Swim stories; I read a lot of them with wide eyes imagining what it would be like to swim out into a cold ocean. We were living in St. Louis, Missouri and it was January 2017 when I learned of ice swimming (elite athletes who swim in open water for long distances at freezing temperatures in just a swim suit). I was a competitive swimmer in high school but had never heard of such a thing (I mean, I am from Florida, ha!)
I remember recounting in great detail (to anyone who would listen!), the story of Lynn Cox, miraculously swimming across the Bering Strait (2.7 miles) in 38 degrees Fahrenheit water in only a swim suit, The fascination with the prospect of being able to be near a cold ocean; a place of such feats; probably reflected and fueled our move to Maine; close to the water. The ocean, and swimming, easily captures my imagination.
We’ve been in Maine for a year now and this spring I heard about Peaks to Portland and decided to go for it; even though it definitely sounded frightening!
Maybe BECAUSE it sounded so exciting and frightening?! I qualified around the end of May and then intended to get in plenty of quality pool time. I went to the the pool exactly ONE other time after swimming the mile to qualify.
And I did precisely TWO miles of swim training, in total. I played in the ocean (OFTEN! Daily if possible!) but I never actually practiced swimming IN the wetsuit until warm up 30 minutes before the race! I was definitely nervous, but really I did feel prepared. I exercise all the time; I wasn’t worried about the physical aspects of the swim. I swam for all of high school and here and there; it is kind of like riding a bike. Another swimmer I met before the race happened to have followed my exact training regimen; twice in the pooL! ahaha That was reassuring! :)
The thing I was most afraid of, and tried to be most mentally prepared for, was staring down into the deep abyss. As it turns out it wasn’t deep and dark like I expected, more like a bright shade of green/teal punctuated by the bubbles from my strokes. But still very abyss-y.
We caught the early ferry at 5:45 just in time.
The ferry ride over was so beautiful; the sun was rising and Casco Bay was buzzing with lobster traps being set, nets and poles being cast, distant train sounds, splashes and ripples and cold salty breezes.
We saw a seal immediately before the ferry took off and then a few others as we crossed Casco Bay.
It all looked very vast riding high on the Casco Bay Lines; and far.
The ferry basically follows the path of the swim route (just a different starting point on the Portland side) so it was great to study the landmarks and get a good look at the water. My favorite site while crossing was Spring Point Ledge Light (pictured below) as I have had two nice walks there recently; always fun to see a landmark from a unique vantage point.
Peaks Island was very quiet and peaceful and we got to connect with some new friends. I nervously stared out at the ocean while Greg and the other kayakers drank coffee.
I jabbered on about how “seals have basically the thickest wetsuits ever and they don’t get hot, right?” (I was convincing myself that my very thick, 3 sizes too big wetsuit made for surfing would be suitable for the swim). I didn’t REALLY consider foregoing the wetsuit. I knew I would be grateful for the extra layer and channeled my inner seal. Or orca! It was a hot morning and the water was 63 degrees. When I got in to warm up a bit (and to cool off!) I was immediately thankful for the suit even with the warm(ish) water. Ice swimming in a bathing suit is still a FAR flung dream; wetsuits really are just so wonderfully practical!!
The photo above is taken from the beach on Peaks Island. You can see the tip of House Island in the middle of the photo; that is where the kayakers meet up with their swimmers.
Many of the kayaks were decorated (to make them easier for swimmers to spot). So colorful all lined up on the beach waiting to paddle out and get ready to meet their swimmers.
Smoochie pictured above (Greg, my husband:) with our kayak and #54 flag! I was in Wave 3 (there were 5 waves seated according to mile time).
The kayakers left the beach at 8AM and paddled across a little channel and floated next to House Island, waiting for the swimmers to arrive! The race started at 8:30AM; my wave left at 8:40…
GO! I didn’t want to expend a lot of energy right at the beginning of the race so I hung back in the wave and kind of watched the other swimmers set off. I still felt exhausted pretty quick because of all the build up/adrenaline/nervous energy and It was, for the first time, occurring to me on a very profound level…
“Ok, so this is what it is actually like to swim in the ocean. It’s happening.”
I swam across the channel toward the flotilla; a massive hoard of kayakers; searching for our bright blue kayak. Everything was brightly colored! haha!
I was still far away and couldn’t see a thing so I kept going. Then stopped again and took off my goggles and Smoochie was just about 30 feet away! Woohoo! He paddled over and I swam. My relief to have met up with Smoochie was quickly changed to UTTER PANIC when I saw a dark shadow as I passed north of House Island (probably a seal or maybe a rock on the bottom?) and then shafts of light and more bright green/dark teal and bubbles and TERROR. But a little prayer and the fright passed quite quickly.
If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost part of the sea;
Even there shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me. Psalms 139:9-10
I swam backstroke and went all sideways and got dizzy. I swam a little breaststoke and jabbered nervous things to Greg, “Ok lets go…We have to stay left. We have to stay away from Fort Gorges. Where’s that channel marker.” Then I would swim for a stretch of five minutes or so (sometimes I think even more frequently than that), and stop and jabber for a few minutes. I do think I could win the award for person who talked the most and took the most breaks during Peaks to Portland. I guess I just needed breaks from all that staring down into the uttermost depths? Plus I can be a bit of a control freak and I couldn’t seem to relinquish navigation/sighting to my trusted and very capable husband and official kayaker (Smoochie) even though that is the WHOLE POINT OF having a kayaker; so you don;t have to sight/navigate. But I insisted on sighting which meant I did A LOT of looking around. About 2/3 into the swim I was taking ANOTHER break to jabber and Greg said “So, are you going to put any effort forth here?” LOLOL And I chuckled and then was like Ok, self, you can swim; and then I kicked it up a notch (e.g. actually started kicking) and gave it a good effort for the final 1/3 of the race (I mean, it is a race after all!!).
I passed a few anchored sailboats and could easily see the beach. Nausea came and I gagged. My right eye socket was pounding sore from my goggles. “Oh yeah this is why I avoid cardio/long stretches of exercise.” Ha! But I pushed on and those things passed and I was swimming hard now over green sea grass and I got a good look at the beach and the finish line!
I ran up on the beach along with two other swimmers and started running and thought “Hey! maybe I can beat these two guys!” lol And gave it a strong finish. And so thankful to MOochie for capturing a picture of that!!!
That swim was wonderful. It was a yin yoga style of swim. A sight-seeing style of swim. Next time, I know the course and might try to challenge myself with more abyss-staring and cardiovascular effort but for now I am BEYOND grateful to have had the opportunity to just really take it in and get to see Casco Bay from a whole different perspective. An hour and 27 minutes, 27.9 seconds REALLY well spent.
I’m also in awe of getting to be in the same race as so MANY world class, elite, FAST swimmers; it was a humbling privilege to swim in the ocean with all of those amazing people; people like Merry Farnum (2019 was her 32nd Peaks to Portland swim!!) and Brim Peabody, 16, who won the men’s race in a time of 48 minutes, 19.7 seconds and Genevieve Worthley, 24, the women’s victor with an impressive time of 53 minutes, 11 seconds!! I am so grateful for this experience!!! Thank you all for your support and donations toward this event that raised $200,000!!! to help bring more SWIMMING and other healthy activities to kids in southern Maine!!!!