How I Faced My Fear of the Open Ocean
A solo trip to Bermuda showed me that I didn’t need to completely conquer the sea in order to discover new depths.
Illustrations by Ryan Johnson
It’s ironic that I was born a Pisces: I’ve never been comfortable in open water, I get seasick, and I’m petrified of fish. When I was in first grade, I’d check to make sure a goldfish hadn’t sneaked into my sandwich. During a family trip, I ran from an Oahu beach screaming when I saw that I was surrounded by schools of fish. Nowadays, I weasel my way out of beach getaways — and have had friends go through magazines and use Post-its to cover up fish photos before I read them. That’s how much of a land mammal I am.
A few months ago, I decided this was holding me back from experiencing more than half the world, and it was time to tackle my fear head-on — and alone.
So I took a solo trip to Bermuda with one mission: Return as a true Pisces.
On the Surface
As I rode across the Causeway before midnight, the full moon cast an otherworldly glow on the ocean, making me feel enveloped by the world, yet so alone. Why was I here to dive into something that causes me anxiety? Maybe this was a bad idea.
By morning, the sight of Bermuda’s soothing blue waters had calmed me. I was staying in the capital of Hamilton, the center point of the island, so I rented a Twizy — an electric minicar, the mode of transport for many visitors — and drove to the oldest cast-iron lighthouse in the world, Gibbs Hill Lighthouse, where I climbed 185 steps to scout out the scene. The clear skies allowed me to see the entire 21-square-mile island — and the endless ocean beyond. If I were to embrace the open water, this pastel paradise was the place.
I headed to my first challenge: wakeboarding.
I hadn’t anticipated how hard it would be to get on the board. Despite direction from a competitive water-skier, Kent Richardson of Bermuda Waterski and Wakeboard Center, I kept falling. Each time, I returned to position, floating on my back in a ball with my feet on the board. The salt water left that icky sting in my throat that I hated, my quads were shaky, and my grip was weak. I felt like asking Kent to throw me the lifesaver and be done with it. But he kept saying that I was so close. Okay, once more.
By some miracle, I stood up on the board. Speeding along for about a mile, I felt powerful. If I could do this, possibly I could become a beach person after all.
I drove to Horseshoe Bay, where I was greeted by empty pink-white sand. Strange. I’d figured everyone came to the island for the 75 miles of coastline. By the time I reached the shoreline, I was being pelted by sand. It seemed Mother Nature didn’t want me to become a beach lover today.
That night, I went to chef Marcus Samuelsson’s Marcus’ for dinner and indulged in small plates of comfort food: deviled eggs, chicken and waffles, and the trademark fish chowder bites. Apparently, though, the day’s activities had taken their toll: Midway through, I had to shake myself awake. I packed up my meal and went straight to bed.
A Quick Dip
The next morning, my Fitbit said I had slept 9 hours and 37 minutes. Wakeboarding had drained me. But I hadn’t come here to lie in bed. My arms and hips were sore, but my mind was still on an adrenaline high from my newfound skill set. It was time to tackle more of the island.
I headed to Blue Hole Water Sports to kayak. When I got there, owner Michael Stevens mentioned there was a shipwreck within snorkeling distance of the beach. I shouldn’t have been surprised: Bermuda has the highest concentration of shipwrecks per square mile — about 300 of them, dating from the 1600s to 1997. I’d always dreamed of seeing one.
I hadn’t planned on going underwater — especially without a wetsuit, which seemed like a protective layer against any marine life. “Are there fish?” I asked. “Usually by the ships,” he answered, hoping this would excite me.
“Cooper’s Island Nature Reserve has one of the island’s most beautiful beaches. Take the five-minute walk through the gate to the beach facing west. It feels untouched by mankind — absolutely mesmerizing.”
— Kenhai Darrell, Superhost
Ultimately my shipwreck curiosity won out. I took a deep breath and tiptoed into the ocean. After recentering a few times, I spotted a 70-foot U.S. Navy barge from World War II. I started filming with my underwater camera. Behind the lens, I felt invincible as I swam over the wreck. That’s when I noticed the school of blue tangs. I quickly looked away and resurfaced. What I couldn’t see didn’t exist, right?
I couldn’t help but worry that those scaly creatures would brush up against me. I kicked harder to scare them away, then used my camera to check if it had worked. The coast clear, I went under and swam across the barge, mesmerized that I was ticking this item off my bucket list.
To celebrate my newfound bravery, I visited the colonial town of St. George’s, exploring the eerily picturesque Unfinished Church, the ruins of an 1874 Gothic church that were never completed, and drove through the backstreets of Hamilton to the family-run Art Mel’s Spicy Dicy to try its famous fish sandwich. (Yes, I do eat fish. And no, it’s not retaliation for my fear, as some people have asked about. The two are unrelated — heck, I even eat sashimi.)
As I sat down with my sandwich, I viewed my underwater videos and was stunned to spot a yellow sergeant major and an orange parrotfish in the foreground. I had swum with fish without knowing it. I was starting to grow my sea legs.
The Deep Dive
Now for the real test: I set sail with Blue Water Divers on the Lesson and Dive scuba program.
When we arrived at the first site, the veteran divers jumped in while the crew helped me put on a BCD (buoyancy compensator device) vest, weights, and tank — totaling 45 pounds. Just standing took effort. My stomach didn’t feel right, but I ignored it, focusing on the promise of seeing the full-size shipwreck beneath us. “Take one giant step into the water,” they instructed.
Except my nerves kicked in and my “giant” step was more like a half step. I barely cleared the boat, and the tank hit the edge, smashing into my head. It hurt, but I was in the water already. The entire crew had their eyes on me — I couldn’t turn back now.
My instructor, Chris Gauntlett, reminded me to go slowly and equalize. I grabbed the line and started my descent.
The pressure hit me right away. I couldn’t breathe. Oh, wait, I could: I had to use my mouth. But then, my ears! I pinched my nose to equalize. It didn’t work. I pointed up in a panic.
As I bobbed at the surface, I scolded myself. There was an incredible shipwreck just below my flippers. I took a few deep breaths and tried again.
Remember, I told myself: Exhale, equalize, relax. That only worked for so long. Overwhelmed, I found myself frantically motioning to go up again. Whether it was the queasiness I wasn’t acknowledging or the head bruise, I needed a break.
I boarded the boat and started hyperanalyzing: I hate running, but I was able to finish two marathons. I don’t like the ocean; why couldn’t I just do this? But trumping that: It’s not in me to give up.
The other divers returned, raving about what they’d experienced. Some had even speared lionfish, an invasive species with a venomous spine. As we moved to the second site, I girded myself to try again. As if on cue, my body revolted: I threw up into the crystal-clear water.
The next hour was a haze until we got back to land. Physically, I didn’t feel great. Mentally, I felt worse. I was here for a goal that I couldn’t check off. Defeated, I craved comfort. I drove to the Swizzle Inn Pub and warmed up with fish chowder, served with bottles of sherry pepper and rum to pour in (I went heavy on the rum), before heading to the Natura Cave Spa for a massage inside a natural cave. As I unwound on the massage table from my high-anxiety day, I realized that recognizing my limits was a better lesson learned. As Chris had said, “You came to do what you needed to do” — and that was true. I wanted to see if I could dive, and I had that answer.
Knowing that 71 percent of our planet is water, I still feel I’m missing out on exploring the majority of it. Then again, if I can go on a solo island vacation and summon the strength to wakeboard and the courage to snorkel with fish — two things I never dreamed I could do — then maybe I’ve already added new depths to my life.