the middle of the swim. For someone who was introduced to me on a big spur of the moment, this man contributed so much to the swim. His wife even wanted to interview me for her blog that she writes.
I did spend the better part of an entire weekend putting together a binder with all the information the crew and the pilot might need. Perhaps this is a bit over engineered but doing so helped me manage the pre-event anxiety. Plus, isn’t it always better to have information and supplies and then not need them, rather than get caught short handed? I had sections in the binder for important aspects of the swim, and filled them from a single word processing document, separated by headers. I’m happy to share that document with the headings to anyone who would like to see it. Maybe it will be helpful…maybe not, but it will definitely be transparent in terms of the planning that I did to make this happen.
How did the swim go, generally? Did you face any unanticipated challenges?
Splashed approx. 20 min later than planned; all went pretty well; only one bout of puking; swam by oil platforms; had dolphins; finished!
I decided to organize my write up according to the types of issues that people have asked me about, rather than try a chronological recapping of things. It makes more sense to me.
For the most part, I was exquisitely prepared for this swim. I NEVER had a swimming issue, not once. Not at all. The preparation that my coaches designed was spot on. My goal was to “swim to finish” rather than hit any particular time, so that took a bit of pressure off of my shoulders. Unlike the Three Rivers Marathon, I didn’t have to worry about hitting a time cut off.
Video of start (12/2/22 8:18:15pm) & finish (12/3/22 12:10:05pm) (taken by John Oldshue):
From a planning perspective, there were some unique challenges about Mobile Bay as a body of water in which to swim. First, it is a relatively shallow body of water. Except for the commercial shipping channel the deepest the bay gets is about 14 feet. It’s an estuary, and a great place to grow oysters. Also, the northern end of the bay is really brackish, marshy, and not conducive to swimming. The water quality up there isn’t great, and there aren’t fabulous places from which to launch. Second, on the western shore of the bay, there are some places to launch from that would work, but, to get down south, the swimmer would have to cross the shipping channel. While that’s possible, of course, as a first time swim organizer I didn’t feel up to managing the details of that. Third, finding and navigating around shoals and submerged obstructions, as well as oil platforms. Luckily, I was put into contact with a kind and generous meteorologist who knew a TON about how the bay behaves, as well as the location of obstructions, particularly a submerged barge (30.52115911119686, -87.92035109264317) that doesn’t have lights on the parts above water, just reflectors. He was able to give GPS coordinates to my pilot to help with the finalization of the actual route. He also gave us a forecast for the entire swim in 3-hr increments (see below). Fourth, the shallowness of the bay influenced when I figured would be a good time to start in relation to the tides. Mobile bay has only a single tide each day (for more information about areas on the globe like this: https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/education/tutorial_tides/tides07_cycles.html), so I knew that the swim would be a 12-15 hr swim. That meant an entire tide cycle in the water plus/minus a bit on each end. Since I wanted to swim the falling tide (on a north-south route), That meant starting just before high tide. Had I needed to start in the south and go north, I would have had to swim on a different date. At low tide, you can walk 700-750 yds from the beach before you’re in water deeper than chest-deep (depending on your height, of course). Last, finding an appropriate place to land was a little challenging. The first several possible places I wanted to land turned out to be unsuitable due to being private property, federal property, or a salt marsh, and not actually landable. Consulting with locals who really knew the area was invaluable in solving these challenges.
That being said, there were a few things the actual weekend of the swim that were unexpected and caused a bit of frustration/anxiety. They didn’t negatively impact me, per se, but they did provide some good data to use for future planning and decision making.
- Nail in a tire
I drove down to the beach Thursday mid-morning, so that I’d get there late afternoon. When I was about 20-30 minutes from the beach house, I noticed a low tire pressure light on my dash. So, I found a place that could check it for me. They said I had low air, gave me some, and sent me on my way. Whew! My observer (Helen) and I went to have dinner with the meteorologist who helped me with forecasts (John) and his wife (Lynn). All was well. The next morning, Helen and I got up to hit Cracker Barrell for breakfast. BAM! Along the way there, the low pressure light came on again. So, we decided that after breakfast we would be sure to check it out. After breakfast, we discovered a flat tire. At least we were in a parking lot, and not on the side of the road, right? It turned out that right next door was a Nissan dealership with a service center. They came over with an air compressor, filled my tire and then checked it out for me. One nail removal and tire repair later, they sent me on my way. Bonus for me, they have a policy of not charging for tire repairs. So, yay…. Free. However, BOO….it took 2 hrs to get it finished. Those two hours were supposed to be for final briefing of Helen and others at the house, as well as grocery shopping and getting a “Linner” (like brunch, but between lunch and dinner) to top me off before the swim. As it was, we flew through the grocery, and then got take out for linner. Back at the house, it was a bit of a scramble to verify the contents of the bags as well as make sure that Helen had the swim binder and observer documents at all times.
