DISCLAIMER: Open-water swimming is inherently dangerous. Open-water swimmers risk drowning, hypothermia, hyperthermia, heart attacks, panic attacks, cramping, jelly fish stings, fish bites, boat or jet-ski collisions, collisions with floating or submerged objects (including other swimmers), and other calamities that can be injurious, disabling or fatal! The "West Neck Pod" is an informal association of open-water swimmers who swim "outside the lines" with no lifeguard protection, it has no formal membership, organizational structure or legal identity, and its participants, including the author of this blog, make no representations and assume no liability with respect to its group open-water swims. All swimmers who participate in West Neck Pod group open-water swims do so at their own risk. Be careful out there!

Sunday, October 30, 2011

On "Wimps" and "Wusses" and the West Neck Pod....

Since yesterday's blogpost, there've been a flurry of emails and Facebook posts, some defensive, some jibing, expostulating on who is and is not a "wimp" or a "wuss" -- or just plain crazy! -- for swimming or not swimming in this late OWS season....It's all good-natured, of course, but it also all misses the point, which is that every single one of us who ever steps off the beach and into the open water is a hero, every single time....The open water is a realm that is populated as much by fear as by the real dangers that inhabit it: rough waves, raging currents, hungry fish, speeding boats, submerged obstacles, descending fog, stinging jellyfish, exhaustion, disorientation, aloneness -- and open-water swimming is not only physical exercise but an exercise in mastering fear and pushing beyond our physical and emotional comfort levels.  Those levels are as individual as the astonishingly diverse universe of people who are drawn to the open water, including those of the West Neck Pod. 

Whether you stopped swimming in early September, when the water temperature dropped below 70, or in early October when it dropped below 60, or are still swimming when it's dropped to below 50, you are still doing something that most people -- even most swimmers -- find unimaginable. So for all the good-natured teasing about wusses and wimps, I want to go on record as saying that there are no wimps or wusses in the West Neck Pod, and you are ALL my heroes, every day, every time!  See you in the Salt!

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Taking the forecast with a grain of Salt...

As I sit here cozily ensconced in my favorite armchair writing this blogpost, the outside temperature is 34 degrees and a cold rain is falling, mixed with occasional sleet and even snowflakes, though it’s only late October. Mindful of the dismal forecast, I probably would have slept in this morning, but Annmarie Kearney-Wood’s urgent early morning text-message: "I’m coming but I might be late – don’t leave without me!" precipitated me out of bed and into preparations for yet another open-water swim – my 102nd of the season, yesterday’s late-afternoon swim with Annmarie having been my 101st. Happily, we arrived at West Neck Beach before the temperature plummeted and the first icy drops began to fall.  As the last several years have taught me, these late-season swims are often lonely affairs, and Annmarie and I now seem to be the only holdouts, Gae having passed up yesterday’s swim on receiving reports of the dwindling water temperature, Carole sidelined by her shoulder injury, Joye still nursing her broken ankle, and "the boys" having dropped off the radar altogether (Rob Martell, of course, excepted).

In this late-season, Annmarie has become my new Pod hero – having blossomed from a timid, tentative newcomer last year to a seasoned, fearless open-water swimmer, who adroitly finds the adventure in every challenge, whether it be whitecapped waves or 49-degree water...which she keeps assuring me "doesn’t feel that cold"! With my doubled-up bathing caps and insulated booties and gloves, I have to agree, but I am surprised to find Annmarie (who, by the way, is roughly half my size with no discernable body fat) so willing to push the envelope, and "to keep swimming outside as long as I possibly can." Humbled by Annmarie’s willingness to embrace the cold water, I’ve stopped shrieking like a girl when I first get in, so I too can focus instead on how, after only a few strokes, the bracingly cold water becomes supportive and invigorating and thrilling and beautiful, and I feel so lucky to be out here, one with the water and the waves and the clouds and the sky...Annmarie is right, this open-water swimming season is not over yet....not today, anyway...See you in the Salt!

