Jellyfish. I had swum the Lowcountry Splash six or seven times, and I had never seen a single jellyfish. I had never heard anyone say they saw a jellyfish. There had never been any mention of jellyfish.
But three miles into the swim, I began to see . . . things . . . floating in the water. And then a blob the size of a baby’s head passed by my face. I was swimming through jellyfish.
I had focused my preparations for the 2019 Lowcountry Splash on hydration and nutrition, not jellyfish. Because the usual start location for the five mile race was unavailable, the race directors had found another site up the river, making the course six miles. Swimming five miles without food or drink is often a bit of a stretch for me; swimming six miles was too much.
Now, I should note that the race always provides water for swimmers: there are boats on the course with water. Plus, the boat at the halfway point would take any food or drink you wanted. But all boats look the same to me from the water, and I didn’t want to get lost or run into a dock looking for the right ones. I made plans to carry my supplies on me.
The week before the Splash, I did some experimenting. It was simple to carry an energy gel while swimming; the little packet would lie flat against my back, held in place by the strap of my suit. But energy gels don’t provide any hydration, and I was more concerned about fluids than food. So I turned to a tried-and-true open water staple: applesauce. Applesauce provides sugar and hydration, and it comes in squeezable pouches. Through trial and error (the details are best passed over), I found that the best place for me to carry it was in the back of my suit, angled so that the top was sticking out and the bottom of the pouch was pointed to the side. Here’s a photo of me from the start of the race rocking the look.
Not only could I carry the pouch this way, I could take it out, consume the applesauce quickly, and stick the empty pouch back in my suit to be thrown away on land.
The days leading up to the swim were unremarkable — except for the heat. The temperature in Charleston reached 101 a few days before the event, a record high for May. The morning of the swim, the race director noted that the water temperature was 82, which is well above average. We were all urged to stay hydrated. I patted the applesauce in the back of suit.
The course takes swimmers down the Daniel Island side of the Wando River to the shipping container cranes, where we cross the channel to the other side to continue down the Cooper River, under the Ravenel bridge, to the finish at Patriots Point. The water at the start was warm and still, but the current picked up as we went along; I could really feel it as I made the crossing. When I checked in at the safety boat on the other side, I took a moment for my applesauce and set off again. Everything was going according to plan.
I first noticed the jellyfish about a mile after the crossing. For a moment, I panicked — but only for a moment. Honestly, I couldn’t panic for very long; three miles into a six mile race, I just don’t have the biochemical capacity for panic.
Instead, I took stock of everything I knew:
- The jellyfish seemed to be your standard South Carolina beach jellyfish.
- I have been stung by jellyfish before, and while I didn’t like it, it was not the end of the world.
- There were no emergency whistles being blown, and therefore this was probably not an emergency.
It occurred to me that getting tentacles in my mouth might be a problem, so I made certain my mouth was closed underwater, but otherwise I just kept going. I would swim a little while without seeing any jellyfish, and then another group would come along. But aside from a brief sting on my foot (I kicked the top of one), I was unaffected.
At the end of the race after we passed the bridge, the water became choppy. If there were jellyfish, I was too busy to pay attention to them. I was coming into the finish too far to the left, but a kayaker directed me in (thank you, kayaker!). And then it was a zip under the finish boom and down the chute to the ladders where a kind person hauled me out, and I was done.
When I got to the water station on the dock, I drank a whole bottle non-stop. Then I picked up a second bottle and drank it more slowly. Unsurprisingly, given the heat, I was a bit dehydrated. As I drank, I thought about climate change.
Warm water is dangerous for swimmers. In 2010, Fran Crippen died of hyperthermia at the age of 26 at a race in Dubai where the water temperature topped 88 degrees Fahrenheit. As a result of his death, swimming authorities have set standards for temperature; USMS, for example, says that an open water race of 5K or longer should not start if the water temperature exceeds 85 degrees F.
But the water temperature itself is not the only danger: warm water attracts jellyfish and other sea life. As our climate changes, we will face new challenges. You can stick an applesauce pouch in your suit to swim an extra mile. But what do you do to prepare for jellyfish?
The Lowcountry Splash is a well-run event in a beautiful location. I’ve swum it in fast years and in slow, in good weather and in bad. And now I’ve swum it in jellyfish. I’ll be back in 2020 to see what the river comes up with next.