the magic of an open-water swim
Summer does not officially begin for me until that first day in June when I inch my way slowly into the bracing, chilly ocean water of the Sound. It starts from the first taste of salt that touches my lips after plunging underwater into its pale green depths, and it ends the day I emerge, shivering and cold, from my final swim in early fall.
Every year it’s the same routine. My strokes start off choppy and awkward as if I am battling with the sea itself. Eventually, I make a truce, and allow the rocking motion of the waves to lift and buoy me. A familiar pattern returns. Fluid strokes and rhythmic breathing fall naturally into place. When I turn my head to breathe, I catch watery glimpses of the azure blue sky, level as it meets the sea, the pastel striped beach umbrellas lining the shore, children splashing, and a kite or two rising in the air. But the world while swimming becomes a distant filmy blur, and quiet except for the sloshy sound I make as I dip my arms in and out of the water, bobbing steadily forward over the waves. This I suppose is the joy of open swimming, to be free and away from the weight of the world, not just physically because the salt water is more bouyant, but mentally.
Like the protagonist in John Cheever’s short story The Swimmer, who charts his way home by swimming the length of every pool in the county, I too have charted a course along beaches from Greenwich to Madison—including the Fairfield beaches.
If you are lucky enough to live in a shore town such as Fairfield, or know someone who does, then the beach entry is free. Early weekday mornings the shore is less crowded at larger beaches. But tucked along the coast are hidden gems.
Burying Hill, a little beach in Westport with an ominous name, is like a stretch of Maine, its rocky shoreline sometimes bereft of usual sunbathers.
One particularly hot August day while cycling around Fairfield, I stopped at Southport Beach, and waded waist deep in shorts and watched the sailboats lazily drift past on the shimmering water.
At these beaches, I have swum in the rain, turning my face skyward in a backstroke so I can feel the droplets as a shower dances across the water’s surface. I have swum in the hottest days of summer, when the water is as warm as a bath and jellyfish, with their painful stings, are simply unavoidable. I have swum in the fall, as the season shifts and the air is cool and crisp. By then, the beachgoers have decamped, the lifeguard chairs stand vacant, and the dog walkers reclaim the beach.
Naysayers who prefer to watch from the shore, complain the water’s too cold, too yucky, too scary to swim. But to an open-water swimmer, there is nothing more tortuous than to lie on the beach in the middle of summer with the blue ocean beckoning.
When the summer draws to a close, we swimmers try to make it last just a little longer. Sometimes, we stretch the swim season into early October.
We don wetsuits to keep warm, we challenge each other to swim, we ignore the weather reports, we hurl ourselves into the water with yelps and screams like heathens fighting for one more swim, one last day of summer.