Jackie quickly calculated the direction and speed of the storm approaching her as she swam more than a mile offshore. She enjoyed the freedom of open water swimming, however, it was a passion that wasn’t without its perils.
Today bore that statement true as Jackie, now offshore at a distance of just under a mile and a half, was attempting a record-breaking swim to a point two miles offshore. It was at this point that she heard the one sound no ocean swimmer wants to hear…the slow rumble of distant thunder.
She gauged her distance from shore and realized that no matter what she did, she would encounter this storm at sea, in the water all alone with no life jacket or float. She abandoned her pursuit of a two mile swim and turned around and headed back towards the shore. She knew she couldn’t beat the storm as it toiled and danced through the steadily roughening waters.
Jackie guessed this squall would come through with about twenty-five mile per hour winds and four to five foot sea swells. Not insurmountable waves should you be in a vessel of some kind, but swimming in those conditions could easily prove disastrous or even fatal.
She began to prepare for what nature was about to unload on her. Keeping her back to the wind would help keep sea water out of her mouth and eyes. Checking her position with the shoreline would determine her drift in the current. And most importantly, there was no room to allow panic to take hold.
The surf ran fast and rough turning from swells to white caps almost instantly. The ocean coming alive from the near calm glassy conditions Jackie started out with. A jellyfish bumped into her as she steadied herself in the waves. No time to worry about what’s below the waves right now, she told herself.
The rain fell so heavy and fast that it created a rain curtain or rain fog that hung over the water obscuring Jackie’s view of it, and the shoreline.
It was about this time when Jackie was still about a mile offshore that the dire consequences of choosing to swim out so far became alarmingly clear. She scanned the empty horizon for any passing boats who may be able to spot her. Not one boat could be seen anywhere. Rain needled against her face as the storm’s intensity continued to build.
“Well Jackie,” she called aloud to herself, “I think this one’s got you beat!”
She didn’t panic or fill with fear at the realization she would probably not survive her swim. She did feel perhaps a little disappointed that she found herself in a crisis of her own doing. She didn’t have to go swimming at that particular time, but she did anyway, without fully checking the weather forecast.
She figured if she were going to die, she’d rather die doing something she was passionate about, like ocean swimming, over dying in say a car wreck caused by a drunk driver. There is no shame in dying doing something you are most passionate about, she thought as she swam along. And so she felt no shame.
Jackie decided that way of thinking was completely unproductive at that point so she shrugged it all off and found her bearing to shore and continued to swim towards her starting point. And she swam, and she swam, longer and farther than she ever had before. The waves bombarding her from all directions. She would heave high into the air as the white capped swells tossed her about like car in a tornado. Then she would sink into the bottom of the swell and disappear from sight.
It was tiring battling the waves and the winds. Jackie took a number of deep breaths and then expelled as much oxygen as she could submerging beneath the waves about four or five feet to escape the wrath of the water and wind. Underwater it was quiet and Jackie hung suspended in the ocean as the storm raged on. After consuming the oxygen in her system she surfaced and bobbed up and down in the rough seas. She gauged her distance from shore and continued her attempt to reach the beach.
For the oddest of reasons Jackie recalled and began to sing out loud the Gordon Lightfoot song, The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald. “The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down of the big lake they call Gitche Gumee. The lake it is said never gives up her dead when the skies of November turn gloomy…”
If I can make it to the boat buoy I just might survive this, she thought. She swam on through the rough waters searching for the “no boating” buoys that dotted the water about 200 yards from shore. She knew these buoys would be the first objects she would encounter heading for shore. They were impossible to locate in the swelling seas until she had already swam past the nearest buoy. Now she would have to turn around and swim out to sea towards the buoy if she wanted to hang on to it and float the storm out.
She decided to make the 200 yard dash for shore ignoring her aching body and the cramps that tightened her calf muscles and disfigured her toes. There was no time to stop and massage the cramps away.
As the storm churned through, an interesting occurrence happened. The storm began to split from the rear as it hit land behind Pass-A-Grille coming off of Boca Ciega Bay. A major portion followed the north channel off PAG and the rear that had begun to hook around towards the water in front of Jackie veered north and a deluge of rain pummeled the Don Cesar hotel but left the immediate area in front of Jackie free of the suffocating rainfall.
The storm had spared Jackie as she felt her cramping foot graze the sandy bottom of the beach just 50 yards from shore. She was so tired that in only knee deep water she was knocked onto her knees by a small wave rolling to shore. She crawled on hands and knees, her whole body aching and shaking. Her muscles hot from over-exertion were refusing to let her stand.
Finallly, she emerged from the frothy waters completely and utterly exhausted, her whole body shaking and cramping. As she stumbled out from the Gulf, Jackie turned and looked back at the angry ocean. Tears of relief and exhaustion clouded her eyes.
The woman that went into the calm waters of the Gulf of Mexico was not the same woman that emerged from the raging sea.
She fell to the sand and rolled onto her back. The waves gently rolled in and splashed her legs as she lay at the waters edge. She began to cry, then she laughed, and then she cried again, amazed she had survived this terrible thing that seemed hell bent on consuming her life.
Never in her life had she felt so completely battered and exhausted…and never in her life had she felt so completely alive! After a while she pulled herself to her feet and looked out into the gulf and the storm that was now heading out to sea.
She knew that her life from that moment forward would never again be the same.
“Thank you,” she said to the sea and to the storm as a smile traced across her lips and a tear rolled down her cheek.