Judy Meets Ocean - Part Two
By Judy Dean
Walk to the Beach
That’s the dream: live close enough to a beach to walk to it. For me it came true in the little neighborhood of Lanikai on windward Oahu. Tucked up behind the zillion-dollar beachfront homes were a few modest rentals. A friend and I answered an ad for an unassuming little ranch and pounced on it. This would be my home for more than three years in the 1980's, up to the day I moved back to the mainland. Man, I loved that place.
Lanikai is a neighborhood beach. Many years ago the State of Hawaii brilliantly mandated public access to all beaches so intermittent passageways between private properties made walking to the beach possible for me and thousands of others.
Arriving on this particular beach your eyes are drawn to its two iconic little islands sitting not far offshore. You admire its fine white sand and take in the light, bright, aqua-green water that compels you to walk straight in. It’s truly a special place.
I especially loved being able to walk this beach in the early morning. Lanikai catches the sunrise so the morning sky reflected in its watery surface is doubly stunning. Even in winter, with its hard rain and high surf, Lanikai beach is protected by a barrier reef just beyond its islands. You can see the long white stripes of giant waves breaking out there and feel, through the soles of your bare feet, the vibration of giant rocks rolling along the ocean floor. Even a bad day at Lanikai can be beautiful.
Night & Day
Here’s one thing I was never able to do: swim in the ocean at night. There could be no more benevolent place at which to try than Lanikai. It was familiar to me and its sandy bottom meant no urchins, eels or other surprises. Definitely no sharks. Still…
I tried a few times – bravely wading in, then quickly wading out. I’d been in fresh water at night before, no problem. So what was it? All I know is that the rational part of my brain said yes, yes, yes but some primal part of my brain said no, no, no. Maybe the water was just too black (you can’t see a thing below its reflective surface) or the cosmic vastness of the Pacific psyched me out. No luck on this front, at least not yet.
3.0 on a 10-point Adventure Scale
I took a flying leap off China Walls. This is probably the most daring thing I’ve ever done when it comes to ocean adventures.
China Walls is a surf spot located at the end of Poipu peninsula on eastern Oahu. When the waves are good, surfers pitch their boards over the edge and jump in after them. The distance of the drop depends on the tide, size of the swells, and the spot you jump from. I can tell you it looked pretty darn high when I peered over the edge the first time. I’d estimate it to be around 10-12 feet, maybe more.
Jumpers dominate on days when the waves aren’t good for surfing. It’s important to jump with gusto (think running start) to avoid the rocky outcrop below. Also, there’s no sandy beach to swim to – just a long, rocky cliff all the way to shore. You definitely need to put some thought into how you’re going to get out before you commit to going in. Exiting requires you to catch a big swell that will lift you high enough and close enough to the cliff face to grab ahold and haul yourself out. Yes, it’s as tricky as it sounds. Wave selection plus timing is key.
I arrived at China Walls the first time with a boyfriend who was hoping to surf. No surfing waves so we decided to jump. My first leap was an adrenaline rush to be sure. As someone who’s mildly afraid of heights I was pretty darn proud of myself.
Getting out was a rush too, although not nearly as much fun. I bobbed around for a long time, stalling and studying how the locals did it. I was also trying not to freak out about how many spiny urchins were tucked into that cliff face, something you don’t see from up top. The tricky part was making your move on the right wave. If you choose badly you’d be swiped (or scraped) back off the wall.
At some point I suppose I just went for it. It felt like riding an express elevator to the top floor, then jumping off the nanosecond the door opened. What a relief to be returned unscathed! As soon as my heart stopped pounding I jumped in again.
I don’t want to give the impression that I’m adventurous when it comes to the ocean. I am not. I never paddled an outrigger canoe, tried scuba, or learned to surf. I tend to get seasick; so sailing adventures are out too. That’s why I’m happy to claim China Walls as my personal little thrill.
I’m a freshwater kid at heart. I grew up around Michigan’s lakes and rivers and have always loved being in, on, and around them. I had a few brief encounters with salt water growing up, but my dominant memory is that the ocean smelled funny, tasted awful, and was home to creatures I could not see but were undoubtedly lurking nearby to harm me. It might be cool to look at but it didn’t exactly beckon me in.
