Diana Nyad's incredible 110-mile swim through shark-infested waters
Adapted from FIND A WAY by Diana Nyad. Reprinted by arrangement with The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. To buy the book, click here.
It’s not calm, but the waves are rolling from behind me. I’m pretty happy. I’m into five hundred repetitions of Joe Cocker’s “The Letter.” I hear his rasp.
Give me a ticket for an aeroplane
I ain’t got time to take no fast train
The sun is brilliant, Bonnie and Pauline are standing on the Handler’s platform, Bartlett is head down into his charts at his nav station, Dee is at the wheel, Johnberry is working the hand radio up on the bow, Niko is way up top, arms crossed, surveying the seascape. Don McCumber and Buco Pantelis, my two main Kayakers, are to the side and behind me. I love when the kayaks come sweeping into formation. The one just to my right, at the end of a three-hour shift, drops to the rear position. The rear kayak heads back to his or her mother ship. And a fresh paddler who is coming off his or her rest rotation slips into position next to me. When I need a quick hit of water, rather than going twenty-one feet toward Voyager, the paddler next to me hands me a bottle.
After my Handlers, these are the people closest to me throughout, along with the Shark Divers and Angel, who talk to me during feedings when they are diving. But the paddlers are always there. If I’ve stopped with a problem, they relay it over to Bonnie. I might just need a quick pee or to pull my cap down around the ears. They know me well, the paddlers. They know when to say something encouraging, when to be silent and bring Bonnie or Pauline into it. My good friend Lois Ann Porter serves as the third Handler on this crossing.
The Shark Divers make a sweep under me every now and then. So does Angel Yanagihara, although their vigilance will dial up a hundredfold come nightfall. They seem to me sleek dark creatures as they glide under me, their long fins undulating with easy fluid motion.
This time, as I glance back during feedings each ninety minutes, the Cuban shore is fading away. Yes, I’d like the sea to be calmer, but all in all it’s a good day, Saturday, August 31: what would have been my brother’s sixty-first birthday.
It’s almost as if I’m glancing through a photo album. I picture little Billy, skinny, his cute curly hair always a bit askew. And I see adult Sharif, his filthy raincoat buttoned wrong, his dreadlocks unwashed for perhaps years, but his smile still that little boy we once knew.
During my heart disease phase in high school, Bill was jealous that Liza was bringing me these stacks of library books, and he’d come in and peruse them. He took special interest in the astrophysics. Flash forward forty years, and sometimes we’d sit on a park bench in Boston, stare up at the night sky, and riff. Does the universe extend to infinity? That’s a concept hard to wrap our heads around. Does it have an edge, is it enclosed? For us, that’s even harder. When I tell him the way I read it these days is that both time and space curve, so that if you could look out far enough into space, you would eventually be looking at the back of your head. Sharif stands up in hysterics, slapping his thighs. “That’s it! Eureka! It doesn’t go on forever. It doesn’t have an edge. It curves! Wow, where do you get this shit?” I miss my brother.
I actually spend a lot of my ocean time, especially at night, mystified by my readings of the cosmos. My understanding of the physical universe is at the simplest, most rudimentary level, but it’s been a lifelong interest and there is no playground more fertile to contemplate it all than out here. Just now, closing in on my first twenty-four hours out of Havana, I’m fixating on the fact that this Earth of ours, in concert with all the other matter that spewed out from the Big Bang, is not actually standing serenely still, as it seems to us. No, we are careening through space at unfathomable speeds, along with all the other objects out there, all of us expanding away and away, to one day not have any view or reference to one another. I’m trying to feel the speed as I touch the Earth’s surface with my hands. I’m tripping out. I’m high.
I can go to dinner with like-minded friends who are fascinated with the cosmos, I could take a boat ride out here and look up at the dazzling night sky, but the emotion of swimming all the way out here on my own adds exponentially to the wonderment when musing over it all.
As the sun makes its way down the western half of the sky, I ask Bonnie to discuss with Angel when I’ll need to get all the jellyfish gear on. At the next feeding, she says we should target six-thirty p.m., to be safe. Angel considers a number of factors, such as the time of the astronomical twilight, the number of days after the last full moon, and the depth of shelf formations below us in determining the likelihood of the box swarming at dusk. These variables night to night explain why Penny Palfrey was free from stings her first night but then stung on her second night during her attempt. Angel informs us one of those factors is in play this night and we should prepare for full armor. I am dreading the cumbersome clothing, especially the mask. I have not successfully swum with it for a full twelve-hour period. And that’s what this night is going to demand. We no longer have the luxury of long summer days.
