Tag Archives: buoy

This one time I swam out to a buoy

There was this one summer where we kept going to the same beach every other week or so. It was a little cove tucked away from the majority of the beachgoing population, vendors would follow us there, selling us cold beer and letting us rent their giant parasols. The water was clear and warm, and all of the negative stuff I usually associate with going to the beach simply wasn’t an issue here.


The way that the cove was set up for some reason protected our little spot from any serious waves. And so I could go out and swim, fill my lungs up with air and bob up and down, relax, look up at the endless sky and forget that I was in the ocean.

Way out in the distance there was this one buoy, and whenever I went for a dip, it called out to me. Could I make it out there? I’m not a bad swimmer, but there’s no way I could justify labeling myself anything above amateur. Aside from the swimming lessons when I was a little kid, there was little in the way of any formal aquatic education. Still, I could maintain a doggy paddle for a long time. I’d hang out in the deep section, just past where my feet could reach the sand, and I never felt like I was in any particular danger.

Every time I went in, I had the urge to swim all the way out to that buoy. And it was this huge mental game. I thought I could do it, but I’d never really attempted anything so big. And sure, it’s just a swim, but there’s no room for any error at all. If something unexpected were to happen, a cramp, a shark, a missile strike, I’d be gone, that would be it.

And I always think about people flocking to the beach. You look at the earth from above, those eternal oceans comprising the vast majority of the planet. And here we are, these little ants doing our best every day just not to get annihilated on dry land. Let’s take a swim in the water. Let’s dip our feet in the very beginnings of a vast body of water that could at any time extinguish us from existence.

Still, the call to this particular buoy simultaneously terrified me yet pulled me out. Each trip to the beach I’d wade out just a little bit, trying to get myself just to make a decision, trapped in the space in between heading out or falling back.

One day I decided to go for it. Nice and easy, I used my elementary breaststroke to keep my head down and swim straight out. I didn’t want to freak myself out, so I decided not to look for a while, just to concentrate on doing what I was doing. After what I assumed had to have been at least ten or fifteen minutes, I raised my head to the horizon, hoping that my destination wouldn’t be that much further away.

But as I wiped the water away from my eyes, it looked like I hadn’t made any progress at all. Worse, when I turned around to look back, the shore looked ever farther away than what I had originally estimated the distance would have been from beach to buoy. I started freaking out a little, realizing that maybe I had bitten off a little more of the ocean than I was prepared to swallow.

My body was doing OK, I mean, I was tired, but not on the verge of collapse or anything. Still, my mind imagined what that collapse would feel like, and how much longer I’d have until that fatigue became an inevitability. My breathing picked up, I was starting to panic. Not really sure if it would have been shorter to the buoy or back, I wound up settling on the buoy. I calmed myself down as best I could and concentrated on my stroke, slowly, steadily.

And yeah, I finally got there. The buoy was huge, which I think gave me the impression that it was a lot closer to land. There wasn’t really anything to grab onto, and the whole surface was covered in this thick layer of barnacle or whatever that stuff is that accumulates on objects that spend their lives floating in the ocean. I rested. I bobbed up and down with the buoy. I waved to everybody back on the sand, not even sure if they could see me, or if they’d been paying attention to my swim at all.

I was reluctant to let go, seeing as how I’d definitely be more tired going back, and the prospect of another mini panic attack was still a very fresh fear. But I floated on my back and only moved my arms enough to propel me in the general direction of the back. It took longer than it did to come out, but when I finally got to the point where I could reach my feet to the ocean floor while at the same time keeping my head above water, I finally let my muscles relax, and yeah, I was pretty beat. I have no idea how much longer I could have remained moving, but it takes work to keep yourself afloat.

I think about when I started freaking out, how I got a very real feeling that I was in some serious trouble, and body’s response to that danger served as the one thing I couldn’t afford to do to keep myself from sinking. Looking back, it’s a cool story, but only to me. I try to tell people whenever I’m at the beach about this one time that I swam to a buoy. But I can never really capture the excitement. Swimming out and swimming back I guess isn’t that big of a deal.

Vacation Part Two: Swimming

I’m still on vacation. We spent the whole morning sitting on the beach. Every twenty minutes or so I’d go into the ocean to cool off and go for a swim. I started thinking about swimming, how it’s this natural state of being that I rarely get to really experience. I fill my lungs up with air and bob along the surface of the ocean, paddling in, lunging out.