- No hot water
A good friend of mine (Kellie), who agreed to watch my cat while I was gone, loaned me an electric collapsible silicone tea kettle for the boat to use to make hot water. She’s also my massage therapist, and an amazing one at that. Turns out, the kettle needed 700 watts of power, but the boat could only produce 150 watts. Sooooo no hot water. No coffee. No tea. No hot chocolate. Lesson learned from this: Discover wattage of boat before assuming things will work. Second lesson, verify whether hot water will be available on the boat. The pilot (Eric) told me that the boat “had power” and I assumed the rest. This came into play for me when I requested hot chocolate. The crew improvised the best they could by using “hot hands” to create a hot water bath in which to dunk the bottle, like you used to warm baby bottles. It…. kind of worked. Tepid hot chocolate isn’t awful…. It’s not as satisfying as you’d like, but the texture of the chocolate felt really good on my tongue and throat. Note: I wonder if chocolate pudding would be useful as a treat?
Somewhere around midnight (about 4 hrs-ish according to the bottle count I had), I managed to get engulfed in a giant ball/cloud of boat exhaust. I don’t know if the wind did something whacky, or if I was out of position, or if there was something going on with steering. It wasn’t a noticeable thing in terms of anything I or the boat did, though. And, it was NASTY. I smelled it, breathed it, and tasted it. And it aggravated my asthma and all the internal alerts in my brain and body were begging me to get out of that horrible awful poison (so my brain said) cloud of gas. It took me 10 or 12 strokes to get out, and that was long enough that this frightened me. Once I was clear I had to do some strong and impressive coughing and gagging. Since this was obviously still in the middle of the pitch-black night, all the crew knew was that I was coughing. I managed to tell them it was the exhaust, that I thought I was ok, but I needed to keep going with getting it out of my lungs. According to the log, my next feed was about 10 minutes later. That’s when I hurled. Puked. Vomited. Spewed. 6 times in a row. I’m glad that it was easy to do. I didn’t have to work at it. And, even though the last time went down the front of my suit, I’m pretty sure, I felt SO MUCH better when I was finished. Four hours of feed plus a mashed up banana, into the bay. My belly was sore from the purge, but I had no other discomfort after the event. I told the crew that I puked 6x and they asked if I felt nauseous – if I wanted Zofran. “Nope, it’s all better now. The bad stuff is in the bay!” Yay?
- Headwind/changing tide
I had great forecasts from John. I can’t communicate how helpful, kind, and generous he was with information for me. He gave the pilot a forecast for the entire swim in 3-hr increments about what the wind and water would be doing, including estimated water temps. So, I knew that the tide was going to change at the end, around 8/8:30 in the morning. I knew the wind was going to change to be a straight-on head wind for me. I also knew that the winds were going to be relatively light. But, after all night of clipping along, getting to the half way about 60-75 minutes before I expected to, that change in progress was annoying. Not discouraging. Just annoying. When I announced that “I am sick of this!” the crew chief and head feeder misinterpreted that to my coach that I said I wanted to quit. He sent back, “Tell her we’ll talk about quitting after she’s finished.” I am not sure I caught that message, but since I really didn’t want to quit, was just announcing to the cosmos that I was sick of it… all was good. Lesson learned: More practice swimming intervals in open water on a with/against pattern in relation to the tide of the moment is needed.
Overall, I felt pretty good the whole time. I felt patient. I felt prepared. I was content. I was aware. Beyond that, though, there were a few occasions of emotional “feeling the feels” that happened.
