In August 2018, I was doing the last bout of training for my first Swim Around Barbados attempt. I decided to attempt my first 24-hour swim in the final week of my preparation. I started at around 8am at St Peters Bay Resort and swam through the entire day, accompanied by my mate, Adam Cripwell, in a kayak.
As evening set in I assumed I was going to be swimming alone through the night. However, Adam, and various others, decided that I needed company for safety reasons and recruited kayakers to join at stages throughout the night. Mark Farmer, who I had never previously met but is now a very close friend, was on duty from about 10pm. We swam north for 30 minutes from St Peters Bay. Suddenly, out of nowhere, I felt like I was knocked unconscious by a baseball bat strike to the head. I came to, moments later, and felt the most pain and anguish I had ever felt. It felt like someone was electrocuting me and burning me alive at the same time. It took a minute to calm down and tell Mark that I had been stung around my right elbow. He asked if it was a man-o-war, I said I’d never felt a man-o-war like that before. Instinctively, albeit this was my first, I knew it was a box jellyfish sting. It was later identified as the Alatina Alata variety. After about 3 minutes, Mark asked if I could continue. I said I could but that we needed to head back to home base, St Peters Bay Resort, where we could get some vinegar and reassess my condition. I started swimming back and within 10 strokes I was stung again and suddenly again, 2 stings almost on the same stroke. One on the ear, the other on the arm and shoulder. I was again knocked semi unconscious. When I came to, and felt the searing pain, I literally jumped out of the water and landed on the back of Mark’s kayak, almost tipping him over in the process. I yelled to take me to shore. My legs were dragging in the water and suddenly I was stung again on the shin.
The row to shore took about a minute but felt like an hour. Mark then called his dad to come pick me up. I would have been on the beach for about 25 minutes before Geoff arrived to pick us up and take us to the local 24-hour clinic. While on the beach, the pain, an intense burning sensation, was immense. But that was the relatively easy thing to deal with. The toxins were playing pure havoc with my neurological system. My throat was restricted, and I was struggling to breath. Additionally, my back was spasming violently. All I wanted to do was stretch out my back so I could breathe easier, but with my back spasming to the extent it was, I was unable and I lay on the ground in a semi-fetal position, with only 1 thought on my mind, “Stay alive!”.
The rest of the night, the trip to and stay in the hospital, being bed ridden for 2 days after, are stories for another day that I won’t go into. I mention this story to bring up the important fact that box jellyfish are life threatening. I’ve recently heard conversations where people talk about box jellyfish and men-o-war in the same sentence whilst talking about other varieties of stingers. There is no comparison. Comparing box jellyfish to other types, for instance, a lions mane jellyfish, it akin to comparing a mosquito to a tank.
Some people in the open water swimming community talk unfavorably about stinger suits. These people are likely those that would never get in to a Caribbean or Australian body of water for a significant amount of time and risk the sting of a box jellyfish. In my opinion, the notion that stinger suits are somehow an assistance is both naïve and illogical - not to mention extremely dangerous.
Everyone is different. I am fortunately only mildly allergic to jellyfish stings, although I do find that the more I get stung the more allergic I become. If I was severely allergic and was unable to get to help as quickly as I did in my box jellyfish horror story above, then I might not be here right now.
In this swim from Barbados to St Lucia, a swim never attempted before where no swimmer had ever made a stroke, especially at night, I decided to have the suit with me, as a precaution, and I am glad I did.
From my experience, I know I can handle 1 box jellyfish sting and keep going - although this would be accompanied by serious risk. Hence my strategy of putting on the stinger suit for 3 hours while the toxin passed through me on the first night.