Over 30 years since her last big swim, Diana Nyad (61) is back in the water. The former commentator for NPR’s Morning Edition and current sports commentator for NPR affiliate KCRW-FM LA, she became well-known in the ‘70s for her swim around Manhattan Island and, a few years later, for swimming from the Bahamas to Florida.
Nyad actually tried the Cuba swim once before — in 1978, when she was in her late 20s. She was in the water for more than 40 hours before she was forced to quit. Strong currents and high winds in the Florida straits pushed her off course, making a landing in Florida impossible. She tells NPR that experience taught her that it’s crucial to have someone aboard who understands the currents.
“You can take any boat across,” she says. The real question, she says, is: “Can you take a swimmer across? Can you navigate that Gulf Stream and the eddies off Cuba and the tides off Florida? And every time I stop in the Gulf Stream to take my nutrition, I’m being dragged to the East. So, it’s a tricky navigational proposition.”
She’ll soon be attempting a 103-mile swim from Cuba to Key West. Meanwhile, she’s been training relentlessly — with 9-hour, 15-hour, even a 24-hour swim.
She needs the water in the Florida straits to be as warm as possible — hopefully in the high 80s. Once she takes off from Cuba, she’ll swim for at least two-and-a-half days straight — an estimated 60 hours — without a wet suit. Hypothermia is a concern when just a few tenths of a degree can make a big difference.
She also wants calm seas. Nyad says she hopes to begin her marathon swim in a dead, flat calm.
“We’re looking for that magic they call the doldrums,” she says. “Then you glide across the surface. Your legs aren’t working to get up to get a breath. Your arms aren’t slapping and boxing the surface. You’re just above it.”
Nyad will also bring along a team of kayakers and divers with a singular mission — to keep sharks away. The kayaks will have electronic shark repelling devices. The divers are there as a backup to drive off any sharks that become too inquisitive — especially oceanic white tips, an aggressive species common in the Caribbean.
So far one person — Australian Susie Maroney — successfully completed the Cuba to Key West swim, but that was in a shark cage — a massive enclosure that circles and protects the swimmer. Nyad plans to do her trip without the cage.
“I have nothing against that,” she says. “Those are dangerous white tips out there. It’s no joke…I just want to swim in the clear, open ocean with all the elements.”
She was ready last year, but permission from Cuban and U.S. authorities came through late in the summer — and the weather didn’t cooperate. Now, within the next few weeks, she expects to complete her dream — and at the same time set the record for the world’s longest unassisted ocean swim.
Photo credit: Les Neuhaus for NPR