On September 10, 2020, Jackie Hemingway set out from Pass-A-Grille, Florida on a record-setting four mile swim.
She intended to swim to a point two miles to the west of Pass-A-Grille, turn around and swim two miles back.
You can read about this in the short story, This One’s Got You Beat! It is highly recommended that you read This One’s Got You Beat! first before reading this story.
Ironically, on May 10, 2021, just eight short months later to the day, Jackie set out once more from the beach at Pass-A-Grille in an attempt to complete that record-setting swim attempt from her September swim.
The following began in Pass-A-Grille on May 10, 2021.
Jackie stood on the beach and stretched her arm and shoulder muscles before getting into the water.
She had been lightly training off and on over the last eight months for this very moment. She was about to attempt to set a new personal record of a four mile open water swim.
There were ocean swimmers Jackie knew who would swim parallel with the shore for miles and miles, they would stop and stand up in maybe chest-deep waters and take a break. In open water ocean long distance swimming, there is no such opportunity.
Jackie first made an attempt at an open water ocean swim some fifteen years prior to this swim. She was going to swim from the harbor in Rye, New Hampshire out to one of the smaller Isle of Shoals outer lying islands. That swim was over six miles each way. But it wasn’t the distance, she only made it about a mile from shore, it was the wind and the waves that were her enemy that day and she had to abort her attempt.
The waves in the northern Atlantic in New England can be choppy a big chunk of the year. It can be a rare occurrence to find the waters off of Portsmouth, New Hampshire smooth as glass.
That was Jackie’s preference, to swim in the calmest conditions possible. As she continued to warm up on the beach she noticed the conditions were far from ideal. The winds were higher than she would have liked them to be, which caused two foot swells well out past the no boating buoys that dotted the beach.
After stretching she sat down in her beach chair and checked the weather conditions fully. She knew the reason she got into trouble back in September was due to her lack of preparation. As she checked and double checked the weather she sat back in her chair as the sun beamed down upon her. She closed her eyes and began to meditate. Before setting out on any swim she meditated.
She walked into the water to about waist deep and connected herself with the ground and the Earth. She planted her feet in the sand and as the current washed back and forth her feet sank a bit more until she made her connection with Mother Earth.
She dove under water and began her slow and deliberate swim out to one of the boating buoys, about two hundred yards off shore. When she reached it she pulled it over and clung to it for a few moments, this showed anyone who may be watching on shore that she had made it to the buoy.
Setting off to the southwest Jackie swam directly into the waves and current coming towards her. She would have to adjust her course further to the south out past Fort DeSoto so that after she reached two miles she could turn around and ride the waves back in to Pass-A-Grille.
It was a bit slower of a swim for her today. The swells were hitting Jackie from different angles and she began to occasionally be topped over by a wave. If she were in the middle of taking a breath, she would choke on the seawater and she swallowed much too much of it.
Approaching a mile off the north channel of Pass-A-Grille and Fort DeSoto, Jackie, though tiring earlier than expected due to the higher than expected waves, found herself in fairly good spirits. She had to be super focused for oncoming waves to try and stifle some the the gulping of salt water.
It was about two hours into her swim when Jackie first noticed it. Her stomach began to feel nauseous and her throat was becoming irritated. She pressed on having dealt with this very issue before off the coast of New England. Ingesting salt water in the quantities she was, dehydration set in fairly quickly.
When Jackie swam, she swam with no water, no float or life jacket, no phone or light or flare, just her waterproof compass fob she would tuck into her bikini bottoms to use GPS to track her swimming route. She swam about as naturally as one could swim, enjoying the connection she felt with the sea.
It takes a disciplined person to remain calm during a crisis, Jackie had proven that true about herself during her swim on September 10. She didn’t panic when things turned bad, she keep her mind, her focus and her wits about her.
She was about to call upon those very skills again.