- Exhaust bubble only scary part
As I wrote above. The exhaust incident scared me. Because I couldn’t get a satisfying breath. Because I couldn’t get out of it right away. Because I knew the crew couldn’t tell what was happening. I ended up relying on many life lessons that friends and my dad taught over the years. “Identify problem; fix problem.” “Cry when you’re finished dealing.” “Inventory your body, listen to your body.” “Do what you have to do, don’t worry about others.” “Know when to ask for help.” “Aviate, navigate, communicate.” That last one is an axiom that my dad (career naval aviator) used to say when things were going to crap. Basically, take care of most important business…in an airplane, make sure you’re still flying. Then, figure out where you’re going. THEN, tell ship where you are. So, for me, that turned into “Swim, navigate, communicate.” It doesn’t rhyme as well, but the point is the same.
- Felt WAY better after hurling
I’ve read all the swim reports. I’ve heard the interviews. Hurling happens. It CAN be a problem, but isn’t necessarily one. And, most times, after you hurl… your body is better. I was (I think) at my most “chipper” when I told the boat that I wasn’t nauseous because it was all gone. It was surprised how much better I felt. Perhaps, just a bit…..giddy over it. Almost a “Well, that’s an experience you’ve had and survived, and wow, don’t you feel great now!”
- Got sick and tired of not moving after moving so well in falling tide
On the grand scheme of difficult tides and winds, what I experienced honestly wasn’t that bad at all. However, it was a bit of a first for me. Three rivers saw me getting annoyed with river current, but not really wind. This time, it was both. A friend of mine asked me whether I thought I had another gear in me if I’d had to beat a tide and the boat had said I needed to pick it up. Yes, I did. I don’t know how long it would have lasted, but I wasn’t spent. I was just annoyed. Lesson learned: need to simulate these conditions more frequently on training swims.
- NEVER wanted to quit
At Three Rivers, I thought I was going to run out of time. I decided then that I was going to keep swimming until I was physically pulled from the river. I never even had that thought or problem on this swim. I never wanted to quit. I didn’t ever think I wasn’t doing an ok job. I could have swum longer had the beach been farther away. It wouldn’t have bothered me. Not that I wasn’t happy and satisfied that I finished when I did. I needed meatloaf and mashed potatoes!
- Wrist lights kept me company
One thing I did a little differently than most people who’ve done super long swims like this is that I lit my wrists in addition to my head and back. I am so accustomed to wearing my Garmin watch on my right wrist, that not having something on there while I was in the water was going to be distracting to me. So, I figured a light would serve a similar tactile purpose for me. Plus, I used red and green, the nautical colors for port and starboard to do so. That way, the pilot could at a glance know which direction I was facing. This was likely a slightly over engineered aspect to the swim. I figured better to be brighter than to get run over! Plus, the lights kept me company in the dark. Several people I spoke with before the swim (Sarah Thomas, my coaches, etc.) said that that would bug them to death. But, I wasn’t bugged….They were my little colored fireflies that swam with me. They also helped me see the bottles more easily. And, made pretty photos.
- Asked boat to keep someone lit so as not to feel quite so lonely in the small hours of the night
For a period of time in the middle of the night, the boat would get really dark. And, it would seem that the people would disappear. That got a little lonely. They were doing that to preserve the pilot’s night vision. So, I requested somehow to have someone stay lit if possible, just so I knew there was someone there. They figured out how to do that. Lesson learned: Discuss w/ pilot best way to manage night vision. Pilot indicated desire to get different boat in future.
From a physical point of view, things went pretty well. I was well prepared for the swimming aspect, so my arms and shoulders handled things nicely. We learned in Pittsburgh, that planned dosing of ibuprofen and acetaminophen is the way to go. Also, that liquid medicine would be best. I used pills in Pittsburgh, but no way could I do that in the bay. Other than that, there were a few physical aspects that are memorable.
- No chaffing on spots where Okole Stuff applied
I made sure to use chaffing prevention. I got a product called “Okole Stuff” when I was cycling a lot. It’s got teatree oil in it so it smells nice, and also has lanolin. It’s more pleasant smelling than traditional channel grease type things. Plus, it launders out pretty well. Everywhere I used it, I was chafe free. I got chaffing in NEW places, though. Top of my right thigh, from treading water. Apparently, my knee comes up quite a bit. And, under both breasts. That’s a new one. Okole Stuff also can be used as a healing ointment, so that’s good. I can only find it online, but there are likely triathlon or bike shops that might carry it in larger cities.
