Tuesday, March 11, 2014


Complacency kills nerve endings.

I zoom along freeways at 67 mph (don't tell the highway patrol), in tight NASCAR™® formation with everyone else going everywhere, calmly gauging openings in the moving mass. Occasionally I become aware that I'm hurtling in a metal cage, vulnerable to the laws of physics and vector forces that would become tragic at the slightest miscue.

Shod in Crocs©®, I climb to the roof of my house, minding the guy wires that tether the aerial, kneeling awkwardly and upslope while reaching low to scoop the muck out of the gutters. One wrong step …

Many, many times I swim my beloved lake alone — cold water, cold wind, stealthy rowing craft, blinding sun, eerie dark, what have you. It's still a shock when once in a while someone points out, "That doesn't seem very safe."

I know the risks, decide I can work with them, settle into the hum of self-assuredness and deaf to the drone of danger. I am in control, even if I'm really not.

No such thing for me, however, swimming in the ocean.

All I can control in the ocean is my mind, to impel my body to enter, and to go through the motions. The ocean sings of a living planet, moving, heaving, immense, breathing, unsettled. Unknown. Hungry, maybe. Maybe angry.

I must surrender.

The part that impels outlasts the part that withdraws, and I head into the waves, as I did this weekend.

I met Marta Gaughen, a fellow facebook®™-er for a tour outside the breakers at Doran Beach. I had been there a couple of months before, my brother-in-law walking the beach alongside while I tried out the water, and demanded to know on facebook's "Did you swim today?" page why no one seemed to swim this quiet beach. Marta posted that she swims the beach frequently, and after a time we finally arranged to travel from our far-flung towns to dive in together. Nancy, my sister- and brother-in-law and niece and mom-in-law came along, with our little old dog in tow.

Doran Beach rings Bodega Bay, a shallow cove a patient couple of hours' drive northwest of San Francisco. Think of Bodega Bay as the unhealed scar of the San Andreas Fault, the edge of the continent, which infamously readjusted in 1906 to level Santa Rosa and San Francisco.

The shape of the bay follows a straight and true line southeast forming Tomales Bay, the trough of the fault, plain as day.

No one swims, several people told me, because great white sharks cruise the waters. Marta says sharks pup in the waters outside Bodega Bay in their season, and sharks are all around us. Whatcha gonna do except manage the risks?

I'm slowly, slowly learning the bay's ways. A beach like this in Southern California, it seems, would teem with swimmers and boogie boarders on the gentle waves.

Their absence here at Doran Beach alarms me. But not enough to stay out.

Following Marta's lead, I dive into the waves, and dive again, finally beyond the breakers, and swim parallel to shore, north to the spit of land that forms the jetty for the fishing boats of Bodega Harbor.

The water is 55 degrees Fahrenheit, warmer than in my Lake Natoma these days, and clear to a couple of feet past my down-stroking arm. It is olive green and shapeless beyond that, revealing nothing.

Soft and slightly salty, the water lifts and drops me gently. I count strokes, sighting on some distant building, wondering about where the current is taking me, wondering all I don't know about the water I'm swimming. In the lake, I am moving, the water holding still. But in the ocean, the water moves me, moves around me, despite me. I'm moving, but ultimately the ocean lets me move.

As the smell of fish intensifies toward the jetty, Marta suggests heading back and past our starting point. My body's fine: the water is comfortable and I'm not tired. My brain is the one hiccuping and sputtering; it doesn't want to go back, it wants to get out. My mind decides we have pushed our luck; my mind is quickly laying out the argument that no swimmers were hurt in the undertaking of this endeavor so far — why go father and risk an unhappy outcome with whatever's out there?

Body trumps mind this time and I follow Marta again. She is drawing a bead on a point well wide of the beach where we started, well out into the deeper water. The current, she says, will push us in a curve toward the sand. After a while I trail closer and closer to shore from her angle, and I push out trying to get back out to where she is. With every stroke I think, "OK, I'm OK. OK. I'm OK." My mind is still arguing.

The current has pushed us both back in line with our starting point, and Marta advises swimming straight to the beach and mind the waves.

I have done this enough times now to believe I'm expert, timing the waves to lift me onto the sand. I have managed the risks. I am in control.

Even if I'm really not.

I watch the wave, the one I should have been riding, lift dark and green behind me, then above me. I know enough not to put my back to it.

My mind has made me realize its bulk will fall directly on me, which it did, pounding me to the sand. I force my head straight up in the froth thundering about me, shaking like an astronaut at launch, waiting for the pummeling to subside, then walk up and out of the beach. Safe.

I'll never be comfortable in the ocean.

I can't wait to go again.

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