Adventures in open water swimming #4: Of wetsuits and jellyfish

Editor’s note: Before I begin this post, I wanted to say hi, welcome, wilkommen, bienvenida, bienvenue, and holy shit, there are a lot of new readers here.  I am sorry that I was not able to respond to every comment, but I got overwhelmed.  I did read all of them, though, and thank you to all of you who said nice, supportive things about my post.  Y’all know how to make a lady feel good. 🙂

Wetsuits are controversial in the sport of triathlon.  There are concerns that some people wear them as sort of a crutch, to make up for a lack of swimming ability and allow less than skilled swimmers to take part in races they are not adequately prepared to do.  It’s easy enough to see how this might be the case, as a tri-specific wetsuit is made up of a rubberized neoprene that basically turns you into a cork.

That’s not the only advantage that can be conferred by a wetsuit.  The wetsuit compresses your body quite a bit, which can make you more streamlined (think of a boat’s hull).  Of course, the advantages can be offset by the fact that it takes longer for you to get through your first transition, and so some triathletes don’t bother with them for shorter distances.

Unless, of course, they have to swim in water that is cold as balls.  That’s when everyone – even the naysayers – whip them out.  In this regard, wetsuits are unequivocally awesome.  They let you swim in water that would normally turn your blood into a cherry slurpee.

When I bought one last year, it was for this reason.  There was the possibility that St. Anthony’s would be wetsuit legal, plus my training was going to have to start in the middle of winter.  Granted, this is Florida winter, which is really like spring everywhere else, but still, it gets kind of chilly. But keep in mind, we Floridians tend to be acclimated to temperatures that hover between “broiler” and “surface of the sun,” with a healthy dash of humidity to keep everything feeling nice and sticky, so anything below 65 feels like a deep freeze to us. As a result, very few Floridians go into the water in February.  (If you see anyone in the water at that time, you can be assured that person is most likely a Canadian.)  But we needed to train, and laps at the indoor Olympic distance pool – while useful and practical – are not exactly the same as swimming in Tampa Bay or the Gulf of Mexico.

The first time I wore the wetsuit into the Gulf, the day was blustery and kind of gross, and the sky and water were the exact same shade of primer gray.  The water temperature was something like 63 degrees, and I cannot lie – I was totally whimpering at the prospect of willingly walking into the water and swimming for thirty minutes.  My only small solace came in the knowledge that I was most likely not going to encounter a single piece of marine life while out swimming.

I had Brian zip me into my wetsuit and squirmed until it felt…well, not comfortable but okay.  Like I said, the wetsuit compressed my body, including my chest and around the base of my neck, which is totally a super feeling when you are about to go for a swim, an activity that requires deep regular breathing.  I wondered if this was how female superheroes felt, except with less cleavage.  (A lot less cleavage.)


The first step into the water felt like my feet were being stabbed a billion times with hot needles, but even though my whole body was like “fuck this shit, let’s go home and crawl under a thousand blankets” I forced myself to keep walking, the cold water seeping its way under the hems of my wetsuit. I knew that taking it slow meant prolonging the agony, so I pulled on my swim cap and my goggles and dove in.

You know the cliche about being so cold it took your breath away?  That was exactly how I felt once that water hit my face.  I surfaced and screamed, then started gasping for air.  Brian yelled to start swimming, that it would warm me up, so I started paddling.  The entire time, I was telling myself that if Lynne Cox could swim the Bering Strait in a regular swimsuit, I could deal with the Gulf of Mexico in a wetsuit. (It’s amazing how much thinking about athletes I admire helps out in times like this.)

As I moved, more water made its way under my suit, until I had a thin layer of water between me and the rubberized neoprene.  But then check this out – my body heat quickly warmed that water up, and so it was like swimming while encased in my own little Caitlin-sized hot water bottle.  My arms and feet and head were still exposed, but I could deal with that.  And here’s another thing – and this is gross and maybe TMI? – but peeing in my wetsuit helped too.  Certainly it took me a second to get used to the feeling of warm pee rushing up my backside, which was a sensation I hadn’t experienced since I was probably like one and had hoped I would never experience again, but you know, drastic times (like swimming in 63-degree water) call for drastic measures (like peeing all over yourself).

