Every Friday, I join a group of friends for an early pre-dawn swim in the San Francisco Bay. Toes in the water at 5:55am, rain or shine, it is always dark and it is always cold. A double guarantee of sorts, that never disappoints. (I have no idea why we jump in at this exact time 5:55am – I have never asked – but nevertheless, every Friday, I dutifully join my friends in the Bay at this early hour). Standing on the beach in our swimsuits, half asleep and covered in goose bumps from the cool air, we collectively question our sanity while the rest of the city is sensibly fast asleep. Enduring a few minutes of discomfort after we dive in, we are soon all blissfully enjoying being in the water before sunrise. It is beautifully surreal. And as lovely as the SF Bay is – especially in the early hours of the morning as we gaze back at the iconic city lights of San Francisco - there is nothing quite like swimming in the ocean. The Bay is brackish, murky and fairly contained. The ocean – that wild deep blue unknown – is full of untapped adventures.
Growing up in the New Zealand, my brothers and I would always enjoy spending part of our summer holidays at the beach. The energy of the surf is both intimidating and exhilarating. I simply love the annoying itchy feeling of salt water caked across my skin as I emerge from the sea. Filling my pores and hair with crusty and sticky salt, it is a small detail I don’t encounter during my daily swims in the Bay. So when one of our swimmers suggested we up the ante for our Friday morning swims, and meet at Linda Mar Beach in Pacifica, just south of San Francisco, I couldn’t resist. I also knew that because of the recent time change for Spring, it would be dark for our entire swim. I was in.
Despite my numerous summers spent at the beach, I never surfed. A few unfortunate incidents having been tossed and turned violently by massive waves meant I became fearful of the waves. I remember many situations faced with a wave cresting in front of me and panicking as struggled to make the right last minute decision to dive through the wave. Paralyzed with fear, I would hang my head back and brace myself for the wave to unload over me. And as I were tossed into this massive washing machine, I would lose all ability to determine which way was up, nearly lose my bikini top, and emerge through the foam, only to watch with disbelief as yet another wave took aim. I felt trapped and helpless. Sensibly self-relegated to boogie boarding in the shallow waves, I would watch with wonder as swimmers in the distance would adeptly tuck and dive through waves that seemingly towered over them. I always remembered wanting to be one of them, but aware of how my fear trapped me.
In the last 3 years I have been fortunate enough to have some amazing aquatic adventures, far out in deep and distant ocean. I am a swimmer now, but to this day, I am afraid of big waves. Throw me in 6000ft deep water, miles from shore for a swim any day. But waves onshore? Well, that’s a different story. My big fear attempting my swim across the Molokai Channel in Hawaii was a surf exit. Traditional marathon swimming rules strictly state that the swimmer must enter and exit the water by their own power. No one may touch or help the swimmer or else risk immediate disqualification. You can imagine my delight after almost 20 hours of non-stop swimming when due to deteriorating water conditions, I was unable to reach the beach for a surf exit on the island of Oahu. Instead I had to climb a massive vertical rock wall at a nearby location. Saved from navigating the infamous surf at Sandy’s Beach, as I clawed my way up the wall, I couldn’t have been happier.
Linda Mar is a popular surf beach in Pacifica. Though committed to joining my friends for the swim at this surf beach, in the dark, I knew I would encounter that old unresolved fear.
With the moon shrouded by a thick low hanging fog, I can barely see the beach. It is difficult to determine the size of the surf. Thankfully our friend Kirk is very familiar with the beach and explains that the easiest entry-point was the south end, as the waves are generally bigger in the north end. For safety reasons, the six of us pair up as buddies. After attaching our blinky lights to the back of our goggles, we are ready to go. Giddy with nervous excitement, adrenalin surging through my veins, I pick my way across the beach behind the guys, careful not to trip on the rocks embedded in the sand. Their blinky lights provide handy navigation tools, but that is the extent of our visibility. This is madness I tell myself. I can’t help but notice the amplifying sound of the waves crashing as we near the water’s edge. It is suddenly crystal clear to me that the only way I will be able to swim today is if I survive a surf entry.
Always one to take my time entering the water, the next thing I know, the guys have bolted into the water and I am left behind to track their tiny blinky lights in the distance. Simon is my buddy today, and he politely hangs back with me to ensure we stick together. Inching my way deeper into the surf, I encounter my first waves. Diving into the first couple of waves I surface successfully. Soon the pull of the water increases and I am caught off-guard as a massive wave pummels me. Grateful for wearing a one-piece swimsuit, the only wardrobe malfunction I risk is losing my goggles or swim cap. It doesn’t matter anyway, as that is the least of my concerns. My heart pounds furiously as I emerge through the turbulent froth. Standing amongst the white foaming water against the blackness that surrounds me, I am terrified. Nervous for my lack of surf skills, I cannot believe I am doing this.
“I don’t know if I can do this!” I yell panicked through the darkness towards Simon. Another massive wave materializes out of nowhere, landing directly on top of me. My goggles almost slip off and I readjust them before they disappear into nothingness. Now uncomfortably positioned just far enough away from the shore to keep going, and just close enough to shore to quit, I hesitate. I know I can’t quit. “Come on Kiwi!” yells Simon enthusiastically.
At the reassuring direction of Simon, I continue through the onslaught of waves. Oddly, in this moment, I am struck by the fact that I am facing my fear without really seeing my fear; thanks to the blanket of fog obscuring the moon, I am unable to accurately determine the size and extent of the incoming waves, but continue anyway. It is terrifyingly exhilarating. I don’t have the opportunity to examine my fear as it towers over me. And in this moment my fear temporarily blends into all the other distractions and somehow I make it through the surf break. I am greeted with a fantastic bioluminescent lightshow as I move my hands through the water as I swim. Swimming along the shoreline, I am consumed with thoughts of how on earth I will exit the surf.