Posted by: First Mate | February 8, 2011

Fear and Learning

So I have been longing to write a post on “fear” since late July or mid August when my captain and husband took a group of swimmers, a few crew members and me 3 miles off shore and said “you want to swim the channel, get in.”  No warm up, no mental prep just the clear fact that you have to start somewhere.  I looked at our strongest swimmer – mentally and physically – and we both shared a quick glance of panic.  “No warm up?” 1476 feet of water?  We could have easily made the swim to shore and we did swim to the anchor point, but it was the unknown that got to us. Before hopping in, we put our goggles under our caps to keep from losing them.  I commented to Jane, our mental and physical “ringer,” that one of our other relay swimmers always touches the water and gives herself the sign of the cross before getting in – she gave me the “Be Here NOW” look – so I threw out a quick “Namaste,” jumped into the rolling waves – mouth still yapping  – a nervous, constant state for me.  “More swimming less talking” was a phrase heard often from the Captain over the next two months.

Three of us got in together – for “the warm up.”   I, having the least skill and experience, wore short swimmers fins.  In my mind, there was no way I could maintain pace with a Nationals swimmer who wins all the open water races in her class, or for that matter – attempt maintain pace with the first woman to swim around Mercer Island, Kelly, who was also currently cleaning up at the North Shore swim series and teaching swimming.  The water after the initial – “what the hell am I doing?” moment – was beautiful and relaxing.   Not that I was relaxed, but eventually we all break down. The deep blue, literally, devoid of anything except an occasional moon jelly, the sound of the engine humming and the large rolling swells and occasional white caps, more unpredictable than the off shore races, brought on a strange sense of peace. We did single 30 minute swims to simulate the relay of the channel swim. A few funny moments – a backstroke that ended up in a circle, a lousy sight at land and a frustrated captain who finally headed for the “byte” and sent the dinghy for the swim instructor and I who were casually checking out what swimming alone was like beyond the tourist cruises and other boats off shore before heading back to Air Bender.

I can only give my perspective and my lesson – my own fear was based in what I couldn’t and can’t control.  Was it the ocean I was afraid of or failure, perhaps even success?  Probably all three – but subconsciously – I was also afraid of what would happen once I started – the change.  You can’t commit to some act or activity like swimming a channel and not be changed by it.  It wasn’t the distance – everyone on our team can swim the distance easily.  It was the mental, physical and actual spirit of saying “I am making a commitment to this” that changes you.

Would I have done this?  Yes, maybe, but doubtful without a little encouragement.  I was pushed by something greater to achieve this.  I read about the Maui Channel Swim in a Hawaiian Airlines magazine, as did my friend Joanie.  Joanie, read about the swim while waiting for her mother to “finish” a colon resection surgery.  She wanted to do the swim for her mom.  Sure, sounds like a great way to get back in shape, and by then we will have a boat, I thought.  Reed, my husband and captain – says yes to my hair-brained scheme.  Well, my easy going attitude and the Captain’s concern began to address the logistics of practicing every weekend and several weekdays, finding six swimmers who can complete the open water race, join us for practice and find a crew who can manage the boat for several days, keep us safe for the crossings and the race.

Fear played a role during the planning and practice but focus was more important.  I remember looking up one day when all I could see at the top of wind chopped 9 foot swells was an inter-island barge and a tug,  and on the other side – the aft end of Air Bender with a spotter and the “timer” keeping tabs on my progress.  At night the captain would express concern that he couldn’t maintain any pace with the swimmers without potentially burning out the engines.  In high winds, the boat would be blown away or towards the swimmers presenting an interesting danger. The call “swimmer at the step” rang in my ears for weeks.  Talk of sharks, shiny jewelry, nutrition, sunscreen, stroke technique, strategy and intervals consumed the time that wasn’t filled with work.

The team and crew became our closest friends.  My six year old wrote a journal entry about “mom’s girls, who come and play on the boat.”  Play?  In many ways it was play – rather practice for the hard stuff.  We had a magical day where we swam up the leeward coast.  Ruby, our six year old, felt sea sick and as we always said “the best cure for sea sickness is to get in the water….” she asked to get in as we were in the relay mode of 10 minute intervals.  With a life jacket, a line and a buoy, Ruby jumped into the deep blue and held on as I swam beside her.  Brave six year old.   We finally reached our anchor spot at electric beach with a huge pod of spinner dolphins waiting to greet us.  As we were swimming back to the boat, I even spotted a Manta Ray.  Something I had only seen at night or in murky water.  It was fabulous.

It does need to be noted that as the captain pushed us to excel, I complained and whined that he was over doing it.  The interested Galapagos and white tip sharks that tailed us were eye opening but not fearful for  me as I was the one swimmer who never spotted one.  The Au Au channel is flat, lovely and clear – we don’t have anything to worry about, I convinced myself.  Just watch the you tube videos from Quinn Carver’s calm channel crossing.

We needed everything the captain pushed us into and more… The day of the race, there were 35-38 knot winds, jelly fish stinging and tiger sharks checking out swimmers.  The crew and team were amazing, tired and a bit tortured, I might add.  No one was getting enough sleep, everybody ached somewhere and we all just got through it.  At the end of the day, the lesson that keeps repeating through my head and still does is “minimum effort, maximum glide” or as Jane, our ringer says, “just cruise.”  Perhaps the lesson is in not over thinking what we can’t control – don’t fight life – it will always get you in the end.  Just get in and do your best, use good technique, practice patience and absorb the experience.

I don’t think fear ever leaves us completely, but how we respond to it determines our success and failure in certain if not all situations.  I think a fear of being sick, alone, a failure or even dying can be disabling and yet I see people who are severely inhibited by health situations and life, laughing and smiling at things many of us don’t or can’t recognize.  I am reminded of The Little Prince and the line “You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed.”   I certainly haven’t tamed a fear or the ocean which is still quite humbling, but I have now found that stupid fears like “I can’t keep up,” are a waste of time.  These fears now fall into the “Not my job” category.

My lesson, that I keep applying is accept change, be strong and cruise.  I wish this for many, including Joanie and her mom as their journey continues. 

I think the race was an adventure for all of us.  The Captain swears he will never do it again.  And then I see something like Jennifer Figge’s Pacific swim  and start discussing it,  not my thing, but love the story.  Check out the post in Outside or her webpage. We will be waiting with a Mai Tai when she reaches Hawaii.  And frankly, being a socialite seems much more terrifying than swimming the Pacific.

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