Swimming laps, hitting one wall, then the other, back and forth repeatedly, reminded me of arguing with my dad. The clash looms, inevitable, and I’ve wondered what draws me to it. Do I enjoy hitting the same wall over and over? It hurts afterward.
I wanted a wall, needed one to hit right now, a solid wall that would let me scale it to climb out of this ice cold numbing water and feel legs again. I paused my stroke, kicked and sculled furiously for height and stability, straining to find my wall. Instead, angry waves blocked all but the swaying, gray-green peaks of scattered pine trees defining a distant horizon.
The sun had sunk low on this once bright November afternoon. It could have been three or four hours since we skimmed across the Atlantic Ocean off North Carolina’s Outer Banks in our rented catamaran, like speed skaters on smooth ice. A rogue wind gust had snapped and stretched the canvas and tilted our boat to starboard. Too fast for compensation, the sail had pulled the left hull high in the air and dunked all three of us overboard.
By the time I surfaced, breathless and gasping with the shock of the cold water, the shiny bottom of one hull rode high, the other submerged out of sight. Mast and mainsail bobbed in the waves. I clambered up the canvas platform, now hanging vertically between the two hulls, lost hold and fell back into the icy sea. I watched Joey try, only to slip on the plastic hull as he reached the top, and fall back. We both tried again and made it. Our combined weight on the suspended hull failed to wrest the mast from the waves.
“Steve, get up here,” Joey called.
Steve climbed up the platform and grabbed my extended hand to reach the airborne hull. Smartphones squeezed out of our soggy pockets dumb with water. We laughed, but only a little.
“You know what to do, right?” Joey asked me.
“Lean back and forth,” I said. The three of us rocked in unison, over and over. We tried leaning as far as we could to one side of the hull, but it barely budged.
“Need more leverage,” Steve said. We maneuvered ropes to grasp for support and stood up on the slippery hull. We leaned to the outside and bent our knees in rhythm, trying to pull the mast out of the water. Though it moved upwards, the long steel mast never got above the surface, and the mainsail had now sunk beneath the waves.
“We gotta detach the sail,” I said, “It’s holding us down.”
Joey and I dropped into the cold water and struggled with the rope to lower the mainsail to the bottom of the mast. We were shivering by the time we lifted it out of the water, and with Steve’s help, tied it off just above the waves. Then we climbed back up onto the elevated hull.
We repeated our leaning and bouncing, grunting with effort. I lost track of how long we tried, but when one leg started to cramp, I called, “Hold on, need a break.”
We straddled the hull, massaging sore muscles.
“What next?” Joey asked.
“There’s nothing else to do,” I said, pointing at the mast riding lower in the water than it had been earlier. “We gotta right it before it gets more waterlogged.”
After another couple minutes, we stood and tried again. This time Steve’s leg cramps made us stop. Part of the sail dragged in the waves.
I noticed one lifejacket bouncing near the sail. “Where’re the rest of the lifejackets?”
Steve and Joey turned and looked down with me.
“Maybe underwater,” Steve said.
Starting down the canvass, I yelled back, “We need to get them now.” Steve and Joey followed. We took turns diving to the submerged hull and retrieved three more lifejackets. We each slipped one on and climbed back to our perch.
I pointed down to the water. “The mast’s riding lower.”
“We gotta try,” Joey said.
We all stood, grabbed the ropes, leaned out as far as we dared, counted to three as we bent our knees, then straightened back up. I could tell there was even less movement than before. My leg cramped again and we sat back down.
“Hey, we’re beginning to tip,” I said looking down at the mast, which had sunk even further beneath the waves. “If it goes inverted, that’s it.”
“We’re not righting it, that’s for sure.” Joey’s voice sounded unpleasantly high-pitched.
“Let’s get down before we get tossed off,” I said. We dropped into the water and floated near the sail, cursing the cold. The mast had disappeared into the depths, and the upper hull tilted over our heads. “The deck’s gonna come down on us when this thing goes inverted.”
