The team had just completed their finishing act for Diana Nyad’s Xtreme Dream swim from Cuba to Key West by forming a human barrier around the exhausted swimmer as she stumbled through the crowds and late summer heat onto the dry sand of Smathers Beach in Key West, the final leg of the Xtreme Dream Cuba to Key West swim for all of us. After 53 hours of open sea personnel transfers, captaining, storm protocols, vessel system monitoring, state side coordinations, Cuban coordinations, social media updates, kayak paddling, jellyfish removal, predator locating and everything else involved when a flotilla of five vessels crawling across the Florida Straits at an average speed of less than 2 knots is responsible for the safety and success of a 64 year old super human swimmer; the team was exhausted. With Diana safely in the hands of the EMT’s and media, the team was gathered and transferred to their anchored vessels just offshore. The energy was high and every team member knew that never again would the same scenario play out. History had been made.
The fleet was made up of five support vessels plus two inflatables that handled personnel and equipment transfers while Diana swam across the Florida Straits. Here’s the line up:
42’ Kadey Krogen provided by Florida Yacht Charters.
Captain Marlin Scott, Captain Austin Hopp, Dianne Scott, Niko Gazzale, Cal Bucci, Ben Shepardson and Jason Tiller.
The function of the Kinship and it’s crew of divers was to provide above water and underwater support for Diana and the label of “Shark Divers” stuck. The conventional wisdom throughout the country and across the globe about shark attacks is more dramatic than the actual reality in the Florida Keys. This band of locals was very experienced with diving among sharks and knew the chances of a shark attack were very slim in the Florida Straits. On a regular basis, all four of these guys had experienced sharks attempting to eat their fish while spearfishing and never had a man eating incident. The role that they played was mostly geared for safety but quickly turned into an in-water support system that kept Diana on track and enthused about the long hours going forward. From the very beginning, the six hour shifts shared by the four divers meant long days with limited sleep swimming in the middle of nowhere for hours on end.
The Shark Divers:
Niko Gazzale: a local commercial spearfisherman and contributor to FishMonster Magazine was elected the team leader and handled his role with confidence and a strong hand. Always ready to work right along with his team members, Niko was fearless.
Ben Shepardson splits his time between web site development and diving with solid success in both areas. He accepted the team member role and carried out his part in a regiment that was admirable and perfectly executed. Ben was solid.
Cal Bucci: Captain for A Deep Blue Dive in Key Colony Beach and has been a contributor for FishMonster Magazine with diving condition reports and photos. Cal also took on the “Fearless” mantra and fought through the exhaustion, never wavering when it came to safety or success. I’ll never forget the sight of Captain Cal on the roof of the voyager with his shark speedo, buff and blown blonde head. He was king of the world for a moment, at least he looked like it. Captain Cal is top quality.
Jason Tiller: Owner of the locally manufactured Impaler Spearguns. He is an accomplished free diver and commercial spearfisherman that has turned his passion into a lucrative business. Jason was all comedy as he told his stories but all business when it came to the Xtreme Dream Teams goal. Courage came through clearly with Jason.
Captain Austin Hopp: At age 19 provided a dual purpose. One role was to be my relief captain at the helm of the Kinship and the other was to captain our 20’ inflatable in support when a storm became a threat. Austin was inexhaustible as he bounced from role to role and boat to boat. He really enjoyed the adventure as any teenager would. A record breaking first assignment for this young captain making us all very proud.
Dianne Scott: Publisher and editor of FishMonster Magazine and Island Jane Magazine plus the mother of five; three of which are boys that grew up in the Florida Keys, two of them part of the Xtreme Dream Team. Her role was photographer, den mother and assisted the captains with personnel transfers aboard the Kinship. As the shark divers would change shift she would listen to their stories, feed them well and tuck them away in their bunks all the while bouncing from port to starboard during rough sea periods. Many of the most important aspects of the Kinship operations and Xtreme Dream Team emotions were captured by Dianne through video and photography from a local’s perspective. She knew the historical nature of the event and acted accordingly, we couldn’t have done it without her.
My role was simple. Keep the shark divers in close proximity to the lead vessel Voyager without interference. That meant positioning the boat for boarding, keeping the systems running and also providing local knowledge when asked.
Numerous conversations involved currents, jellyfish and landfall options that through a fleet consortium were agreed upon. Our previous failures with the same swim were enormously helpful in making the right choices this time around.
