Open Water Me vs. Boat With Motor

My inaugural open water came in the summer 2012. I had signed up for my first triathlon, the Ironman 70.3 Pays d’Aix-en-Provence, for September of that year. I needed to get comfortable in the water as opposed to the Olympic-distance pool in Nice where I had been training.

Considering I had not swm since my teens, at the age of 43 I was a reasonably strong swimmer thanks to endless childhood summers at our family cottage in Canada. Swimming in a lake and swimming in the Mediterranean Sea, however, are two different ball games, especially when the warm currents in the Med in the South of France favour jellyfish.

That first swim with my ever-patient husband is a memory we both chuckle over to this day. Embarrassing to admit, I thought my air bubbles were jellyfish. When I was not literally swimming on top of my husband for protection, I was stopping because the fear of jellyfish was interfering with my breathing. We maybe swam 500 meters that day before I’d had enough but I quickly understood the vital relationship between controlled breathing and open water swimming.

A decade later, and thanks to swimrunning, the sea provides a connection to nature that I simply cannot live without. In the winter season, when the water here can be between 10°C and 14°C, I still manage two to three 5-6km swims a week, depending on the weather.

As openwater swimmers and swimrunners, we take all the necessary precautions, from swimming when possible with a buddy and with a visible safety buoy to sticking close to the shoreline and being smart about marine conditions.

I am not what you would call a risk taker. I may push myself out of my comfort zone but I am overly cautious in everything I do in and out of the water. I swim year-round in swimrun shoes, so I can exit at any time should I need to – a jellyfish infestation, change in swell, feeling cold or unwell. Before every swim, I ask myself: what am I dealing with today? I look at my course from the shore. We have paragliders who offseason land on the beach and so there are security boats. I have many times mentally prepared myself for the possibility of a paraglider falling on me.

There are fears about open water swimming that we share. Some we talk about, like jellyfish (I have lost count on how many times I have been stung although I have several scars to remind me) and cold water (having succumb to hypothermia during a swimrun race I know the difference between mental cold and physical cold). Then there are the dreads in the back of our minds that we don’t talk about: more dangerous marine life, such as sharks, and the fear of getting hit by a boat.

I don’t have to worry about sharks but I got hit by a boat. So let’s talk about it.

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On Sunday, February 6, I did my regular 5km swim with ideal winter conditions: calm sea, clear skies and no wind. The water was 14°C. I had a bright orange safety buoy attached and looked up often to check my direction and for any boats. With cold water swimming, the longer I am in the water the more likely I can become disoriented so I am vigilant about maintaining visuals.

With less than 200 meters to shore to end my swim, an oval shadow appeared overhead and I thought it was a paraglider falling in the sea. Instead of stopping suddenly, I kept my course so the paraglider could calculate my direction and avoid hitting me. I learned this from rowing. Stay the course.

The oval shadow became larger until suddenly I felt a violent hit to the back of my head and neck, which I presumed was the paraglider’s feet plunging into the sea. I was pushed under the water and a voice in my head said “I am going to drown.” I madly tried to lift the parachute off of me only to discover it was not a parachute. It was something hard and flat, maybe a paddleboarder. My face and upper body were pinned down in the water and to my right, I registered a motor moving towards my face.

My face felt hot. I frantically pushed my hands down to try to stop my body. This did not work. I calculated it would be worse to lose part of arm than my life. I used my right arm to protect my face.

The length of the boat ran over me.

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Once I was upright and my head above water, I could see the driver. It was a security boat for the paragliders. I stayed in the water, in a treading motion, until I was calm repeating in French “je suis dans un état du choc” (I am in a state of shock). For some reason I could not speak English. I had been in the water for nearly 90 minutes at this point and my body temp was low.

The driver was apologetic. He was not supposed to be within the 300-meter buoys, but he was 150 meters from the shore. He admitted he was not used to seeing swimmers at this time of year so he was looking up at the paragliders and not down at the sea. He did not call the police, which by law he is supposed to do when a boat hits a person.

