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Nash McIntosh treks from Tybee to Hilton Head at age 70

THE SHARK was a pleasant surprise after those stupid jellyfish!” Nash McIntosh tells me.

The 70-year-old Savannah native — who you’ve probably seen at one point or another downtown wearing one of his Indiana Jones hats — recently decided it was about time he made that swim from Tybee Island to Hilton Head Island.

Without fins, of course, because only a “wuss” would wear fins. And without goggles for that matter, although this was certainly not a part of the plan. He isn’t that crazy.

But Nash is more than just a local character. A true man of the water, the coastal rivers are like his city streets.

He discovered his love for swimming as a child while growing up on Isle of Hope, later finding his home away from home swimming for the Tar Heels at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and then for the U.S. Navy in Pensacola, Florida. And if you wake up early enough, you may catch him swimming his daily workout on Tybee Island.

In short, swimming is in McIntosh’s blood. So when you ask a question such as, “Why would you swim from Tybee to Hilton Head?” Nash simply replies, “Why not?”

Five nautical miles in five hours and five minutes. Not that anyone was counting.

The night prior to the swim, McIntosh docked his boat, the Po’ Cracker, at the Lazaretto Creek Marina on Tybee Island. It would be the safety vessel of moral support and Scooby Snacks the next morning, driven by his friends and motivators Charles Ellis and Jack Jones III while sporting a ten-foot fishing pole with a scuba/swimming flag attached and a cooler full of water, PowerAde, and chocolate cookies.

As per McIntosh’s request, Jones and Ellis would strongly enforce the “no touching the boat” rule.

Now, McIntosh doesn’t just jump in the water and swim for his life. Well, maybe he has come close to doing that on his three previous attempts over the past five years.

But this time he got smart and did his homework. How could he work with the converging currents of Lazaretto Creek, the Savannah River, and Calibogue Sound? Which current should he choose as an ally, and which to battle? How could he cross the Savannah River without being swept past Calibogue Sound, the final avenue to Hilton Head?

At 6 a.m., Nash submerges into the 80-degree water, what he calls the “perfect swimming temperature.” Wearing his goggles and a makeshift swim-cap to protect his head from the sun (a Wal-Mart baseball cap with the brim ripped off), he eases into the outgoing tide of Lazaretto Creek, giving himself adequate time to cross the Savannah River before the monstrous cargo ships begin their operations at 8 a.m.

Not five minutes into the swim, his goggles break and his hat is swept away with the tide. I would say this was a perfect opportunity to “wuss out” without really being too much of a “wuss.” But he looks at me like I’m crazy when I ask if this crossed his mind. That’s Nash for you.

For the first hour and a half Nash boogies down Lazaretto Creek with the forces of the outgoing tide racing behind him. “Hauling down Lazaretto” is something he says he will never forget.

But with every positive comes the opposing negative, as he will also never forget his last two hours fighting the current of Calibogue Sound after crossing the Savannah River. Eyes red and burning, McIntosh has to catch his breath and bring his heart rate down by flipping on his back and paddling — a swim stance that nearly convinces Ellis and Jones that McIntosh is waving the white flag of surrender.

But it doesn’t take long for the feisty man to set them straight, no matter how tired he may be.

“You’re going the wrong way!” they yell at one point.

“I can’t see!” he snaps back, eyes saturated with the saltwater. Understandable enough.

But even if he has goggles, there’s really only so much he wants to see. The murky water is a perfect vessel to deny the possibility of “what lies beneath.”

So besides the frequent startle of jellyfish slapping him in the face (the non-stinging types, luckily), McIntosh is more concerned about boaters than critters: The scuba flag is unfortunately not recognized enough.

I can only imagine what McIntosh feels like when his feet grazed the sands of Hilton Head. Shortly afterward he collapses on board the Po’ Cracker, too exhausted to even recognize the amazing feat he had just accomplished.

But now, even the humble Nash McIntosh admits that every once in while he’ll sit back and think, “I can’t believe I did that.”

I wonder what he’ll do for his 80th birthday?

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Jenn Blatty

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