Captaining the second swim and the last swim was an honor.
Outstanding team moment:
Late Sunday night and early Monday morning, the Kinship was directed to go into a formation dubbed “Storm Protocol”. With a powerful storm bearing down on the fleet from the south, Captain Austin gathered the two remaining shark divers from the Kinship into the inflatable and raced toward Diana. With the absence of a moon, the pitch black of the night emphasized the danger. As the fleet neared a known swordfish lair called the “Wall”, the shark divers were reminded of the risks involved with the potential for broadbills attacking the red locator lights attached to each of them and Diana. There was a strong possibility that some sort of creature would show. With an intense lightning storm coupled with winds over 20 knots, the team stayed in the water together without incident as Diana swam over the Wall on her way to the beach. The Shark Divers and Captain Austin Hopp were perfect in their execution. Diana just kept on swimming.
47’ Atlantic Trawler provided by Captain Dave and Beverly Magnone
Captain Dave Magnone, Captain Seth Hopp, Beverly Magnone, Taylor Cline, Dee Brady, Nancy Jordan, Dave Whidden, Bruce Blomgren.
The Sentimental Journey was in charge of housing the lead vessel Voyager’s replacement drivers, radar monitoring and personnel transfers by tender. The ‘round the clock operation ran efficiently and was paramount in identifying freighters that were approaching the teams path. Set and drift information was constantly updated by the Journey, helping to aid the swim’s direction and speed. Young Taylor Cline was in charge of the small inflatable and ran dozens of assignments between vessels.
Captain Seth Hopp describes some of the operational highlights:
“My main role was to captain the Sentimental Journey along with the owner Captain Dave Magnone. We would take four hour shifts and at times would both be awake talking as we moved at a steady two knots through the night. Captain Dave is a truly wonderful individual who helped keep me going in the middle of the night. When everyone was asleep I would crave some sort of chatter on the VHF just to have something to listen to. Looking over to Diana and the red lights hanging from the Voyager and the small splashes from her endless strokes kept me thinking and pushing forward.”
Storm Protocol: “During the second night I was blown awake. Chairs and tables started flying around on the deck as a storm built from the south and swallowed the team, me included. Lightning was popping everywhere as Captain Dave talked to the other vessels on the VHF. We closed up all of the hatches as Captain Austin and the remaining two shark divers from the Kinship made their way over to Diana as they executed storm protocol. All four shark divers had to be in the water when the fleet separated to keep a visual on Diana while guiding her towards the beach. Every time Austin spoke on the radio you could hear the howl of the wind along with the pattering of the rain as well as the tenseness and adrenaline filling his voice. Finally the storm calmed allowing the fleet to come back together”.
Freighter avoidance: “The only other obstacle at night was a freighter that was approaching. We alerted the fleet and Captain John Duke from the Phat Dolphin made contact. The captain of the freighter was very interested in our fleet and explained that his wife had been following the swim online. He gladly steered clear.”
Jellyfish relocation: “Along with my duties as captain I was also required to fill in with the shark divers during the final leg of the swim by relocating any jellyfish that were in the path of the fleet. The most amazing part to me was being fully equipped with a snorkel, mask and fins and finding that keeping pace with Diana was tough even after she had swam 100 plus miles and had been awake for over two days straight. Still amazed by her will, we never hesitated grabbing the jellyfish by hand or at times cradled them against our sides causing all of us in the water some discomfort. Moon jellyfish are somewhat tolerable unlike the box jellyfish that thankfully we were able to avoid. We were so close and wanted to do whatever we could to finish.”
Dreams Do Come True
41’ Fountaine Pajot Lipari provided by Florida Yacht Charters
Captain Pam Morris, Captain Jeff Lewis, “Diver” Judy Montague, Dawn Blomgren, Alex De Cordoba, Candace Lyle, Katie Leigh, Janet Hinkle, Roger Mcveigh, Dr. Angel Yanigihara
The Dreams Do Come True’s role in the operation was to carry the social media team, the official swim observers and for a brief while Dr. Angel Yanigahara, the jellyfish expert. Dreams didn’t have the physical closeness to Diana as some of the other boats did, but was the direct provider of all of the images and updates distributed across the globe. The vessel had to change positions throughout the journey to allow for the best photo’s available day or night. The world would have been in the dark if not for this vessel.
