Recently a record was broken. Records aren’t broken so often anymore. The rise of the the world’s population and technology have ensured most things have been discovered, conquered and acquired. But a few remain and the tenacious Diana Nyad on her fifth arduous attempt in 35 years has swam herself into the record books. She swam alone and without the security and safety of a shark cage from communist Cuba to the welcome arms of thousands of elated fans in the good old US.
How did she do it? What kind of team does it take to make this happen? You won’t believe it until your read it. We sat down with Roger McVeigh, a Zenner and one of Diana’s support crew to hear how it was done.
1. How did you get involved as a crew member?
I was fortunate enough to get introduced to her through a friend of a friend while she was in Key West last summer training and making her 4th attempt I first met her at a crew planning meeting on her birthday in August 2012 (pic of me, Diana & Betsy Langan at her Bday party).
At that time, she was very encouraging to me as I was training for my first Ironman and asked if I might be willing to help on her next attempt (she liked my mojo and responded to my upbeat spirit, she said).
My role was in support of Key West Ground Ops, mainly to assist to make sure the team made it into KW and onto the boats to Cuba and afterwards to help coordinate the finish and the media.
We stayed in touch earlier this summer. On Thursday morning, August 29, 2013, she called me about 11 am to ask if I could join the team as an official observer and be at a KW marina by 4 pm for the boat trip to Havana
She had just learned that her official observer was in Japan and could not make it to Key West in time to travel by boat to Havana.
I said YES!
It was a long slow boat ride to Havana, taking about 18 hours (we didn’t leave the docks in KW until about 8 pm Thursday arriving at Marina Hemingway 1 pm the next day); we spent about 12 hours in Havana, going through customs/immigration, attending a press conference, having a team meeting, grabbing something eat, and grabbing the last bit of sleep we would have before loading the boats at 5 am Saturday morning.
It was a grueling 53 hours (from Havana to Key West) in the middle of the Florida Straits with very little sleep, no shower and very little healthy food.
On the other hand, nobody on the team was complaining as we watched her determination in attacking this seemingly insurmountable challenge.
2. As an avid swimmer and triathlete yourself what did you perceive were the biggest challenges?
The biggest challenges from an athletic standpoint were mental (how to keep moving forward for 53 hours, repeating the mantra’s, “Onward” and “Find A Way” and playing her own 85 song long list in her head from memory) and nutritional as well as battling the elements, storms, waves, currents, jellyfish, sharks, etc.
One of her golden rules which was never broken by any team member was never let her know or hear how far or long she had been swimming or how long or far she had left to go.
She stopped for nutrition for several minutes along the way on intervals that began at 45 minutes and sometimes were as short as 30 minutes. She had a 3 person handler team (always two of the three were on duty) that provided hydration (water) and other nutrients consisting of a brown homemade sports drink consisting of water, Hammer Endurance. Honey, Peanut Butter and Electrolytes.
Some solid food was taken in later in the swim as needed which included Clif Shot Bloks, Warm Soup, and Scrambled Eggs.
She used an underwater pseudo lane line to keep following the boat and going in the right direction; it was basically a long 4’ wide strip of sail held by a 20 foot boom on the starboard side of the boat. It was held down by a weight in the front and trailed backwards as the boat moved; this allowed the boat to chart and maintain a course and for her to follow; it also included a strip of red led lights that made it visible at night; because white light attracted jellyfish and other predators and made night vision difficult, only red amber lights were allowed on Voyager at night.
She was protected by two kayakers at all times (a team of kayakers on one of the support boats (Phat Dolphin) did 3 hour shifts); these kayaks had shark shields dangling from their bow that put out a current to deter sharks (these devices only had a range of about 10 to 15 feet).
We also had a team of shark divers on another vessel (Kinship) and 2 shark divers were on Voyager, her primary escort vessel, at all times free diving under her and in front of her about every 15 minutes and during each feeding and nutrition break (carrying sticks to use to deter the sharks).
Another of the two remaining vessels (Sentimental Journey) carried about 5 or 6 boat captains who would take turns piloting Voyager in 2 hour shifts.
The fourth and last support vehicle was Dreams Come True, which carried a special satellite internet connection, and included a social media team of 4 individuals, our Jellyfish expert Dr Angel Yagahara and the observers (me and one other observer).
Our job as observers was to watch to ensure that she complied with the endurance swimming rules to secure the world record (no touch or assistance along the way); we started at 3 hour shifts and then stretched them to 6 hours, one of us being present on Voyager from start to finish.
Each of the support boats also had 3 captains on board to share the piloting duties
Overall team consisted of about 35 individuals.
The regular team on Voyager for the entire trip included the Navigator, the Chief of Operations, a Captain, 2 of her Handlers, 2 Shark Divers, and an Observer (about 8 individuals).
3. Was there any time that you thought she wasn’t going to make it and if so what were the circumstances?
The first night (Saturday evening) was very rough and she was seasick from swallowing lots of saltwater and had bad lacerations inside her mouth from wearing the special mask designed to protect her from jellyfish stings (especially the debilitating box jellyfish)
She had trouble taking in fluids and holding anything down Sunday morning, but she started to recover feeling good about swimming in daylight without the jellyfish suit and mask.
As we approached darkness on Sunday evening, her primarily handler and coach, Bonnie Stoll decided that she could start the evening without the jellyfish mask using only a cream on her face to repel jellyfish stings; this was in recognition that the divers and jellyfish expert had not been encountering many jellyfish on their regular 15 minute dive intervals
After 4 previous tries, she had lost a good many crew members over the last several years, leaving a core team surrounding her that believed in her and the Xtreme Dream.
4. Can you describe the events around the time you knew it was going to be a success?
Sunday was a good day as the seas were reasonably calm, no storms on the horizon, and the brutal 3 to 4 knot gulf stream currents started to go our way.
Generally these currents run swiftly from west to east making it likely that we would end up in the middle or upper keys, if we made it to the other shore.
Luckily, we were able to find several edy’s within the stream that had a northeasterly flow; at this point, even though we were pointing due west and she was swimming at only 2 mph or less, we were making consistent progress north at about 4 mph.
We had a big scare at about 11 pm Sunday evening when several squalls came up in hurry with winds blowing up to 40 knots with lots of lightening and waves.
I was on Voyager at the time and we quickly went into storm protocol, which meant all 6 shark divers in the water surrounding her (red lights on swim caps) and kayaks back to their kayak vessel, and allowing her to drift away from Voyager until the storm subsided, about 90 minutes later.
Once the storms were done (about 1 am Monday) and we started to get within 20 to 30 miles of land, we sensed success as we started to pick up cell coverage and could see the small glow of light on the horizon which was Key West.
5. What was the atmosphere like on Smathers Beach at the finish?
Bedlam, although not really expected until we reached shore; much to our surprise, it looked like we were in fact going to make it to Key West (instead of points further east)
At about 2 miles out, she stopped, all of our boats pulled close for her to give one last brief pep talk and thank you to the team.
One of the most critical team responsibilities at this point was to protect her as she had to reach shore and exit the water without assistance or anyone touching her.
As we continued to get closer, we ferried each of the support boats and crew to the beach to form two lines surrounding her and to keep spectators and well-wishers from touching her until her feet were on dry sand.
This turned out to be quite a challenge as a crowd of about 2 thousand had gathered to cheer her ashore.
She summed it all up when she popped out of the water after almost 53 hours of swimming and said she only had three things to say; (paraphrasing) she has learned, 1) To never ever give up, 2) You are never too old to chase your dreams, and 3) Though swimming seems like an individual sport, it is all about the team.