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

How to Build a Stone Wall in 14,863 Easy Steps

I realized long ago that you’re never really finished building a stone wall, even after you’ve dragged and hefted into place what seemed like the final boulder, exhaled mightily and stepped back to admire your work.

Just in Time for the Holidays: Fagin's Annual Gift Catalogue for the Discerning Outdoorsman and Outdoorswoman

How often does this happen to you: You’re merrily tearing through the woods in your four-wheeler and come to what looks like a shallow stream but turns out to be a deep, water-filled ditch, so your beloved machine sinks like a stone beneath...

Arduous Autumn

In spring we crawl out of our cocoons and celebrate bursting rejuvenation; in summer we play outside from dawn to dusk; during the dark, frigid winter we hunker down like hibernating bears – which leaves fall, when we try to set aside time...

Chain Saw? We Don't Need No Stinking Chain Saw…

So, did you hear that doctors have developed a new method of performing an appendectomy without using anesthesia? It’s exactly like the old operation, except it hurts like a son of a b.

You CAN Go Home Again: A Run Through My Old West Haven Stomping Grounds

Although for decades I’ve been living in a home surrounded by trees that is heated primarily by wood stoves, and I enjoy kayaking, mountain climbing, building stone walls, growing organic vegetables and many other active outdoor pursuits,...

Utah Rocks Part II: Kayaking Down The Colorado River

Propelled by a swift current on the Colorado River earlier this month, my son, Tom, and I gazed at red rock cliffs gleaming against an azure, near cloudless sky. The rustle of aspen and cottonwoods in a gentle breeze mingled with the rush of...

Utah Rocks: Adventures Among The Arches And The Rapids (Part I)

You know how it feels when you witness something so astonishingly exquisite and surreal it literally takes your breath away, and all you can do is gasp in amazement?

Oops. I Meant To Say, Whatever You Do, NEVER Try To Pose For A Selfie With Bear Cubs While Mama Grizzly Is Watching, And Other Corrections

• Alert readers have correctly pointed out a slight flaw in my instructions for the proper rock climbing command when you have unclipped from your rope. You should loudly announce, "Rappel off," not "On rappel."...

Use It Or Lose It: Trails Disappear If Nobody Hikes Them

Nature really hates a vacuum when it comes to paths.

Plunging Through Plum Gut And Bongo Sliding Through The Race In A Kayak: Maybe There Is Such A Thing As Too Much Fun

So a rabbi and a psychiatrist are kayaking in the ocean when a giant wave crashes over them and knocks the rabbi unconscious. The psychiatrist manages to pull the rabbi ashore, where he regains consciousness.

Once Again, Pink Gloves (Plus a Clever Signal) Help Save The Day At The Josh Billings Runaground Triathlon

"On your left!" Phil Warner shouted from the bow of a tandem kayak, racing toward a buoy during the paddle leg of last Sunday’s Josh Billings Runaground Triathlon in Lenox, Mass.

It's Swallow Time Again On The Connecticut River

Early Thursday evening was a magical time to paddle on the lower Connecticut River near Lyme.

Rocks In Their Heads Again: Another Bunch Of Idiots Knock Over An Ancient Stone Formation, This Time In Oregon

"Every now and again people do something so monumentally destructive, dimwitted and dishonorable it belongs in a class of disgracefulness normally reserved for trophy hunters ... It’s almost as if they wake up one morning and say to...