Bonnie and Pauline blow the whistle at six-thirty p.m. sharp. I reluctantly cruise to the side of Voyager. The process of getting all the gear on is certainly faster than it was back in the winter, during SXM training, but it’s still frustrating and tiring. Pulling on those latex surgeon’s gloves alone takes painstaking patience, to edge the latex over wet skin millimeter by millimeter. There are air bubbles at the tips of the fingers. I am kicking pretty hard to keep my hands above the surface and work each finger at a time. Once they’re finally on, I have to lie back to catch my breath for a good minute. I pull on the full-body stinger suit, also an inch-by-inch painstaking proposition. The gloves and booties are taped down, no gaps of skin at the wrists or the ankles. Balancing my legs, one at a time, out of the water for the duct-tape wrap is a big challenge, as always. Now I put the goggles back on. Then the mask. I chomp down on the retainers, make sure the nose pieces are pushed up high into the nostrils. Next I pull on the Lycra hoodie over the mask, both to hold the mask in place and to drape down around the neck for skin coverage there. The final move, putting a bathing cap on over the hoodie, serves to secure it all. I get caught up in being proud of myself for a moment because it took persistence to develop these layers, and now here I am where other swimmers didn’t think possible, about to go into a night among deadly animals, and I’ll be safe. But as I pull the final item tight, the cap, I get back to the grit it’s going to take to make it through the night, encumbered by this unlikely swimmer’s costume. To swim is to be free. I am now hamstrung.
The first stroke gets me back in it. Time to bear down. Don’t grouse. Work through the night. Work.
The next twelve hours are hell on Earth. The waves are slapping all night long. It’s exhausting to press hard with my right hand to push my face high above the surface every breath. Because I can’t judge the feel of the waves on my face, I am thwacked by walls of seawater. I gag. I vomit right into the mask. It’s very difficult, now that my fingers have lost both dexterity and feel—a normal occurrence after many hours swimming in the ocean but magnified by the latex gloves—to pinch the underside of the mask material, pry my teeth from the retainers, and lift it above my nose to clear the vomit. I swim through the entire night, violently seasick. I’m not even capable of looking for daylight. My vision through the mask is down to zero. I can at least be grateful for the red LED lights on the streamer below. I am in survival mode.
Around seven a.m., the whistle stops me and I drag all the jellyfish gear off. The relief is overwhelming. I learn that many of the crew were seasick through the night as well. The interior tissues of my mouth—the insides of the cheeks, the sides and underside of the tongue, the roof—are very tender. There is always swelling and even scraping inside the mouth after long hours in salt water. As the tissue becomes distended with salt exposure and the jaw works to open and close almost once per second, the edges of the teeth start to irritate the tissue. But this feels worse than what I’ve known before. The acrylic of the retainer over the teeth, much as we had worked to shave it down to its smoothest and thinnest layer, overnight had scraped and abraded all that tissue to a point of glaring pain. Salt water washing over those cuts now causes a constant, throbbing torment.
It is daylight. The sun is hot and life-affirming. The canvas of blue sky matching the blue of the Gulf Stream swaddles me in comfort, and I try to focus on the positive. After all, it’s the confidence in the absolute protection of that mask that has allowed me to overcome the fear of dying from the box stings out here. But right now such reasoning is no match for the agony raging inside my mouth. Passing anything over those nasty lacerations hurts, so eating and even drinking become an arduous chore. I wince with every attempt to even get a Shot Blok in my mouth. My three Handlers—Bonnie, Pauline, and Lois Ann—coax me all day long to sip down a high-calorie drink, desperate to replace what I’ve lost from the night’s vomiting, as well as trying to get ahead of further depletion when the mask goes back on tonight. Bonnie calls the Med Team over to Voyager, but they can’t do anything for the cuts while we’re still swimming. What they’re worried about is further swelling at the back of the throat. I mentioned to Bonnie and Pauline when the mask came off that I thought I was experiencing some mild asthma. After the docs spend a few minutes with me, down at the Handler’s station, they’re sure I’m feeling constriction in the throat due to the salt exposure swelling, not asthma. I realize I’m in semi-delirium at this point, but I could swear I hear the phrase “emergency tracheotomy” in the midst of their consultation. Bonnie jokes with them: “Forget about whether she can breathe or not. The tragedy will be if she can no longer talk!” They go back to their mother ship, asking to be apprised if I report that throat swelling becoming even tighter. My mouth is painful, but not a deal breaker. We swim on.
