I often think about that moment on April 25th 2015 jumping in the water at dusk near the Farallon Islands. Four years ago I could never imagined having another opportunity to once again push myself to a place of absolute terror and excitement. A voluntary jump off a boat as the sun is setting to endure the imagined monsters of the dark, at the Farallon Islands, is for me utterly thrilling but also equally terrifying. My swim on this evening would last for exactly one hour. Not a moment less and not a moment more. After 13 hours of swimming as a team, diligently rotating through hour long shifts, we were almost at the islands. Our original intention for a round trip (Golden Gate Bridge to the Farallon Islands and back to the Golden Gate Bridge) relay swim (a total of 60 miles) had been thwarted by an unforgiving and furious wind. It was unsafe to continue swimming another 30 miles back to San Francisco. Conscious of the very real danger of losing a swimmer or encountering difficulty with the boat in these challenging conditions, we were all satisfied and grateful for the opportunity to instead complete a one-way safely, concluding at the Farallon Islands.
With 1.3 nautical miles to go until reaching the buoy in Fishermen’s Cove located in the Southeast corner, it was my turn to jump in the water. At precisely 8pm I once again launched myself willingly into the unknown. A moment of complete and utter abandonment of control, hoping – praying – I would be safe. A chilly 51 degrees, I felt the cool water numb my body within minutes. Goosebumps pricked across my skin. With the wind blowing 24 knots, and my heart beating just as frantically, I found it difficult to find any rhythm with my stroke. I prayed for the cold to paralyze the terrifying thoughts racing hysterically in my head as soon as possible. Alone with my mind in the darkening water, I focused on my breathing, made more difficult by the erratic spray of sea water engulfing my body with each breath I took. Every minute seem to pass by ever so gradually. A slow motion replay of my swim under a starry sky for the last mile of the women’s relay swim back in 2011. Yet again my goal was the silhouette of the islands positioned a mile away against a setting sun and rising moon. A familiar scene etched in my mind from that experience, now dreamlike.
As the inky black waters swirled around me, I could not help but wonder how on earth I came to be in this sort of situation yet again. An experience so exhilarating it is at the same time off-the-charts frightening. After some delayed but much needed soul searching in the ominous ocean alone, I arrived at an eerie, focused calm. With my breathing under control, I felt the cold envelope my mind in a glorious and welcomed numbness. Just get the job done I told myself. Focus on the familiarity of the boat on your left as you breathe. And do not breathe to your right. (In this moment I rationalized avoiding breathing on my right for fear of seeing what might launch towards me from the ocean depth. A minor tweak that seemed to allay my fears almost completely as I focused on the boat just 5 feet to my left). I also took comfort in knowing that my entire team were watching should anything go wrong.
Experiencing a delightful trance as I continued to swim towards my goal, a green light plunged in the water a few feet to my left. My intense focus was broken, but for the very best possible reason. It was Kate, one of my teammates who jumped in as planned for support, halfway through my shift. Now swimming in complete darkness, all that I could see of Kate was the little green blinky light attached to her goggles. I cannot fully describe how meaningful it was for me to have one of my teammates voluntarily risk her life to provide the comfort and support like none other. It was a team effort of gold standards and she chose her moment as the escort swimmer in the most momentous way imaginable. Swimming side-by-side, I would be lying if I did not admit to taking some comfort knowing that the odds were now 50:50. A morbid thought, but the truth in that moment.
With conditions deteriorating significantly, we both thought we had lost track of the boat. “Where are you?!!” I shouted through the darkness as the adrenaline roared through my body. “I’m right here” came this soft calm voice through the darkness. Seconds later the boat appeared over another wave. Kate and I soon finished my hour long and unremarkable shift together before climbing onto the platform at the stern of the boat. Before I had a chance to count my blessings, a massive wave forced me back in the water. Frantic, I swam towards the boat careful not to hit my head on the swim platform that literally levitated before my eyes as another massive wave appeared. The Aussie, Simon, completed our relay in style. Touching the buoy ten minutes later for an official finish after charging towards the islands with an impressive butterfly stroke.
Weather permitting, next week I will return to these special islands for another swim. Longer in duration, and exponentially more terrifying, most importantly it will be a spiritual homecoming. The Farallon Islands are otherworldly. An isolated untamed wonder that I feel drawn to and connected to like nothing else. I look forward to once again surrendering to its great unimaginable terror and beauty, while praying for continued acceptance. Each of my passages across the sea have been deeply personal journeys in an environment for which I am merely a guest. I am simply passing through. It is not my habitat, yet I have been tremendously grateful for the opportunities to pass safely, often times with a friendly sea creature escort. I do not think that I will ever fully comprehend the magic of being accepted as a friend and not a foe by these beautiful animals.
As the days and hours tick by approaching my swim window, I can only control what I can control. Nothing more, nothing less. And I accept that.
People often ask me if I am scared. Of course I am. But that is exactly why I need to do this.