Growing up in Southern California, I loved the beach. My parents used to say I was a fish I spent so much time in the ocean. I loved the sun and the surf, and as I grew older, that love only grew stronger. Naturally, I have never lived anywhere as warm since going off to college.
Northern California has beaches. Some of them even have sand. But they’re not really what you’d call swimmable. The water is perfectly all right most places, but it’s cold. Really cold. As in “I need a wetsuit” cold. Sometimes even “I need a dry suit” cold or “let’s call the whole thing off” cold.
So of course I’ve been trying to swim in it ever since arriving in Berkeley at the age of 17 (i.e. a long time ago). While there, it was basically hopeless. The only beaches remotely near Berkeley were in San Francisco and Marin, and it was so cold up there I shouldn’t even have bothered.
However, since moving to San Jose, the closest beach has been Santa Cruz, and this is where I pinned my hopes. It gets sunny in Santa Cruz. I wouldn’t say it gets warm, but it does at least progress to “not cold” occasionally, and the water is a touch warmer than the surrounding areas. Thus, I made it my goal to go swimming in these frigid waters if it killed me (which was always a possibility).
Easier said than done. I could have just donned my wetsuit and gone in that way, but I was determined to swim without it at least once if only to prove it could be done.
I started small, braving the cool air enough to get in a bathing suit and wade in. It took a whole summer for me to get past my knees, but finally I made it in to the hips. Alas, there I was stuck.
You see, I could have just plucked up my courage and ran for it, jumped in, then run back out again. I’ve done that sort of thing before. Once on a family vacation, my brother and I jumped in a 39 degree hotel pool–in the rain–before running out screaming to the jacuzzi. This was different. The most difficult part of my task here was not getting in the ocean, but enjoying it, even if it was just a little bit.
For me, this experiment to see whether I could swim in Northern California became rather a test to see if I could see myself living in Northern California permanently. That’s not to say I even think that will happen, but it’s certainly possible, and I really just can’t live here forever if I can’t go swimming. And there is no point to going swimming if you can’t enjoy it.
It took two-and-a-half years for me to get in over my head, but this last Monday, I finally succeeded in actually swimming, sans wetsuit, in the Pacific Ocean off Santa Cruz. It didn’t last long, but I did get a kind of sick pleasure from finally accomplishing this eight year long goal.
And it actually wasn’t that bad once I was in the water. It took me a long time to work up to it, going in to my knees, then my thighs, my waist, and finally the whole Nicole. But once I was under, I managed to swim a bit without wanting to kill myself, and it was all right as long as I kept moving.
Until it wasn’t. When I got out, I tried to stick around for a bit, but as I huddle in my towel, I realized that wasn’t going to happen. The cold went bone deep and stayed there until we had driven back to San Jose, and I had spent a long time in a very hot shower.
Still, I did it. I proved I could swim in Northern California waters and not be completely miserable. On a day when it’s 90 degrees in San Jose, has been for the past four days, and the ocean has had the entire summer to warm up. Woot.
Now the real question is can I do it again?