Immersed in the Wild

An 'open-water' swimmer finds a risky intimacy with nature.

  • Open-water swimmer Edwin Dobb strokes toward Alcatraz.

    Michael Darter
  • Open-water swimmer Edwin Dobb strokes toward Alcatraz.

    Michael Darter
  • A gray whale swims near Whidbey Island in Puget Sound.

    John Herman and Minette Layne/creative commons at flickr.com
 

Although I had been swimming on and off since moving from southwest Montana back to San Francisco in mid-January, my new season officially started on April 17th, the day I turned 60. It was a bright afternoon, the sun partially obscured by high thin clouds, gusts churning the surface of Aquatic Park, a manmade cove bounded by curved piers on the waterfront. That's where I swim, along with others whose notion of a swell time is plying chilly San Francisco Bay while wearing nothing but a cap and a Speedo. And chilly it was that day -- water about 55 degrees, or 30 degrees cooler than the average municipal pool. Whatever pleasures await the cold-water sea swimmer -- and they are incomparable, even, at times, transcendent -- reaching them entails a certain amount of discomfort. Every swim begins with a double leap -- the physical act of plunging into the water, the mental act of deliberately submitting to pain.

How long it takes for the body's internal heat to counteract the penetrating cold varies widely, depending on several factors -- metabolism, conditioning, overall acclimation, how hard one swims. But whether the interim is measured in seconds or minutes, a kind of alchemy is at work, converting the forbidding into the ecstatic. What makes the shift possible is conviction, the belief that eventually the sting will recede, the shock replaced by something that cannot be experienced anywhere else. The longer one is away from cold water, the greater the need for conviction. On that windy afternoon in April, I hadn't been swimming consistently for months. In mediocre shape and not yet generally acclimated, I didn't venture far, following a line of buoys anchored a hundred yards from shore. A full seven minutes passed before the cold loosened its grip.

I completed two laps, then added a few extra buoys, maybe a mile in all. Not bad. Within weeks I'd extend that half-hour inaugural swim into sessions lasting an hour and a half to two hours. I was intent upon that. Leaving the bay wanting to lengthen the swims, wanting to return soon to do so, is how I knew the season had begun. Like any deeply enjoyable activity, distance swimming readily becomes addicting. The high is real. But swimming entails another kind of attraction as well, one whose locus is the medium itself. Since boyhood, I've been drawn to water, especially open water -- rivers, lakes, seas, and in a visceral way. Mere contemplation won't do. The first time I saw the Pacific Ocean, on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington, I was seized by a desire to taste it, to feel it on my skin, to surrender to it. Exultation is the going, as Emily Dickinson wrote, Of an inland soul to sea. Though the poem refers to sailors, I know well the going it celebrates. I also know well the hunger for going that haunts some land-born souls.

Immersion doesn't entirely satisfy this hunger, which then moves outward, fixing on the horizon, an undulating, ever-receding border between endless sea and endless sky. Past the houses, past the headlands, Into deep eternity! Playing it safe during my birthday escapade, I looked -- rather than swam -- across the cove, toward the opening that connects it to the bay as a whole, where sailboats and ferries, tugs and container ships were visible. After I've increased my stamina and grown accustomed to longer stays, I'll trace successive mile-long circuits, swimming along the interior perimeter. I especially enjoy passing through the opening into the zone where the smaller chop inside the cove mixes with the larger, more energetic chop outside. There I pause and tread water for a spell. Sometimes I tremble slightly, not in response to the cold but in recognition of the wildness of the place, its power, immensity, and indifference to my interests or well-being, which is exhilarating, surprisingly enough, but also scary. I gaze at the Bay Bridge; Treasure, Alcatraz and Angel islands; the Golden Gate Bridge and, beyond that, the Marin Headlands. A crazy yet almost irresistible urge takes hold, the same urge that arises whenever I'm in the ocean, with nothing but water in front of me -- to swim farther out, and farther still.

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