A fish out of water

I suck at swimming. I sort of flounder along in a feeble combination of side-stroke, breast-stroke, and head-up dog paddle that  does little more than keep me from drowning. A deep abiding phobia of aquatic critters has given me the same attitude towards swimming that many sailors from days of yore had about falling aboard: ’tis better to just drown than suffer.

Shark attacks, feral crabs, electric torpedos, and most recently jellyfish have persuaded me that it is better to float atop the briny deeps than dive in and try to consort with the dolphins. This means I will never compete in an Ironman Triathlon or pose a credible threat to Michael Phelps.

A couple weekends ago I did a cannonball off the deck of the boat and spent some time scrubbing the slime off of the waterline. I’m quite vain about having a dirty bottom, though I don’t have the lung capacity to dive under and hack away at the barnacles — it’s just the waterline that I’m vain about.

I finished my scrubbing and climbed up the ladder to towel myself off. Something was wrong. Very oddly and specifically wrong. Wrong in a line that began on my forehead, wrapped under my chin, over my shoulder, around my back and most wrongly — up inside of the leg of my bathing suit to that area of anatomy colloquially known as the “taint.”

Somehow I had wrapped a long jellyfish stinger around my face and body and up inside of my shorts.  Toweling it only made it fire all of its evil little poison injectors deeper into my skin. I half-seriously requested that someone urinate on me (as that is apparently the official lifeguard cure in Australia where they have jellyfish that will kill you in a nanosecond) but there were no volunteers.

I spent the rest of the afternoon sitting in the stands of a baseball game in itchy burning agony, telling everyone in earshot that I had been stung on my privates by a jellyfish. Woe was me.

So it was with apprehension that I walked down to Riley’s Beach the next morning to participate in a group swim across the channel to Sampson’s Island in a surprise birthday celebration of my good friend Chris’ 60th. About 125 Cotusions of all ages snuck down to where Chris performed his weekly Sunday morning swim across the narrow channel, laying in wait to leap out and surprise him. Some Russian-sounding fishermen casting off the beach were overwhelmed by the flash mob, but one started chuckling with approval when we all yelled “SURPRISE” and began singing the Russian version of “Happy Birthday” as we sang the English version.


The plan was to swim the 100 yards across the channel, emerge, eat a donut and drink a cup of coffee, pose for a photo and then swim back. I didn’t have the heart to tell everybody that I had been stung the day before in those same waters, so I let the first wave hit the drink and followed on their heels, figuring they would clear a path over the best brown shark fishing hole on the southside of Cape Cod (they don’t bite but they are big). I bobbed along, sort of happy to be getting some exercise, but not pacing myself and getting a flutter kick’s worth of churning feet in my face from the vanguard of swimmers clearing a path in front of me. All was well until I hit the  current racing out the channel and started to get swept into Nantucket Sound. It was time for every man for himself. I churned extra hard, probing below me with my feet where the brown sharks lived, reaching for some sand to stand on.

Out of the water at last, I sucked in my gut, lost all self-consciousness over my extreme farmer’s tan, and hit the Dunkin Donuts coffee before the other 124 swimmers mobbed the table. A half hour of socializing, posing for a group photo, and I was back in the water for the return trip to the mainland.

And so ends my official swim of 2013, to be followed on New Year’s Day by the traditional Cotuit plunge.