Thursday, March 12, 2015

Kiss the buoys and make me cry

Clong! sang the buoy.

It's big as a washing machine, round and spiky and metal as Sputnik, a bobbing yellow enamel-coated and tattooed orb, glinting in the sun.

It's not supposed to sing or make noise, though. It's not that kind of buoy.

It was made to monitor time and tide, discreetly despite its sunny hue.

But it had never met my two front teeth before.

More on that later.

The buoy would get no attention at all if not for regular visits from the Kelp Krawlers. They're open-water swimmers who use the buoy to mark routes through the marine sanctuary off Pacific Grove in Monterey Bay.

My wish to swim with the Kelp Krawlers is almost as old as my wish to swim open water. While dreaming of an Alcatraz crossing four years ago, I began to dream of joining the Kelp Krawlers in the gorgeous and foreboding Monterey Bay, a place I have visited vicariously through writer John Steinbeck and biologist Ed Ricketts and painter Bruce Ariss.

But finding a way to be in Pacific Grove at 11:15 on a Sunday, when the main group meets, has proven harder than I thought.

It happened for the first time last weekend, and only then because Nancy and I had dropped her mom off to visit friends farther south, and were making our way home to Sacramento. Still, we weren't certain we could stick around. Daylight Saving made it possible, though, the time change robbing us of an hour but shoving us that much closer to the swim start time.

Heaven ain't Iowa. It's Pacific Grove. Though largely unattainable, like heaven, Pacific Grove at least has generous visiting privileges. Dozens of available parking spaces line the rocky storybook coastline on Ocean View Boulevard. Take your pick, especially at 9 a.m. on a Sunday.

Which we did. We were very early. I was eager.

Finding a space close by Lovers Point (fun fact: It was once called Lovers of Jesus Point as a church retreat venue), we passed the hours walking along the trail that overlooks the rocky coast, its massive adobe-colored boulders softened and lacerated by time and wave, and dotted here and there with resting harbor seals.

Pacific Grove is hyper-real, hyper-California, the Eyvind Earle postcard you'd send to your snowbound relatives to make them hate you. You half-expect a truck commercial to break out at any minute; to turn a street corner and suddenly find yourself in another section of Disneyland®™.

You can walk right along the shoreline through carpets of delicate ice plant, amid towering succulents with red and blue rockets of flowers, all the way north into Monterey or south around the point to the state Asilomar retreat if you want, right in front of grand sweeping houses, right before the great sweep of the dark blue bay.

I always thought that if we ever won the utterly remote chance to live in Pacific Grove, we'd never own a TV because we'd spend morning and evening down by the ocean, always finding something better to watch.

It's always a treat to visit, and next I was going to swim it.

The Kelp Krawlers are a big bunch, 30 or 40 of them gathering above Lovers Point Beach, and that isn't even the largest gathering, I'm told. It's lucky if two other people join me to swim my beloved Lake Natoma.

A guy named Chris was shepherding the Krawlers, gathering them up in the parking lot. All but four were wearing wetsuits. One who was not, besides me, is John Ratto, whom I've met through my favorite facebook®™ page, "Did You Swim Today?"

John lives in Pacific Grove. He said he owns a TV. His loss.

The beach at Lovers Point is a smaller replica of the cove far south in La Jolla, where I got to swim last April. Each features a terraced stone-and-concrete amphitheater that drops from a lovely park to the water and opens northwest to the curve of land in the distance. Lovers Point Beach faces the redwood-covered hills that rise more than 20 miles away, above Santa Cruz at the north end of the  bay.

In each place, the bright sand beach and topaz shallows form the amphitheater stage, inviting you in.

At an unseen signal, all the swimmers began making their way down to the stage, past beachcombers beginning to stake out their morning.

Most of the Krawlers were heading north to the round yellow buoy, about a mile round trip. I opted for the smaller group swimming a triangle of about a mile and a half around two buoys.