Captain Pam Morris’ observations:
“My desire to be included in the Xtreme Dream Team came from my past open water swimming experience and admiration of Diana Nyad. I wanted to swim along with her in the New York 48. I was impressed with the professionalism, team spirit and demeanor of my crew members, Captain Jeff and Diver Judy. Captain Jeff is retired Coast Guard and a fun guy. He was helpful , calm, encouraging and quite the cheerleader for Diana. His knowledge of twin engines and auxiliaries was very helpful. Diver Judy is another story of inspiration and perseverance. Judy was recently injured when a boat captain errantly put his vessel in gear while she was cleaning the bottom causing severe physical damage. She still had a leg protection device with pins during the swim. Judy’s abilities were unaffected by her injuries and she completed her watches and duties as anyone else would have. Refreshingly direct, Judy says what’s on her mind in a humorous way”.
Storm Protocol: “The professionalism and teamwork exhibited by our crew during the pending storms on Saturday and Sunday night shined through as routine actions. Saturday night we watched the wind pick up to 17 knots. Judy got her foul weather gear on and soon realized it was too hot and we weren’t getting any rain. The highlight was her readiness to keep the boat safe and under control. Sunday night another storm approached. As the wind speed reached 23 knots we were in full storm protocol. For us this meant getting down wind and staying far away from Voyager, the other boats and Diana. Captain Jeff was excellent when it came to this storm. He was calm, cool and a true professional. He had good advice on how to ride the storm out comfortably in a catamaran. Our passengers were pleasantly surprised at the calm nature of the boat and crew during these conditions. They kept on reporting using many of our observations.
Outstanding team moment:
“At 4:30am the day prior to the swim, while docked at Marina Hemingway in Havana, the air conditioning stopped. At six foot four inches tall Captain Jeff was crawling around in the bilge area checking water strainers. Along with the early morning A/C failure he added oil to the generator and both engines using a flashlight. He was new to the team but carried his load well.”
41’ Fountaine Pajot Lipari provided by Florida Yacht Charters
Captain John Duke, Captain Scott Thomas, Don McCumber, Bucco Pantellis, Mike Devlin, Brenda Anderson, Darlene Meadows, Elke Thuerling, Derek Covington, and John Kot
The Phat Dolphin’s role was to act as a mothership for the kayakers and medical team. Captain John Duke took on the extra responsibility of fleet captain which gave him ultimate say in the fleet’s special operations. The medical team was transferred back and forth to the Voyager by tender to monitor Diana’s vitals. In another medical emergency that occurred on the Sentimental Journey with one of the drivers, Bruce Blomgren, a relief driver for the Voyager was treated for severe dehydration. Bruce was unable to perform most of his duties throughout the swim but luckily didn’t have to be airlifted out thanks to the quick thinking of the medical crew. Another role of this vessel’s crew included the maintenance of each Shark Shield unit, including keeping the batteries charged for changeout.
Captain John Duke was interviewed by phone while in Eleuthera, Bahamas:
“There were two captains aboard the Phat Dolphin responsible for helm duty in three hour shifts, Captain Scott Thomas and me. Captain Scott of Key Biscayne, Florida was new to the team. He is a sailing captain that was relaxed, level headed and passionate about his chosen career. We never had any captaining issues which is always a possibility when working together under great stress. He was and is a solid professional.
The kayak captain, Capt. Don McCumber had a regiment that was strictly followed throughout the swim including a posted schedule of duty in plain sight for all of us to see. He never broke cadence.”
Storm Protocol: “The final call for Storm Protocol had to come from me and it was no easy decision. To separate the fleet and then maneuver to rejoin would take up to two hours and extra effort from an already exhausted and beat up crew. On the second night I made the call to go into the manuever when it was clear we were going to be hit by a series of storms. My decision was based on the safety of our kayakers with the underlying fear of their separation in over twenty knot winds at midnight, twenty miles offshore of Key West. Loading the kayaks onto the boat isn’t easy when it’s calm much less when it’s rough. Nobody was injured or lost. All of the kayakers suffered from various physical issues over time which included lower back pain, neck pain and pure exhaustion. They powered through it all though, helping to finish the Storm Protocol and the swim.”
