A guide for swimmers breaking boundaries
Lynne Cox has spent more than four decades swimming past the known limits of human capacity. Driven by an explorer’s voracious desire to do what has never been done, and frankly obsessive about mental and physical preparation, she has completed scores of pioneering swims, most famously the frigid Bering Strait in just a suit, cap and goggles.
Now she has channeled her vast expertise on the dangers, joys and logistics of open water swimming into a new book aimed at the exploding ranks of triathletes and other swimmers who are escaping the safe confines of pools.
The book, “Open Water Swimming Manual: An Expert’s Survival Guide for Triathletes and Open Water Swimmers” (Vintage, $15.95), brings together research and advice from a range of experts, including marine biologists, meteorologists, hypothermia scientists, emergency medical teams and even the famously secretive Navy SEALs. She weaves in details and cautionary advice relating to her own swims and those of others, like Steve Irwin, the Australian environmentalist television star, who died while swimming at the Great Barrier Reef when a stingray stung his chest. (“Applying acid, such as orange juice, urine, or vinegar, does not have any effect on the sting.”) A boy’s plunge into a freshwater lake in Finland results in an ear infection, which it turns out was caused by algae growing in his ears. (“Earplugs might have helped.”)
The publication could hardly be better timed. A steep rise in the popularity of triathlons has been swelling the ranks of open water events. Some 1,100 people dashed into the surf off Los Angeles in early August for the two-mile Dwight Crum Pier-to-Pier Swim, up from 586 in 2000. In New York, more than 200 swam around Governors Island and some 70 people circumnavigated Manhattan in relays this summer.
But Ms. Cox, 56, knows something many of them may not grasp. Venturing into wild water is a high-risk endeavor. The exertion can be intense. The environment – a confluence of wind, waves, sun, creatures and self — is unpredictable. Swimmers can inhale too much water, lose too much body heat, overheat, underhydrate, become disoriented. Exiting an ocean swim through surf can subject the swimmer to a maddening swirl of currents and bone-breaking beatings from crashing waves. These situations, she relates firmly, can be life-threatening.
This summer, a 34-year-old British woman, Susan Taylor, died after collapsing near the end of the 21-mile crossing from England to France. In 2010, a 26-year-old Pennsylvania man, Fran Crippen, died near the finish of a 10-kilometer swim in the warm waters off the United Arab Republic.
So Ms. Cox, the product of an artist mother and a father who was a Marine, tempers vision and enthusiasm with methodical, unstinting effort.
“I could think that I could do it, and that’s a great way to help prepare,” she said at a recent lunchtime talk at Google’s New York headquarters. “But if I don’t physically train to do it, then mentally I’m not prepared to do it, and physically and mentally I can’t do it.”
So she includes training advice for beginner, intermediate and advanced swimmers, starting with “shorter” swims of one to three miles and beefing up the miles and intensity for those aiming at the Catalina channel or the Strait of Magellan.
What makes for a trusty crew for distance events? One crucial factor: there must be one person in charge at all times, though the role can be serially occupied. If a swimmer is in jeopardy, whether from the perilous water conditions, physical exhaustion or threatening critters, there must be no arguing among the crew over what to do.
Almost 30 pages are devoted to marine organisms to look out for, including what to do if a swimmer is afflicted by jellyfish, stingrays or tiny irritants that cause so-called seabather’s eruption.
Sharks get their own chapter. Good advice: Be careful what you wear. If swimming near seals or sea lions, don’t wear a black suit, or a predator might mistake you for dinner. Jewelry or metallic swimsuits can attract sharks, too.
The book also includes the Navy SEALs’ five-page Risk Assessment Worksheet, which rates the likelihood and effects of 14 hazards, among them “swimmer-induced pulmonary edema” (seldom, critical) and even “ambulance stuck in sand” (seldom, catastrophic). Part of the point is real safety, and part is clearing the mind, she said. “If you think about the energy you use being anxious,” she said, “just think about how much faster you could be in your race!”
You don’t have to know Ms. Cox long to discover that she relishes her time in the water, and even the moments of danger. In the opening chapter of the manual, a paean to outdoor immersion, she writes of “water song,” the music of breath, body, wind and waves.
And she offers a benediction, elegant in its simplicity, to readers who take up the challenge to leave water within walls and head out into the unknown.
“For many of you, the open water will become a haven, a favorite place to visit, and many of you will discover that no matter where you are in the world, it will always be a place where you feel at home.”