I was 28 before I learned to swim. I could have lived my life not knowing how, but I kept having a reoccurring dream. Large swaying buoys with bells swayed up and down in the swell. The sky was gray and the watter choppy, but I feel so warm, happy, and safe. I had to learn to swim, so I signed up for lessons at the Chinatown Y in San Francisco. Like learning anything new, I didn’t like the sting of the water going up my nose and I didn’t have any stamina. I wore a nose clip and swam half a pool length, then built up to a full pool length, then to a lap.
I spent about half a hear in the pool and could swim laps without stopping. San Francisco is surrounded by water and the ocean dream beckoned me. I was a regular at this produce store in my neighborhood. I knew the owner and one afternoon, I was buying Mission figs, arugula, and blue cheese and talking about my swimming lessons when he told me about joining the Dolphin Club, an outdoor swimming club located at the Aquatic Park.
At the time I didn’t know I was drawn to challenges, I said I wasn’t ready and isn’t the water cold. He shrugged and said, “You go in as long as you want and come out when you want.” Do you wear a wet suit? He shrugged again, “Some people do, but not for long. You get use to the cold.” Isn’t there a life guard. “Nope.”
Ready or not, I was hooked. There were two swimming and rowing clubs, the Dolphin Club and The South End club. I went with the dolphin. It was a old-school-style boathouse with spartan mens and womens locker rooms and saunas. Good smells were always coming from the communal kitchen. All the members were given a key to enter the front door.
My first time out I stood at the shore in the wind for I don’t know how long. Wearing the orange thermal cap and shorter wet suit and goggles, I was so nervous. I watched as other swimmers entered and left. They knew I was a newbie with my wetsuit on. It was sunny, but a particularly choppy. I wasn’t used to having salter water slap in my face, so I swam around staying close to the pier, swallowed a bit of saltwater and called it a day. I was back the next day and the next.
Wearing just swimsuits and the thermal swim cap. Later I became like the other ladies wearing one swimsuit, a latex swim cap covered by a thermal swim cap.
Every day I rode my motorcycle from work in the Financial District to the Dolphin Club. The four years I swam in the Bay are some of my fondest memories of San Francisco living. The ocean was different every day. Some days calm and friendly with a sunny clear sky. Other times, it was flat and glassy as a lake. Other days gray, brooding, choppy, and menacing. I swam with sea lions. I learned not to fight the tide or current. To relax and swim with it. There was always lively conversations in the women’s sauna or respectful silence after a long bracing swim.
Years have passed and I’ve been open water swimming ever since. I get my ocean fix when I’m in Florida. When I can’t swim in Lake Champlain here in Vermont, I do go to the local swimming pool during the winter. My secret weapon to fight the monotony of swimming laps? An underwater audio headset called H2O Audio.
Last week when I was in Naples Florida, I went swimming about every day, sometimes twice a day. The water was cool and brisk, but unseasonably calm. So calm I could see the crabs scuttling under me, the imprints of sand dollars and horseshoe crabs, and little tiny fish dashing about as I skimmed cross the top of the water the sun warm on my backside. I felt like I was visit with an old friend.