That all changed at the age of twenty-two when I bought myself a one-way ticket to Hawaii. I’d describe those first few trips to the beach as pure bliss. Hawaii’s translucent shape-shifting blue-green water was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. It felt cool but never cold, and I loved its silky buoyancy so different from fresh water. The ocean floor seemed sandy and safe underfoot and the waves were gentle and fun.
Well, that was my first impression anyway. There were hundreds of beach days over the next ten years and I can say with certainty that no two were exactly alike. Many offered moments of pure joy. Some of my experiences were funny, others humbling, or downright scary. A few offered life lessons that have stuck with me over the years.
Lesson Number 1: Never turn your back on the ocean
I was lucky enough to land in a place where I had family and friends to show me the ropes. “Never turn your back on the ocean” was the first bit of advice I received. It didn’t take long to understand why: an unsuspecting beachgoer wades in, then turns his back on the ocean. BAM! A big wave rolls in and smacks him down. Sometimes it’s funny and sometimes it’s scary. Sometimes people get hurt or need help getting out, and very often their flip-flops, wallets, cameras, and coolers fall victim too. These events are sometimes captured in pictures and videos. The bottom line is that out there in the middle of the Pacific Ocean waves can be (and often are) unpredictable. I’d heard it, I’d seen it, but I didn’t yet live it.
It finally clicked during my first body surfing lesson. My cousin, who was also my teacher, got a pass to a restricted beach on the grounds of the Kaneohe Marine Corp Air Station. After coaching me on the basics he left me alone to practice. Well, I wasn’t actually alone: I was happily sharing the waves with a dozen or so young Marines. It’s possible I was distracted by their presence but there I stood, in waist deep water, my back to the ocean, when BAM! A big wave came and snacked me down. Instead of a long elegant ride in I went ass over teakettle in something resembling un-tucked somersaults.
Being in the grip of a giant wave is a sickening and helpless feeling. Even though I was in shallow water I could not get my feet under me. The wave ripped my swimsuit bottoms down to my knees and filled them with sand, dragging me along the bottom like an anchor. I eventually tumbled to a stop and found air. I discovered that my top had transformed to a stringy knot around my neck. I knew there was sand where sand shouldn’t be.
The aftermath was far more amusing to the Marines than it was to me, although my first thought was basically one of relief. My second thought compelled me to swivel around to keep a wary eye on the horizon and incoming waves as I attempted to pull myself together. I learned a valuable lesson that day, and it wasn’t about body surfing.
Lesson Number 2: Relax
Probably my biggest challenge was learning how to relax in the water. It sounds simple but it wasn’t. I was used to the Great Lakes: cold fresh water where you have to move constantly just to stay afloat. The Pacific is different: warm and buoyant. Want to float? It’s simple: relax and keep breathing. I also had to learn to trust: trust that I wouldn’t sink or get swept away; trust that no creature would sneak up on me; trust in my own abilities to help keep me safe. Even as I made progress I’d always experience a little rush of adrenaline whenever I nudged the boundaries of my personal comfort zone.
One day my sister and I were driving around the east end of O’ahu. We stopped near the Halona Blowhole and spotted a tiny sliver of a beach with a few boogie boarders hanging out on a glassy bay down below so we followed a narrow path down to check it out. There were no waves so we waded in for a quick swim. We were only ten or so yards out when a huge set came roaring in and broke hard on the beach. Those big waves just kept coming and coming. It soon became clear to us that swimming back in was going to be a whole lot harder than swimming out.
We didn’t have any boards or fins so our best option was to just hang outside in deep water and wait. The beach was tucked in between two ridges of rough lava so there was no place to go. We could tell that the boogie boarders were keeping an eye on us, so that helped, but I started to feel the familiar prick of adrenaline creep in. I took a deep breath and gave myself a little pep talk: Relax. Stay calm. Stick together. Be patient.
