Getting in, my body says no, can’t, too cold. My mind overrides it. I’ve spent a considerable amount of the last 18 hours keeping anxiety at bay, and between a healthy dinner, okay sleep, good car conversation, and listening to Auli’i Cravalho sing How Far I’ll Go a couple dozen times, I’m mentally and physically prepared for this intimidating new body of water.
A few hundred meters offshore the can’ts return. This time my thoughts are to blame. The water warms as we swim away from Westport, but I begin to think about sharks.
I’ve mostly gotten over my fear of sharks in Puget Sound. I know all 11 common Puget Sound species, their behaviors, and how unlikely I am to ever encounter them. Grays Harbor is another step in conquering my fear of things that live in deep water. We’re riding swells larger than I’ve ever experienced in Puget Sound, and sometimes we’re unable to see land. The Pacific Ocean is an immediate reality, and no amount of reassuring statistics can keep me from dwelling on just how exposed I am.
Luckily, my body is back on board with the swim by this point, and I keep up a slow but steady stroke even as panic sets in. My eyes dart to any hints of movements, seeking out false shadows and sensations. Every time I breathe I take note of Diana on one side of me, and our escort boat on the other. It’s reassuring, but not enough. The fear is harder to bear than the cold.
I know that this panic is more dangerous than the thing I fear. Fear is the mind-killer after all, and a channel crossing isn’t a good time to kill your mind, even if the conditions for crossing are as ideal as ours are today. The weather is anomalously fair for the Washington coast, reaching 82 F with no fog and little wind. The neap tide allow us the least amount of unwanted current. The water, at its coldest shoreline reading, is 53 F, but much warmer for the middle of the swim. We have a great support team on the boat: Greg, our reliable, knowledgeable skipper, served in the Coast Guard for 30 years; and Julia, our steady, enthusiastic spotter, only met Diana the previous night but bravely agreed to join us on the spot.
Diana, my swim partner(/coach/inspiration) is the one responsible for making our swim plan a reality, refusing to give up on the swim even after having no luck finding a boat for multiple weeks. Serendipity was on the side of her determination. The Westport Surf Shop went above and beyond to find us a skipper when she called them, and she met Julia less than an hour after Greg called her to tell us we’d need a spotter. At the last minute everything fell into place more perfectly than we could have wished, and the only thing left to deal with was nerves.
Halfway across, everything is still going well except what’s going on in my head. I’m trying all my usual tricks. I’m wearing a rock around my neck. When I found it last year I designated it a shark repelling amulet, because irrational fears deserve irrational balms. When taking comfort in that doesn’t work I try just accepting whatever the ocean throws at us. Still, I’m looking too hard, focusing too much on the idea of monsters.
I’m seriously toying with the idea of getting on the boat. There’s no shame in getting out if you can’t continue. The thing is, I can continue. I’ve spent the last year and a half learning to ignore when my anxiety screams can’t, so I know this need to quit isn’t real. I’m still swimming. There’s nothing physically wrong, I’m performing decently despite being distracted. It would be a shame to get out because of fear. I decide then and there that I will only get out if there’s a physical problem.
That decision lifts a weight from me. I’m staying in, and now I just need to figure out how to stay in. I need to stop gazing into murky water and scaring myself.
I close my eyes.
It’s a continuation of allowing the ocean to decide what happens, but unlike the theory, the practice works. I open my eyes when I breathe, making sure I’m still on track and swimming close to Diana, but I don’t let myself look for shapes in the water anymore.
It breaks the panic cycle. I’m still scared, but it’s manageable. I can admit I have no control of the whereabouts of any sharks, so I stop thinking about it. Instead I think about my stroke, about the distance left, about staying on course. When Diana sees land we stop and take a moment to look around. Pelicans fly low over our heads, and the beach winks at us from the other side of the waves. I’ve barely noticed the swell we’re swimming through, but as we near shore I’m struck by the liquid nature of the ocean.
That might sound like I’m saying “water is wet,” but it’s not what I mean. The ocean moves around us. Sometimes we are above the beach, and sometimes we are below it. I’ve always thought of the ocean as basically flat with waves on top. That’s how I’ve experienced the shoreline, and Puget Sound. Out here in the swells, my reality shifts. The ocean is a powerful liquid mass, constantly shifting in ways too large to easily comprehend. The beauty and the power of it is ego shattering.
If I’d still been consumed by my fear I wouldn’t have noticed.
Westport to Ocean Shores is approximately 1.6 miles, a little over half the distance of my longest swim so far, but by the time we stumble through the waves to the beach at Damon Point I know it is the most challenging swim I’ve accomplished yet. We cheer and hug and high five, and two women approach us, filming on an iPad, and ask us where we came from, and congratulate us when we tell them. Later they’ll find our swim club on Facebook and send us the videos, another example of how kind strangers can be when you crawl out of the sea.
There’s more to say about the outpouring of support we received on this swim, the sea life, and the charmed nature of the entire day, but I wanted to set down what I’d experienced on my first channel swim, in the wildest water I’ve yet dared try. There was a lesson to the swim, but also a test. I’d like to think I passed.
2020 Note: I first published this on Medium in August 2017. This remains one of my proudest swims, and I look forward to doing it again now that I’ve got years of open water swimming under my belt, and an SSRI in my system.