At 1.49 miles from her starting point she felt it. This time it was the wind. The wind shifted to the north, northwest and it wasn’t too much later when the surface waves that battered Jackie began to change to a northwesterly direction as well.
Jackie had counted on being able to ride the same waves and current she had gone out on, that would have taken her right back to her starting point.
Now the winds would push her, not towards Pass-A-Grille, but towards Blind Pass and a little out to sea.
She stopped and assessed the situation. She knew she had less than a mile to go to break her record, but she knew that could come at a disastrous cost. As she floated in the churning waters she took a few breaths and submerged below the steadily increasing waves.
Underwater it was quiet, she could think and not worry about being tossed up and down the waves.
She knew what she had to do. She waited until her oxygen depleted and then burst up through the waves into the bright and sunny air.
Frustrated and with a hint of concern she turned around and began to swim back to shore. She decided to let the waves and the current carry her north for a ways and then she would turn towards Pass-A-Grille and swim across the currents and waves towards shore.
The sun beat down as she slowly made her way northward. The waves gained considerable strength and topped over Jackie’s head more frequently as she passed Pass-A-Grille little under a mile from shore. There would be no attempt to swim across the waves and currents to try and make it back to her starting point, that would be suicidal.
She continued to swim north but just slightly angled her course towards shore so she could still take advantage of the waves and currents. She also knew this would land her way off course, possibly all the way to Upham Beach. Her only concern at this moment was she didn’t want to be blown past the Blind Pass channel and into Treasure Island. She knew she could not survive that far of a swim.
It became imperative that she land somewhere on St. Pete Beach, and sooner rather than later. The effects of swallowing so much sea water led to quicker dehydration and now, her legs and toes began to painfully cramp as they had back on her storm swim in September.
Though she didn’t feel like it, she was slowly making good progress towards shore as she drifted north and passed the Don Cesar Hotel just about a half mile from shore. The distance concerned her and she felt she would overshoot St. Pete Beach and drift into Treasure Island.
Her cramping legs and arms began to feel heavier and harder for Jackie to use effectively. She had to stop and rest as she went along only to be topped by more waves and swallow more water. She inhaled salt water and began to choke as wave after wave topped her and clogged her nose and gasping mouth with more salt water.
This was it. She felt herself choking which began to cause panic so with every ounce of discipline she could muster she forced herself to stop coughing against every muscle in her chest that wanted nothing more than to expel the salt water from her lungs.
She struggled to fill her lungs with enough air and when she did she held her breath and submerged below the waves. She would have drowned if she had stayed on the surface. But underwater wasn’t going to be a piece of cake.
Her brain was telling her lungs, her diaphragm and muscles to inhale rapidly in order to breathe. But her brain also knew she was underwater and that any attempt to breathe would cause her death. After what seemed like an eternity she manipulated her mind enough to cease the urge to cough. With little air to sustain her she made for the surface.
Before surfacing she lingered a foot or so underwater. She felt the rhythm of the waves and timed it so that she was surfacing and expelling her air at the peak of the wave. She managed to do so perfectly which allowed her enough time to inhale only air on the way down the backside of the wave and then hold her breath before she was topped over by the next wave.
She practiced this complicated technique for some time to regain her breath more fully. For the moment, she was okay.
The waters calmed a bit the closer she got to shore. Just north of the Don Cesar Hotel she felt she had made some progress and she turned sharply towards shore. The shoreline was closer and she could see people walking along the beach. She took off her neon pink swimming shirt and tried to wave the shirt to attract the attention of people on shore. It took every ounce of energy to hoist her arm and shirt into the air while maintaining balance and staying afloat in the rough waters. The setting sun behind her made Jackie all but invisible to anyone on shore.
Failing to gain anyone’s attention she put her shirt back on as she bobbed in the ocean. She knew her bright pink shirt would be visible to the Coast Guard or other aircraft should she drown and her body be lost at sea.
