Thursday, December 29, 2011

The year in liquid form

My my my, it's a beautiful world
I like swimming in the sea
I like to go out beyond the white breakers
Where a man can still be free — or a woman, if you are one
I like swimming in the sea
Colin Hay, "Beautiful World"
Flag buoy, Aquatic Park, San Francisco, Dec. 26, 2011. (Note Santa hat
where flag usually is.) Water temperature 49.7º F. Bring it!
What an enabler, my wife! With a cheery heart, a smiling voice and, I'll wager, more prayer than I'm aware of, she causes worlds to open up, and bids me explore.

With trepidation, for example, she resigned to the idea it was OK this year for me to stop looking for a job in the closed and collapsing teaching profession, and to spend my energy rebuilding my illustration business. It's a tenuous — OK, often stupid — choice requiring faith and calm.

So, too, with another new world this year, swimming open water.

At first, Nancy accompanied me for this strange and new pastime, and still serves as ground support for races and big events. Since then, she has accepted the low odds of my getting chomped in two by a shark — or, in fresh water, by whatever aquatic pet some kid released into the lake to become a monster fattened on swimmers' flesh — and does her own thing while I swim.

And swim and swim and swim, five or six days a week, usually in Lake Natoma, where I plan to stay through the new year.

As I might have mentioned before, I never really thought it would be this way. Sure, I set sights on Alcatraz long ago, but never truly believed, not entirely anyway, that I'd do more than see the island through pay binoculars and wonder what might have been.

Still, moving toward that goal I joined a Sacramento-area swim group through, which got me to an introductory clinic on swimming San Francisco Bay last November. Suzie Dods, a legendary member of the South End Rowing Club near Fisherman's Wharf, led Myron Dong (our group's chief cheerleader and organizer) and me on a short swim around buoys in the water. I decided at the last moment to swim without a wetsuit, and felt great.

Then began the discombobulation.

Not all parties have weighed in, but I'm guessing this is the logo
we crazies will adopt for ensuing adventures …
The meetup group started swimming February weekends in Lake Natoma, in horribly chilly, thought-numbing water. I floundered in frustration, making the mistake of believing all those laps in the pool would steel me for open water. Cold trumps all. Now I warn new open-water swimmers against similar hubris.

I started in a wetsuit because I thought that's the only way a human being could swim winter water.

Two events changed that:

1. I look like a manatee in a wetsuit, except less dainty and curvaceous, and with a DayGlo® dome. Not usually vain, I draw the line at wetsuits, and swim without mostly because I'm stupid and stubborn. Plus I hate the constraint of a neoprene straitjacket on my arms and shoulders.

Wetsuits welcome, of course. We skin
swimmers just like to poke fun.
2. Wearing just a cap, goggles and jammers A guy named Brad Schindler sliced through our wetsuited group and disappeared into the winter mists, returning less than a half-hour later, having swum around an island I had yet to see but have circumnavigated dozens of times since. Before summer ended, Brad became one of only a couple of dozen people to swim the 22-mile length of Lake Tahoe without a wetsuit. Until Brad hit the water that February morning, it never occurred to me that I might be able to swim without a wetsuit. For the next month, for increasing periods after every swim, I splashed about without my wetsuit. After that month, and ever since, I've gone without.

On one of these so-called polar bear swims, I had forgotten my goggles, and was ready to drive home and call it a morning. I solve problems with expeditious caprice, and have to talk myself into taking a moment to think of better alternatives. This time my wife thought of it for me.

"Just go ask someone," she said, through gritted teeth. When I finally did, a guy named Jim Morrill lent me a pair, and I was able to swim.

In quick time I found Jim my opposite in people skills, joining in any and every conversation, meeting new people without a whit of hesitation. Without any evidence that I could swim more than 100 yards, he was excitedly inviting me on swims months and miles from that date. I was willing, but not sure how able.

This is a distant second … first off, we don't confine our
lunacy to Nimbus Flat at the south end of the lake.
On our first rough-water swim of the season in March, I got a third of the way out into a Folsom Lake cove before a wave, and then another, and then another slapped me in the face. I stalled, unable to breathe, then puked water and decided immediately that open water swimming wasn't for me. I had tried, dammit, but it was time to sidestroke back to shore and go home. Then Jim swam back to where I was, asked if I was OK, and said, "Let's just swim 30 strokes, take your time, and see how you feel." I did, and felt better, in control.

"Let's go another 30 strokes," he said, and off we went again. "See?" he said. "No problem, you're doing great." Thirty strokes by 30 strokes, I finished the mile swim. Maybe I'll be back after all, I thought.

I think of that every time I swim, now often by myself in 50-degree water: Here I am, piercing the green, cold peaceful waters, the forests quiet on either side of me, the water a vast sheet of glass, gulls and buzzards lofting overhead, and someone made sure I didn't miss out on this by not letting me quit.

Now Jim is the one with whom I swim most often, when we get the chance. We've swum Aquatic Park, Treasure Island and Keller Beach in the San Francisco Bay.

I swim almost as often with another new partner in lunacy, Stacy Purcell, who's a scientist by heart and profession. Curious what the cold water is doing to us, he has us taking air, water and body temperatures to track trends as the temperatures fall.

I like this, but acknowledge its weirdness. I embrace its weirdness.
This new watery world has brought a lot of new friends. In short time, for example, I'm sure to see, somewhere in the middle of a swim, a body coming toward me at high speed. That'll be Kathy Morlan, one of the fastest open-water swimmers in northern California. She's taking a winter break, having donated a kidney to her son over the Christmas weekend. On top of all her swimming medals, she wins Mom of the Year.

With friends and alone, I have swum from Alcatraz, the nearly three miles of Donner Lake, the nearly five miles of Lake Natoma and long portions thereof, and have swum just for swimming's sake an average of five days a week. We have swum in broiling sun and in sideways rain and in opaque fog. We've swum before dawn and long after the evening sky has reddened and purpled. We have endured rowing crews who can't see us, and ski boats who refuse to. I regret to say I have only gone out beyond the white breakers once, with a group out of Avila Beach. But I plan to change that, and soon. The open water has only made me want more.

Honestly, I enjoy coming out of the water on a December morning and someone on the shore asking, "How can you do that?! How cold is the water, really?"

Next year, I'd like to swim from the Bay Bridge to the Golden Gate Bridge, about six miles with the tide. A couple of events have added 10k swims, and I'd like to be able to complete those. I'll swim Alcatraz again, at least once, and the length of Lake Natoma again. Crossing from Catalina Island to the mainland no longer seems impossible. Not next year, but who knows? Someday.
Feelin' groovy …
Just not today. I'm home from a 7 a.m. swim in which the surface temperature was 50 degrees F. The swim is never really so bad; it's the uncomfortable shivering after that I can do without. After another cup of hot water and a shower, I'll retrieve my bravado. My goal of swimming Lake Natoma year 'round remains the foremost challenge.

"I want to get stung by a jellyfish," I told Jim, meaning that if I did get stung, it'd be because I'd been swimming in the ocean long enough for the law of averages eventually to attack me. People, learning I'd been stung, would say, "Well, it figures, considering how often you swim in the ocean."

"Trust me," said Jim, a surfer since childhood, "you don't want to get stung by a jellyfish." But he takes my point.

Happy 2012. Find your adventure.

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