We swam out from beneath the stretched canvas to one end of the boat and watched the upper hull inch down as the submerged hull broke the surface. Our cat settled upside down; past any righting. We climbed onto one side and clung to the slippery curved bottom like slimy slugs clinging to blades of grass.
We fell silent, balanced on the hull’s sharp-edged underside. Our sliver of safe haven foundered in the afternoon breeze, leaving waves to break over us every few minutes. Instead of drying out we stayed continuously wet, my shivering worsened beneath building clouds. I tried to think about what we should do next, how we could get out of this, but my mind kept revolting at the lack of options. We tried to guess the air temperature. “It’s gotta be in the sixties,” Steve said.
“No, it’s less than that,” Joey insisted.
“If the sun were still out it wouldn’t be so bad,” I added.
“It wouldn’t be so bad if the water wasn’t so damn cold,” Steve said.
“What do you think the water temperature is?” As the minutes shivered past it became difficult to remember anything. I recalled seeing a table showing how many minutes one could live in 70-degree, 60-degree, 50-degree water. The details were blurry, but the times were shorter than I’d imagined.
“I saw a graph somewhere yesterday.” Joey shifted position on the hull to face both of us. “I think it said fifties, maybe near sixty?”
My coldest swim ever took place in Lake Tahoe, California. That mile-high giant freshwater sea had been 65 degrees, and the experience proved as invigorating as it was freezing. Last fall I’d worked out in the Cary YMCA’s outdoor pool, and although the water temperature was slightly higher than 71 degrees, I still felt cold near the end of a mile-long, 35-minute swim between two walls.
“Which way is land?” Joey asked. I heard worry in his tone. Without a reference, how would we know which way to go? Should we go?
I pointed, “It’s that way. You can just pick out tall trees at the top of some of these waves.” I guessed that the barely-visible shore might take more minutes than we had if we decided to swim.
“Have either of you seen another boat since we left?” I had not, and hated to think we were alone.
“There was one coming in as we were getting ready to go,” Steve said, looking at Joey.
“I didn’t see any,” Joey said.
We knew the repeated commandment, “stay with the boat.” But Joey shared with us his older sister’s story about preparing to teach water safety and small crafts at a Girl Scout camp near Fairbanks, Alaska. She received a phone call from a Red Cross boating safety official with the state of Alaska who explained, “You have to change what you teach this far north. I know you learned the rule is to stay with the boat, but you just can’t do that up here. It’s too cold. You have to teach the kids to swim like crazy towards shore. It’s their best chance.”
North Carolina wasn’t Alaska, but with the Sun setting on this late November day, it appeared that we were drifting alone at least two miles offshore in a building wind. The three of us discussed options.
“You know we used to swim three miles in some of those team workouts.”
“Swimming’s gotta be better than straddling this hull freezing to death.”
“It’s beginning to get dark.”
We agreed to swim.
We failed to consider the hypnotic effect of the repeating rhythm of our strokes or the growing height and frequency of the waves. Suddenly I realized it had been too long since I’d last seen Steve or Joey. I stopped swimming and tried to lift my head up high enough to see over the swells and called out. No response. I called again, kicked up as high as I could and turned to look in all directions, but saw only taller waves blocking my view. I was alone.
Walls helped me keep track during a workout, counting off planned sets of strokes. A wall to grab also gave me a breather in between 25-yard sprints. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the rare opportunities to swim a long-course, 50-yard pool. Fewer walls allowed me to settle into a steady rhythm and sense the continuity of stroke following stroke, and the novelty was just fun.
When I swam at Lake Tahoe, there were no walls. Tracking back and forth alongside a rope that marked the outer margin of the swimming area, I admired a row of boats floating at anchor. The clarity of Lake Tahoe’s crystalline water enabled me to see the crisp outlines of their hulls beneath the surface more than fifty yards away. I remember that and other icy swims as much for the cold-induced numbing calmness when I climbed out as for the unavoidable shivers when I jumped in.