So there I was, swimming in my personal hot-water-and-pee bottle while the gulf waters chopped all around me, and after ten minutes or so, I realized I was actually having fun.  Well, actually it wasn’t so much that I was having fun as much as I felt like a total badass, which is an intoxicating sensation that can make even the most miserable situation seem perversely enjoyable.  (I suspect you know this feeling, too.)   I was so exhilarated by the experience of being in that cold water that when I finished my swim, I wasn’t ready to get out.  So instead I stayed in the water and bodysurfed for another ten or fifteen minutes while Brian finished the rest of his swim.  I caught a couple of curious looks from retirees who were taking their morning constitutionals along the beach, but I didn’t care – I was having too much fun.

I only wore the wetsuit a handful more times – including two races – before the water warmed up enough to go without.  Even though the wetsuit gives me buoyancy, I’ve found that I prefer swimming without it, for the simple fact that I feel like I can breathe better without it.  Of course, warmer water means a different challenge – MORE SEA LIFE.

Actually, the funny thing about sea life, which is what seems to scare the bejesus out of non-swimmers more than just about anything else, is that I have found, over the past year or so, that most sea life either does not give two fucks about humans or it is more terrified of us than we are of them.  I know, I know – you’re thinking that’s awfully easy for me to say.  Let me tell you, the first time I ever went snorkeling, about five years ago, well before I decided to conquer my fear of open water swimming, we swam over a shipwreck in Grand Cayman, and I spent the entire time trying to dodge all of the inch-long tropical fish that swarmed around us.  Seriously.  A tiny little fish would swim near my face and I would reflexively contort my body into a gigantic flesh pretzel to keep it away from me.  I know I looked totally absurd because I’d catch Brian looking at me, laughter literally bubbling up through his snorkel as he watched me awkwardly dart around a fish the size of my thumb.

But what I finally came to understand on my most recent snorkeling trip in Key Largo was that pretty much no fish – not a scary barracuda, not a huge ugly grouper, and especially not those teeny little zebra-striped fish – wants to tangle with a human being.  Hell, we saw a goddamned bull shark while we were in the water and that thing could not have possibly cared less about us.  I mean, this was what it was like as it swam past us:

4db77_ORIG-look_at_all_the_fucks_i_giveExcept, you know, it was a shark.

That’s not to say I have been free of my tangles with marine life.  During the aforementioned snorkeling trip, when I turned around to swim-flee the shark and swam face-first into a big jellyfish.  Go figure, right?  Survive an encounter with a shark only to get fucked up by a sack of sea phlegm.

A couple of months later, during a triathlon swim clinic, I swam through a bloom of transparent jellyfish, which didn’t sting as much as they bounced off me.  I have since learned that this is the most likely outcome of a human-jelly encounter, because most jellies don’t have venom strong enough to be felt by humans.


Miraculously enough, neither of these instances have kept me out of the water.  (Compare that to me before a year ago, when being grazed by a blade of sea grass was enough to make me cry.)  I’ve come to love being in the water so much that I guess I just kind of shut my brain down to the possibility of getting stung by a jellyfish again.

Which is why I was shocked out of my skull when, in the last thirty seconds of a half-mile open water swim, I propelled myself directly into a patch of jellyfish.  One second I was focusing on keeping my elbow high and trying to sight the buoy, the next second I felt like I was on fire.  It reminded me of one evening, shortly after I moved to Florida, when I accidentally sat down on a red anthill.  I didn’t realize what I had done until a few seconds later, when the red ants, in an act of choreographed brutality, stung me all over my legs at the exact same millisecond.

I started screaming – “What the fuck! I’m done, I’m done, I’m getting out! Augh, it hurts! It hurts!” – but Brian apparently didn’t hear me, because I saw his head continuing to bob up and down in the waves as he made his way to the final buoy.  I had reached the official point at which “fuck this shit, I’m out” becomes the only acceptable option, so I turned for shore and swam until I could touch the sand.