He did offer for me to come onto the boat. I wanted to get out of the water and get home. My right elbow was throbbing and I approached the boat driver to have him examine it. He looked at and said it was okay, but I was wearing wetsuit. I asked him to watch me swim to shore, for less than five minutes. He said he had to watch the paragliders. I said he had to watch me because I was not sure I could swim with my elbow.

It was hard to swim, something felt not right. I got to shore and he came around to check on me. I gave him a thumbs up and immediately started climbing the 475 stairs that connect the beach to my apartment in less than 10-minutes. I never take off my gear in the winter until I get home.

In the safety of my own home, I threw up from realising what just happened. I took off my wetsuit, my elbow had two slashes and was bleeding. I should have had stitches. I should have gone to had my head checked but my right side was so sore that I did not remember the thwack to the head until it woke me up in a dream the next morning.  

Unfortunately, my husband was away that Sunday. He would have told me to go the hospital (which I did do on Thursday for a head scan) but honestly as a sportif, I am used to injuries. Unless I see bone, I think I do not require medical attention. Throw into that line of thinking that I was in a complete state of shock that I had almost been killed. If I had stopped suddenly and lifted my head, the impact from the boat would have been so much worse. Or if he had approached me from a different angle where I did not see the motor before it cut me.

Once the gravity of this freak accident sunk in, I went to the police on the Tuesday afternoon to file a complaint. The first question the officer asked me was, “Why were you swimming?” and then he refused to take my statement. He told me to work out the compensation with the paragliding club. Huh? “I do not want money. He could have killed me. I want to make sure the sea is safe for everyone and this does not happen again.”

Nothing. So I went to the local French press. Following the article, the police have said they would “welcome” me to file a complaint. I have been in touch with a Roquebrune paragliding club who is helping me to find the identity of the boat driver. And another boat driver who was in the bay that Sunday, visiting with his paragliding club from Provence, has contacted me to testify to the lack of measures and security in place for the safety boats. Once I have assembled a file, I will go back to the police to porter plainte but at a different station. I have six years to do so.

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My biggest fear has happened and I survived. But shock is a funny thing. You are in no man’s land somewhere between “I’m okay” because you are alive and “I’m not okay” because I almost got killed.” You try to do things as normal. For example, I went rowing with a friend two days later, in hindsight I should not have with my arm, and fifteen minutes outside the port of Monaco I burst into tears and wept uncontrollably, slumped over my oars.

For nearly two weeks I have felt like I was floating outside my body wondering why I lacked focus and was randomly crying uncontrollably. When I tried to write, the words I typed were not the words formulated in my head. I have been frustrated that I am not “strong”, that I cannot put mind over matter and get on with things. I have done everything I am supposed to do – meditate, breathing, exercise, good sleep, eating well (lots of pots of homemade soup and homemade breads) – but honestly this is my regular lifestyle and it was not improving my state of zombie mind.

I consider myself strong minded I do not have the tools to help myself. I reached out for help and contacted Gavin Sharpe at Riviera Wellbeing. He explained to me about trauma and the window of tolerance. I knew nothing about hyperarousal and hypoarousal. Gavin put me in touch with a counsellor who has helped me understand, among other PTSD elements, that because my accident was silent – that I could not scream or physically respond to protect myself because I was stuck underwater; nor was there any car crashing sounds – that my fearful reaction has been trapped inside me. I am working on letting it out. It will take time but I am confident I am on the road to recovery.

I also reached out to a few water safety organisations to ask if they could provide any advice about what to do when you are in this situation, like the difference between fire prevention and the steps to take when you are in a fire. But maybe it is a question of whether it is your time or not.

I got back in the water a week after the accident and managed a very cold 3.5km swim with my husband. My neck hurt looking up and looking back too much but the waves welcomed me back with each caressing crest. I have since swam solo and have no fear. Bliss.

For those who do not open water swim, the sensation is impossible to describe. I refer to the words of Gillian Best, who wrote “The Last Wave”, a story about a woman who swam the English Channel: “There is nothing in a pool: no current, no tide, no waves, and most of all, no history. The sea is alive, expansive; a pool is dead and confining. The sea is freedom.”