The Bolsavik in the ocean

On the day Diana Nyad completed her historic crossing of the Florida Straits, the Bolsavik did his first open water swim, at, oh, 0.3% of Nyad’s distance maybe? Anyway, that’s not something that usually qualifies to be included on this blog, but since it involves the blog’s author, it got elevated. And it’s not as if the Bolsavik has been saying anything else anyway. Here the Bolsavik tells you all about it in the first person.

I didn’t know there was a 64-year-old woman swimming from Cuba to Florida last week-end. All I wanted to do was to get some practice for a triathlon some time in the future. It was just an awesome coincidence that I got my feet wet in ocean water just on the day Diane Nyad completed her historic crossing.

So, in honor of my latest hero, here’s a story of my first-ever open water swim. I’d love to hear from other ocean swimmers; maybe you can give me some pointers.

I lost my open water virginity in Encinitas, about 70 miles south of Bolsavikland. My brother-in-law came along. He’s a former Navy lieutenant and frogman with ooddles of war zone experience and I was hoping that if something bad happened he could do something.

Where I popped my open-water swimming cherry: Out to that buoy and back. There's another buoy about half way horizontally from it.

Where I popped my open-water swimming cherry: Out to that buoy and back. There’s another buoy about half way horizontally from it.

In this picture you can see where I swam: From shore, out to the buoy, and back. The former Navy man estimated the distance as “short,” meaning somewhat less than half a mile, round trip.

I’m happy to report that I did it. I swam out to the buoy, tried grabbing on to it to adjust my goggles, and swam back in. It took less than 20 minutes, which is consistent with the distance estimate of half a mile, and now I’m living to tell what I’ve learned.

Lesson 1: Sea water tastes like sh*t. When you swim in a pool, some water inevitably touches your lips and your tongue. No big deal, you spit it out as you exhale. Well, same thing happens when you swim in the ocean. You avoid the wave crashing into your mouth by breathing in a more elevated way than in the pool, but still gravity puts some water into your mouth.

And sea water tastes super bad. Like, really yucky. Pthhhh! And on top of that, psychologically, I was afraid I’d get prematurely dehydrated because of all the salt, so I probably exhaled way too much. Usually, in the pool, I’d take a breath every 4 strokes (same side) or 5 (both sides). Out there, I ended up breathing every 2 strokes.

Lesson 2: Can’t see sh*t. When you’re swimming in the ocean, you can’t see anything. I’ve read about it. Out in the ocean there isn’t a lane marker to tell you you’re swimming straight. People teach how to sight when you’re swimming in open water.

But it’s more than that. Without the lane marker and with the current flowing against you (on the way out), you’re not even sure if you’re advancing at all. You take 9 or 10 strokes, taking all those breaths and tasting all that yucky water, and you don’t even know if you’re any further from shore or if you’re just going sideways or maybe even pushed backward.

Not too far from shore, and already I couldn't see the buoy and was treading water looking for it.

Not too far from shore, and already I couldn’t see the buoy and was treading water looking for it.

Plus, if you think about it, when you’re swimming freestyle, raising your head gets your eyes only about 2 inches about the water. So all it takes is a tiny wave to block most of your vision. And that buoy ain’t so tall. So I ended up having to stop and tread water, just to see where I’m going.

So it ended up being swim swim swim stop. Look. Wait for wave to pass. Ah! There’s the buoy! Repeat.

It wasn’t so bad on the way back. There were tall trees and houses on the hill I could aim at, so I was able to look ahead and swim pretty much without stopping.

Lesson 3: I probably swam too hard. In a pool, you can swim as slowly as you want. I mean, as long as you make some movements, you will move forward, and if you stay in the water long enough, you can make any distance D=RT. Not so in the ocean: There’s a current going against you, so you have to make sure you beat that.

But I couldn’t see, so when I was swimming I had no idea if I was going forward or backward, so I probably swam way harder than I needed to.

You know how some people say in a triathlon you should try swimming with your upper body only and conserve your legs for the biking and running? And how some people say the opposite? I didn’t need to resolve that controversy because I was so worried the current was pushing me back, I kicked like crazy.

Lesson 4: You get nervous. So, with all of those problems, I ended up getting nervous and perspiring a lot. The perspiration from around my eyes alone was enough to partially fog up my goggles. So I had to stop to clean it out.

And I told myself, let’s get to the buoy, grab it and fix the goggles. That didn’t work. The buoy is just one plastic tube anchored to the floor, and it’s all slippery.

I saw a person smoothly swimming back and forth between the two buoys. I was impressed.

Lesson 5: Swimming with the current gets you more sh*tty water. It’s just physics. When you’re swimming freestyle with the current, more water gets in your mouth. Yuck. Breaststroke is different, though, all the waves are in your back and you stay clean. Much better.

And that’s it. I made it to shore. My brother-in-law was standing there like a pro, keeping an eye on me like a hawk. My wife was thrilled to have her husband back in one piece. I was excited to finish my first open water swim, but nervous at the same time. I determined right then and there to do it again — just not on the same day.

So I want to hear from other people with ocean swimming experience. Did you go through the same things when you started out? Any advices? Do you get used to the yucky water? Or is there something about the breathing technique that I missed?

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