Saturday, October 22, 2011

100 Days of Open-Water Swimming

We of the "West Neck Pod," who swim in the open waters of Long Island's north shore (mostly!), in the northeastern United States, are forever lamenting what is, to us, an unfairly short open-water swimming season. Like all open-water swimmers, we are subject to the whims and vicissitudes of Mother Nature and The Old Man of the Sea, who ultimately determine the "outer boundaries" of each year's open-water season.  We never know when the heavy curtain of winter will finally part, and our open-water season will begin, or when it will descend again, forcing us from the water until the next curtain call....For some of us, it is the "inner boundaries" that determine when we leave the open water and return to our local indoor pools, but I am one of those "outies" whose last day of open-water swimming is usually defined by the weather....When the air temperature is in the low 40s and the water temperature in the low 50s, and the wind that's whipping across the harbor feels icy on my exposed skin, and I know that I will find no pleasure in immersing myself in the icebath and stroking through the face-numbing cold, that is my signal that the season is truly over, and I reluctantly consign myself again to the chlorine...But it is always with regret, and I always wish that I could have had "just one more swim...." 
This season, it occurred to me to count how many "just one more" open-water swims my season actually encompassed.  Inspired by downhill skiiers' concept of a "perfect" skiing season of 100 days, I decided to make that my goal for 2011, and started counting with my first swim on May 27th. Today, October 22nd, was Swim #100 -- marking the completion of my "Perfect 100-Day Open-Water Swimming Season"!  Bonnie, Gae, Karen, Rob Ripp, Rob Todd, and Tim Sullivan joined me in the water, while Ken and Joye tracked us from the beach as we made our way from South Buoy to North.  Our tentative plans for a "Big Swim Across the Harbor" were quashed by the persistent westerly wind and whitecapped waves, but the chilly, 58-degree water temperature and 46 degree air temperature were otherwise no deterrent to this determined pod-let of other "outies," who were equally determined to see me achieve my 100th swim.  With the unusual and even dramatic weather of this season -- from Hurricane Irene to the rain-drenched August to the precipitous cold of early September, followed by October's relentless westerly wind, that swim was never a certainty, and I think we all were a little relieved that I made it!  Of course, now that I have, that doesn't mean my open-water swimming season is over! Tomorrow will be a day off for me (as I embark on my first-ever "Ziplining Adventure"), but I'll be back in the Salt next week -- weather permitting! ...By the way, although I seem to have been the only Pod member consciously counting swimming days, rumored sightings suggest that the evanescent "Pod-Father" Rob Martell has substantially exceeded the 100 number -- and he will certainly take the prize for longest open-water season, as his first swim was posted on May 15th and, as history suggests, he will continue to swim into December....! 
Next season....counting mileage??  See you in the Salt!


* Thanks to Newsday, whose October 16th "Long Island Section" cover inspired the adaptation above, and to Kathy Wickham, who "Photoshopped" it into existence!

Sunday, October 16, 2011

"The Tempest" meets "The Ides of October"...

Late-week rainstorms eventually gave way to brilliant sunshine, just in time for this mid-October weekend, but a wild westerly wind in their wake left Cold Spring Harbor roiling with whitecapped waves that tossed the weekend swimmers from pillar to post....No scirocco, this wind, but not a nor-easter either, so water temperatures remained comfortably in the low 60s, with air temperatures not far behind, and the late-season's holdout swimmers (Tim, Joye and I on Saturday and Annmarie, Bonnie, Carole, Eric, Gae, Rob Ripp, Rob Todd and I on Sunday, following in Rob Martell and Christine's wake) lingered in the churning waters, enjoying the rollicking ride and plotting the 2011 Season's last "Big Swim."  With boat traffic now virtually non-existent, the distant shore beckons, and a West Neck Pod "Cross-Harbor Swim" is now officially on the agenda for next Saturday, October 22nd, at 8:00 a.m.! (weather and water conditions permitting, of course).  We'll swim from West Neck Beach directly westward across the Harbor, a distance of approximately .8 miles, and then return to the beach (if you can't join us in the water, please bring your kayak and join us on top of it!)  If all goes as planned, this "Big Swim" will mark my 100th day of open-water swimming this season -- so there'll be bagels and coffee on the beach afterwards to celebrate!  See you in the Salt!

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Columbus Day Road Trip a "Swimming" Success...!

