It’s early afternoon and I’m standing on the beach in front of the Duke of Marlborough Hotel, about to embark on my first NZ Ocean Swim series event: The 2014 Bay of Islands Classic from Russell to Paihia.
I’ve had all morning to work myself into a lather and I feel sick with nerves. The wind has picked up and little white-capped crests dance on the waves. Anxiously, I squint across the expanse to Paihia 3.3 kilometres away. I’ve never actually swum that far before – and I’ve only once swum in my new wetsuit.
When I’d announced my intention to tackle this race a few months earlier, the kids immediately vetoed the idea. ‘What if you have a heart attack, what if a shark gets you, what if you drown? We forbid it!’
I’d laughed (nervously) and said (half-jokingly): ‘Well, I guess getting taken by a shark is much more interesting than a heart attack! You kids could dine out on that for years!’
In truth, they’d confirmed my greatest fears about ocean swimming. I loved the ocean and the idea of venturing further from the shoreline, but I was petrified of the dark shadows that might lurk below. Nonetheless, ‘dauntless’ was my catchphrase for the year – my plan was to face fears and move through them.
So here I am, feet sinking into the pebble beach, surrounded by bodies pressed into neoprene – shuffling in nervous apprehension. The adrenaline is palpable. Over the loudspeaker, the event organiser starts the briefing, warning us slower swimmers about the strong current once the tide turns. I feel nauseous.
Suddenly, the hooter blasts. The first and fastest wave of swimmers sprints into the water; 30 seconds later the second wave sets off, then the third. Now it’s my turn, the second to slowest wave. The hooter blares again and we’re off.
Arms and legs and black-rubber-clad bodies thrash around me, churning the water to froth. I take off too fast, swim frantically with my head above water, trying to find space and some semblance of rhythm. Waves slap me in the face. I swallow water, cough, gasp, flounder.
Without warning, hot panic grips my throat and surges through my body. I can’t breathe. I rip off my goggles and wrench my wetsuit down to my waist. I can’t breathe. Full panic now! I can’t breathe. I see a woman clinging to one of the support kayaks, sobbing. I tell myself sternly THAT IS NOT GOING TO BE ME!
I attempt to talk myself down from the edge. Reasonably, rationally. Come on, Kaye. It’s okay. You can do this.
With my wetsuit trailing from my hips, I switch to breaststroke. I see the bulk of the pack swimming away. A handful of stragglers tread water, like me, their eyes wide and wild with fear.
I try freestyle again but submerging my face triggers the panic. Gradually, the chilly water begins to calm me. I try again, breathing every stroke.
Slowly, slowly I find a rhythm. I can breathe to each side now. The panic gradually dissipates, drains with each exhale. I close my eyes and begin to hum on the out breath. I’m doing it. I’m swimming across the open sea and I can’t see the bottom. Apart from the sounds of my breathing and splashing arms and legs, it’s solitary and peaceful. I see the capped heads and goggled faces of swimmers not far away. Occasionally, I spot someone treading water. I stop and ask if they’re okay. It’s reassuring to know I’m not the only one who finds this challenging.
The tide turns and the current starts to drag us backmarkers off course, we’re carried in a wide arc to the right. Battling against the pull of the ocean, I spot the final buoy at last. After almost two hours in the water, my feet touch the sandy shore at Paihia. I stumble up the beach and through the finish chute, grinning with relief and pride, into the arms of my family.
In her book Leap In, Alexandra Heminsley describes perfectly what I experienced that day: “Slowly it dawned on me that in conquering my breath I had moved a step closer to doing something else entirely; conquering my mind. It turned out that the water, the views, the sense of achievement were not the only pleasures of swimming; it was that the act of swimming itself did not create relaxation so much as demand it of you.”
That lesson spurred me on to take part in other swimming events. And while I’ve experienced those panicky feelings many times (as recently as last year at the Legend of the Lake event in Rotorua), I’ve learned a valuable lesson –how to bring myself back from the edge – in the sea and on land.
I’d love to hear your stories or tips about your first ocean swimming event.
PS. Ironically and to my great delight, in 2020 I became an official ‘swimfluencer’ for the NZ Ocean Swim Series.