“The stamina exhibited by the kayak team was remarkable. Their schedule was a strict one and one half hours of paddling and three hours of rest around the clock. This meant that a system had to be set allowing the kayaks to transfer the Shark Shields, navigate the kayak for unloading, re-load the kayak with a fresh navigator, load the recharged Shark Shield and catch the Voyager moving at two knots. The routine was complex but efficient. Diana’s course towards the end of the swim became a constant battle to keep her directed towards Smathers Beach in Key West. She would slowly veer clockwise. It was up to the kayak team to get her attention and redirect the swim all the while staying within five feet of her endless strokes.The kayakers had to avoid making physical contact with Diana at all costs. Other than a couple spills into the water, the crew was flawless.”
The Voyager’s role was to accompany Diana Nyad in close proximity throughout the entire swim. Equipped with a sea anchor dragging along on the port side and a boom dragging the navigation strip on the starboard side plus pole feeders and a reconfigured helm station, the Voyager was the perfect escort vessel for a swim through the Florida Straits. At a speed of less than two knots, each driver had to be trained to not only keep the vessel moving on the correct heading but also to control the motors for safety during boarding and off-loading. Special considerations were also given to weight distribution from port to starboard at all times.
Captain John Berry was interviewed from his Irish Pub located in Punta Gorda, Florida. Here is some of what he had to say:
“The previous failures over the last few years were hugely important to the success of this swim. Dee Brady and I were involved heavily in the long hours of training using the Voyager. The sessions helped us to anticipate everything the vessel might do as well as how we should react to certain conditions. Driving at faster speeds is much easier than the slow speeds of a swimmer. My crew was limited at the very onset of the swim because of illness. Driver Bruce Blomgren became severely dehydrated and had to be replaced by me for his driving shift. This added some pressure to the other drivers too. Captain John Bartlett, the navigator was completely focused on maximizing all efforts for the swim in the direction of the landing. He constantly analyzed and adjusted to the changing conditions.”
The Drivers: “Dee Brady, one of the owners of the Voyager was the most experienced and was very involved with the other swimming attempts. She was flawless as usual. Nancy Jordan has been part of the story since the second swim and was simply amazing with her willingness to fill in wherever she was needed. Nancy never said no. In fact, the whole fleet never said no. When I would delegate to any of the captains, crew, kayakers, shark divers or tender drivers, they always followed my direction. It all clicked. Driver David Whidden was joining the team for the first time and only had a few hours of training before he was put behind the helm. He shined through with great control during his driving shifts, even during the night while he was exhausted.”
Storm Protocol: “The hardest decision made during the swim was to go into what we called “Storm Protocol”. Our last attempt to organize in a storm during a previous swim ended up being the reason it ended. Along with the fear of ending, we were also asking four young men to drop into a dark ocean in the middle of the storm, when the ocean was riddled with numerous dangers and the possibility of an injury or loss. The courage exhibited during the storm was truly remarkable! Diana just kept swimming.”
Ground Ops: The final successful outcome of the Xtreme Dream Swim from Cuba to Key West could not have happened without the ground operations crew led by Captain Vanessa Linsley of Florida Yacht Charters out of Key West. Included in this team was Cindy Derocher and Cathy Ebert. During the pre-planning portion of the attempt, the ground ops crew was instrumental in permitting, provisioning, repairing, outfitting and the general organization needed to launch the team to Cuba and to retrieve the team back in Key West. Because of the embargo imposed on the Cuban government, travel to Cuba by American citizens is difficult at best and impossible most of the time, so great care and diligence had to be exercised during the entire process to keep customs officials on both sides of the Straits amiable. Captain Vanessa was constantly updating information and personnel to the manifests all the while juggling the changing line-up of vessels. Coordinating all of the moving parts of this adventure brings visions of the Wizard of Oz pulling his levers! I witnessed the fluid nature in multiple areas and throughout the swim, reminding me of the organization behind the effort.
Special recognition goes to marine meteorologist Lee Chesnau, oceanographer Frank Bohlen and meteorologist Dane Clark, who was in an advisory position to Lee Chesnau.
The timing of the swim could not have been better. A strong northeast current with a relatively benign weather pattern dramatically helped in the successful outcome of the swim. From the actual data from local mariners and fisherman collected by Captain Vanessa over the last two years, coupled with my own observations during our charters, to the computer models predicting the currents, and flawless navigational execution by Captain John Bartlett; a plan was formulated to allow the best available scenario to play out in this successful story. We all agree that our past failures were invaluable to the success that was achieved. Diana was right when she said to never give up or that you’re are never too old. We can all find some area of our lives that we can apply these philosophies to, but when it comes to swimming the Florida Straits from Cuba to Key West it TOOK THIS TEAM TO DO IT!