Cameron Bellamy departed from Barbados at 8:18 am on Friday September 13, 2019 and touched a rocky outcrop near Vieux Fort in St Lucia at 5:13 pm on Sunday September 15. He swam a distance of 150K. He was in the water for 56 hours and 55 minutes, 3 days and 2 nights. This was an “out of this world” ultra-endurance feat! He survived extreme heat, jellyfish stings, two sleepless nights, sunburn, a horrific case of “salt mouth” which left his lips hugely swollen and cracked, extreme fatigue and very sore shoulders. It was phenomenal. There are literally no words to adequately describe the exceptional story of Cameron Bellamy’s Caribbean swim – from Barbados to St. Lucia – the longest channel swim ever.
Cuba to Florida Foiled
My major goal for the past couple of years has been to swim from Cuba to Florida. Since early 2019 the planning and training for this swim went full steam ahead. A support boat was chartered, deposit paid, and support crew recruited.
Unfortunately, the US government has, over the last 2 years, become increasingly more hawkish on travel to Cuba for US residents. On 4 June 2019, the US government officially tightened rules on trade and travel to Cuba, with the Dept of Commerce implementing a general policy of denial for exports and reexports to Cuba. After receiving news of the additional steps needed to attempt the Cuba swim, we applied for all necessary licenses and permits to abide by the stricter regulations. However, on 21 August 2019, less than 3 weeks to our proposed start day, we were denied an export license for our support vessel.
The news struck me hard, but, in a way, it was a relief. Trying to train up to 11 hours a day under conditions where the certainly of the actual event is not 100% was one of the most difficult and stressing things I’ve had to endure in my life. Since the change of regulations in June, I knew that this outcome was a possibility and in the back of my mind I had a plan B: To swim the stretch of open ocean between Barbados and St Lucia, a similar distance and challenge, but without the bureaucracy.
I immediately spoke to a unique and dear Barbadian friend, Kristina Evelyn, who set about organizing the swim. The fact that we managed to pull off the organization and logistics for this swim in a space of 3 weeks is miraculous and testament to Kristina’s organizing skills and passion, as well as the kind and helpful nature of the people of Barbados.
As Kristina went to work, I continued my training. I attempted 3 24-hour swims in a week starting on 22 August and ending on 28 August. Straight after my last 24-hour swim, I flew to the north west coast of Scotland for a training camp for another future project of mine.
When I arrived back in Barbados on 5 September, I went straight back into training 10 hours a day. On the evening of Sunday 8th, during a test swim with ‘Imagine’, our new boat for the crossing from Bolador Charters, we discussed potentially bringing the swim forward from 15 September to 13 September, to avoid a potential storm moving towards the vicinity. I decided to stop training in order to get my ideal taper period of 5 days.
The Build Up
The 5 days before the swim went by in a flash, I still tried to get in the water for an hour a day, but there was so much to organize from getting last minute food supplies to Barbados, planning the crew, to working with immigration and customs in Barbados and St Lucia.
Two days before the swim a package arrived. A stinger suit created by Finis. I had previously reached out to Finis because I was worried about the notorious box jellyfish in the Florida Straits. My intention for the Cuba swim was that if I was stung, or if box jellyfish were viewed in the water, I would put it on to ride out the toxins or get out of the jellyfish populated area. I tried the suit on in the pool and it was relatively easy to don while submerged in the water on my own, without assistance. I decided to take it along on this swim with the same intention, only use it if need be. It may have been a turn of fate, but if the Cuba swim had gone ahead the stinger suit probably wouldn’t have arrived in time, meaning that swim may have had to be aborted due to jellyfish stings. As it turns out the suit was needed on this swim.
A couple of people reached out to me, including journalists, such as Steve Munatones, and swim organizer, David Barra, to ask if I was using a stinger suit or what regulations I was swimming under. I indicated to them, as well as the Barbados Aquatic Sports Association (BASA), who are the official FINA approved organization ratifying this swim and had appointed the official observers, that I was doing the swim under English Channel rules with the intention of using the jellyfish suit (classified as non-standard non-performance-enhancing equipment) if it was decided I was in a potential life threatening situation.
The night prior to the swim, my San Francisco friend, Hudson Harr, arrived with all the food and equipment I had requested, about 50 pounds of it. We packed in the evening and suddenly we were all set to go!
I woke up early at St Peters Bay Resort, the swim would begin about 50m from my bedroom window at around 8am. I quickly did any last-minute packing and, helped by Kristina and Hudson, started applying Desitin (a zinc oxide and lanolin product) to my entire body.
We recruited a number of people to help carry all my food and equipment to the boat. I made my way down to an intimate crowd of friends waiting on the beach to see me off. I was nervous, yet focused. Geoff Farmer counted me down and indicated the start by sounding a siren. I was in the water and off and wouldn’t touch the land or anything else for the next 56 + hours.