Whenever I swim in the ocean, I get all of these crazy thoughts. I at once recognize the vastness of the sea, how tiny of a blip I am occupying this planet, the cosmos. I’ll go out a little bit, the water’s only ankle deep. Then it’s waist deep. And then I’m on my tippy-toes, bouncing up and down, enjoying as close as I’m going to get to weightlessness in my life. And after that I’m in over my head.

There’s always that urge to see how far I can swim out. And I’d love to. I mean, I’m a distance runner. I’ve run like eight marathons. I like to think that there’s a very high upward limit for what my body is capable of sustaining physically. And so I wish I could have a controlled environment, maybe a boat sailing next to me, making sure I don’t cramp up and drown. I’d love to know just how far I’m able to swim out before actually not being able to take any more punishment.

I’m sure it’s got to be hours, I’m pretty good at rationing out energy. And yet I’m never able to swim out more than five minutes or so without getting spooked and heading back to the shore. I always panic. I always think, what if I can’t make it back? When we were living in Ecuador, we’d head to the beach every month or so. There was this one spot that we frequented, and way out past the breakers there was a giant buoy. Every single time we’d visit, I’d mentally challenge myself to make it all the way out there.

Maybe I’m being a little dramatic. Maybe anybody who swam in high school or college would look at this buoy and call me a total wimp. But it was maybe twenty minutes of swimming once I got past the point where I could no longer touch the ocean floor. I know it was twenty minutes because I eventually wound up making it out there. It only took a year or so of mentally preparing and then actually committing myself to the challenge.

I made several unsuccessful attempts, the first dozen or so times I’d get maybe half of the way out there before freaking out and turning back. I’m saying freaking out, but what does that really mean? I’d think, even though I know that I’m physically capable of doing this, out here there is absolutely no margin for error. I’ve never had swimming cramps, the kind of debilitating pains you’d associate with the word charlie-horse, but they have to exist, that whole don’t-swim-until-twenty-minutes-after-eating rule has to be there for a reason.

And so it was always this self-induced mini panic attack. I’d get out there, I’d start thinking about cramps, about accidentally swallowing some water, of maybe some weird type of a sea animal brushing against my leg – no joke, one time I saw a sea snake in the water – making me freak out. And just the idea of me freaking out made me start to freak out. My deep breaths would become increasingly shallow. I’d feel a burning throughout my body, not a real burning, but a good enough of an imaginary burning to let me know exactly what it would feel like to run out of gas right there, nobody to save me, slowly realizing that these breaths would be my last.

Like I said, eventually I made it out to that buoy. It’s all about getting past that point of no return, when you realize, look, yeah I’m freaking out now, but I’m closer to that buoy than I am to the shore, and so if I’m really concerned about survival here, I might as well swim all the way out. And so finally I made it. It was a little deceiving, because even though I thought I was halfway out, it was probably more like only a quarter of the way out. I guess the vastness of the horizon played some tricks with my depth perception.

When I made it out there, the buoy was much, much bigger than it had appeared from the shore. And there wasn’t anywhere really to grab on, the whole surface of the object was corroded, like the government dropped it in there twenty years ago and figured, yeah, we probably won’t have to replace this thing for another fifty years. I looked back at everybody back on dry land, and it really was way too far.

But knowing what I knew, that I made it out there, that I didn’t have a panic attack and die, it spared me from suffering a similar fate on the journey back. And so it was the only time in my life where I was able to go for a really long swim, a distance swim, and just enjoy it without being way too conscious of my impending doom.

And I’m thinking about this because I tried to go for really deep swim today here in Puerto Rico, but I couldn’t. It was the same deal as always. I got out there, maybe like one or two minutes past where I could stand up, I chickened out. I treaded water for a minute or so and then immediately headed back. This time I just kept imagining a stray wave, something that maybe formed months ago miles out, a gust of wind over a still patch of water, it started rolling, started heading toward the shore, where I’d be, swimming, vacationing, and it would carry me all the way out, one mile, two miles away from the sand, and I’d be out there for how long, alternating between on my back and treading water, hoping that I had the strength to make it back alive. No thanks, I went back to the bar and ordered another Mai Thai.