- Calf and hamstring cramping (slight) early in swim, and several times at beginning of feeds when going vertical.
I experienced calf/hamstring cramping in Pittsburgh, and was told to drink more by my guide there. That filled my belly, and then I felt over full. As soon as I started feeling cramping creeping up on me, I got a banana (smashed up and mixed with water to make it chuggable from the treat bottle) and tried to be sure that I took all that I was supposed to on my feeds. What makes this confounding is that I don’t experience this in the pool during training. I get the occasional foot cramp in the pool, but nothing like this. And, even in long lake swims, I don’t get them. So, it’s difficult right now to figure out how to replicate the symptoms to test solutions. My coach (Kyle) and I decided that some brainstorming, consultation, and research is in order. I’ve already spoken with a master’s teammate and he gave me some interesting ideas to begin to implement. Mostly, they centered around making my body more resilient to kicking. So, working on building up to extended sessions of vertical kicking over the next year or so. Plus, so other random thoughts. I’d be interested in ideas that others have about this. Kyle and I aren’t sure whether this is a nutrition thing, a physiology thing, a resiliency thing, or a random thing. So, we will be experimenting as the months roll by.
- Hurling didn’t hurt, it just happened. The body is an amazing thing.
I always thought that the people who hurled on their swims had to make themselves do it. Like when you indulge too much, or are ill. Turns out, the body is pretty good at getting stuff out of it that it wants to reject. I just had to open my mouth, turn away from the wind, and let it happen.
- The world kept moving until I went to sleep that night. Not troublesome, just made sure to have hand-holds when walking, especially up/down steps.
My relationship with gravity is questionable on a good day. So, spending nearly 16 hours going up and down, side to side made my vestibular system annoyed with me. Everyone on the boat felt that too, except I think for Eric the pilot. Combine that with the extreme fatigue everyone felt from no sleep, and we all said that the world didn’t stop moving until we were asleep. It was much better the next morning. I can see how that feeling would make some people nauseated. It’s entertaining to me. I just make sure to avoid stairs if at all possible, and use sturdy things like counters and walls to help me walk. That, plus standing with my feet braced apart keeps me upright.
- Several hours post swim, felt the worst. Tingly (especially lips and tongue – disconcerting to me), a bit disoriented, “not good” and didn’t know why. Consulted w/ medical advisor, used inhaler, got hoodie on, under blanket, feet up, took about an hour to feel better. Was told this reaction to be expected, and was normal, but had people to call in case improvement didn’t happen. Was able to have meatloaf & mashed potatoes for dinner.
A few hours after Helen and I got back to the house (Cheryl and Caleb, one coach and the medical advisor) had to go let their animals out, (Pia and Jim, backup observer and crew) had to drive home, I was able to get into a warm bath. When I got out, though, I began feeling NOT GOOD. This was actually the worst that I felt during the entire event. I was close to hyperventilating, my face, particularly my tongue and lips were tingly – like I’d eaten something wrong, my body tingled, and I was disoriented. I was fuzzy headed, too. I told Helen that I felt wrong. She texted Caleb who advised: use inhaler, lie down, feet up, get warm, focus on long slow breathing. If I didn’t get better or got worse after an hour or so, call him back. That all worked. But, I definitely didn’t want (or need) to be driving out for dinner. So Helen got our dinner takeout. Meatloaf and mashed potatoes for me. She also asked me to be on the phone with someone while she was gone, just to be sure that I stayed ok. So, I started calling people. Monica Cohen was a huge help… chatting and making sure I stayed aware. This surprised me. I thought I’d feel worst right out of the water. I wasn’t quite ready to feel bad at that point. Lesson learned: If possible, have someone who wasn’t on the boat or involved in staying up all night be available for monitoring the immediate post-swim activities.
The swimming part of the whole thing went the best. It went well enough to be described as a little anti-climactic. That’s good… right? I had great prep. I did a good job breaking down different variables that I’d need to be ready for and having test swims for them. It went great.
- Felt consistent the whole time; stroke rate data supports this.
