This ocean’s just a tear…

Swim or Die

He had these big skindiver fins. A lot of the other bodysurfers used duck feet, which were shorter and stiffer, more maneuverable. His weren’t that great for turning and jumping in a wave, but they had a lot of power.

That summer, Pacific storms drove in huge waves in long sets and he’d swim way out, until the people on the beach were specks, more than a quarter mile away. It was a long pier, almost a thousand feet, and sometimes he would go way past the end, maybe double its length.

Often, he’d be turned back or offered “a ride” by Coast Guard patrol boats. He never took them up on it. Once they insisted.

But at night you were on your own.

It wasn’t that he set out to see how far out he could get — on the contrary, he often worried that he was growing too complacent as he let the seemingly ever present undertow pull him to the “way outside breaks.”

Swimming out was generally a breeze — particularly if you knew where the outflow channels formed. Swimming in, on the other hand, could, at times, be grueling work. More than a few times he warily measured his progress against the pier and noticed he was actually moving backwards even as he swam forward. That was often a signal to swim laterally to escape a local outflow.

Swimming in could take as much as 45 minutes or an hour or more. It was hard work but a good chance to think. And it was good discipline. If you got lazy, you were drawn out to sea. If you found yourself musing about how vulnerable you were, started imagining the sea predators that might be swimming, unseen within feet of you, you might panic.

Once, when he was about 3/4 of the length of the pier out and coming in, he did feel something fairly massive bump into his leg. He continued his steady pace, but his heart was pounding. He steadied himself by fixing his mind on keeping his stroke and kick steady, forcing out any conjecture as to the nature of whatever had bumped into him.

When he was “safe” inside the ring of shore surf, he allowed himself to imagine that it was probably a sea lion. He’d seen sea lions often enough playing in the waves along the shore. It wouldn’t surprise him that a sea lion might be curious about a swimmer so far out.

His heart was still beating hard when he caught a couple of waves taking him straight into shore. He rode the second in until he was in such shallow water he had to push himself up out of the water with his hands, like a calisthenic.

He finally allowed himself to look over his shoulder.

But all he saw was the dark, choppy sea.

previous AYoS version (November 21)

Swim or Die

forget her eyes forget her voice
forget her soft caress
she’s just some phony made up girl
up inside your lonely head

forget the night that could have been
the time that never was
forget the dreams that turned to lies
then crumbled into dust

swim or die
it’s understood
I know just what to do
swim or die
it sounds- so – good
if I could only move

the waters cold
the moon is pale
the lights sparkle on the pier
the musics faint & far away
the ocean’s like a mirror

I see myself for what I am
it all becomes so clear
just a wave upon the sea
and this ocean’s just a tear

swim or die
it’s understood
I know just what to do
swim or die
it sounds- so – good
if I could only move

(C)1996, TK Major
The vignette above the song is actually autobiographical. It was the summer of 1969, a summer of fabled surf. I was body surfing after work, usually out from 15th Street in Newport Beach.
Swim or Die

You can see the Newport pier (the Balboa pier is out of range to the right). That’s at 21st street. The end is approximately 800 feet out from the shoreline in this photo, as I figure it. If you look carefully, you can see a building with restrooms and showers on the beach at 15th street. Around 13th or so is a complex of handball and basketball courts on the beach, near a school. It’s a very wide beach.

On getting offered “rides” back in by the Coast Guard, I always declined, thinking about it looking supremely uncool to be brought back to shore or up to the pier in the CG boat. The one time they were insistent. I figured they were the pros so I got in. There was another guy they picked up out there and he looked a bit relieved.

I had the idea in those days that the Coast Guard were like bears when you were camping. They could be all powerful, but if you were careful and treated them with respect and common sense, you could usually stay out of trouble with them.

After work or on my day off (flipping burgers at a joint by the pier) you would usually find me in the ocean off 17th street (for most of that summer, although the breaks shifted radically in the wake of the storms) or lounging on the beach.

And then I went [away, I want to say away even though I still lived in the same place and went to college only about a mile from the ocean, but it really felt, at the end of that summer, like I was going away] to college — and ruined it all.

And finally — this is REAL Don’t try this at home, kids! stuff, here. I was a very strong swimmer in those days and I thought I was gonna die by the time I was 25, to boot (for no good reason I can remember, now) … AND I never tried to see how far out I could swim because I knew you could always swim a lot farther out than you’d ever be capable of swimming back. In fact, I had a very visceral sense of the ratio of difficulty of the swim back in. I always figured I had to be prepared to expend at least four times as much energy coming in as going out. If you fools go out there and drown, don’t pin this on me! OK?



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