Into the Open Water

Years back — so many years back — when I was training to become a lifeguard, I remember that one of the tests we had to pass was swimming a certain distance in open-water. This was in San Diego, so that meant the ocean. And in terms of the distance, I have “mile” in my head, but I think it was a much shorter route — more like 500 yards.

Swimming any kind of distance in open-water is a much more strenuous experience than swimming in a pool. There’s no wall to mark where you are, or to push off of, which compounds the more relevant factor of the constant push, pull, and swell of motion that is working its way all around your body as you motor your arms and legs to propel a forward march in some semblance of a beeline to a slightly undefined stopping point (usually something large that you can see on land from the water).

Swimming pools are controlled experiences, with lane lines and chemicals and temperature — even in how swimmers swim amongst each other, following rules-of-the-road protocols. In open-water, control is crashed upon, relentlessly, and it’s up to the swimmer to mold his stroke to any given liquid moment.

It was cold on the day we did our test — yes, even in San Diego, it can get cold. And the water is always cold on that coast, or at least it used to be back then. I ran into the water, and began my swim. Once you make that leap with head forward, and disappear the sounds and light of the oxygenated-air universe, your body takes over — eyes shut tight, lungs lock down, the legs start kicking and the arms begin to rotate. Your body is a motor, your mouth an exquisite device that serves as the conduit for the glorious elixir of breathable sky. Every subtle twist and turn of your malleable structure works towards motioning forward.

I swam the distance, and came out of that water feeling much more spent than I thought I would. One by one we exited the ocean and walked up the sand towards the instructor, who was watching with a bemused smile. All these great swimmers flapping along just outside the curl line break.

Then I heard her say this: “Most people fight every stroke and get hung up out there, but some people know how to make waves work for them — they just cut right through and it’s a beautiful thing to watch. The ocean reveals who the real swimmers are.”

That has stuck with me. Things that happen around water always do. I always feel like getting to water is a visit to another world, even when it’s not an ocean. But when it is, I feel like a journey has taken place and I have arrived to the doorstep of a new experience, or an experience of renewal. That’s the same thing, and it isn’t. I am coming to recognize how much harder, and sweeter it is, to find the new in the familiar.

The ocean reveals who the real swimmers are.

Jeffrey Yamaguchi | Jeffrey Yamaguchi

Walk along hot sands
we know our destination
ocean reveals us

BODY OF WATER: Photos / Haikus on Instagram | Writings