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Nurse Sharks Don’t Bite (Often)

David Yon, June 24, 2018


I have been down to Key West many times.  I even got to know some of Hemmingway’s cats.  Strangely, it has always seemed more like the end of Florida, than an island.  So, when I heard about Bonnie Wright’s quest to swim around the island, my questions were: “Can you do that?” “How far is it?” “How long does it take?” and simply, “How do you do it?” 

It is almost beyond comprehension for me.  When I jump in the water, I count on my feet touching something solid with a few minutes.  If I don’t find it quickly, I start beating the water up, focused on keeping my head above the water.

Bonnie Wright was prepared.  She assured me that “you can swim around the island. In fact, this will be the 42nd “Swim Around Key West.”  The distance for the swim is 12.5 miles around the island.  And finally, you accomplish your goals and complete the swim with a lot of hard work, smart training and a good guide in the kayak. 

For 2018, the swimmers could start at 9:15 a.m. (Wave 1) or 9:45 a.m. (Wave 2).  Swimmers in the first wave were not eligible for awards but had a 30-minute head start to improve their chances of making it to Key West Harbor before the tide in the harbor changed directions.  It is said that only very strong swimmers can make it through the harbor when swimming against the tide.

Bonnie’s serious swimming career did not start until the age of 21.  She described her introduction to swimming:

I learned to swim at age 21 as a way to lose weight. My friend Russ Frydenborg was a pool lifeguard and would coach me as I swam back and forth in front of the life guard stand. I then joined a Masters swim group. I met my husband Felton at the FAMU pool!  He was the guy who would come from work in a business suit and swim in the far lane while I swam with the masters group and played rather robust and loud games of water polo. I’ve since been coached by Bob Ruth, Mary Jane Tappen and Mo Hughes, learning something valuable from each person!  I love swimming and I want to be swimming and competing in my 90’s!

The siren went off for the start of wave 1. Bonnie and her kayak teammate and guide, Vicky Verano, waited nervously for wave 2. The guide plays a critical role in the success of every swimmer, plotting the course, providing nutrition and hydration to the swimmer, keeping the swimmer safe and focused, and providing whatever encouragement is necessary to complete the task.

Finally, the siren went off for the second time and Bonnie was in the water and the team was on its way.  Bonnie’s goal was to stay about 8 feet off the left side of the kayak.  “I had complete trust in Vicky and Lonnie and I owe them a great amount of gratitude. They were the leaders and I followed them wherever they went. I tried to stay about 8 feet off the left side of the kayak since I breathe predominantly on my right side.”

Bonnie continues: 

We started at Smathers Beach, which is about midway on the southern side of the island facing the Atlantic.  We swam clockwise cruising past the Southernmost point of the continental US, into the Gulf of Mexico, by the Coast Guard station, through moored boats, around Dredger Key, a small key on the north side, through a swift moving channel taking us back into the Atlantic and back to Smathers Beach.

The water was about 85 degrees, which is similar to running in 80-90 degrees on humid days.  The water was a beautiful blue-green with a mix of clear views of the sea grass and coral beds to some areas stirred up due to currents and waves.  From mile 1 to about 3 when we entered the Gulf the top of the water had one motion and underwater had a separate and almost opposite motion - it was crazy. Miles 4-8 were relatively calm and miles 8 to 10.5 had a current that gave the swimmers a bit of a push. It became really zippy in the channel leading back to the Atlantic.  

Swimmers do get to share the water with abundant sea life such as tarpon, rays, colorful tropical fish, conch shells on the bottom, perhaps a sea turtle, and more. Runners were told they might see a nurse shark, but not to worry; they are docile. And the Portuguese Man of War, with its very unfriendly venom, only shows up from December through February.  Good thing.

Bonnie’s pre-race training in general went well, with one major exception.  She jumped into a 7.9-mile swim around Lido Key.  The water was rough and the waves made it tougher.  She soon swallowed enough salt water to make her sick and dehydrated, unable to complete the swim. Her longest swim became a pool work out for 6.5 miles.

Thoughts of that failed effort tested her resolve as she became nauseous early in this race and began throwing up again. But this was the race she had trained for and she was determined to finish. Bonnie swam on. Guide and partner Vicky Verano tells it this way:

During the swim she had some issues with nausea, issues that would probably make most people quit. But she was so focused and is so physically and mentally strong that she made her swim appear effortless! When she came to the end of the swim I was back on shore and she swam right up until she could walk and then stood up smiled and collected her finishers pendant. It was an amazing finish to witness!”

Bonnie’s determination never wavered and she stuck with her plan and finished in a great time of 6:17:48 - despite being unable to keep anything down after she got sick and began throwing up.

Tallahassee had two more solo swimmers in the competition and both did well.  The endless fountain of youth (71-year-old) Rick Ashton) finished in 6:52:21 and Tom Findley covered the distance in 6:31:16.   Other Tallahassee folks either relaying or crewing included Vicky Verano, Lonnie Draper, Bill and Kelli Dillon, Mary Jane Tappen, Jim Harrison, John and Susan Nichols, Jeff Ross and whoever (or is that whomever) the nurse shark took home for dinner.