This route from Barbados to St Lucia was supposed to be current assisted for the duration, with the current starting slow and picking up as we got closer to St Lucia. However, it was quite evident from the beginning that there was no current to be had this early on. For the first few hours I specifically focused on my rhythm. I noticed the water got very warm after leaving the coastline. The island of Barbados has numerous springs that feed into the ocean helping to keep the coastal water relatively cool. Out in the ocean, I soon found out, there was no respite. One of my support swimmers, swimming with me for 30 min at that point of a possible 1 hour, said that water was ‘unbearably hot’ and wanted to get out before the hour. I don’t think he meant for me to hear this, but it was concerning to me.
The main concern with such warm water is that it is not possible to maintain speed. This was confirmed to me at the 10-hour mark, just before sundown. During a feed I asked Jono, our pilot, how far we had come. He said 13 nautical miles, meaning less than 15 statute miles. This news hit hard. I would have assumed we would have been closer to 20 miles. It dawned on me that there was no, and maybe a reverse, current and/or that the temperature was having a significant effect on my speed.
The First Night
Slightly negative from the disappointing news, I told myself to keep plugging away, looking for my rhythm. I knew, or at least hoped, the current would help us eventually. I had practiced a number of 24-hour swims, so this stage of the swim seemed very normal to me. I cruised through to 10pm and then midnight, knowing the toughest part of the night comes at around 3 to 5am, just before sunrise. However, I would have to endure another distraction before this would happen. Throughout the night I had been stung by a number of jellyfish and men-o-war, but nothing that concerned me too much. I am fortunate (or not so fortunate) of having been stung by myriad dangerous species of jellyfish and portuguese men-o-war and have developed a good ability at identifying them upon being stung.
Suddenly, just before 2am, I felt the familiar whack of a jellyfish sting across the width of my stomach. Initially it feels like you’ve been hit by a baseball bat, you’re stunned and see darkness and stars for a fraction of a second. When you come back to reality, you’re greeted by a searing burning sensation, off the proverbial charts of the classical 1-10 point pain comparison test. My first thought, and later backed up, was that it was a Portuguese man-o-war. When I instinctively reached down to touch there were a couple of tentacles still attached. I screamed under water and turned over, telling my kayaker at the time, Kristina, that I’d been stung. I asked for vinegar, thinking it was in the kayak. As it turns out, we hadn’t discussed jellyfish protocol at all. Kristina shouted back to the boat to bring vinegar. I think a lay there in pain for about 5 minutes while the crew looked for and brought the vinegar. From my previous experiences I have realized I can handle a 1 box jellyfish sting, after the second its too dangerous to proceed, especially if stung within the next 3 hours. For Portuguese man-o-war stings, I can handle maybe 2 bad stings within a 3-hour period. Knowing this, and in order to finish the swim, I decided to call for the stinger suit. It arrived a while later as no one know where it was packed, except Kristina who was on the kayak. I donned it, unassisted, in the water and carried on swimming. The suit is extremely clumsy to wear and chafes the skin everywhere. I couldn’t wait to get it off. After about 2 hours the burning from the sting started to subside. There wasn’t much of a neurological affect, confirming my thoughts that it was likely a Portuguese man-o-war and not a box jellyfish. I managed to get stung a couple more times on my face (I wasn’t wearing a hood, mask or gloves) and there followed a comical moment when Jono, the skipper, but now my kayaker, poured vinegar on my nose from his kayak with me treading water lying on my back next to him. At my first glimpse of the sun I decided to liberate myself from the suit and took it off. I had huge welts under each of my lats from chafing from the suit.
The Second Day
Feeling the lift after seeing the first rays of light and also having removed the bonds of the stinger suit, I powered on. However, from early in the morning it started to feel hot. In the back of my head I was still worried about my pace. I decided that my short-term goal would be to get to 30 hours in, so around 2pm. I assumed that the swim would take me 60 hours to complete and 30 seemed like a good goal. I decided that at 30 hours I would ask Jono how far we had left. Chris Sikkens, an amazing kayaker, with boundless energy, joined me mid-morning. I feel very confident swimming next to Chris, I know he’s in control and all I have to do is swim next to him, keeping him in my sights. Through midday the wind was nonexistent, the air temperature I imagined to be in the mid-30s and water temp likely around 32 degrees centigrade (90 degrees Fahrenheit). At feeds I could see how the crew was struggling with the heat, they were taking it in turns jumping in and out the water to try cool down.
