The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Swimmer

I could tell right away my companions had me pegged as a dilettante the other day when I tried putting on my wetsuit while we prepared for a morning swim off Noank.

"Uhh, Steve, I think it's inside-out," said my old buddy, Spyros "Spy" Barres.

"Of course," I chuckled. "I was just testing the fit."

After peeling off neoprene I started jamming my feet into the snug-fitting garment.

"Now it's backwards," said Mary Georgetti.

"Right," I replied, pulling my feet out and starting again. "How do you guys get this damn thing on? I feel like I need the Jaws of Life."

"Maybe the triathlon isn't your sport," suggested Pam Dolan.

Mary and Pam, both of Mystic, are competitive swimmers and triathletes. Spy, also of Mystic, is one of the region's top runners who dabbles in numerous other sports and adventures.

I'm not exactly a fish out of water, but tend to gravitate toward running, hiking and kayaking. I hadn't swum more than a few yards in the past year before our workout, but had decided I'd better get in a little training if I intended to follow through with an event planned in a few weeks: a swim from Groton Long Point to Fishers Island.

Spy and I accomplished that feat a few years ago, more of less on a lark.

It's not an overwhelmingly arduous undertaking, about 3 miles, though tides, currents and jellyfish can ratchet up the difficulty.

He and the others have been swimming regularly in preparation; I've had scheduling conflicts that kept me out of the water before last week.

Anyway, once I got my wetsuit and goggles on we hit the water off Noank's town dock, near the mouth of the Mystic River. Our goal: swim to a tiny islet off Ram Island and back again, a distance of about 1.5 miles, allowing for some meandering around moored boats.

Whenever I run, hike, bike or paddle with friends I'm accustomed to carrying on conversations, telling jokes, discussing politics, reliving past adventures and planning new ones. Swimming, of course, eliminates all that.

Compounding my isolation was the fact that my goggles instantly fogged up. My three companions disappeared. Within seconds I felt as if I were attempting a solo crossing of the English Channel.

I periodically switched from a crawl stroke to a breaststroke so I could raise my head out of the water and adjust my course. I wound up zigzagging crazily in the direction of Ram Island, though for much of the time I couldn't be entirely certain where I was heading.

Finally, after about 40 minutes Pam and Mary appeared in front of me. They had spotted me and helped guide me to the islet.

All things considered, I hadn't done too badly, and the ache in my right shoulder, which had been a little tender at the start, had mostly diminished.

When I tried standing up in the sand off Ram Island I felt momentarily like a drunken sailor and nearly toppled over. Even with all the kayaking I do it takes me a while to get my sea legs.

No matter; it was time to swim back.

Pam set the course: "Aim for that green buoy, then the blue sailboat, then the church steeple."

Right. Once again, I plunged into a void and felt totally disoriented.

Forty minutes later I spotted three swimming caps bobbing ahead of me. The trio was treading water just before the river channel we had to cross to get back to the town dock.

"Thanks for waiting," I spluttered. "Better to get across together."

Luckily, boat traffic was light and we made it unscathed.

Happily, I managed to remove my wetsuit without falling on my face, and felt refreshed enough later to go on a 10-mile hike.

I've been back in the water a few times since then and am starting to feel more comfortable, and even for a few strokes felt in "the zone," that near-meditative state in which your body shifts to autopilot and your mind drifts. I hope I can achieve that during the Fishers Island swim went in a few weeks. I'll let you know how we make out. At this point, though, I don't think Michael Phelps has to worry about any of his records being broken any time soon.

Reader Comments

MORE BLOGS

Cross-Country Skiing and Snowshoeing in New Hampshire's White Mountains, Part I: A Voice in the Wilderness Saves the Day

While snowshoeing on a tamped-down section of the Ethan Pond Trail in New Hampshire’s White Mountains the other day, our group approached an untrammeled stretch of the Zeacliff Trail that descended into a ravine below frozen-over Whitehall...

Who Doesn't Love a Blizzard? (OK, Maybe a Few Softies and Killjoys)

I know there’s a good chance I’ll be eating these words when I’m shoveling, shoveling, shoveling, or huddled with a candle next to the wood stove while melting snow for drinking water after the power has been knocked out for...

Destructive Deer, Bugs, Vines and Snow: It's Always Something

In a "perfect" world – i.e., one in which all living creatures and meteorological phenomena benefited human comfort and bowed to our supremacy – there would be no need for deer fences, bird netting, herbicides,...

Prime Time for Eagle-Watching by Kayak on the Connecticut River

While kayaking just north of Lyme’s Hamburg Cove on the Connecticut River the other day, Robin Francis, Phil Warner and I watched a wildlife drama unfolding above us.

In Waning Winter, An 'Above Par' Snow-Kayaking Adventure

With snow cover stubbornly lingering and whitewater kayaking season still more than a month away, what’s an impatient paddler to do? Easy: Snow-kayaking.

What Snow and Ice? The Maple Sap Is Running!

Every year about this time, after having spent the past few months shoveling tons of snow from the driveway, lugging tons of firewood from the shed, getting out of bed dozens of times at 3 a.m. to stoke the stove, hauling countless buckets of...

Finally! A Worthy Snowstorm -- Maybe Even a Bombogenesis!

Just when we winter worshipers had resigned ourselves to another snowless season, and only a day after the temperature climbed ridiculously into the 60s, our prayers have been answered not just by an ordinary storm but by a meteorological...

Animal Tracks in the Snow: They All Tell a Story

If you thought most forest animals hibernated in winter, or at least slept through the night, take a stroll through the woods the morning after a snowfall.

What Does the Fox Say? Yip-yip-yip! Chance Encounters With Creatures Great and Small

While I lugged logs from the woodshed the other morning a yip-yip-yip! pierced the still air. First reaction: Did the neighbors get a dog? No, they were out of town for a few days. Yip-yip-yip!

Ringling Bros., SeaWorld and the Columbus Zoo: Pitfalls of Keeping Elephants, Orcas and Gorillas in Captivity

Large, wild animals belong in the wild, not in a circus, aquarium or zoo – a point reinforced by events involving three prominent, unrelated institutions in the last couple weeks.

Our Debt of Gratitude to President Obama, the Environmentalist-in-Chief

As we prepare to inaugurate a president who has repeatedly called climate change a "hoax," appointed as Environmental Protection Agency administrator an Oklahoma attorney general who is suing that agency, named the CEO of ExxonMobil as secretary...

Call of the Wild: A Clash Over Cellphones in The Great Outdoors

"Yeah, I’m standing on the summit now! … The view is incredible – I can’t believe I’m getting a signal up here!"