Out of Control

A few weeks back a core group of swim friends rode our bikes onto the Port Townsend ferry. With swim gear in overstuffed backpacks and saddlebags, we set out for a short exploratory swim along the southern protected bay at Fort Worden. 

Before we left, one of our more gregarious (but smart) friends sent me a text, saying “We should swim around Point Wilson.” He’s very fastidious, and supplied a course map, approximate distance, tides, all the goodies to plead his case.

I read the text and said out loud, “Oh hell no. That ain’t happening.”

Point Wilson, located within Fort Worden State Park, is the farthest tip of the Quimper Peninsula (and yes, I had to look that up). Its lighthouse juts out into the shipping lanes of Admiralty Inlet, and like any point, the water hauls ass through there.

This trip was my idea. I’ve sat many times at various waterfront taprooms in PT, pint in hand, thinking, “We should swim here.” 

There’s many places like that for me, places where I’ve seen bodies of water and thought, “Yes, we could swim this. We need to come back here.” But usually I leave it at that, a good idea I never act on. And I could fill this page with all the reasons and outs I give myself.

Which is why I thought biking to PT and swimming the shallow bay at Fort Worden, in February, toward Point Wilson and back, was a huge accomplishment. 

All my gear warming in soul-sustaining sunshine before the swim.

The bike ride was short, and soon we were on the beach ready to go. We started against a tough current, seeing that same damn clam shell on the bottom over and over. As we worked toward the point, the tight grip of the current began to slowly release us, until we were being pulled in the opposite direction, ever-faster toward the point.

Let me be clear: common sense was happening. We were shallow enough to stand up, we were staying together, and we were communicating. I stood up, ready to turn back while I could. My swim buddy was walking to shore, the water running past her legs like a river. 

The friend who had sent me the morning text stood as well. I realized he’d probably plotted this entire thing from the get-go, the sneaky bastard. We watched the two strongest swimmers of the group continue around the point. 

They didn’t get pulled out into the shipping lanes, they didn’t appear to struggle. They flew. They smiled. They did some butterfly. They were gorgeous.

The conservative side of me still wanted to turn around. I wasn’t as fast as they were. I don’t have a good kick. I didn’t know where we’d end up, or how we’d get back to our stuff. I was supposed to be leading this trip, so I had to be in control, be the responsible one. My usual why-I-can’t mantra.

But two weeks earlier, I’d found out I had breast cancer. I was mad, because I’d done everything right to prevent it, and it got me anyway. I felt helpless. My life felt out of my control. 

Calm bay at Fort Worden, looking toward Pt Townsend, the conservative route.

I was that little kid riding on the pretend cars at an amusement park. I thought I was really driving, but turns out my car was on its own track the entire time, no matter how carefully I steered. I felt incredibly let down and seriously pissed. 

Screw conservative, I thought.

So I smiled at my two swim buddies, who were waiting for me to make the call. I did some sort of what-I-hoped-was-cool but was probably dorky circle in the air with my hand. Then, I did a little dive in and simply let go.

And oh hell yes I flew around that point. The water was moving so fast I eventually gave up swimming and just floated, watching the sand formations below me change with the current, a container ship cruising past so big. 

There was bull kelp and seaweed and iridescent somethings in neon purple below us. Small children cheered us from shore. I picked my head up, laughing. I’d felt out-of-control fear for the past two weeks. This was out-of-control joy. 

Then we were completely around the point. We got out and walked across the campground to our bikes, everyone grinning and shivering and shouting, “Did you see this? Did you catch that?” 

All the endorphins, not to mention wetsuits, caps, and goggles, made idiots and spectacles of us. It’s my favorite part of every swim.

We rode back into town, warmed up and laughed ourselves silly in a clothing-optional community hot tub at a local spa. Note: do not sit in the corner of the spa closest to the clothing-optional community shower, because a large hairy man will inevitably drop the soap. 

Lovely way to warm up, but beware the proximity of the shower…!

Before catching the ferry back, we grabbed greasy cheesy burgers at one of my favorite small bars. I sat with a pint in my hand, my right breast still growing cancer cells, my stomach still sore from all the laughing. Everything was happening, and it was alright.