I was extremely disorientated at this point of the swim. On each breadth stroke I would look at Chris. I would see his blurry outline accompanied, usually, by a vivid hallucination. My strokes were labored (although I didn’t feel this at the time). I repeatedly told myself to ‘just stay with Chris’ over and over again.
My lips were already starting swell and hurt. This wasn’t a good sign. I had some negative thoughts trying to predict what my lips would be like after another 30 hours of swimming.
When I went to the boat, for what I thought was 2pm (or 30 hours in) I asked how far we had to go. Jono asked if I wanted to know ‘the truth’. I said “yes”, and, after a slight delay, he confirmed we had 40 statute miles to go. Confused I asked how much we had done. He paused and stuttered for a bit, then said “50, no wait 54”. He was very unconvincing. I assumed there was an 80% chance he was saying we were further than we actually were. Although potentially we could have picked up a big current over the night and no one had told me. I decided to keep plugging away and ask again at sunset which would be around 35 hours in.
The next 2 hours were unrelenting. Kristina had obviously taken a short nap because during one of the feeds, during this time, she suddenly exclaimed that it looked like I was over heating and was in disbelief that no one had noticed. For the next few hours the team were amazing. Every feed they had extra ice for me to consume, pour over my head and put in my speedo and swim cap. At 15-minute intervals the kayak had extra ice to give me. At about 4pm I started feeling normal and conscious again.
Suddenly some weird cloud formations closed in. The sky and oil-slick like water went a bright luminous red and orange. It was the most beautiful sunset I’d ever seen. It felt like a was swimming through a different universe. Unfortunately, the stingers came out in full force too to see the display and I endured numerous stings in the period while the sun was setting, a notorious danger period. I decided to don the suit again, to get me though till just after sun set and removed it shortly after not being able to endure the bonds and chafing any longer.
The second night was what I had presumed would be the most difficult period of the swim. As it turns out, nothing would be harder than getting through the heat of the second day. I was so relieved to be back in the relatively cool evening. My plan for the evening was to take caffeine tablets every 3.5 hours (so 3 during the night) and take cataflam, a strong anti-inflammatory drug, between these. My short-term goals were to reach these feeds where I would take the extra medication. This strategy worked well and kept me motivated.
At 35 hours (7pm) I asked how far we had to go. Jono was sleeping and Adrian was at the helm. My suspicions were correct. We were now 43 statute miles away (unless I had gone backwards 3 miles!). I took a look at Kristina and said “Jono lied” and kept swimming. I actually wasn’t angry; in fact I was a little relieved. That mistruth kept me going through that part of the day. And now I knew 100% that we were significantly over halfway.
However, what really got me motivated was a comment from Kristina that during the night we had picked up a current. I’m guessing this was around mid-night. We were being pushed to St Lucia. The wind had steadily picked up too. It was a cross tail wind. I was enjoying the change in texture of the water, however the wind direction and bigger swell made me change my stroke slightly, which in turn hurt my left shoulder. Good thing I’d just started taking the cataflam. As we closed in on St Lucia, the fewer stingers there seemed to be.
The early hours of the morning from 2am to 5am were tough and went by extremely slowly. My body was crying out for sleep. The extra caffeine boosts only temporarily relieved me. At the first sight of light, as I was jostling in the wind and large swell, my mood lifted. I suddenly felt the current and knew I was going to make this swim.
At about 8am, 2 hours after sunrise, I dared to look up. My crew had mentioned, for a while, they could see the pitons of St Lucia. I could see the faint outlines of mountains against the horizon. My crew were encouraging me like never before. It seemed like the day before they were urging me on, but deep down thinking I probably wouldn’t get there; now they were urging me on with the intent they knew I was going to make and no one, not even me, was going to stop me.
Every feed I looked up and saw the pitons getting slightly closer. In my head I calculated I had 20 miles to go, about 10 hours with this current. I started counting down the hours, amusingly thinking that I had ‘only’ an English Channel to go. Feed after feed passed. My mouth had grown significantly worse over time. My lips, on which I’d smothered Vaseline every feed, were at least double their normal size and felt squarish and rough rather than rounded and smooth. After taking a dose of cataflam, every 4 hours, the mouth and lip pain would subside slightly for about 2 hours, but then come back in full force and worse than before, an almost unbearable continuous pain of salt on open wound. This pain spurred me to swim even faster.
At about 5 hours to go, Mandy, my support swimmer told me I was tending to swim with the swell, and to my left, away from the coast. If I carried on this route, I would miss St Lucia. I forced myself to make sure I was swimming directly alongside my kayaker. I knew that the current would get stronger and eventually push me further south, away from my target.
At 3 hours to go, tiredness suddenly gripped me. A thought crossed my mind that I should ask Chris to make sure that he checks my breathing, making sure I don’t fall asleep with my arms still moving, having heard an account of this previously. I didn’t ask him, but, in hindsight, I should have.
