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What it’s like to be rendered unconscious by jellyfish

Last month, British swimmer Anna Wardley attempted to swim from the island of Menorca to Mallorca, the first part of her challenge to swim from the Balearic Islands to mainland Spain. The swim ended badly with Anna having to be picked up by the coastguard and rushed to hospital. Fortunately, she has now recovered sufficiently to tell her story, so here it is in her own words.


Menorca to Mallorca swim ends in medevac as walls of jellyfish render me unconscious

The last two weeks have been tough coming to terms with not making it across the Menorca Channel but nowhere near as tough as the early hours of Thursday 19 May when my team had to pull me out of the water 11 hours and 19 minutes into my swim from Menorca to Mallorca due to severe jellyfish stings all over my body. I’d been swimming through wall after wall of jellyfish from around midnight, covering me in painful stings akin to powerful electric shocks or having hydrochloric acid thrown all over my body, until the decision was made to get me out of the water at 0345 CEST (0245GMT).

I was in excruciating pain and my body temperature had plummeted as I’d lost the use of my right arm and was unable to make any significant progress. It was one of those moments in life when the head has to rule the heart, and with my condition deteriorating it was clear I needed urgent medical assistance.

I’d started to shake violently all over to the extent that I couldn’t take a high-energy drink passed to me in a net. I have a long-standing pact with my experienced team that they will never get me out unless it is life-threatening, and as a result I would never question their decision and we had reached that point. Sometimes in life stubbornness is an asset whereas at other times it can expose the person who possesses it to grave danger, and on this occasion my decision to keep swimming for so many hours through the jellyfish pushed my body to the point that it began to shut down.

I cannot imagine the hell my support team also went through during those long hours through the night as they had to watch on helplessly as I screamed in pain as the jellyfish were thrown against me by the cross waves in the darkness. I had no means of seeing them coming or avoiding them with my skin totally exposed in just my swimsuit.

Under the strict rules I swim my team are not allowed to make any contact with me, and I’m not allowed to touch anyone or anything so all they could do was watch on as I was stung repeatedly with stings on top of stings. At one stage I asked Corinne, my Swim Co-ordinator, if I could swim a reciprocal 180 degree course until daybreak to give the one side of my body that was taking the onslaught a break until we had first light.

Mallorca Menorca

I also made the decision not to assess the stings by torchlight as I knew that it would not be a pretty sight and I preferred not to have the mental image in my mind as for me the only option was to keep going until I got to Mallorca. The only way I get to the end of swims like this is to take the option of getting out off the menu – if it were an option it would be impossible to keep going, so even though my body was screaming out in pain and I was trapped in what felt like the most horrific situation I could ever conceive, I was determined to keep going. Or as Freda Streeter, a legendary trainer of Channel swimmers, puts it: “Keep swimming until your tits hit the sand.” 

Once the decision was made to abort the attempt I was passed a float to hold onto until our medic was transferred to our main mother boat. The moment I took hold of it I knew it was over and I felt the crushing pain that comes when months of training and sacrifice end in mid-channel in the middle of the night. It’s a pain that far outweighs any of the pain that the jellyfish could inflict. It’s impossible to describe but it still makes tears pour down my face now even writing about it. I wanted to carry on, but my body had the final call and my team made the call that I would never question given the pact we have and I knew I was well beyond the limit.

People have asked how I can swim through jellyfish in the dark for hours on end. They’ve told me they could never do it. I tell them that maybe they could if they wanted to get to the other side enough. I wanted to get to the other side more than anyone can imagine, as it had been a massive struggle to even get to the start and I’d made massive personal sacrifices to get there. I probably swam on through the jellyfish for far longer than I should but when my determination kicks in it is a powerful beast. But it reached the point where there was no choice but to take me out and get me to hospital.

The experiences I’ve been through in my life have given me an inner strength and resilience that makes me very good at doing what I do. I’ve also survived some pretty severe bouts of depression and I can assure you that waking up in that state every morning is worse than swimming through jellyfish in the dark. At least in the water the will to survive burns strong. Waking up and facing every day when that will to live is gone is a very different but equally unbearable hell, and surviving that prepared me well for the challenges I’ve since faced in the water.

I knew that my condition would deteriorate when I was out of the water and I warned my team of that before they pulled me out. The will to keep going is a powerful thing but once the dream is extinguished as you are pulled out of the water, things can go downhill very quickly and they did. I screamed in agony as my team removed my swimsuit and applied cream to the stings covering most of my body. I slipped out of consciousness as my team put out a Pan Medico call over the VHF. First they were informed that a helicopter was going to be dispatched, but upon confirming our position MRCC Palma, who were co-ordinating things, decided that the fastest way to get me to shore was on the lifeboat based in Ciutadella, Menorca.

Yves was holding my hand and trying to keep me conscious as the team waited for the lifeboat to arrive. There were times I was aware of what was going on around me but unable to respond but others when I felt myself slipping away.  I realised quite what lumpy seas I’d been swimming through for the past hours when I felt the impact of the lifeboat coming alongside Calafuria, Joe and Maureen Fiteni’s 12-m motorboat, our primary support vessel. The forecast for our window was unsettled and we’d been keen to get away as soon as possible to make the best of the calmer weather at the start of the window, but it was far from ideal.

The next image I saw as I came around will be permanently imprinted on my memory – the sight of four Spanish guys in bright orange jumpsuits and helmets straddling me to transfer me to their stretcher.