–TJ Wiley Forsyth

Small Comforts

So it’s February. Water temps have been recorded at our Seawall swims down to 39F. That’s F as in Fahrenheit, though that F could easily can stand for something else. Especially if you add the exclamation point. 39? F!

I’ve mentioned before that our regular winter swim group has grown this year. We’ve gained some very kind yet voracious people, who are just as passionate and crazy as the rest of us.

We’ve also come up with some extremely clever and rather extraordinary ideas for warming up (sort of) after our swims. Unfortunately they’ve done nothing to help our “you guys are nuts!”reputation, as we look more ridiculous now than ever. But I thought I’d review them, just in case someone could gain a little warmth, if not just a laugh, from them.

Portable hot tub, aka plastic bucket filled with warm water. This is an idea from the only person in the group that has swam skins all winter. We each take turns standing in it and muttering in ecstasy. Also a great way to get the sand off before putting on your fuzzy slippers.

Warning: once your feet are in, you will really want to try and fit your entire self into the bucket. Your arms. Your butt. Anything. Do NOT try this. It leads to all kinds of “uh-oh” awkward moments.

Portable hot-tub boots. These are basically any rain boot that you fill with hot water, then walk around in post-swim. Perfect if you want more time in the bucket, but don’t want to look like an ass hogging it all to yourself. Water does tend to slosh out as you walk, but you probably won’t feel it.

Hot tea and biscuits. I bring a large carafe of hot black tea with sugar and milk. I also bring British biscuits, preferably McVitties, because they’re bigger and easier to grab with cold club-like hands. Tea and biscuits after a swim is a custom I enjoyed in the Maldives, and I’ve decided to continue it here.

I really want to bring bacon one of these days as well, but have yet to figure out a way to keep it warm enough on the beach while we’re in the water.

–TJ Wiley Forsyth

A Swim in McKinney, Texas

If you see a body of water, and someone’s fishing there, AND there’s a park on shore with playground equipment and a dock, it’s safe to assume people do swim there. Just probably not in January. The buzzards watching me seemed a bit too interested. I’m alive. Enough said.

Carrying On

It’s now mid-January. A few stalwart members of my OW swim friends are still swimming in the Sound, me included. Temps on the east side of the island are around 45F now.

We try to get a mile in, but this time of year a lot can vary that: strong currents, rough water, or driftwood and debris dragged out to sea during a storm. These can be tricky to spot (not to mention dangerous) when the waves get big.

Driftwood makes better art than a swim companion in windy conditions.

Last week we experienced all the crappy conditions together: currents, rough and murky water, logs and grass and all kinds of crap on the surface. Thought I saw a condom float by me at one point. I told myself it was white seaweed and carried on.

Because that’s what OW swimmers do: we carry on. Whether it’s sunny, flat, and clear water; or zero visibility, white caps, and snowing.

Calm sunny winter days are my favorite swims of the year. The beach is empty, the water still, and I can simply soak up the serenity of it all. And that warm shower after?  Pure bliss.

Winter sun low in the sky at Bowman Bay.

But sometimes a day like last week, when not a single condition is cooperating, is just the challenge both my mind and body need.

To most people, this sounds slightly masochistic and absolutely nutters. 

But the best part is I’m not alone in my crazy. There’s always two or three or even five others that must get the same charge as me, because they keep showing up to swim, ready to get in and carry on through waves, logs, condoms, and the f#%-all conditions. 

These are friends that shiver next to me at the picnic table after we get out. The ones trying like hell to take off their gear and pull up their sweat pants with the same frozen unworkable fingers as me. 

Staying in the warm car as long as possible before a swim at Robinson Beach.

We try to help each other out, we really do. But usually we end up laughing so hard at each other that we’re left completely useless in our mirth and hysterics.

I realize this most likely has something to do with post-swim endorphins. Ooh I love those endorphins!

But that’s swim-friendships for you, and I’m so grateful for every one of them. They make the mid-winter carrying-on bit a lot more fun.

–TJ Wiley Forsyth