Local swimmers will fight waves, wind, current, sunburn and jellyfish in Alligator Lighthouse swim

Don’t be surprised if Erica Takahashi has been researching breeding season for jellyfish in the Gulf of Mexico. She and three other Cincinnati swimming enthusiasts are headed to the Florida Keys in September to compete in an eight-mile swim.

They’ll fight choppy waves, the wind, the current, sunburn and jellyfish. Erica read that vinegar keeps them at bay. So maybe she’ll keep the vinegar close by.

Erica, Ashley Arnold, Meghan Hayden, and Joe Hykle will compete September 10 in the “Swim for Alligator Lighthouse,” in Islamorada, Florida. The course is four miles out to the historic lighthouse, turn and four miles back. Each swimmer has someone in a kayak by their side to guide them and feed them throughout the course. All four have competed in endurance events, like triathlons and Ironmans and are avid swimmers.

Hopefully race day won’t be during jellyfish breeding season. Ashley watched a movie about a girl doing her swim who ran into chains of them, “like twenty connected at a time.”

“So now we have to look up when they’re breeding,” Erica said, half-joking.

“Sea life doesn’t bother me,” Meghan said. “I might go diving for silver dollars.”  Her big worry is sunburn.

As if sunburn, jellyfish, and choppy waves aren’t enough to deal with, Erica, 30, suffers from thalassophobia, a fear of open water.

“It’s just a barrier to being able to accomplish something,” she said. “Whether it’s the training, the fear, the time commitment. They’re all just barriers.”

Being surrounded by hundreds of other swimmers will also help. In 2021, there were 600 participants, 140 of them solo swimmers. This year, organizers expect about 500 total swimmers, coming from 40 different states and as far away as Canada and Australia.  

They race starts at 7 a.m. There are buoys every quarter mile. Swimmers have to find their kayaker within the first mile. The maximum time to finish is eight hours. The winners usually finish in about four hours.

During the race, the kayaker and swimmer have to be in sync. The swimmer can’t touch the kayak and the kayaker can’t help the swimmer. They have to toss them their water, toss them their food, maybe wrap a banana to the outside of a water bottle.  They also have to track the time. Their big job is keeping them swimming in a straight line.  

In a pool, it’s easy. “You roll on your back and it’s easy to eat stuff,” Erica said. “But in the ocean, it’s got to be quick things, easy to grab and go. Base plan: liquids. Backup plan: solids. At mile six or seven, I’m going to grab a Coke. I’ll need caffeine and sugar.”

Of the four, Joe, 69, is the only one who doesn’t have a long history of swimming. “I’m not really intimidated,” he said. “We started training last September. This is like an Ironman (triathlon). It’s like anything else. I know what I need to do to get there.”

Joe started swimming when he started doing triathlons, working his way up to a 2.4-mile swim. “Between swimming, biking, and running, swimming was my least favorite. It has taken years for me to get to becoming an average swimmer.”
He spends 15 hours a week cycling, weight training and swimming. Doing something big isn’t new to him. Two years ago, he and two friends rode their bikes 4,228 miles, from Oregon to Virginia, on the Transamerica Trail, as a fundraiser.

Read about it here: Local cyclists bike 4,228 across the country during the pandemic

So then how did he get persuaded to do an eight-mile swim event?  Erica found out about the race from someone who swam with the Masters Swim team at the M.E. Lyons branch of the Greater Cincinnati YMCA. “He got stung by so many jellyfish and that lead to Joe asking what the race was about and then the next thing we know it turned into a good idea,” Erica said. They discussed it among the group and the decision was made to sign up.

Originally, they were going to do it as two-person replay teams (two people, two teams). Then they all decided to do it solo. “This was not on my bucket list,” Joe said. “An eight-mile swim in the ocean in September, heat, waves, wind, jellyfish. It has everything you could ask for. If I’m going to do something on this scale, it’s now.”

The four have been doing a vigorous regimen of training in the pool at the Blue Ash YMCA, between two and five hours at a time. They also cross-train to build core strength and endurance. Then there’s the aspect of swimming with waves, which can be extreme, taking in saltwater which will swell the tongue and the aforementioned jellyfish stings.