Once I could stand up and had my body out of the water, I examined my skin and saw these red marks all over my shoulders and sides.  I peeked down my bikini top, and sure enough, those stupid jellies had stung all over my Grand Tetons, including the summits, if you know what I mean (and I think you do).  I briefly felt sorry for myself and my poor boobies, which had been assaulted so indifferently by those little gelatinous assholes.

Fortunately, unlike my red ant bites, which itched and formed blisters that popped and oozed clear liquid when I scratched them, the burning sensation from the jellies had vanished in a matter of minutes, and the marks were gone by the next day.  All I was left with was the memory of my terror, which seemed so out of proportion to what had actually happened.  I mean, I regularly make the decision to subject my person to things that are more painful than that, and even worse, I pay for the privilege.  (Like tattoos, hello?  That needle gun doesn’t feel like silk stockings and kitten whiskers, you know.)

I came to the conclusion that two things made the jellyfish situation way scarier than a tattoo.  One, it was unexpected.  I had no idea it was happening until it was happening.  Two, the pain was inflicted on me by what one of my fave science writers Natalie Angier has called “ultimate other, as alien from us as mobile beings can be while still remaining within the kingdom Animalia.”  Any kind of pain inflicted by an animal is going to suck, but that goes doubly when the animal is as downright weird and alien as a jellyfish. (Honestly, if I ever encounter a Portuguese man of war, I may die of fright right then and there.  Those things are wickedly bizarre-looking. Can we arrange for those to go extinct instead of, say, polar bears?)

But this is the thing – for people who swim in the open water, jellyfish stings are a part of life.  They happen all the time.  In fact, they happen so often that a website has been set up explicitly to track jellyfish stings from around the world.  And while some of those suckers can be extremely painful – and even sometimes kill people – more often than not the pain goes away fairly quickly.

That risk of potentially getting stung by a jelly yet again is one I am willing to take, because I have come to love swimming in the open water so much.  I mean, I was back in the water the following weekend.  (How’s that for getting back on the horse?)  I didn’t even have my gear for swimming – my goggles or my swim cap or even an actual swim suit – but as soon as we got there, I ran into the water and sidestroked out to the swim buoys, my sunglasses perched atop my head, and floated around out there for a while.  The day was so perfect for swimming – clear, aqua water with brilliant blue sky over head – and I watched my legs kick gracefully under the water, feeling a little bit like a mermaid as I did so.

It was remarkable to see how far I’d come in the past year.  Eleven months ago, I was barely making it out to the buoy, my mind wracked by paroxysms of anxiety the whole time.  Now I was swimming that distance without giving it a second thought.  (Much the same has happened with pool swimming. I went from barely being able to swim from one end of my condo complex’s forty-foot pool to the other.  Now I swim between 1750-2250 yards twice a week.) I went from being a bottom-half swimmer to coming out of the water in the top third in my last triathlon.  I am contemplating signing up for a one-mile ocean swim race next weekend.  I think I’d even like to try a 5K swim race sometime.  I read about open water swimming all the time, and even get a daily news digest from Open Water Source.  (I know, I am such a nerd.)

What makes it even more remarkable is that I managed to overcome this fear through sheer force of will.  I wanted to do triathlon so badly that I forced myself to get in the water, time after time, and I made myself swim even though it scared the crap out of me.  Of course, sometimes open-water swimming still scares the crap out of me and I also know I have so much to learn, but what matters most is that I have the desire.  That’s where it all begins – with the desire.


Previously on “Adventures in open water swimming”

20 responses to “Adventures in open water swimming #4: Of wetsuits and jellyfish

  1. I actually think the most frightening moment of my life occurred when I was in open water with a host of jellyfish. It was terrifying and I thought I was going to die, because there were hundreds of them and the kept bumping into me. There was a pretty bad storm the night before though, and considering I did not get stung by any of them, I think that most of them were either unconscious or dead. It was horrifying. Good for you for getting back in the water!

    • Oh my god, that sounds awful. Dead or not, jellyfish are freaky as all hell. Also it’s entirely possible that the venom just wasn’t strong enough for you to feel it – because even dead ones can still sting – but even so, who wants to be touched by those things at all?