No time to worry about that, she knew she was desperately in trouble as she slowly made her way to within less than half a mile from shore. It was going to be a desperate bid for survival and Jackie was going to have just one shot at it.
Her body was spent beyond spent but she thought she just might have enough will left within her that she could summon together enough strength to survive.
By now her legs were all but useless except to help keep her upright in the the water. She had no strength to kick for any extended amount of time. It would now be up to her arm and chest muscles to get her ashore.
After almost another hour and more drifting north Jackie’s hope of reaching shore alive was rapidly fading. She shook her head in disappointment. She was going to drown within yelling distance of shore – on a day with no wind or waves that is.
Her raspy voice was a tell that her throat was swollen and irritated from salt water. Her eyes were bloodshot red and puffy and swollen. It was difficult to see out of her left eye, that was the eye that got the most salt water in it as Jackie would constantly look left back over her shoulder to keep an eye on the waves sneaking up behind her.
She didn’t mind dying doing something she loved, but as she painfully made her way slowly towards shore she began to think of why she had even started to open water swim such long distances in the first place.
Her first swim like this was her aborted swim for the Isle of Shoals off of Portsmouth, New Hampshire. As Jackie now literally had to throw each arm forward to complete a swim stroke she remembered back to her Isle of Shoals swim and that it was just four months after her mother died of cancer. She found her motivator, but she wasn’t sure why. If she survived this swim, she could ponder those thoughts as long as she wished, but that would have to wait.
It was at 5 hours and 45 minutes into her swim that Jackie thought she felt her foot touch something. It wasn’t a fish and she knew the feeling well. It was that first contact with shore after a long swim that told you that you were going to make it alive!
That may have held true on calmer days, but as Jackie forced her leg down as far as it could she confirmed contact with the sandy bottom. She was still in chest deep waters with waves topping over her. She was by no means out of danger.
As she tried to ride the waves into shallower water it became harder for Jackie to remain upright. In her exhausted state each wave in the same waist deep water she had connected to the Earth with so long ago was now going to try and kill her and was tossing her about in waist deep water like a rag doll.
Though completely wet, Jackie felt tears of defeat fall from her eyes. Her body could no longer sustain her above the water. She was going to drown in water people normally stand around in with a cool beverage in their hand.
As she sunk beneath the waves in defeat Jackie had just enough energy to turn herself over onto her back so she could exhale and breathe. She struggled to take a breath between the now smaller waves near shore that washed over her face.
She tried to time it so she exhaled at the top of the wave as she had done further out to sea but she was unable to maintain the proper rhythm and she began to inhale water again. She felt her foot touch bottom and she managed one last push upwards to get her head out of water to gasp for another breath of air.
She bobbed and floated in thigh deep water on her back forcibly expelling each breath in an attempt to live long enough to extract herself from the water. Her arms and legs useless and her muscles burned like fire from overexertion.
Finally she felt her butt touch the sand and with every ounce of every muscle she could wrangle together she painfully bent both legs and pulled them in under her. Then she planted her feet into the sand and extended her legs as rapidly as the cramps would allow and as she extended she fell backwards toward the shore in her final bid to get her body out of the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. She looked like a fish trying to jump out of the water.
She landed on her back in about eighteen inches of water, her head falling back into the water as a tiny roller wave barely rolled over her body and face. It was enough to cause her to cough again and though technically ashore, she could still very easily drown at this moment.
Jackie closed her painfully swollen eyes as she continued to struggle for each breath in this shallowest of waters. She felt so disappointed for allowing this to happen to herself. Another wave barely topped her face again.
Her entire body began to relax and she was unable to lift her head up out of the water anymore. This was it, she thought, this is how I’m going to go, an arm’s length from the sand.
Jackie Hemingway was starting to drown.
Something grazed her shoulder and caused Jackie to open her eyes. As she blinked and struggled to see, she could make out the shapes of three people standing over her. They abruptly yanked Jackie up by both arms and out of the water and dragged her a few final feet onto dry sand, thus ending the swimming portion of the odyssey of Jackie Hemingway.