In a modern-day version of "The Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria," "The BMW, The Mazda and The CRV" made landfall in the parking lot of Long Beach, Sag Harbor, early Monday morning to commemorate the explorer spirit of Christopher Columbus with the West Neck Pod’s first-ever "Road Trip"! As has been oddly typical of this 2011 late-open-water-swimming season, all of the day’s explorers were women, and Pod members Annmarie, Susan, Gae, Carole, Kathy, Kaitlyn and I wasted no time in suiting up in summer-like temperatures under brilliant blue skies and hitting the crystal clear water (with Sarah kayaking alongside) for what was unquestionably the best swim of the 2011 open-water season...! (Seriously – this water was so clear it made Cold Spring Harbor seem like a mud-puddle by comparison!) We swam along the seemingless endless shoreline for nearly a mile, then lingered at the jetty in an endorphin-induced euphoric state that sparked various hijinks (see the video!) including synchronized swimming exhibitions and demonstrations of don’t-try-this-at-home "lifesaving" techniques....Ravenous hunger eventually forced us back to the beach where we enjoyed a banquet feast of bagels, coffee, cupcakes and tunafish sandwiches lavishly spread out on the hood of Annmarie’s BMW, after which Gae, Annmarie, Sarah and I returned to the water (sans wetsuits) for some leisurely, languid, don’t-ever-want-to-get-out noodling-around swimming before we all set out for the westward journey home....For some of us (Gae, Carole, Kathy, Karen and I), it was "back in the West Neck Salt" this morning, with another swim planned for tomorrow (Wednesday) at 6:45, but you can expect that next year's open-water swimming season will include a lot more "road trips" -- and it won't be long before we're tasting the Salt at Long Beach again!  See you in the Salt!


Sunday, October 9, 2011

Heading Into the Post-Season...

It seems like only yesterday that I was bracing myself for the end of the 2010 open-water swimming season...The ache of that impending loss has only recently faded, and already it is nearly mid-October and – incredibly – I am facing the end of yet another season, and the pangs of another winter-long separation from the open water. The season’s end is forecast in the diminishing numbers of Pod members who turn out for the weekend group swims, and early-morning weekday swims (later and later every week in deference to the ever-dwindling daylight) are virtually solitary affairs, with Carole, Karen and I the only "regulars" (joined occasionally by Gae and Nancy Lipira). Both Nancy and Karen are training for upcoming Ironman Triathlons, Nancy’s in North Carolina at the end of October and Karen’s in New Zealand on March 3rd. Karen, alone of the Pod, is happy for the steadily dropping water temperature, as she attempts to acclimate to the 50-55 degree water temperatures she expects to encounter "down under." Interestingly, with but a few exceptions, this late open-water season has been owned almost exclusively by the women of the West Neck Pod, who continue to brave the unseasonably cool air temperatures and rapidly dropping water temperatures while most of their brethren have long since retreated to the pool...

This morning the air temperature had warmed up again to 56 degrees by 8:00, and the water temperature was still a tolerable though chilly 60-64 degrees, but only Gae, Annmarie, Bonnie, Sue, Joye, Liz and I, along with Rob Ripp (the sole representative of his gender!) were there to enjoy a blissful Causeway swim in clear, still water under a windless, cloudless, impossibly blue sky.

For those of us who continue to swim in the open water in September and October and even November (and, for our crazy Canadian, Rob Martell, in December!), the Fall is unquestionably the best time for open-water swimming, and it just keeps getting better and better! Aside from the astonishing crispness and clarity of the water, the exquisite oblique light, the dramatic kaleidoscopic skies, the emptiness of the vast horizon, and the stillness and quiet of the nearly deserted beach and harbor, we embrace the bittersweet awareness that each swim might be the season’s last. So every stroke in this late-season is precious, as we try to burn every image and sensation into our memories, to sustain us through the long, Saltless winter. For me, this season’s memories will include some "firsts": the Pod’s several exhilarating forays south to "The New Beach," choreographed "circle-dances" and a beer-toast out at the South Buoy, an armada of orange "floaty-bags" trailing behind a sea of swimmers; and (I hope) some "lasts": Bonnie’s breast cancer, Joye’s broken ankle, Chris Vasallo’s neck surgery, and Frank Fiore’s bike accident....But, this is only October 9th, I still have 8 more days of open-water swimming to achieve my "perfect" 100-Day Open-Water Swimming Season (and beyond!), and there are plenty more memories to be made before we say goodbye to this 2011 open-water season. Next on the list: The West Neck Pod’s first-ever Columbus Day "Road Trip" to Long Beach in Sag Harbor – honoring the "explorer" in all of us....See you tomorrow in the East-End Salt!