Thursday, September 3, 2009

Swimming in the Ocean

Elizabeth Zelvin

As summer ends, I’d like to talk about my favorite feature of the all-too-brief season when you don’t have to be a polar bear to immerse yourself in the vast, salty playground that covers more than half of our planet and entices folks like me to cavort in the foaming surf around its edges. Yep, I’m talking about going to the beach, which to me is synonymous with swimming in the ocean.

I’ve been an ocean lover since childhood, when we used to visit an aunt and uncle who had a summer house in Hampton Bays, which back in those days was too working class to be considered one of “the Hamptons.” My grandmother, mother, and aunt were all indefatigable swimmers. To this day, I look incredulously at women on the beach who obviously have no desire to wet their hair, their bathingsuits, or even the polish on their toenails. Aren’t they hot? Do they know what they’re missing? How can they stand it?

Adolescent girls, on the other hand, plunge happily into the breaking waves. When I’m swimming alone, without a spotter, I sometimes elect a bunch of them my buddies. I ask them to keep an eye out for me in case I get in trouble. And I tell them to cherish the moment, because when they get to be my age, they may no longer have either the nerve or the companionship they’re enjoying now.

The Atlantic’s face is always changing. Every day is different. (I remember going to the beach in La Jolla, CA and being amazed at the reliability of the Pacific, at least between the frequent jetties: the waves were exactly the same from day to day.) My favorite set of conditions is when the tide is at the right height for me to stand beyond the breakers and sail across high rollers for that heavenly moment of weightlessness, then land on my feet again. To make it perfect, the water has to be warm enough not to shock me but cool enough to be exhilarating, and there can’t be any undertow to taint my mood with fear or make it difficult, when I’m ready, to get back onto the beach on my feet.

How different people like to take their ocean water seems to vary, to some extent, by gender. Most of the body surfers are guys, who catch the breaking wave and ride it toward shore, arms extended like aquatic versions of Superman in the air. Most women, like me, seem to prefer riding the rollers, calling “Under!” and “Over!” as each wave invites them to dive or soar. Lap swimmers seem to be evenly divided. I used to body surf myself—out of sheer competitiveness and a burning desire not to miss anything—but that was thirty-five years ago. I do swim laps in the ocean occasionally—a day when the water is safe and smooth enough for me to do a half-mile of the crawl, with breathing, is even more rare than a day when the waves are perfect for jumping.

The ultimate: clear day, perfect water temperature, waves just high enough to be exciting but without enough power to make getting back to shore difficult—and the company of someone who enjoys both ocean swimming and schmoozing as much as I do.


Sheila Connolly said...

I grew up swimming a wee bit south of you, at The Jersey Shore. My father was an ardent body-surfer, so I came by it early and still love it--there's nothing like harnessing all that power and letting it carry you along.

My daughter was born in sight of the Pacific--and hates oceans. Too many squishy things under the water. I guess it's not hereditary.

Kaye Barley said...

I grew up swimming a wee bit south of both you and Sheila. Ocean City, MD which is still dear to my heart.

I have a strong need to get back to the ocean every year to restore my soul. In years past when we haven't been able to do this, I have suffered mightily. truly.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

I body surfed with the guys as a matter of feminist principle until a big wave flipped me 35 years ago. I don't think my back has ever been the same. So if possible, I stay beyond the breakers until it's time to come out of the water. And I believe you about restoring the soul, Kaye, although I know for some people, mountains do the same.

Lyn said...

What a lovely post! I come from deep in the prairie, and until I joined the Marines, the closest I got to the ocean was reading books like Wake of the Red Witch or Treasure Island. Still not crazy about the Atlantic because the land is just too warm there, but did live many years near the Pacific--which hosts some doozy storms that change the cliffs overnight! That was an eye-opener, to see the landscaped changed by one storm. Good memories. Lovely post. Thanks.

Meredith Cole said...

Every summer my family used to go to Ocracoke Island (home of Blackbeard!) and camp in the National Park. It totally spoiled me for modern beaches--more than ten people seems like a crowd to me!

I love the ocean, too--but it's good to have a healthy respect for it, like you obviously do (my husband still body surfs, much to my chagrin). And I really like to visit the beach during the off season and take long walks on the empty sand--it does restore the soul, just as Kaye says.

Terry Odell said...

I grew up in Los Angeles, and spent countless hours in the Pacific, especially Santa Monica. I remember playing the same sorts of games you describe -- and staying in the water until we turned blue. The water never really gets warm.

When we moved to Miami, and I had my first glimpses of the Atlantic, I couldn't imagine why people were carrying surfboards. The breakers weren't more than 2 feet high.

I just got back from St. Augustine beach, and although I didn't go swimming, I did walk along the shoreline. The water was so much warmer than the Pacific, and the breakers, although numerous, were still "small" to my mind. (I have some pictures on my blog)