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An open water newbie dives in

Kristina Henry | March 17, 2013

Having heard about the merits of open water swimming from several of my Masters teammates I had to try one myself. But before attempting one of the big swims, such as Alcatraz or La Jolla, I thought I should aim for something a little less strenuous and much closer to home.

The 1-Mile Assateage Sunset Swim on the lower Eastern Shore of Maryland seemed to offer the right mix of features that made it a good swim for a beginner. A relatively new event, it attracted less than a hundred swimmers. I was particularly attracted to the beauty of the unspoiled stretch of beach, verdant marshes, and frisky wildlife—most notably wild horses and Sika deer.

To me, the Pacific Ocean often appears to be rough and cold during all seasons—more of a surfer’s paradise than a swimmer’s—at least to this swimmer. The Atlantic is more accessible for an East Coast beginner. With smaller swells and warmer temperatures, the summer waters of the Atlantic can be more forgiving. Locals often call it Lake Atlantic because the water is as smooth as glass on some days. All these factors make for ideal components for my initiation into the open water club.

In early June I was ready to take the plunge. After a smooth check-in conducted by friendly and enthusiastic event organizers, roughly fifty of us began our long trek down the beach to the start. The horses that were everywhere upon our arrival were long gone, having migrated to the trees and shrubs behind the dunes.

Nervous chatter and concerns about wetsuits and caps could be heard against the background noise of seagulls and waves. The fact that it was a sunset swim, aka shark feeding time, was not a giant concern to anyone, although a few JAWS references were made, as well as a couple of “dunt-dunt”s amid anxious laughter. I just wanted to get past the breakers and start swimming.

The officials gave brief instructions and blew the horn. Heeding the advice of several veterans from my swim club, I held back and avoided the mad thrash of arms and legs. By the time I got beyond the waves I was exhausted. And then I saw them, the buoys—all four of them like smirking faces bobbing in the distance, taunting me. Somehow 1 mile did not seem that bad when I registered for this swim from the comfort of my couch; in real life it looked endless.

The swells were surprisingly easier to manage than river or bay chop. The shore and horizon made for perfect sightlines and with time, the buoys started to get closer. I kept at it, one stroke at a time. I swallowed a lot of water and although having been over the proper sighting instructions with my coach the day before, I promptly forgot all of it and stopped several times to remove my goggles and look for markers, and sigh.

At one point past the halfway mark a lifeguard sitting on a surfboard asked, “Ma’am are you okay?” I nodded, put my head down and swam. Ma’am? By then I had finally found my pace and rhythm and enjoyed a pleasant albeit bouncy workout. My mind wandered a bit: I’m hungry. Why didn’t I stretch more? Was that a fin? Maybe we should paint the kitchen green. Did something touch my toe? Focus!

By the final buoy, another lifeguard said, “This is it, you can turn here.” This was it? I swam toward shore and planned for the ultimate wave to carry me in to a photo finish, which did not work as easily as I was promised by a seasoned open water swimmer. “You want to be like an orca grabbing dinner off the beach,” he said. Instead I swam, paddled, and kicked, and eventually just stood up (a little too early in hindsight) and slogged to the flags.

My teammates and I celebrated our accomplishment at the after party; several would be competing in the next day’s triathlon. I was glad to be going home with plans to do it again next year, except faster.

USMS Wave Seperator

About the Author—Kristina Henry

Kristina Henry has written about life on Maryland's Eastern Shore and fishing in the Chesapeake Bay for The Washington Post. She has contributed first-person essays to The Washingtonian as well as articles for Maryland Life and is the author of four children's picture books. She swims with the TCY Manta Rays in Easton, Md.

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