I Survived Who Agrees That Swimming in the Ocean Is Scary?
It was like a disaster movie, the quiet moment before the asteroid lands. “Swim!” he yelled, but it was too late for me.
Rehoboth Beach, Delaware; 33 years old
Now I remember that the water pulls the ground from underneath your feet. I stand motionless, sinking further into the earth with each retreat of the waves. It’s fun, until I consider that my body is slowly disappearing. I watch my companions swim. How far out are they? Twenty feet, a hundred? Their heads are dark dots in the pewter water, but it seems shallow enough for them to stand. They don’t know I’m here, where the ocean meets land. They invited me in, I declined, then reconsidered and followed. I return to my spot on the sand.
Last night when my husband and I arrived in Rehoboth, we were thrilled about the relaxing vacation ahead of us. I love the beach, the white noise of the ocean and the soft pillows of sand, the junk food and Skee-Ball and Americana of it all.
But this morning, I told our friend David my secret. “I don’t love the ocean,” I said.
“You don’t like the ocean?” he asked incredulously.
“No, I mean, I’m fine with it. I like the ocean. I just don’t love it.”
As a kid, I spent summers at a friend’s community pool, where I learned to dive into and swim across the deep end. On holidays, I spent hours in the surf. I can tread water, though I hate it. The constant work to be still, to fight against sinking. The exhaustion that comes from simply not dying. I prefer to touch the ground, with water below my chin, and since I’m barely over five feet tall, that’s not very deep. I recently took adult swim classes to regain the comfort in the water that I lost somewhere between childhood and adulthood, so I could dive under swells like I used to and join my friends in the sea. I can freestyle across the pool without stopping, half a lap, though I do it as fast as possible. It’s more tiring that way, I know, but I can’t slow down. Instinct drives me to the wall, avoiding any more time than necessary in open water.
When I was twenty-nine, I visited the Outer Banks for a wedding. After a few days of lounging on the sand, I followed my friends into the water. Soon I felt that deep suck like a roller coaster drop, the signal that the ocean was fortifying itself for a Big One. My friend, a former lifeguard, looked back and saw the wave cresting over our heads. It was like a disaster movie, the quiet moment before the asteroid lands or an earthquake splits the ground. “Swim!” he yelled, but it was too late for me. Slammed by the wall of white, I tried to paddle and kick but my arms and legs were everywhere, controlled not by me but by the ocean. My lungs burned, I was upside down, I couldn’t find the air or sky or ground. Finally, I surfaced, sputtering blindly as the water calmed, the sound of it wet and quiet like a rattling breath. What mortifies me is how I instinctively reached for my friend before the water took me, like a child crying for her mother.
This wasn’t the first time I’d been caught by a wave, just the worst. I stumbled up to shore and sat hard, my legs no longer holding my weight. I was battered, muscles in knots, tiny dots of blood appearing on my knee. I attempted to push salt water from my nostrils well after they were cleared, and I smiled weakly at friends who asked if I was ok. They agreed, that had been a serious wave, I had been thrown around like a rag doll. But I still had the feeling that I was overreacting, so I kept my complaints minimal. This is all part of it, right? The freedom of riding the water, of letting it take you? You’re knocked down then jump back in—for most people that’s the reasonable price of beachy fun. For the rest of the week, I stayed on the sand.
I’m certain I will die by drowning. Not today, not this trip. There’s no way for me to know this, not really, but it seems appropriate that there’s a reason I feel so much dread, like an instinct that recognizes my eventual end. As kids, we’re told not to play with matches or on ledges, but the ocean is the deadliest thing we have fun with.
The next day in Rehoboth, the water is welcome cool, the sky clear, the view sparkling. I wiggle my toes in the soft sand where the tide has buried my feet. I enjoy this. This would be enough for me, except for knowing that it’s enough because I’m afraid of more. Peter reminded me that you only need to go out beyond the break to enjoy the ocean and not get caught in waves. It’s where he and David swim now, in a spot that seems impossibly far to be as shallow as it appears. The irony is that the farther you go from what is safe—dry land—the safer you are. I want to swim out to them, like I would have years ago. Instead, I turn and go back to our towels.