  2. I invite you to come paddleboarding off the south coast of England if you need cold 🙂 But totally doable in a 5mm wetsuit.

    I was told (when I learned diving) (a) not to pee in your wetsuit unless you’re totally desperate because it actually cools you down (?) and (b) sharks don’t generally give a shit about you, but if in doubt, stay below them. Not particularly useful advice for swimmers though…

    Brilliant to see how much progress you’ve made in that time! Awesome willpower!

    • If I ever find myself in desperate need of a nice reminder of what cold actually feels like, I’ll make sure to do that.

      Good to know about the peeing-in-the-wetsuit thing. The last thing I want to do is make myself colder. I will say that it’s not something I set out to do, but rather something that I needed to do, and I wasn’t all that enthused about crawling out of the water, unzipping the suit and zipping it back up again when I was done. I didn’t realize it could be counterproductive though.

    • Can you cite your sources on the pee thing? I always pee surfing, and everybody I know pees diving if they’re not using a drysuit. I’ve also always learned that getting your pee OUT means you have less thermal mass to keep warm internally, which means you stay warmer, but that’s from climbing/camping/hiking spheres of interest. If I’m wrong about this I’d really really really like to know how it works so I can use this!

    • You should see my face right now. Just a total mask of horror. OMG. I am now more grateful than ever that I don’t live in south Florida AND that I am on a part of the Gulf Coast that for some reason doesn’t get big populations of jellies.

      Also, thank you for sharing that link! You are right – very fascinating.I should have known that you’d be able to drop some knowledge on me about marine life.

      FWIW I don’t actually wish man of wars would go extinct, but I can’t deny that they terrify me just about worse than anything (except maybe box jellyfish…oh, and ocean sunfish, but the odds of me encountering one of those are pretty much nonexistent).

      • I don’t defend their awfulness- I too am completely terrified of man-o-wars, more so since I discovered that they actually have no form of mobility and therefore they can’t steer away from humans. I would feel much better if they could paddle away from swimmers!

      • Right?! Because if they had SOME control I’m pretty sure they’d be trying to get away from people, just like pretty much everything else in the water.

        That’s why stingrays don’t bother me too much. I know that as long as I do the stingray shuffle, they’ll stay away, because those things want to get stepped on even less than I want them to sting me.

  3. I thought peeing was a well known warming up technique! Great post again, glad you’re enjoying it – I’m looking forward to starting open water swimming again this year.

  4. Wonderful post, Catilin — congratulations on your swimming progress!

    Had to laugh at your description of the water temp, though. I swim in San Francisco Bay year round — no wetsuits, please! — and we call the rare phenomenon of 63-degree water “so warm you don’t need the sauna afterward.” (It’s about 59 now.)

    • Oh man, you must think we are a bunch of first-class wusses, don’t you? Honestly, it’s amazing how being warm year-round has really killed my ability to tolerate cold. I imagine I could build it back up again but right now, it’s pretty much non-existent.

  5. Jellyfish scare the bejeezus out of me!

    Also, that picture of you made me think you had an awesome punk hairdo, but then I realized there was a palm tree behind your head. 🙂

  6. Ha ha, I’d definitely be the canadian swimming in February! I spent some time in Florida and it was a beautiful but bizarre form of hell, but I loved being able to swim in the ocean every day. I could not believe the amount of random men trying to pick me up at the beach who were afraid of open water swimming, had never learned to swim, afraid of sharks who would be way way out deep, not close to shore. So, I’d just swim away blissfully.
    However, I live in the pacific northwest, so I know a thing or two about wetsuits. I have to wear full length winter suits, in the summer. On the warmest summer days, the water can be beyond frigid, so I have to endure the burning/freezing needles that sting through 4,5 ml wetsuits, the frigid cold that enters the wetsuit….oh how I cannot wait to pee. I used to swim more regularly here, but then it just became too difficult, though I love open water swimming.
    Jellyfish, there are lion’s mane here and they can get massive, lucky so far. That’s one thing about Florida that I pretended did not exist, big bad stingy jellyfish..only saw one.
    The pacific northwest has massive blooms of moon jellies whom do not sting at all and they are fun to swim with.
    Lynne Cox is amazing!

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