Good news is delivered to me by midday. We are some thirty hours in, and I’m on a feeding, taking a bit more time than we usually do, because of the slow intake of food and liquid. I ask Bonnie if we’re getting in trouble, dragging east because I’m stopping for maybe ten to twelve minutes now, instead of six to seven, on the ninety-minute cycles. Bartlett pops out of his navigation cabin beaming like he just won the lottery. He says we are in a beautiful position, vis-à-vis the current. He’s never seen it so favorable for us out here. He says if I need that extra time on feedings, now is the time to take advantage, in case the current changes direction later and we have to bust hard with very short feeding stops. When John’s happy, we’re all happy. And John is ecstatic.
This calls for some happy tunes. Israel “Iz” Kamakawiwo‘ole’s medley of “Somewhere over the Rainbow” mixed with “What a Wonderful World” takes my mind off my mouth. I sing it all the way through the afternoon, over and over again, Iz’s heavenly voice soothing my innards and my mouth, as we cruise onward!
Someday I’ll wish upon a star
Wake up where the clouds are far behind me
I imagine from a bird’s-eye view, we are a steadily marching flotilla, northing mile by mile, hour by hour. Voyager is the epicenter, two arms of a swimmer off to her right by seven yards, two slim kayaks just adjacent and behind, several dolphinlike Divers plunging and darting around and under the swimmer in their reconnaissance scouting, the four mother ships flanking just behind and off to the side, two by two. We are in sync now. This is the teamwork, the dogged yet dependable progress we all worked so hard to achieve. Just as the swimmer’s arms lift and glide under the surface in a reliable metronomic cadence, each Teammate cycles through performing his or her job with smooth, professional aplomb. We encounter no crises this day, Sunday, September 1.
Toward the end of the day, I can tell my mind is losing its crisp edge. At one point, I ask if we’re going to make it as far as Playa del Carmen, thinking we’re in Mexico. And when Bonnie and Pauline call me in to discuss when we’re going to put on the jellyfish gear, I’m at first upset. I’ve lost track of time and was thinking that we had many hours until dark, but in fact it was five p.m. already. They tell me Angel will do some divg, but she is almost 100 percent sure we will be in less danger of the box tonight. I honestly can’t imagine how that retainer is going to fit in my swollen mouth.
I will need to go full tilt with the suit, the gloves, the booties, the duct tape, but we can forgo the mask; instead, Angel will smear a blob of green Sting No More across my cheeks, lips, nose, neck. I call to Angel. She is still in the water, close to me. I ask her if she is absolutely certain I’ll be safe without the mask. Torturous as wearing the mask will be, I have every reason for my fear of those animals, my memory still rife with the trauma of their stings. Angel quickly debriefs me on why, just twenty-four hours after needing full protection last night, we’ll be at considerably less risk tonight. I don’t like the greasy stuff all over my goggles and cap, but to remain free of the mask is a bountiful windfall, and I roll over onto my back for several deep sighs of relief. Suddenly, all this clothing seems only a minor burden, without having to suffer through the mask another night.
More good news. Heading into darkness, the wind quiets down. It’s not glass but pretty darn close. And on each feeding I call up to Bartlett. With the mask, I had been nearly blind. I had no sight of Voyager, or Bonnie, or even the Kayakers. Only the red LED lights. Tonight I can see more, even through the gauze haze of the gel that has inevitably smeared over my goggles. And I see Bartlett’s head peering out his window, right above the Handler’s station. He gives me a big thumbs-up, that grin still beaming ear to ear. I really don’t know where we are, but I do have the sense that we’re heading in just the right direction.
The body seems to be enduring well, but the mind is losing ground. It seems several hours lumber by after twilight, but I can’t dictate to my mind what I want it to focus on. I want to sing some simple marching songs. “When the Saints Go Marching In.” But I drift far away, and Grace Slick keeps haunting me with:
Go ask Alice
When she’s ten feet tall
I can’t stop. Alice. Hookah-smoking caterpillars.