I wonder if, maybe, I only love the idea of the beach. The word itself is synonymous with fun—the Beach Boys, Sex on the Beach, “I enjoy long walks on the beach.” It connotes the happy clichés of stock photos and teen movies—toned arms pulling surfboards from a Jeep, young love made more romantic by its proximity to the ocean. The resort industry, the economies of entire islands, Jimmy Buffett’s half-century career—they’re all built on the common belief that the beach is great, and it’s not popular to disagree. The appeal is the ability to let yourself go, but letting go is also vulnerability, helplessness. The ocean forces me to surrender control over my physical self, and what’s more, relinquish control over having control.
I recently spent a year in physical therapy for neck pain and scoliosis that wasn’t diagnosed when I was young. I protect myself with stretches and heating pads, but it doesn’t change the knowledge that I’m breakable. I know that I have little control over my body, how it changes and when it will expire, and I feel that most acutely when I am surrounded by water. During one pre-teen week at Virginia Beach, I worried about whether I looked good in a bathing suit (I did) and if I’d kiss a boy (I didn’t). Now, I think instead about bones broken as water slams me to the ground, the deafening confusion of being trapped inside the ocean, the unfathomable depths. A thing I used to love is now a thing I fear. When did that change happen? Is it when I learned about the dangers in the world? Or when I finally believed they could come for me?
This moment feels like a turning point. If I swim now, I’ll go on to lead a life of adventure, impressing my future children. If I don’t, I will wither, safe but joyless, disappointing Peter and David here and my imagined progeny for years to come. Will I choose danger or panic, the weightlessness of water or the stability of land?
I stand again at the water’s edge. Peter bobs in it but doesn’t tread, and he jumps calmly when it peaks around him. I feel guilty that I haven’t joined him, that I am moored with fear. I walk in and let the waves crash into my legs, see if I can stand my ground. I can. There are children all around and I dodge their boogie boards as they’re pushed in by the surf. These kids are smaller than I am, and they are having more fun. I can do it, I decide, I can swim out to Peter and play beyond the waves.
To prepare myself, I conjure memories of my childhood beach trips. I remember body surfing on the small Atlantic swells, waiting for one to propel me through space. I recall loving the sensation, but I can’t recreate the desire, the lightness of trust. A part of me suspects that the ocean was different then, that years of climate change have made it choppier than in my youth, but of course it’s just me that’s different. I will go swimming, though. Tomorrow.
Later, we get ice cream just before closing. Two teenage boys are working, one scooping my coconut cone and the other sweeping behind him. They’re playing the Talking Heads and the kids recite the lyrics to each other without singing them, like a conversation. “Same as it ever was?” “Same as it ever was.” As I’m being rung up, I jump in casually with the next line, “Letting the days go by,” and continue the rest in my head: let the water hold me down. I want them to be impressed, to think that I’m a cool adult, that I get them. They don’t seem to hear me.
It’s our final day at the beach, and I haven’t yet gone in the water. I know it doesn’t really matter if I swim today or any other day, but it feels like I am letting myself become fossilized. My reluctance doesn’t feel like preference—that I loved the ocean and now I don’t—it feels like an obstacle. Before I lose my nerve, I meet Peter in the ocean beyond the break. We bounce, my toes pointed to skim the silty ground. I stroke, I swim under the surface, I lay on my back and let the water hold me. My breath catches when a wave rises, but the water passes and rolls ahead.
This moment, squinting and chilly as I bob and float, is pretty anticlimactic. It’s fine. It’s kind of fun. I’m glad I did this, and yet I don’t feel as if I’ve accomplished anything. I’ve checked a box, I suppose, proven to myself that I won’t succumb to fear, at least not today. I just thought it would feel more significant. After a few minutes—five? fifteen?—I swim-run back to the shore, timing my departure Frogger-like so I won’t be knocked down when a wave comes in. I didn’t love it.