Swim Around Fort De Soto

I’m always skeptical of first-time events. And the Swim Around Fort De Soto, in St. Petersburg, Florida, was one. But, alas! Nothing to be worried about since it turned out to be a delightful and challenging closing to my 2016 season.

Fort De Soto Park, part of the Pinellas County park system, is located in Tierra Verde, Florida, a twenty-minute drive from St. Petersburg. The park is comprised of five interconnected islands. There’s water everywhere. The sand resembles superfine sugar. I find swimming in the Gulf of Mexico quite enjoyable. In the spring and in the fall, the water is much cooler than in the Atlantic, near home. The water is not as clear in the Gulf, though.

The early November race was advertised as a 10.5K, but the course map showed 10.1K (6.3 mi). The start was located at the Pinellas County boat ramp. Swimmers would head west toward Bunces Pass and into the Gulf of Mexico, then south along the beach, and finally northeast into Tampa Bay to finish at beach shelter #14.

Course Map

On race morning, the water temperature was 74-75F and the wind was blowing from the northeast. Solo swimmers were scheduled to splash at 0945 to coincide with slack tide. Pilots set out from the boat ramp toward the staging area first and swimmers lined up in numerical order at the dock. I had a low number. This wasn’t a good thing for me because swimmers were supposed to jump from the dock and I’m not one to jump. I hate not knowing what I’m jumping into. What if I get impaled by a sharp object? We waited for the last pilot to get the pedals in his kayak to work. Once he was off, the command to get in the water was given and some ladies jumped without a problem. I squatted on the dock and jumped into shallow water, survived, and swam out of the way. All the swimmers in the water, the gun went off.

Pinellas County boat ramp looking toward Bunces Pass.

Swimmers did exactly what they were told not to do, which was to swim in the channel. I hadn’t seen any boats about to take off, so I hoped police would keep a handle on any boaters. I followed like a fish in a school of fish (safety in numbers). My pilot found me before I found her. We headed out west towards Bunces Pass, which was 1.5 miles away from the start. The water was very shallow and sea grass covered the bottom. I kept getting crowded by a Mr. Speedo and his pilot. Finally, I was able to swim around the pilot. On the north bank of Bunces Pass hundreds of white pelicans milled about. I had seen them from the boat ramp in the early morning with my binoculars, but wasn’t sure they were actually pelicans because they looked pink in the morning light. I thought they might be roseate spoonbills, but they were too short. It was very satisfying to actually swim by them and identify them properly as white pelicans. That was my Audubon moment of the swim.

The white sand of the North Beach.
A great blue heron at the North Beach.

I cleared the pass and turned south into the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. I had the wind on my back, so swimming was a little like body surfing. I knew that after the next turn, at the point where Fort De Soto stands, it would be a harder swim, so I concentrated on being as efficient as possible and not burning out all of my energy before I really needed it. We passed by the North Beach, which has a giant sand bar alongside it. All of a sudden, Mr. Speedo is crowding me again. I was trying to move into deeper water closer to shore, but he had another man on his left, so the three of us just kept swimming abreast for a long time. I thought of race horses at Pimlico, which exacerbated by annoyance. It took what seemed an interminable amount of time to clear the sandbar. It might have been a mile long. Our way point was an antenna tower that rises from the bottom of the gulf, just in front of the Gulf Pier. At around mile 3.25, our layline took us away from shore. I was elated. No more sandbar! I love, love, love to swim in deep ocean water. A few times the safety officer came by in a jet ski to see if we were alright. He was wearing a yellow balaclava, so I couldn’t see the expression on his face. We passed the antenna tower and now faced the Gulf Pier. Swimmers and crews were to cross under the pier at a section marked by two blue flags. A police officer made sure fishermen did not cast their rods in that section. I stopped swimming to wave hello to the police officer. I smiled at him. I think he was surprised, because he returned the smile, amused. My heartbeat quickened in anticipation of swimming under the pier. I positioned myself right between the pilings to avoid nasty eddies. I learned that from Chesapeake. Eddies can suck one’s body toward the piling in an instant and the growth on the piling surfaces will rip one’s skin to shreds.

The conditions changed abruptly after rounding the point. The wind must’ve been coming from the east northeast, because we were headed right into it. The water was all peaks and troughs. Two kayaks had capsized. My pilot kept getting held up, so for a while I was faster than her. At first I was getting slapped by the waves and thought that if I had to swim nearly 2 miles in that fashion I would get exhausted very quickly, so I changed my stroke a bit. I kept my head very low and the entry point of my hand as close to my head as I could, so that my arms were extending underwater a little more than usual, and then I would make the pull really long. That worked well, because I started passing people! My pilot later told me that I passed two men (one of them Mr. Speedo), two women, and a relay team. I had a bit of miscommunication with my pilot; she was far behind me and I just kept on swimming. She finally caught up with me and had me move closer to shore. She said she had been yelling to me, but with the water slapping and the wind howling I couldn’t hear anything at all.

Past the Bay Pier, the wind abated and now I had a clear view of the Skyway Bridge. I only had a mile to go. My pilot and I agreed the whole swim had gone so fast! The bay leg of the course was littered with giant patches of seaweed. The first one, I tried to avoid. The remaining ones, I didn’t bother. If they got to be too cumbersome to swim through, I did a little breaststroke, which is always amusing. In the way of interesting things, I only saw a lobster pot during that leg, because my arm brushed its buoy. I was happy when I saw the giant American flag at the entrance of Fort De Soto Park. It looked beautiful against the clear and bright sky. I had a third of a mile to go. The last definable section of a course always seems to stretch out. I rounded the red buoy and turned toward the red and white flags at the beach. It makes me sad to stop after swimming for so many hours. Marathon swimmers are so fortunate to be able to swim for miles at a time! I feel like for a few hours I can actually be a mermaid, but just before I put my feet on the bottom so I may stand up, I feel that little pang of sadness at having to turn into a terrestrial being until I get back in the water again. I got on my feet, glanced behind me to make sure no one was going to outrun me, and seeing no one close, I sauntered toward the beach. Why run? It’s not like I want to get out of the water. With the beep of the timing mat, my season was over.

The Tampa Bay Skyway from beach shelter #14.

I was very happy with my swim. The last leg, on the bay, was quite a challenge. The beauty of it was that I wasn’t sore, or tired. I felt I could’ve kept going. I was very satisfied with the training I’ve done this year, because now a 10K is a very doable distance. Dryland, yoga, and quality yardage administered by my awesome coach are all good stuff. Certainly such great swimming experiences aren’t possible without the assistance of fantastic volunteer pilots and capable and organized race directors. This is a swim I would love to repeat. Taking pictures on the beach (after shaking hands with Mr. Speedo, who graciously acknowledged my passing him), I realized that my next swim is SCAR. There are hundreds of thousands of yards to be swum between Fort De Soto and Saguaro Lake…