Diana Nyad and me, just a few hours before she started the September 2011 Cuba swim.

Diana Nyad is one of the most dynamic and inspirational persons that I have ever met. She gained worldwide fame while in her 20’s, as a long distance swimmer, breaking or establishing world records that stand to this day, nearly 40 years later. Those records include swimming 28 miles around Manhattan Island in less than 8 hours, and the 102 mile crossing from North Bimini Island in the Bahamas, to Juno Beach, Florida, in 27 1/2 hours.  The one great record that eluded her grasp in her younger days, which still holds her in the tight grip of an “Extreme Dream”, is to swim from Cuba to Florida, without the use of a shark cage or a wetsuit.  Now, at age 62, Diana Nyad intends to achieve that dream.

When she is not training for her next distance swim, Diana often works as a motivational speaker, always earning standing ovations from her audiences. I’ve been privileged to hear some samples of her inspirational speaking, when she has spoken to her “Extreme Dream Team”.  I am lucky enough to have been able to play a small part in the team.  It seems as though she just can’t help but motivate and inspire people.  Every time she is with a group of people, and she starts talking, everybody just stops everything to listen.

Diana speaks, and everyone listens.

During the gathering of the Extreme Dream Team, just prior to Diana’s September 2011 attempt to swim from Cuba to Florida, she gave us all a motivational speech.  She told each one of us how important it was, that we play our part… do our job… to the best of our abilities… because she would not be able to do HER part, without each and every one of us.  At the end of her talk, she taught us all the “team cheer”, which we repeated, going faster & faster, louder & louder each time, until we finally ended by yelling at the top of our lungs,
“Where we gonna leave?
What are we gonna achieve?
We were nearly breathless with excitement, after finishing our rowdy group cheer.


My role within the Extreme Dream Team was small, but as Diana pointed out to each of us, it was a very important job. I was one of the 6 kayakers that were chosen for the kayak team. Our job was to provide one essential part of the defense against the sharks that Diana would almost certainly encounter, while completing the 103 mile swim across the mile-deep Florida Straits. Our kayaks were fitted with electronic “shark shields”, which give off an electronic field that repels sharks. We kept 2 kayaks in close proximity to Diana at all times, staying close enough to keep Diana within the 12-foot radius “zone of protection” that each kayaker provided.

Buco plugs one of the shark shields in, while Elke supervises. They are both members of the kayak team. Elke will be the kayak team captain for the 2012 Cuba to Florida swim.

Another essential part of the shark protection, was the shark divers. These roles were played out by some incredibly brave men, whose job it was, to get between Diana and any sharks that came anywhere near her.  They were armed with only a stick, and a fiercely protective attitude towards Diana. I did NOT leave out the word “bang”, when I said “stick”.  No – this was not a weapon that could kill a shark with a bullet or a concussive explosive blast… these guys were armed with a STICK. They used these sticks to push the offending sharks away… to point them in another direction. I seem to hear you asking, so I will tell you… YES.  They were called upon to do this during the September 2011 swim, when an extremely dangerous and unpredictable shark known as an Oceanic Whitetip, showed a little bit too much interest in our activities.  But that is their story, for them to tell… this is my part of the story.

As members of the kayak team, the 6 of us each worked in 3 hour shifts. Each kayaker would be on the water for 3 hours, then off of the water for 6 hours, around the clock.  In our 6 hours of “off” time, we could dry our clothing, get a sponge bath, eat, and catch a little bit of sleep.  These shifts were partially to prevent our fatigue, but it was also to be certain that our shark shield batteries could be recharged in between shifts. This was our whole reason for being there, so keeping our shark shields fully functional was of prime importance.

The kayaker's shift schedule - day one.

Our kayak team leader, prior to the swim, told us that we should not distract Diana by talking to her during the swim. She had handlers on her main support boat, Voyager, that would be talking with Diana during every rest break. She would swim for a pre-set time period, then Bonnie, her #1 support person, would sound 3 long blasts on a whistle, calling her over to Voyager’s starboard side. There, Diana would be given bottles of water, coffee, hot broth, and bite-sized pieces of food. She would be given a warming shower from a water bag that was held over her by one of the assistants. During this entire rest break, communication between Diana and her handlers was vital, and there should be no distractions from the kayakers. Later in the swim, I was to break that rule wide open.

The Cuba to Florida swim was expected to take Diana about 60 hours to complete.  I want to be clear, here.  What I am talking about, is 60 hours of constant physical effort, with no sleep.  Not only is she not able to sleep, but she cannot be physically supported by her assistants, or by the support boat that they are on.  Diana must tread water, or rest while floating.  An observer from the International Marathon Swimming Hall 
of Fame was on the main support boat, watching every moment of the swim, to make sure that these rules were followed to the letter.

Sixty hours of virtually continuous physical exertion is daunting in itself, but there is a mental toll as well.  Sleep deprivation can play havoc with one’s mind.  Diana Nyad knew what she faced, and prepared herself for it mentally, just as she prepared her body for the rigors of the long hours of swimming.  She planned to deal with the mental fog that accompanies the lack of sleep, by creating a “playlist” in her mind.  She has a collection that ranges from sixties sitcom theme music, to popular music, and even some of her favorite books are stored away in that iPod player in her brain.  By the end of the 60 hours, when the mental fog would be closing in on her, she planned to fight it away with the help of Stephen Hawkings.  She would battle the fatigue, and the mental wandering,  by using that wandering to her advantage.  In her mind, Diana and Stephen would be pondering the mysteries of the universe, together, while she continued plying the water to achieve her Extreme Dream.

