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Monday, Aug. 14, 1978, 8 p.m.:
After she had been swimming for an entire day, she began hallucinating. She had a panicky delusion that a barracuda swam in the cage. Her crew assured her there were no barracudas in the straits. By 8 o’clock of her second night in the water, the wind was at 18 knots and she bounced and dove over ocean swells seven feet tall. Now there were lizards in the cage. Eventually, she imagined she was in a deep cave, and all she could see were stalagmites.
Over the past year, she has trained by swimming from point to point and island to island in the Caribbean. On one occasion, she swam from her base in St. Maarten all the way to Anguilla — a ferry ride for tourists. While she swims, her thoughts range from deeply esoteric to silly. Once, she sang the theme from the “Beverly Hillbillies” to herself 2,000 straight times.
“As an endurance athlete there isn’t a moment where you say: ‘Oh God, this feels great. I wish this would never stop,’ ” she says. “You’re not in that space. Now that doesn’t mean I don’t feel some huge pride when I pick a destination to swim to that’s a trip in a boat or a plane.”
If Nyad has lost anything to age, she figures she can make up for it with science. This time when she launches her Cuban expedition she will have a support flotilla of 25 experts, including navigators and weather-routers to help her avoid the miserable conditions she faced last time. She has hired renowned Annapolis-based satellite oceanographer Jenifer Clark and her husband Dane, a meteorologist, the acknowledged experts on Gulf Stream conditions. They will use infrared, satellite altimetry and surface isotherm data, and other oceanographic analysis to find her a calm three-day period, with the warmest water temperatures to ward off hypothermia, as well as favorable wind patterns and currents.
“Thirty years ago it was like the dark ages,” Jenifer Clark says. “Now we have so much information we can make a masterpiece out of nothing.”
Even so, according to Dane Clark, the projections are just that and the forecast could be wrong. Nyad’s logistics complicate matters — she needs enough notice to get her team to Cuba and in place, which could cost her precious calm. Nevertheless, they are confident they can give her a decent window to make a successful swim. Normally they provide advice for large vessels, but they have become charmed by Nyad, for whom they are working for a nominal fee.
“She’s about my age,” says Jenifer, 65. “It’s vicarious.”
Perhaps the most intriguing scientific advance Nyad has working on her behalf is something called a “shark screen,” which will liberate her from the cumbersome cage. Two kayakers with devices that generate electric waves will paddle alongside her to ward off the tiger sharks, bull sharks and white-tips that patrol the straits. The waves create a buffer that the sharks will not cross.
Three decades ago the remedy for a jellyfish sting was an ammonia rub, and for energy she drank Perrier laced with dextrose. Now she will have powerades, gels and powders, and the medical attentions of Broder, a friend who enjoys marathons when he is not serving as an obstetrician and a clinical professor at the UCLA School of Medicine. Broder has steeped himself in endurance training theory and carefully tracks Nyad’s physical state, weighing her, and measuring her fluid loss.