I can no longer concentrate. I forget where we are and what we’re doing. It was nice and calm for a while, but now it’s very bumpy. When I hear the whistle for a feeding, I can’t seem to make it to the Handler’s platform. I dog-paddle. Hard. But I can’t get there. Then I put my head down and swim a few strokes of freestyle toward Voyager. Hard. But I’m still not there, and I hear Bonnie and Pauline and Lois Ann, with her southern accent, calling me to get over there. I feel I’ve entered Kafka’s Castle world, where K. can never get his bearings, can never arrive at the castle’s gate. I see all four of our Shark Divers are in around me. Is there a shark scare? When I do finally get close to my Handlers, there is a big wall of thick etched glass between me and them. I am mesmerized by the etching. I try to reach out and touch the slick glass, feel the contours of the etched design, but my hand slips through thin air. I see shapes that I think are faces, but they’re distorted behind this glass structure. I hear them, but it’s as if they are calling from a football field away. The chaos is upsetting. We are no longer in the rhythm of swimming with the usual cadence, the usual feeding stops with some welcome banter. I’m confused.
Bonnie yells. Her command voice snaps me back to reality, or semi-reality: “Diana, a storm is sweeping in.”
I yell back, “I’m not getting out this time.”
Bonnie: “We know. We’ve got it covered. The winds are picking up quickly. The Divers are all in with you. You guys are going to go off for a while, until we get through the worst of it. Just tread water. Swim some breaststroke if you need to keep warm. Niko has a compass. He’ll give you a direction. All the boats are heading downwind of you now. You’ll be okay. The guys can’t touch you. But they have water if you need it. Hang in there. Do you understand?”
I am with the four Divers for what I am imagining is about five hours. I learn later it was only ninety minutes. I am hanging on by a thread. At times I start feathering with my hands and thus go under. My mouth is only a half inch above water and I am falling asleep. The Divers circle me and talk to me.
Niko: “Diana. Diana! Come on now. Look over here. Look at me.”
It’s pitch-black. I hear them around me, but I don’t see anything. Not one face, even though they’re right there, just a couple of feet to all sides of me. I am shivering now. My teeth are chattering.
Niko: “Diana, do you want to swim a few strokes, try to warm up?”
Niko: “Can you see this green light?”
Niko has a six-inch vertical strand of a neon-green light. He holds it right in front of me and he kicks backward with his big fins, talking to me constantly as I swim my breaststroke–dolphin kick toward the light.
Niko: “That’s it. Come on. You’re doing great. Right toward the green light. You see the light, Diana? You warming up now?”
It’s akin to hypnosis. The light. Niko’s New York accent. The sensation of safety with the other three Divers around and behind me. I do warm up with even this minor movement. Several rotations of breaststroke and then stopping, feathering, more breaststroke, more vertical hanging, shivering. I ask where Bonnie is. I want Bonnie. I am childlike now. Then I look to my right and, plain as day, in the ebony dark, I see the Taj Mahal. The real Taj Mahal. It looms high and large and very close by, its columns and arches and domes enthralling. I ask Jason, next to me, if he sees it, too. He says he does. I just can’t get back to swimming. I’m so taken with the Taj Mahal. It doesn’t occur to me to wonder what it’s doing out here in the Florida Straits. This is all the more enigmatic because I’ve never been to India, never had any fascination with the Taj Mahal. It’s like waking up from a dream filled with people or places you’ve never given a conscious thought to.
Almost as if a stealth airboat slinking through the Everglades, Voyager suddenly appears to my left. I have a sensation of being in a bog, steam coming off the lily pads, tall reeds shooting up. There is quiet lapping of small waves onto Voyager’s pontoons, but I am thinking Voyager is a dock in the marshy mud. I’m worried alligators are on a silent prowl around us. Bonnie’s voice snaps me out of it. She’s talking to the Divers. The storm is over, and we’re about to resume the mission. It takes me a bit to catch on to what we’re doing. Bonnie coaxes me. I alternate freestyle with breaststroke for a while. When I lose track and mistakenly swim up behind Voyager and disappear under her two pontoons, coming dangerously close to being shredded by the rear engine blades, Bonnie puts a halt to the action. She is sterner than usual.
“Diana! Do you want to blow this? After all the work we’ve done, do you really want to sabotage it all now?”
She has my rapt attention.
“I don’t know how. But you’ve got to use that strong mind of yours.
NOW. Get with it. Focus. Get a number in your head. Start counting. Don’t let your mind wander until you hit that number. DO YOU HEAR ME?!”
She has extricated some bubble of clarity still inside me. The mind is a force, beyond what we know. I literally feel my will kick into gear. I am immediately more awake. I raise both my fists toward her. I do hear her. I have a number in mind, and I go after it.