The swim begins!
One of the kayak team is beside Diana, while the other follows behind closely. You can see Diana in front of the kayaks. To the left of the kayaks, is Voyager's drogue chute. This drags in the water, allowing Voyager to move slowly, without needing to slip into and out of gear constantly. It is much easier to maintain a steady speed.

The weeks prior to the swim were filled with anticipation.  Diana needed a “weather window” of 4 days, for the best wind and wave conditions for crossing the Florida Strait.  The everyday lives of all of the members of the Extreme Dream Team were put on hold, while keeping track of every storm system that approached from inside and outside of the waters between Cuba and the Florida Keys.  The Weather Channel was the first to come on, whenever turning on the TV.  Weather Underground dot-com was one of the places that I visited on the internet, several times per day.  I wore a headset & CD player while working, trying to brush up on my rusty Spanish-speaking skills.  I hoped for a chance to use it while in Cuba.  I knew that most of the team only saw Cuba very briefly during Diana’s August 7th attempt, but a few of us were hoping for a little more time to be able to do some sight-seeing while there.  We were to get that opportunity, albeit, a short one.

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Here is that part that to some, may seem like a dramatized fiction… but it happened just this way. Today’s trip has provided Jim Baldwin with a “catch phrase”, and a story that I am sure that he will be telling, for years to come… and it will go, something on the order of: “Did I ever tell you about the time I was in the 10,000 islands, and…?” Yes. It’s that good.

The day was beautiful… as I mentioned, the tide was with us; we were making great time; we had gentle breezes & good temperatures, and a layer of clouds that kept us from burning up under the hot sun. We had just finished checking out Panther Key, and had started to go around Gomez Point, at the outer tip of Panther. The water was shallow, and we were occasionally bumping our paddles on the bottom, so we were edging away from the shoal, but still in fairly shallow water. Mullet were jumping and splashing here and there, and an occasional ladyfish even jumped high enough for us to clearly distinguish them from the crazed antics of the bellyflopping mullet.  Jacks boiled the surface in their schools from time to time, and suddenly, out of nowhere, one made a 10′ long jump, about 3′ out of the water, and sailed over Brenda’s kayak deck, just in front of where she sat in her cockpit!  “Jumping jacks” is nothing out of the ordinary, but the funny thing about this one was, it went over sideways! I think everyone in the group witnessed the fish’s great leap, and we talked and laughed about it for several minutes afterwards.

We were still abuzz over the excitement of Brenda’s fishy encounter, when I saw  something small and round break the surface of the water, maybe 20′ in front of Jim’s boat. I pointed, and told him that I thought that a small sea turtle had surfaced just in front of his boat. Jim peered in front of his kayak, and gave it a couple of strokes forward, to close the gap. Then he started to say, “That’s a BIG TUR-“

I’ve got to break into this story here, to explain something. There are moments in a person’s life… moments in time… when the events of a few fractions of a second couldn’t possibly fit into the actual amount of time that they are supposed to have taken.  For example: In the fraction of a second between the time that Jim said the two syllables, “tur” and “tle”, I had enough time to realize, before he finished the word “turtle”, that this, indeed, was the complete word that he was about to say. I not only had enough time to think that, but I ALSO had enough time to clearly enunciate, in my mind, the complete thought… “This is extremely shallow water. We are past turtle egg-laying season, aren’t we? And, we aren’t really anywhere near a beach that any proper-thinking, self-respecting turtle would lay it’s eggs on – we’re on the outside of a shoal! So-o-o-o… why in the heck would there be a BIG turtle here?” In the next nano-second, STILL before Jim had a chance to utter the 2nd half of the word, “turtle”, our entire group watched with amazement as Jim’s kayak started to rise out of the water and pitch over to the right side, as a volcano of water began to erupt under him. Sitting, as I was, 10 or 15 feet to his left, and maybe 20 feet behind him, I lost sight of the red color of his boat’s deck as the entire white underside of his kayak appeared, seemingly suspended, over the surface of the water.  The stop-motion nano second ended, as Jim completed the word: “TLE!!!!”

The funny thing about this is, as we had been paddling down the 3 mile canal from Port of the Islands, Brenda, Pete and I had been telling Jim and Paul some of our manatee stories, about our own encounters, and those of our friends. One of these, had been the story of a friend who had encountered a manatee in very shallow water. It had not only bowled him over, but it had cracked his fibreglass kayak hull as well. Up until today’s encounter, though, I think that Jim and Paul had been having a difficult time believing just how fast, and how incredibly powerful, a very scared manatee can be.

Think about it for a moment. You take a kayaker in a 40lb. kayak, and you take a half-ton manatee… put the manatee under the kayak and scare the hell out of the manatee.  Who do you think will come out the winner in that little conflict? Ask Jim. He’ll tell you. And, don’t forget to say to Jim, if you’re ever kayaking with him…

“That’s a BIG turtle!!!”

(note:  Have any doubts about this story?  Watch the accompanying video.  See just how difficult it can be, to spot a manatee.  Then, watch the “eye-opener” at 2 minutes, 14 seconds into the video)