When Thoreau was living on Walden Pond, between 1845 and 1847, he rose early every morning to swim. He called it a “religious exercise, and one of the best things he did. Rising early for his swim was a way for him to enact his desire to “live deliberately” in New England.” I am no Walden, but I am a swimmer, and as often as possible, I swim in open water.
Although I have been a swimmer for 30 years, I only began open water swimming last summer. A neighbor, a competitive swimmer since she was 8 years old, suggested I try it on our neighborhood beach on the Chesapeake Bay. I soon became addicted to this regular morning plunge till fall came along and the water turned cold. I returned to swimming at the indoor pool at our local recreation center, till that closed in March of 2020 due to Covid 19. Both of us starved for a swim, so early in May she suggested that the two of us get into the Chesapeake. We started out walking a mile in the bay, thigh-high in water and then moving to waist-high as the bay water warmed. A week before Memorial Day we took the plunge and started swimming. Now regulars on the beach at 730, we swim a mile followed by a cup of tea while we dry off sitting at the foot of the dunes. My neighbor is English and I spent enough time in Ireland to make us both avid tea-drinkers.
The water varies with the day, depending on where the wind is from and how strong. As our neighborhood beach faces due north, right up the bay, a north wind over 6 -7 knots mph usually cancels our swim as the surf is just too high. But any other day, the swim is on. Ospreys soar above us looking for their breakfast, while dolphins are often in a line making their way out to the ocean for the day. By midsummer the water is quite warm, but the Chesapeake can surprise us with a pocket of cold water at any time.
We first swim half a mile west down the beach before turning around to swim the half mile back. Inevitably, the current carries us one way, and challenges us the other. Swimming against the current reminds me of what it takes to keep going when the odds are against you. However, when I turn around and swim with the current, I feel a mighty powerful bliss as the water carries me on my way.
Cox, the long-distance swimmer who was the first to swim the Bering Strait, talks about what she calls sea-dreaming. The rhythm of strokes and breathing lulls the body, which is already relishing its weightlessness in the water. Once your body surrenders to the repetition of stroke and breath, the mind is freed to go wherever it wants. When I swim indoors, my mind usually goes to solving my problems, all of which I leave in the water when I get out. Swimming in the open water is different. I am mesmerized by what I see as I raise my head for each breath. The horizon of water is met by the blue sky and the sun sparkles on the water in the freshness of the morning. When I roll over onto my back, I call out a loud hello to the osprey who hunts for his breakfast above me every morning.
When my body is immersed into the moods of the water – one day flat and glassy, the next steady rollers - and the only other ingredient is the wide open sky, my open water swim becomes “a religious exercise” - as Thoreau so aptly defined it. The Celtic Church tells us that we are offered a relationship with our Creator through his creation, suggesting that we can see/experience invisible things through visible things. In his Hymn to the Universe, Teilhard de Chardin calls us to “bathe yourself in the ocean of matter….and it is the ocean that will raise you to God.” Floating in the salty water of the Chesapeake, with nothing but the blue sky above me as the gentle rollers raise my body toward the sky and then gently bring me down again -it is as if my Creator is momentarily cradling me in the cupped palms of His open hands.