Suddenly, at 2 hours to go, we were joined by St Lucian police, the coastguard and other craft. There was a discussion about the best landing location. News came back that it was 4 miles away. In my head that meant 2 hours. Feeds from the boat had been taking too long and thus I decided, due to my painful mouth, deteriorating condition and needing to get in as quickly as possible, to only feed from the kayak for the remainder. I told Chris to get more feeds on his kayak and that I would try to swim 1 hour then feed and then another hour to make it in. For the next stint I pushed my stroke rate high and swam for as long and as fast as I could. I looked up to ask Chris how long I’d been swimming. He said 45 minutes. I took a feed and carried on for as long as I could. I stopped with a piton looming above us. 30 minutes had passed. Hudson had joined in a kayak and said we had an Alcatraz to go. We kept on, but it was soon evident that a current was taking us away from Sandy Beach, our intended destination. Instead we looked to swim slightly south for another, nonvisible, beach. Eventually, with Kristina now in the kayak, we decided to go straight in to avoid being swept out to sea by the current. I pushed myself to the extreme and eventually came up upon a rock attached to the shore underneath a majestic cliff. The perfect place to end an epic swim. The swim was approximately 150km and an official duration of 56 hours and 55 minutes.
After touching the rock and Sue Dyson signaling the swim was over with a siren, I swam over to a zodiac. Three crew helped me onboard and I slumped along the bow. When we reached the support boat, Imagine, three more support crew helped me onboard and carried me down below. I fell on to the main bed. The paramedic, Karen, and EMT, Mark, started taking my vitals. My heart rate was around 180 bpm. Very high for me. All I wanted was to drink fresh water.
As we docked, I wasn’t sure where, my mother boarded the boat and immediately broke into tears upon seeing me. I followed suit and hugged her. Moments later the Prime Minister of St Lucia, Allen Chastanet, entered the cabin and, caught in the moment, became teary too. We shook hands and he gave me some hearty congratulations. I felt a warmth of pride hearing his congratulations. I started to slip in and out of consciousness as I listened to Allen, Kristina and my support crew devise what to be done next. Allen said the quickest way to get to the best health care was by speed boat to Castries, a 2-hour car ride, but 30 minutes by boat. They put me on the police speed boat, my head on my mother’s lap and Mark covering me with blankets and emergency blankets while holding me, to ward off the oncoming hypothermia. I drifted in and out of sleep on what felt like a calm journey, happy to be in my mother’s arms. We arrived at Castries and I was lifted to an ambulance which took me to Tapion Hospital.
I’ve had an amazing adventure. Initially this was a controversial Cuba to Florida swim and has turned into a beautiful and epic Barbados to St Lucia swim. I’ve trained in numerous locations: San Francisco, Newport Beach, Melbourne, the Gold Coast, Cape Town, London, St Petersburg (Florida) and, my favorite, Barbados.
I’ve loved meeting numerous people along this path. Everyone, and there are too many to mention, have assisted in some small or large way. I am forever grateful.
While I don’t have a specific next swimming goal in mind, I’m sure I will find one and can’t wait to share it with everyone.
Appendix: My thoughts on jellyfish and stinger suits
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.
Name: Cameron Bellamy
Nationality: South African
Resides: San Francisco, USA
Captain: Jono Jones
Asst Captain: Adrian Joseph
Mechanic: Shemar Carrington
Medic: Mark Small
Medic: Karen Dunbreaker
Head Official Observer: Alison Pile
Official Observer and BASA Representative: Rene Dulieu
Support Crew and Reserve Observer: Chris Sikkens
Support Crew: Kristina Evelyn
Support Crew: Amanda Garcia
Support Crew: Karen Turner
Support Crew: Mark Farmer
Support Crew: Hudson Harr (temporary – on crew for 1st day and last 3 hours)
Support Crew and reserve observer: Geoff Farmer (temporary – on crew for 1st day)
Support Crew and reserve observer: John Howard (temporary – on crew for 1st day)
The swim followed standard English Channel rules, and additionally used non-standard, non-performance enhancing equipment, including: Textile jellyfish suit. Only used if stung or in dangerous or jellyfish infested area. And 2 x shark shields
Start location: St Peters Bay Resort (Lat: 13.14415, Long: 05.938974)
Finish location: Moule a Chique (Lat: 13.42325, Long: 06.057177)
Distance of minimum repeatable route connecting the start and finish: 150km
Basic Swim Facts
Start date and time: 13 September 2019, 8:18am
Finish date and time: 15 September 2019, 5:13pm
Local time zone: EST
Elapsed time of swim (hours, minutes, seconds): 56 hours 55 minutes