While I was swimming, I found that a 2/3 breathing pattern (R, br, R, br, R, L, R br; L, br, L, br, L, R, L br; repeat) worked best in terms of rhythm for me. Pia said that I looked like I was listening to a metronome. I felt consistent the whole time…felt good….my perceived effort seemed to level out and stay the same. The disadvantage of not wearing my watch is that I can’t tell what my HR did during the swim… but, oh well. Looking back over the stroke rate data my perception is confirmed. I had worked on consistent stroke rates in the pool. I had gotten at one point where I swam repeat 1000s with the exact same stroke count on every 25 except for the first and last. I am proud of the work that I did in this area of swimming.
- Crew reported watching hands/feet/backs of legs turn white once the sun came up.
While my core never felt cold, I did have one feed that I think was a little longer than it needed to be where I had a “2 chin wobble shiver.” I got started again and never had that issue for the rest of the swim. Once it got light, Helen said that she could see my hands and feet as well as the backs of my legs turn white, and my back and shoulders turn pink. She made sure to watch for cognition and dexterity problems, but I didn’t have any. In fact, I did better with dexterity at the end of the swim, because I could SEE the bottles better to find the latches that would unlock the buttons to open the tops.
- Core never felt cold; feet, hands, arms, legs “noticed” the cold water, but was never uncomfortable.
I felt my hands and feet, as well as the large muscles in my arms and legs notice that the water was “cool”. I hesitate to say cold, because so many people consider my water temps to be perfect or balmy. But, you have to remember, that this is Alabama…. It’s difficult to find cold water. The bay might get to below 60, but not for very long, and only in the depths of Jan and/or Feb. Still, the air wasn’t super warm, and we had enough cloud cover that I didn’t get the benefit of feeling sunshine on my back. Once I got out, I got into my towel poncho (dry robe) right away. I had crocs on my feet, and we headed up to the restroom to change. I didn’t shiver until I was in the restroom and starting to get out of the wet things and into dry ones. I was able to change by myself, with just a little coordination assistance with getting things off and on over my head.
- Shoulders and neck felt pretty good whole time. Used chin tuck to help stretch back of neck throughout swim.
My shoulders and neck felt much better during this swim than they did in Pittsburgh. Much less sore. I learned in Pittsburgh to tuck my chin to my chest once in awhile to stretch the back of my neck. I also learned how to “pull down” my shoulders at times to help combat the “creep up” that sometimes happens. Since I learned it the hard way in Pittsburgh, I was able to initiate those tactics earlier and more regularly in this swim. Helen gave me a short neck/shoulder massage back at the house, and I was able to sleep the entire night through – once I fell asleep.
People who’ve met me will know that while I like to believe I’m basically a pretty “roll with the punches” sort of person, when the event is mine, I get a tiny bit….. anxious and controlling. What I WANTED, was for the planning of this event to be completely finished 4 weeks out, so that I could use that time to focus on taper, getting things in order with work, and only fine tuning things. Yeah. That didn’t happen. Luckily, I have good friends who helped me manage the uncertainty.
- Possibly a bit over engineered
As a result of my uncertainty, though, I slightly over engineered the supplies for the event. Turns out that everything I wanted or needed was on the boat. But, there were things that were there and didn’t get used. Except for the hot water issue, no one went thirsty nor hungry. And, when I needed variety of flavor or texture, there was something there for me.
- Planning team (finish location and weather, to be exact) crucial
Knowing when to ask for help. SUCH an important life lesson. By letting people know what I was doing, I was able to be connected with those who would be helpful. If I hadn’t told the mayor of Fairhope, AL (who was visiting my coach’s swim meet) what I was doing, she wouldn’t have been able to connect me with John for weather info. John was able to connect me with corporate people from Tacky Jack’s (landing spot) who verified that the marina was an ok for the boat to hang out at the start and finish. I was connected with kayakers in the Fairhope area who were willing to help with training swims, but unfortunately work schedules didn’t always work out. One of them is actually training for an 8-day kayak race/event from Tampa down to Key Largo. She told me that she’s always looking for time on the water, so hopefully we’ll be able to connect in the coming weeks and months for more training in salt water. Cheryl’s brother in law, Eric, was the pilot. The only condition that she put on the event was that whatever boat we used HAD to have a bathroom. Eric was game, and did a great job route planning as well as being willing to have a practice swim with me the week before the big event. You hear people say, “it’s a team effort,” and they are so right. I always believed that, but never REALIZED how much it is true until this swim.