I was then transferred at speed to Ciutadella to a waiting ambulance to be transferred to the Clinica Canal Salada where the wonderful Emergency Team (SUAB) took great care of me and administered steroids intravenously to help my body cope with the stings. The moment the lifeboat crew landed me wasn’t without its comedy as the crew pulled back the blankets to transfer me to the ambulance and discovered I was stark naked (my team had removed my wet swimsuit as soon as they pulled me out as is normal procedure to aid the warm up process). “No tiene traje?” (No swimsuit?) one of the surprised lifeboatmen said. To which I replied: “Si no traje,” thinking I was stating the obvious given that he had uncovered me in all my glory. However I could see that my response caused more shock as they thought I’d been doing the crossing without a swimsuit so thankfully I could put them straight before a wild rumour circulated around Mallorca about a nutty British woman swimming through banks of jellyfish in Menorca Channel in the nude.

My discharge from hospital later the same morning sparked more bizarre scenarios as I’d been transferred to shore with nothing more than my ‘bear suit’, an all-in-one furry onesie and Sam, one of our bilingual support crew, in just the clothes she stood in. Neither of us had shoes.

So we found ourselves with the logistical challenge of being stranded on a different island to my entire support team. support boats, passports. money, communications, clothes and everything else that we needed. But anyone who knows me, and my support team, would know that we can deal with anything that is thrown at us and within a couple of hours Amy and Corinne back in Mallorca had liaised with Sam, who commandeered the A&E telephone as our sole means of communicating for a couple of hours, to organise wiring funds to a bank in Menorca, scans of our passports, ferry tickets and everything else we needed to get back to Mallorca later that day.

We were picked up by a bemused taxi driver who took us to a shoe shop, with me in my bear suit and a hospital gown (protecting my modesty due to a broken zip on the aforementioned suit) and a pair of hospital disposable knickers and surgical stockings to protect my bare feet. After buying shoes, we found the closest clothes shop so that I could get out of my woolly suit. I managed to buy a full outfit including sunglasses and flip flops for a grand total of 27 euros – not how I was expecting to spend the afternoon when I started out from Cala’n Bosch the day before but Sam and I had a lot of fun in the process despite the circumstances.

On the way back to Mallorca on the Balearia ferry we were invited to the bridge by the captain, who had met my shore team on the crossing the day before, and had been following my progress overnight. Sitting in the captain’s chair I could view the Menorca Channel from a very different perspective compared to just 12 hours before when I was in it and being stung by the jellyfish being thrown at me on the waves. Every cloud has a silver lining and for me the hour we spent on the bridge chatting with the captain and his crew, who seemed to have a deep respect for what I’d attempted to do the night before, was one of the many I’ve experienced over the last two weeks.

We had a very useful and intense full team debrief for my support crew at the Maritimo Business Centre at Club de Mar – Mallorca (kindly provided for our use by Jonathan Syrett) last Monday evening. I found it very useful to hear everybody’s perspectives on what happened out there and it was a chance for me to thank everybody for the calm professionalism with which they dealt with a major incident. My team never fails to impress me, and this was no exception.

So what next… This question has been going around in my head a lot over the last two weeks. Anyone who knows me, will know that I’m itching to get back in the water and use the fire in my belly roused by the unsuccessful outcome of my last swim to power me to the Spanish mainland (in the same way as I did with my swim around the Isle of Wight after my unsuccessful attempt at circumnavigating Tiree in the Scottish Hebrides four weeks previously).

Regarding the future, I’m getting as much expert advice as I can from specialist medics and jellyfish experts so that I can make an informed decision about how to proceed.  I’m determined to put the people who care about me and my life ahead of my ego, difficult as that is when you are hellbent on a personal challenge. At the end of the day it is only a series of swims, albeit important ones for me, and they are not worth risking my life for.

Another decision I’ve made is that I won’t continue unless I secure sufficient funding to do so in a safe fashion where I can mitigate the risks as much as is possible. To date I’ve been pushing on without a sponsor, and as a result I got into the water totally exhausted two weeks ago, having barely slept for nights as I tried to pull together mission critical tasks as all my volunteer support crew juggled full time jobs to get out here in time to help out here on the ground for the actual swim.

I’ve been reflecting a lot over the last days and I’ve realised that I put myself in life-threatening situations three times in just six weeks and all of those ultimately came down to a lack of resources in the absence of a sponsor.

However, it is not a decision I will take lightly or quickly. I’m currently resting on doctor’s orders (not something I’m very good at) but the handcuffs Linda and Graham Vatcher bought me are helping. I can’t expose my stings to the sun due to the risk of permanent scarring and I can’t swim, so it’s proving hugely frustrating but I’m spending the time supporting other swimmers and have been down to the 10km swim taking place as the Best Fest here in Colonia Sant Jordi today and I will be back there later to cheer in Johan, a Swedish swimmer who is staying with me at the moment.

Finally, a reminder that I’m doing these swims to raise money for three good causes and it’s still not too late to make a donation. Please click here, to make a donation in support my three chosen marine-related charities who will benefit from funds raised during my upcoming swims: Marine Inspirations, Joves Navegants and the Marine Animal Rescue Programme. Please help me reach my fundraising target of £5,000.

#NeverDuckOut (unless the jellyfish sting you unconscious!!)

Anna