The other long-preached warning about water safety is never to swim alone. We had now violated two charter rules. We had left our boat, and we, or at least, I, swam alone. I wondered about a third strike. I wondered if dad would fault my decision-making.
Without walls, one has to come up with other ways to estimate how far one has gone. I count arm pulls. In freestyle, or crawl, I count every right arm pull, and in 25 yards my right arm pulls 8 or 9 times. I’d begun counting sets of 50 arm pulls, conservatively estimating that even in this rough water and without pushing off walls, those 50 pulls equaled at least the length of a football field. With difficulty, I did the math—divide 5,280 by 300, or 50 by three. Seventeen sets of 50 arm pulls should take me one mile.
Hitting and pushing off a concrete wall anchors a lap count like a father anchors his son. Without walls, I’d managed to keep track of my stroke count for only about a dozen sets of 50 arm pulls, but that milestone had passed a good while ago. I still saw no beach, and could only hope it was less than a mile away by now. I took a break to rub my eyes, stinging from the salt water, then switched to breaststroke to momentarily relieve muscles exhausted from lifting arms out of the water.
I wondered what clue would first alert me that the beach was getting close. Would a sandbar brush against a foot? Would a breaking wave surf past? Would I hear waves crashing on the sand ahead? Hitting a wall would feel good.
Something touched my foot. I pictured a shark swimming near, rows of sharp teeth inches from my legs. I kicked and pulled hard for several strokes, unwilling to trust it was only a fish. With no way to tell, I didn’t want to stop to sink down and feel if a sandbar lay below, or to lift up and try to spot the beach. Rip currents can quickly carry one offshore, and I didn’t want to risk being carried back out where the sharks lurked. So I kept pulling, right, left, right, left, right.
The rhythm relaxed me, lending its good feel to a growing numbness. No pain, no discomfort, just a pleasant, tired, calm. My stroke seemed smoother than ever, my hands didn’t even feel each water entry – it had become that streamlined. Even dad wouldn’t argue with that.
My breathing with every other arm pull had adjusted to the irregular waves, adding to the rhythmic comfort. Counting became a distant recollection. After a time my strokes slowed as the resistance of the water grew. Maybe it was time for more breaststroke or backstroke. I tried backstroke. At first, my arms welcomed the change, but then an unseen wave broke over my head and threatened to roll me over. I turned back and tried a little breaststroke, but my legs dragged after a few dozen kicks.
Returning to the familiar rhythm of the crawl, I started counting sets of right arm strokes as I did at the Y. When I got to nine I fully expected to hit the wall, slowed down and spread my fingers in anticipation. Where is it? Out of breath I stretched ahead and felt nothing. I withdrew my hand in a reflex of panic, extended my left leg down, reaching for an anchor on the bottom. It too felt nothing. Deep end? I pulled down with both arms and burst upward, searching for dad. Trees! Oh. I tread water. Scattered trees appeared closer than they had before. I heard a soft rumble and wondered if it were waves crashing on the beach, or a fast-approaching speedboat’s spinning propeller? I restarted my crawl.
The low rumble grew louder and more distinct. A wave broke off to my right. Boat wake! I lifted my eyes and saw sand, no boat. I dropped my head and concentrated on a steady pace to carry me to the beach if it wasn’t a mirage. My left hand hit the sand, immediately both feet and knees scraped bottom. Elbows held my head above a breaking wave as I crawled forward. Legs could not even think of standing up and instead my feet and knees pushed against the sandy bottom. I slumped forward over my elbows and tasted salt water several times until I reached the edge of the surf and crawled uphill a few more feet. I stopped to rest when water no longer reached my mouth.
Dad helped me out of the pool, over the rough edge of the wall, or did I dream that? Voices mumbled softly and hands lifted my head, caressing my face. Then I heard a voice say something recognizable. “Quick, this one’s still alive.”