Cold Water / Full Immersion / Gear / Jelly Fish

Things that go bump…

Last week I decided to stay in the water a bit longer, which is much less of a challenge with the wetsuit. I tried two different days, about 15 minutes both times. It was an ebb tide both days, with a pretty fast current. The first day the tide was far enough out that I was able to wade out towards the kelp bed and swim. With goggles on I got my first try at swimming while seeing an amazing, distracting underwater view. The second day I pretty much planted my feet against a piling and pushed against the current in an attempt to not get dragged out into the Narrows, then swam a hundred yards or so to an exit point when the 12 minute timer went off. Day two the water was choppy, and I was surprised at how much salt water ended up in my stomach.

There are experiences which, when you think about them logically, make perfect sense. Take for instance immersing your head in really cold water. There are many blood vessels and capillaries close to the skin on your head and face. This is one of the reasons facial and scalp lacerations bleed so profusely. Okay, nothing revolutionary or terribly controversial there. Your head also houses your brain. Your brain really dislikes risking itself, and prefers to stay within pretty strict parameters in terms of temperature, jostling, and exposure to the elements. So dipping a sensitive organ surrounded by extensive circulatory plumbing into freezing waters leads one’s thoughts directly to thoughts of discomfort, none of which seem unwarranted.

10 seconds was the longest I could keep my bare head and face in anything approaching the proper position for swimming. That was it. A few moments exposure and the painful throbbing in my forehead forced me to get everything above my neck out of the water. Now, extensive reading hadn’t led me to anything saying my stroke was correct, or that the proper stroke for open water swimming resembles a crawl stroke, but with your face held as high out of the water as possible, craning skyward like a drowning giraffe. In fact lots of sites mention the importance of learning bilateral breathing. Which implies your face is in the water. But the discomfort and brain freeze that immediately descended on my cranium made it seriously difficult to keep my face submerged for more than a few seconds.

Of course, many of those sites also mention the need for an insulating swim cap. One of those has now bounced to the top of the ‘buy soon’ list.

I also hadn’t realized until I was in the water that the jellies had arrived. The first jellies to be seen in our stretch of Puget Sound in summer are the translucent, fist-sized Cross Jellyfish. Very pretty to look at, but definitely feel weird bumping into you. I found myself trying to dodge them (when I could see them coming), which was a waste of energy. Unless they are just below the surface they are very difficult to see, and the sensation of something hitting you that you cannot see, particularly in the abdomen and legs, is unnerving. So along with swimming like a dog paddling ape I was periodically thrashing and sliding sideways in the water to let something about the size of my palm drift past me. While typically running into two or three more during this maneuver.

It seems silly now, but at the time I felt a sense of dread that was mildly alarming. In retrospect I believe it is because my awareness of being in a foreign element was suddenly much more palpable. I couldn’t dodge a jelly fish, which essentially drifts along with the current. Hardly the most maneuverable of aquatic animals. A deep sense of being out of place settled in me during that swim. That disease must be another of those sensations that doesn’t get better- you just get used to it. So many animals call the ocean home, and every single one of them is better at being in the water than I am. I will get stronger- my stroke will become more proficient, my breathing more easeful, and my head will stop feeling like it is going to explode. But I will likely always have trouble dodging a simple jellyfish.

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