"I usually take off first because these guys will eventually pass me up," John said, and dove into water that looked too shallow. But I followed, and soon flew over undersea gardens that waved languidly in the blue sand. The gardens fell away and the water darkened to jade. Waves started to lift and drop me, a reminder I was far from my placid home lake, as I kept watch on John. He hugged the point a bit closer than he had recommended, but I kept a wider berth just in case.

Giant kelp snaked up from the bottom of the little cove here and there, and sometimes I had to climb over their heavy thick fronds. The kelp pushed back so hard that it seemed like a giant spring, holding up the water surface.

Another look up and I suddenly saw the flashing black arms. Sure enough, swimmers who started a few moments later have sped past. I began to follow them — when I could see them. The ocean constantly opened and shut the world from me.

I counted strokes, as usual, but I wasn't sure what for. I didn't really know where I was going or when I'd get there.

It's the wildest water I've ever swum, just a bit wilder than off Laguna Beach where I got to swim last year. I looked down into the deep green water and considered the wildness that might be swimming below in this sanctuary. But I never saw anything.

I was the last in the group to arrive at the first buoy, a tall yellow cylinder.

"Every new swimmer kisses the buoy," one swimmer explained. So I leaned in and deftly left a kiss. The buoy felt light, like plastic, and warm from the early sun.

I asked John how these conditions compare to most swims. About the usual, he said.

Next stop, said Chris, we'll sight on Cabrillo Point to the north, where the Hopkins Marine Station sits. The next buoy will be just to the left of the point. Somewhere. I followed the flashing arms.

Chris, I soon realized, was swimming behind the group, making sure all made it and were going in the right direction.

"You're keeping a good line," he said as I stopped with him one time. The waves seemed to get larger and jumbled. The world appeared and disappeared; I tried to practice sighting when I felt my body lift.

I counted strokes again, for no good reason, just out of habit.

In one rising wave I finally caught sight of the round yellow buoy, and a few dark heads bobbing around it.

"In answer to your question," said John, "this is not how the water usually is. The swells are getting bigger."

"OK, kiss the buoy," a swimmer said. This buoy was not light and warm and plastic. I grabbed onto the grass-covered steel frame around its girth and leaned in for the kiss. In the swells the buoy pitched forward.


"Ooh, I think I chipped my tooth,"  I said, even before my tongue found the grit where the back of my tooth had been, the one the dentist had fixed already.

I'm a terrible buoy kisser. My swim friend Lisa Amorao has managed to leave perfect lipstick marks on this very same buoy. I've seen the pictures.

No pain, no blood, though. I judged it a worthwhile token of the journey I had waited so long to make. My tongue remained occupied as I sighted on the base of the amphitheater of Lovers Point Beach for home.

New swims always carry trepidation — How far to the next point? Will I tire out before I reach it? Should I keep calm or start flailing harder? Where is everybody? Will current take me where I shouldn't be? What's down below?

My worries eased and dissipated with each stroke toward the beach. John was just ahead of me so I followed him in.

Chris' worries eased too, I'm sure. After all, he was just taking my word for it that I knew how to swim open water.

Into the clear blue water of the beach I planted feet again in the sand, always the best part of a swim: The finish. Swimmers did what swimmers do, stand on the shore looking out onto the water, not so wild looking from this vantage, and share their adventure of having crossed it.

The water was 57 Fahrenheit, said John, warmer than usual for this time of year — warmer than Natoma — and not as clear as some days.

"It's Zen swimming," answered Chris, when I asked him how they find their way off around the cove. After a while, he said, you just know where the next buoy is, and you get a feel for distance and direction.

The only remedy, I decided, was to figure out how to join the Kelp Krawlers more often.


  1. Nice swim. Thanks for sharing.

  2. I am happy for you in that you finally got to do something you had wished for. While I am not one for the swimming portion, the description you gave of the scenery is just breath taking. I could really picture it and the picture is just so surreal. It seems like it would be the perfect honeymoon spot, especially with a name like Lovers Point,

    Maricela Gauthier @ Dentist Newport Beach

  3. glad you enjoyed it, maricela. that's nice of you to say!