Her head hung forward low under no muscular control as three women held Jackie upright. After a few moments and a dry heave or two, a bit of water emerged from Jackie’s mouth compelling her to cough and come back into a more conscious state. She coughed and spit as the women inquired as to where in the world she had come from.
One woman handed Jackie water which she took a swig of and swished around her mouth and then spit out. Dry stringy saliva hung off her lips and she knew she was badly dehydrated. She cleared her throat as best she could and tried to answer but all that came out was an indecipherable whisper.
Jackie took another small sip of water and swallowed it. She fought the urge to gulp down as much water as possible. After a few minutes she was able to speak enough to convey her story to which the women immediately wanted to call for help and get her to a hospital. Jackie refused saying she just needed to rest for a few minutes and then she would get up and walk more than a mile back to Pass-A-Grille to her starting point, her belongings and her car.
After ten more minutes Jackie thanked the women for pulling her from the ocean and saving her life. Then they continued on their walk northward. Jackie sat at the water’s edge for another few minutes before getting up.
Finally she felt rested enough to stand up so Jackie rolled onto her stomach and slowly got to her knees. She planted each palm into the sand to steady herself. Once she felt able, she began to stand up. Each muscle involved in that process screamed at Jackie as she groaned until she finally stood erect. She took a moment to make sure she was steady.
She took in a deep breath as she looked down the beach all the way to Pass-A-Grille. She shook her head – I’m never going to make that, she thought.
She lifted her left leg and leaned forward and as she planted her foot and put weight on her leg, her leg gave out unable to hold her weight under bended knee. She immediately fell to the ground on her knees. She planted her palms in the sand for balance and then slowly and painfully stood again. This time she stepped off with her right leg and again immediately fell to the ground.
Jackie continued this agonizing process until her brain told her muscles to keep her body standing up. After some time she was able to slowly walk more and fall less and by the time she was well south of the Don Cesar Hotel she managed to walk in a staggering path the remaining distance to her belongings.
The few people walking the beach on this warm but blustery day walked past Jackie staring at her as if she were drunk. She hadn’t the strength to try and explain herself or even ask for help. Every brain cell in her head focused on getting her back to Pass-A-Grille, no matter how drunk she appeared.
The sun was well-setting by the time she could see her things in the distance. She had already decided she wasn’t stopping to grab a water from the cooler or to sit down or anything. She was going to grab everything and make a bee line for her car and then home.
When she reached her spot, she picked everything up and slowly took each step laden down with her beach chair, umbrella, cooler and blanket. She agonized over each step in the soft, sinking sand. It was much more difficult to walk through than the firmer sand down by the water’s edge.
She stopped to stand and rest for a moment, her back to the sea. Jackie had strained and pulled two strap muscles in her neck which made it difficult to turn her head very far. She turned at the waist slowly until she could see the ocean and setting sun. Immediately her eyes began to water and she dropped everything she was carrying.
She left her things behind in the soft sand and slowly and painfully walked to the water’s edge as tears filled her eyes. She fell to her knees as slow, gentle waves lapped against her bent knees in the sand. She hung her head, sobbed and nodded.
As the sun sank beneath the horizon she managed to lift her head enough to watch the golden orb go green and then silently fall beneath the waves.
Tears fell down her cheeks as she nodded and recognized the fury of Nature that she had just barely survived. “Okay. You win…you win.” Jackie sobbed and shook her head, amazed that she had survived this harrowing ordeal. She also knew that this would be the last time she would ever attempt a record breaking swim again. She couldn’t help but feel empty and defeated.
Slowly she rose to her feet and turned to walk away but then paused. She turned back to the sea, closed her eyes and drew in a deep breath and exhaled. She coughed a little bit.
A slight smile traced across her lips and a tear fell down her cheek. “No,” she whispered, “I win…”
And so Jackie Hemingway was a swimmer no more…