We were out there a long time. Eventually a guy paddled out and told us he would help us if we did exactly what he said. His plan was for us to move up as close to the back of the break as possible and wait. He’d run up the path to get a good look at what was coming, and when he signaled GO, we were to swim as hard for shore as possible. So that’s what we did.
We scrambled out of the water that day a couple of tired and grateful swimmers. But I felt most proud of myself for resisting panic. The secret was simple: Relax. Stay calm. Stick together. Be patient.
Lesson Number 3: Keep it Simple
The first time I went snorkeling was like blowing open the door to an alternate universe. Just me and my rented snorkel gear hovering over a bit of reef, but oh -- what joy!
There they were: fish of all shapes, size and color: each one a work of art. Glowing coral heads, even sea turtles! And best of all, it was so easy: with almost no effort I drifted from one astonishing tableau to another. I loved the sound too – just that watery hiss combined with my own breathing. The night after my first day of snorkeling I dreamt in color and felt the rise and fall of the ocean in my sleep.
I never really got the hang of diving under the surface, using the air in my snorkel, then blowing out on top. It’s not hard to do (they tell me) but eventually I stopped caring and stuck with what I call the “slow mo flyover.” Basically this means flat out on the water, face down, arms stretched out in front or at your sides. No strokes, just an easy flutter kick, preferably with fins. Passing quietly over that world feels a lot like flying.
There was something about snorkeling that reminded me of how I felt about skiing as a kid. Skiing was, hands-down, the best thing about winter when I was growing up. Unlike many of my friends, I never cared much about the gear, or technique, or looking cool (except for the bib overalls I skied in as a teenager, they were cool). I was just hooked on the thrill of flying down a hill on a winter’s day.
In snorkeling I found a fresh thrill: immersion in a new and fascinating realm. Never mind about the gear, the technique, or looking cool. What I saw, did, and felt out there was plenty cool enough for me.
Lesson Number 4: Give it a Shot
When I was around thirty I decided to train for a 2.4 mile event called the Waikiki Roughwater Swim. Every September hundreds of swimmers take off from one end of Waikiki beach, swim out a quarter mile, make a turn around buoy #1, swim a long stretch parallel to the beach, then head back in after rounding buoy #2.
I never told anyone I was training for this because I wasn’t at all sure I could achieve it. And in fact, I didn’t achieve it – or actually even come close. But I definitely pushed the envelope of my comfort zone, and for that reason it was a great experience.
I started out in a lap pool. Pool swimming is oddly both harder and easier than ocean swimming. It’s harder because unsalted water is much more difficult to move through than salt water. Easier, obviously, because there are no waves, currents or jellyfish to contend with! I’d never been a particularly strong swimmer but I made steady progress with respect to endurance while training in the pool. Unfortunately, I found lap swimming to be mind-numbingly dull and decided to move on. So off to the beach I went.
My ocean training, at Kaimana Beach, consisted of swimming back and forth from the beach to a buoy located about a quarter mile out. It was a whole new ballgame. Actually, I found it quite frightening because even though it wasn’t far, the water got deep fast and changed quickly from a friendly, inviting turquoise to a deep, ominous ultramarine. Very large fish swam under and around me, never ceasing to startle me. Mostly though, it was being alone out there that was my biggest challenge. When I got to the buoy I’d hang out for a bit to catch my breath and calm myself down. Then off again: back and forth, back and forth.
One day I got caught in a major tidal change. The tide was headed out, drawing water through the channel in the reef back to sea while I was headed in. Like swimming upstream in a river, I swam and swam but made no forward progress. Stopping to check a landmark I could feel myself sail backwards. So I put my head down and went to work: stroke-breathe, stroke-breathe, stroke-breathe. I’ve had experiences akin to this several times since then; big projects at work, for example, or the long slog through medical treatment. In a way it’s the same: don’t think, don’t fret, just swim.
Anyway, I eventually made it in, then headed straight home for a beer. After that day I gave up the challenge, deciding that deep-water swimming wasn’t for me. If I’d had a training buddy things might have been different, but it was just too lonely out there. Looking back, I’ve never felt defeated by that experience, only pride that I gave it a shot.