In June, Ashley, 35, went to a three-day race clinic in Clearwater, Fla.  “I took away a lot of small but valuable pieces of advice, like how to pack your kayak (no heavy coolers nor anchors.) I learned that the most challenging sea life was actually jellyfish and sea lice, which are jellyfish larvae, that can get trapped in women’s one-piece suits.” 

She did a trial swim and faced significant waves and chop, which helped her adjust her stroke for the elements. “If water conditions are calm, we should be able to see the bottom the entire way. There is a natural reef out at the lighthouse too where you can spot fish, turtles. I’m just looking at it as a big adventure.” 

The group read that vinegar keeps jellyfish away, so there may be some of that in a kayak, next to the cling peaches (helps with seasickness) and pickle juice (relieves cramping), and Listerine lozenges (to stick in the back of your cheek to counter the saltwater).

Erica’s husband Sean will be her kayaker.  He has no doubt that Erica will overcome any obstacles in the race. “She is extremely goal-oriented and operates best when she is preparing or training for something big,” he wrote in an email. “So, my question, usually reserved for after a major race or accomplishment, is ‘I wonder what she will do next’?”

Ashley and Meghan, 37, will be heading to Pinckney, Michigan in August to do the “Swim to the Moon” race. It’s a six-mile swim in freshwater lakes connected by inlets. “I thought a freshwater swim without sharks might be a good trainer for ocean water with sharks and jellyfish,” Ashley said. Joe hasn’t confirmed yet if he’ll go.

For all four of them, they also say the biggest obstacle to completion will be fatigue and just the whole challenge of swimming through waves, fighting a current.

“Getting tired of being tossed around!” Meghan said.  “I feel like I can swim forever in the pool. I love swimming in the ocean but eventually the waves get to you. I don’t worry about animals in the ocean . . . and feel like our training will prepare me endurance-wise, but that churning that comes from ocean swimming is a lot to handle!”

She recruited a co-worker, Kim Slack, to be her kayaker. “I have never done anything like this!” Kim wrote in an email. “I honestly didn’t even know there was a need. So, to prepare, I’ve been reading, watching videos and I volunteered with a race in Seattle . . . so I can get a feel for supporting swimmers before jumping into the deep end. Outside of that, I’ll be spending the summer on my kayak, getting in shape and manifesting clear, calm jellyfish-free waters in September for Team Meghannnnn!”

The history of the swim goes back to 2013 when an Islamorada-based artist known as “Lighthouse Larry,” swam alone to the Alligator Lighthouse and back. According to the race Web siteafter the swim he said, “Every open water swimmer should experience this.”

Enter the Fighting Manatee Swim Club, the Masters swim club of Islamorada, who accepted the challenge and presented the Inaugural Swim for Alligator Lighthouse in 2013. 

Proceeds from the swim (fees range from $210 for solo swimmers to $180 for four-person relay teams) benefit the Friends of the Pool in Islamorada, a nonprofit preservation group. It provides scholarships for high school students and support small investments toward the preservation of the lighthouse.

Rob Dixon, executive director of Save Alligator Lighthouse and former president of Friends of the Pool, has swum the race solo since it started in 2013. He offered some advice for the fearless foursome coming down from Cincinnati.

“Most important: don’t go out too fast,” he said. “You kind of know what your pace is. Sometimes you might set an unrealistic goal. You want to enjoy it. And not put so much pressure on yourself.”

And the weather is always a factor. In 2021, Dixon thought he’d swim his personal best in five hours. It took him almost three hours out to the lighthouse. When he started to head back, he found himself swimming into a 20-knot wind.  “I thought, ‘I’m not quitting’!” He kept going but his five-hour personal best turned into a “seven-hour survival swim.”

This year, the race falls on a full moon. “So anything can happen,” Dixon said. “And it usually does.”
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Read more articles by Jan Angilella.

Jan Angilella is a freelance journalist, blogger, and publicist. She's been in the communications industry for more than 25 years. She's also mad about Italy. Read about her adventures there on her blog 1cannolo2cannoli.org. Remember: no 's' on cannoli.