We are back to doing what we do well. A couple of feedings go by. I’m on a forty-five-minute feeding cycle now, needing calories to stay warm. Bonnie will occasionally call me in even more often, to give me a mental break. The perpetual bathing of the interior of the mouth with salt water all these hours since taking the mask off has seemingly assuaged the pain. I am eating and drinking pretty well, although the stomach is queasy. I’m amazed to look at my arms on the feedings, and underwater at my legs. They are swollen and puffy with salt inflation and sun toxicity. My body is a foreign creature I don’t recognize.
I’m not sure, but I keep seeing it. Right below me is the Yellow Brick Road. Yes, that Yellow Brick Road. I don’t say anything. I’m intrigued. Then I see them. There are people walking the road. I’m squinting, trying to make them out. They’re way down there. Finally, I see them. I do a double take, because it’s not Dorothy and the cast of characters that should be skipping along the Yellow Brick Road. It’s the Seven Dwarfs trudging along with their little knapsacks. I watch them for a while. Then I yell up to Bonnie: “Bonnie! Do you see the Yellow Brick Road and the Seven Dwarfs right under me here?” She peers down where I’m looking and yells back: “Yes, yes, I see them. And you know what’s great about them? They’re going exactly where you’re going. Just follow them, okay?”
Well, I can’t tell you how helpful they are. I follow them for what seems like many hours. I try to remember each of their names. Time flies by, watching them march animatedly down that winding road. As I turn to the left to breathe, my right ear dips toward the ocean floor and I can hear them, faintly, singing and whistling: “Heigh-ho, heigh-ho, it’s off to work we go.”
Now it seems a distant memory, those dwarfs singing. I’m at a new low. I am swimming but barely. I’m shivering while the arms are going through their motions. Usually, I only feel cold while stopped. Even the output of stroking isn’t now enough to stop my shivers. My pressure pushing the hands back is weak. I’m floundering. Bonnie calls me over. She tells me to lift my goggles up, to pull my cap off. This has never happened before. You try never to unseal the goggles, once the face tissue is swollen. You may never get them back on again. The only time we remove the goggles is to get on the mask or if they’re leaking and I’ve got to switch them out. Or, gulp, there is one other reason I’m asked to remove my goggles. I am gripped with fear that I’m going to hear the same bad news I’ve heard four wretched times before: Our only landing point possible is the Bahamas. We have one hundred more hours to make land. It’s over. . . .
But it’s none of that.
Since I’m not doing well mentally, Bonnie has decided to give me a wake‑up jolt of good news, way before she and Bartlett had planned on doing so.
Bonnie: “Diana. Can you hear me? Do you understand me?”
I nod yes. It’s still inky black. I see her vague outline. That mirage wall of etched glass is still there. More important, I hear her.
Bonnie: “I have two important things to tell you. One, you are never going to have to put the jellyfish suit on again. Never.”
That doesn’t register. Does she mean the jellyfish won’t be a problem at all our third night?
Bonnie sees I’m puzzled. She says, “We’re not going into a third night. You’ll never have to put the suit on again.”
Whoa, whoa, whoa! Does she mean, if I can just keep these arms lifting and pressing, we are going to get there at some hour during the coming day? I realize my mind is working slowly, but is this what she means?
Yes, that’s what she means.
I go onto my back for a cry. It doesn’t matter how many hours lie in front of me. Bonnie is telling me it can’t be as many as twenty-four now. I am calculating. I don’t know what time it is but, at the most conservative estimate, she thinks we will finish before seven p.m. I am overjoyed. My goggles are still up on my forehead, tears are gently rolling down my cheeks.
Bonnie allows me that minute of jubilation but quickly reminds me there’s still a long way to go. Much can happen between here and there, so we’ve got to bear down and get back to swimming with regular cadence, normal forward motion now.
As I start to get my cap and goggles ready, Bonnie says, “But there’s something else.”
Me: “Something bad?”
Bonnie: “Something very good. Look ahead. Toward the horizon, but just to the right there. Do you see?”
I lurch up a bit. The storm past, the surface is again flat and calm now. Though my vision is majorly impaired, I see a thin white filament where Bonnie is indicating. It’s the first hint of the sunrise. I’ve been cold, and this means I will soon get to take the jellyfish stuff off and my body will feel the warmth of the sun’s rays.
Me: “It’s the sun!”
Bonnie’s choked up. “No. It’s better than the sun.”
Pause. Long pause. I’m straining, looking. What could be better than the sun?
Bonnie: “Those are the lights of Key West.”
Stunned silence. For thirty-five years I’ve envisioned those lights. For thirty-five years, I have refused to lose faith that one day I would really make it all the way across. Now the tears flow harder.
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