- Could do better w/ pre-swim briefing of crew
A post-swim realization and request by the better part of the crew is that for a future swim, we work into the timeline a formal sit-down meeting or conference call to have a pre-swim briefing. Apparently, there was a little confusion about who was “in charge” of communicating with me, despite explicit information being available in the binder. I made sure to communicate individually with everyone, and we had several emails back and forth, but it wasn’t quite as impactful as it apparently needed to be. I am super grateful for the crew members who “rose above” and were able to provide the oversight and support that I needed. Big Lesson: pre-swim briefings with the group should be considered mandatory!
- Binder great
Everyone loved the binder. They didn’t always read it. But they loved it. (*sigh*) It’s like when I write assignment directions for my students and they don’t read all of them. Lol See previous lesson re: mandatory group briefing.
- Food choices great
I was told that my groceries were awesome. For anyone who would like to know, I had:
Water, Sodas of a few flavors that people liked, OJ, and Cran-raspberry for cold/non-hot fluids.
The coffee drinkers brought their own coffee, and I had tea and hot chocolate for warm fluids. Or, that was the intent.
Two of my crew are gluten free, so I had gluten free crackers for them
I had two small precut veggie trays, and a meat/cheese tray (it had regular crackers so the GF substitutes)
I had apples (none eaten) bananas, grapes and strawberries
I had snack size peanut butter, and squeezable jelly.
Paper products and asked everyone to bring their own hot mug.
My training was derailed two years ago when I fell and broke my arm. That limited me to kicking only for about 12-14 weeks. 65,000 yds of kicking later, and I’d learned to kick. All of my coaches pivoted amazingly well during that time and helped me stay interested and goal oriented. I couldn’t ask for a better group of people to help me get ready.
- Found some good staple workouts to simulate feed schedule and swims between
I was talking to Kyle, my main coach, about the workouts he wrote. He found some staples that really helped me dial in the feeling of swimming feed to feed. Two of my favorite main sets were 3x1000 – open water effort-- on rest :30, keeping all of them within the same 10 seconds of one another (pacing awareness); and 2x2000 – open water pace -- on rest :30. The 2000 are about 34 minutes of pool swimming for me, so very accurately simulated the feed timing of open water swims. He talked about working to have workouts where I’d feel mentally or physically uncomfortable and still be able to finish…sometimes both mentally and physically. And, he has a sense of humor, when I wrote to ask about clarification for the 610x50 set that he wrote…. He relaxed it to 10. Sometimes typos make the best sets. I’d like to progress to having my long swims on the weekends begin to have more goals than simply time in the water, though. Kyle mostly structured them similarly to marathon running schedules, based on time, rather than distance. But, we never got to the point where there would be expectation of change in effort throughout the swim. We relied on dealing with what nature threw at me each week. We are also thinking about ways to simulate some conditions that are found in bigger water such as various channel swims.
- Had good night swim test swim
Sarah Thomas advised me to have a night practice swim before the big event. That was great advice. And, I learned that night swimming (at least so far) is a peaceful rather than intimidating thing for me. That was where I realized that I needed more light on the boat than initially I though, and got me looking for ways to inexpensively light the boat. EL Wire to the rescue. It’s not terribly bright compared to the lights I had, but it definitely helped me know when I was getting too far away from the boat. If I couldn’t discern the EL wire, I was too far away. Plus, I could get it at a hobby store, for not a lot of money.
As a first time requester of ratification, I didn’t realize some of the issues that would be associated with the swim as they would relate to the documentation.
First, starting in the full-dark of the evening, with the boat pretty far away from shore (and not having a super powerful spotlight, I relied on people on shore to start me as well as take video of the start. Luckily, the observer on the boat could see my lit up self through binoculars to witness the start.
Second, most of the still photos were taken in the last third of the swim – after the sun rose. The crew did do a fabulous job of getting a full 60 seconds of swimming video in the dark by bouncing flashlight light off the water so that the phone cameras would have enough light to capture more than just my lighted wrists and body. I was impressed with their ingenuity in this area.
Third, while I knew ahead of time that the photos needed to be date/time stamped, and had put that into the binder information, we all thought that that information would be available after the fact. However, when people sent photos to me, the date/time stamping was reflective of when the images appeared on my phone. The original stamps stayed on the phone that took the photo. So, when I do something like this again, I’m going to need to be sure to address this from the beginning. For this time around, I spent time working with each photographer to gather the time stamping information for the still photos that were submitted for this narrative. Lesson learned: encourage time stamping as much as possible at point of photography in log (perhaps with a short description to prompt what the photo contains).
