How a woman emerged unscathed after spending six hours lost at sea

The 29-year-old went for a swim on Sunday night in Barcelona and was found in the middle of the night by a cargo ship in near-perfect physical condition

beach in Barcelona where the woman went for a swim.
The beach in Barcelona where the woman went for a swim.Carles Ribas (EL PAÍS)
Bernat Coll

A woman in the Spanish city of Barcelona was rescued before dawn on Monday after spending more than six hours out at sea. She was taken to hospital but released just hours later: she had no signs of hypothermia, no breathing difficulties and no apparent psychological trauma.

The 29-year-old had gone for a swim at Barcelona’s Sant Miquel beach at 9pm on Sunday. At 4am the next day, the cargo ship Medi Sidney sighted her 4.4 miles (more than 7 kilometers) from the beach, according to Spain’s maritime rescue services. Experts say her good physical condition is “surprising” given she spent so many hours at sea in the middle of the night.

Beachgoers alerted authorities to her disappearance Sunday evening, explaining she had gone for a swim more than an hour earlier and had not come back. Her dog was waiting for her on the beach, where she had also left her belongings. Spanish authorities looked for the woman until 2am, when the search was called off until the next day.

At around 4am on Monday, the Medi Sidney found the woman 4.4 miles from the beach, near the entrance to the Port of Barcelona, an area which is up to 40 meters deep. According to Maritime Rescue, she swam towards the ship and the crewmates heard her cries for help and threw her a lifesaver buoy. The woman told them she had gone out for a swim and had been swept out by the current.

Either the woman is lying, or the seawater was very warm
Pere Domingo, doctor at Sant Pau Hospital in Barcelona

The 29-year-old was taken to Barcelona’s Del Mar hospital, where her good physical condition surprised the staff. The woman initially did not want to be taken to hospital, arguing that she felt fine, but agreed to spend a few hours under observation. She was given various physical and psychological tests and was discharged before noon on Monday.

But her good condition after such an ordeal has raised eyebrows. Health workers say her story about the currents is “surprising,” while Emili Garcia, a researcher at the Institute of Marine Sciences of Catalonia, agree that currents in Barcelona traditionally move from north to south, in the direction that the swimmer took.

Experts say there are two factors that influence how well a person can survive at sea: the water temperature and the swimmer’s physical condition. In low temperatures, a person can suffer from hypothermia, which in the worst case “can lead to cardiac arrest,” says Fernando Sánchez, the head of the Lifesaving Federation in Andalusia in the south of Spain. According to Sánchez, low water temperatures increase the risk of drowning, as the swimmer is more liable to succumb to fatigue, making it more difficult for them to stay afloat.

“This is a very exceptional case,” he says. “To be swimming six hours in the sea and survive with hardly any hypothermia is amazing. The only remotely similar case we have seen on our coast was a boy who was carried away by the current on an inflatable raft and was found after three hours, dehydrated and in very bad condition.”

There is no consensus from the medical community on how the woman was able to survive the ordeal unscathed. “Either the woman is lying, or the seawater was very warm,” says Pere Domingo, a doctor at Sant Pau Hospital in Barcelona. When the woman disappeared, the waters off the coast of Barcelona were about 82ºF (28ºC), a higher temperature than usual, which may have helped her. Dr. Pedro Castro, an intensivist at Barcelona’s Clínic Hospital, agrees: “The current sea temperature is not very cold and this helped the swimmer conserve her body temperature.”

Mild hypothermia is diagnosed when core body temperature falls between 89.6ºF (32ºC) and 95ºF (35ºC). “When you are young and used to cold water, you have better resistance,” says Castro.

Frederic Tortosa, president of the Catalan Lifesaving Federation, says it’s possible to spend hours at sea without suffering from hypothermia. “There are people who swim the Strait of Gibraltar, and those are colder waters,” he says.

But Sánchez, who works as a professional lifesaver, says that hypothermia is common, even among the strongest swimmers. “When we swim the crossings in Torremolinos [a town in the Spanish province of Málaga], we always take thermal blankets and the defibrillator in case of hypothermia, and we always end up helping more than one participant,” he says. “And these competitions are held during the day and with wetsuits.” In any case, sea temperature varies little between day and night, says García. “The processes are much slower in the oceans, and it is difficult for the surface layers to cool at night.”

While the swimmer’s story has a happy ending, it is considered something of a mystery. “It is a surprising case. No one goes to swim out to sea alone in the middle of the night,” says Tortosa. Garcia describes the woman’s condition as “striking,” while Sanchez says she must have been in very good physical shape: “Swimming workouts are usually a maximum of two and a half consecutive hours. It’s very difficult to maintain energy levels. It’s impressive that after swimming six hours at sea, she was discharged [from the hospital] so quickly.”

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