Swimming around Key West … is much easier for the kayaker

Swimming around Key West … is much easier for the kayaker - A group of people on a boat in the water - Sea kayak

Editor’s note: Kristen Livengood has a wicked bucket list. Last weekend she checked off another box: kayaking around Key West, guiding a California swimmer participating in the Swim around Key West. The tale is epic.

A Facebook post looking for volunteer kayakers for the 39th annual Swim Around Key West led me to checking off a critical missing piece to completing my 30 by 30 list. It’s 30 things I was supposed to finish by the time I turned thirty, which has since turned to five things I still have to finish by the time I am 35. On that list: kayak around Key West.

A week later, I received the e-mail address of the stranger entrusting me to keep her safe for 12.5 miles of mucky shallows, barnacle-encrusted bridges and boat-filled channels. This would be Cindy Walsh from San Diego’s first time swimming in Key West.

Walsh and her swimming friends, which included her boyfriend Jim, are used to 60-degree waters and 20-plus mile swims. Things she has checked off her list are swimming the English Channel, taking on the Swim Around Manhattan, and a trek to Catalina Island – The Triple Crown of Swimming. I Googled it and there are only 104 swimmers on the list, and she is one of them.

We picked up her number, 26, half her age. “This is a lucky number,” she said.

I was eager to learn what I needed to do to keep her safe, and keep her strong. She breathes on the left side, so stay on that side to guide her. Stay beside her, not in front. Constantly looking forward would fatigue her neck. And, my main job – get her attention every 20 minutes to feed. By feed, she means drink eight ounces of blue electrolytes, alarm on my Garmin was set.

The night before, I laminated the course map with my handwritten notes on it. “High tide at 1 p.m.,” “Pass Coast Guard Station” for finding Fleming Key Bridge, etc. I pulled out my VHF radio, filled an Igloo jug of water, and pulled out a ton of sunscreen, wide brimmed hat, and Columbia shirt for the paddle.

The beginning of the race was the most chaotic, with an 11 a.m. water start and 85 solo swimmers, 20 three-person- and 12 two-person relay teams, finding a swimmer in a sea of white bodies and swim caps was almost impossible. “I’ll find you,” Walsh said, and she did about 13 minutes in.

Mile one was a breeze. Mile two, I waved to the landlocked beachgoers at Ft. Zach. Mile three was in the deep water outside the Outer Mole. I pondered whether I would enjoy this part of the swim with no fins, no mask and no seeing the bottom, probably not so much. Mile four, we passed the Coast Guard Station. The Coast Guard were in their ducky boat making sure everyone was safe in the channel.

Mile five – finally to Fleming Key Bridge. I chatted for a few minutes with Jim Belcher of Melbourne Beach who was paddling for his relay swimmer Stefan from Sarasota. “We make a left after the bridge, right,” he asked. I pulled out my map, yep. We both saved our swimmers some time by moving to the left side of the bridge early. In the words of Diana Nyad – Onward.

Key West has not one, but two, swims around the island. The annual FKCC Swim Around Key West is on Saturday, June 13 starting at 7:30 a.m. The nine-mile Swim for Alligator Lighthouse is scheduled for Sept. 19 in Islamorada.

Around mile six, a motor boat passed me and asked how my swimmer was doing, I said great. “She looks really strong,” he said. “She is,” I said back smiling about this amazing woman whom I’d only chatted with twice through e-mail and met for an hour the night before, “she is amazing.”

Passing mile seven, Walsh picked her head out of the water, “whoa, the water just got 10-degrees warmer here,” she drank some of her blue drink. I thought for a second. “If we move 50 yards that way,” I said pointing to the Cow Key Channel markers and darker blue water, “it should cool off a little.” I started paddling that way. The current in the channel was ripping and the water was cooler. Local girls do know best. I felt like Dude Crush from “Finding Nemo” riding the EAC all the way through Cow Key Bridge.

Past mile nine, we had to make a choice. Stay in the channel, which shoots far left, or hug right saving a lot of extra swimming. The moored boats were floating fine. “Just don’t beach me,” she said. “I can’t stand up.”

With a modified short stroke, Cindy made it through fine. We passed miles 10 and 11. We are almost there, and she was “pooped.” She pulled a tin can and beer bottle off the ocean floor along the way, but in 12.5 miles, all I saw was a turtle 50 feet from the kayak and all she saw was a nurse shark and some little fish.

Five hours and 29 minutes since we started, we were back on dry land. She finished in 37th place. A man with a machete slashed the top of a coconut off and handed one to Cindy and then to me. We hugged. We made it. And, I even got a shirt (thank you, Cindy!) and sweet key chain to check this off the list.

Each year the race is scheduled to start to flow with the tides, thank goodness. Race Organizer Bill Welzien of Sugarloaf Key completed his 64th swim around Key West that day. The money raised from the event goes to Key West High School sports.

Next on the list for Kristen is finishing up the Florida Keys Wreck Trek, (and, still searching for fulgurites, and a good recipe to make seagrape wine)…next on the list for Cindy, something in colder water.

Will I do it again next year? Absolutely.


Kristen Livengood is a Marathon High School and University of South Florida grad, mom of two beautiful little girls, and wife to some cute guy she met in a bar. She enjoys red wine, Tito's, Jameson, running (very, very slowly), and spearfishing.