Fourth, Documenting the route. In order to get the shortest swimmable route, we needed to be in water deep enough for the boat to navigate. We also needed to avoid oil platforms. If I were to do this again, I’d want to be extra sure that the GPS coordinates of the oil platforms were documented.
Things to do Differently in Future
Share some of the organizing, esp. crew responsibilities – delegate! Because no one on the crew had done something like this before, (neither had I for that matter) I ended up doing all of the organizing and planning. My crew chief suggested that there were some portions of the swim that I could have delegated to her to organize, and then communicate the details to me. Doing this would have established her leadership as crew chief as well as removed some of the last-minute angst I was having related to getting all the details set.
Ensure a way to make hot water. For the crew, this ended up being a BIG thing. They were all troupers, though, and muscled through. At the very least, having several (or one big) thermos of hot water to use would have been a good backup. Also, when asking about the provisions on board the boat, I asked if the boat made power… NOT what kind of power it had. So, had I been more specific, I would have learned that a car cigarette lighter-type plug was what was available, not a 3-prong grounded outlet. Subsequent to finishing the swim, I did some searching online, and found that there are teapots that will work from a cigarette lighter outlet. So, good to know.
Group briefing! Reflecting on the entire process, and in light of feedback from crew members as well as knowledgeable swimmers and other family members, the lack of a focused group briefing prior to leaving the dock for the start was the biggest mistake. I did individual briefings with the crew, but they were very informal – as a result there ended up being some conflict between crew members. This conflict was manageable through the supportive efforts of certain members of the crew, but it added to the stress for the whole group and was really unnecessary. At the time, I attributed the lack of a group briefing to logistics, work schedules, and driving times. I should have recognized that that would be impactful and organized a web conference call for the entire team a few days before the swim. Yes, ideally, that briefing would be the day before and at the beach. But, given that that wasn’t going to be possible, I should have done “plan B” of a web-conference.
Create risk matrix to aid crew (especially if not everyone is super familiar with me) in making go/no-go decisions (credit to my niece’s husband for this). This may be significant over engineering, but if the swim has relatively small number of experienced crew, it might be helpful. It would DEFINITELY need to be reviewed in a whole-group briefing prior to launch. Items falling into the red cells are grounds to cancel the swim. Items in the yellow cells should be monitored to ensure swimmer and crew safety. They might progress to a red-level cell and swim cancellation. Yellow-cell items can be treated to move their status into a green cell if successful. The risk matrix is specific to a particular event. So, the weather forecast would be taken into account in creating it. Swimmers and crew would also take into account any known issues for that specific location and set of crew members. An example of one would look like:
Depending on the complexity of the risk matrix, codes can be used to describe conditions, or short descriptions.
Include in binder a higher altitude/more comprehensive view of the route. For this swim, that would be a single page that showed the entire bay, with the route. Include on this version of route “phase lines” (credit to my niece’s husband for this) that would control emergency egress points as well as different medical facilities if appropriate. Include on contact numbers appropriate emergency numbers (beyond 911) if medical person not on crew.
I’m on a decision-making embargo for at least 10 days post swim. We have a master’s meet here in February, and I’ll do the mile and 500 in that, to stay occupied. Then, I’ll work the meet the rest of the time. After that, I don’t know. I believe that I’ll start trying to research pilots and find a slot for the English Channel, then identify different “A” swims for each year in preparation for it. If you’re reading this, and you’re near the Dover area, let me pre-apologize for my mom and her sister who’ve said that they want to be there, but stay back to make dinner when I’m finished. I’m not entirely sure that they should be unsupervised. They’ll likely be all over the place meeting people and getting their life stories and trying to decide whether they have any acquaintances in common. So, if you end up seeing them, please be kind…and point them to a bookstore or coffee/tea shop.
Note: It’s now 10 days post-swim. I learned that the water temps I swam through were cooler than the average temps for the EC. I was surprised by this. And, happy to hear. At least I can get water cold enough to get me ready for EC in Alabama, even if it has to be in the winter.
It’s now past the holiday season. It looks like my next adventure is likely to be the border crossing in Lake Memphremagog.