"Takin' on the jellies ... awesome."
- Crush (to Marlin), from Finding Nemo
Conventional wisdom says you should never swim in the ocean alone. Yet I frequently do solo open water swims in Monterey Bay.
It’s not that I’m purposely irresponsible. I just don’t see the paranoia about this particular aspect of training.
It’s also a matter of convenience. I only know about three people who would take me seriously if I were to say, “Hey, I’m planning an ocean swim this week – want to join me?” When we try to coordinate days of the week, or particular times of day, pairing up with somebody never seems to work. It’s easier and faster to simply go it alone.
The thing is, I don’t consider it a particularly high-risk behavior. In many ways, open water swimming seems just as safe, if not safer, than the other two triathlon disciplines. But I’ve never had people tell me not to ride or run alone. So what gives?
In the spirit of due diligence, I’ll examine the main reasons people use the buddy system, and give my justification for ignoring them.
Reason #1: Someone knows where you are
Here’s what I do in Monterey: I head about 200 yards away from the shore, then turn and swim parallel to the beach. I’m never more than a quarter-mile from the sand. I wear a bright yellow swim cap, which catches the eye of observers on the beach.
I know this, because when I breathe to the side facing the beach, I frequently see someone doing the “one hand shading the eyes with the other hand pointed out toward me” stance while talking to a companion. Sure, they’re probably saying something like “Wow – look at that idiot swimming alone!”, but at least I know I’m noticed.
On the other hand, I can’t count the number of times when I’ve been on some remote trail, many miles away from anything resembling civilization. In those situations, if I were to break an ankle or have a heart attack, I might lie there for days before anyone discovered me.
In either case (swimming or running), once you venture into the wilderness, the only guarantee that you’ll return safely is your own self-reliance. Perhaps this is a foolhardy notion, but at least I’m consistent in my recklessness.
I realize, however, that those spectators from the beach can’t do much for me from the shore. Which leads me to…
Reason #2: You can get help if needed
People say the buddy system allows one swimmer to get help if the other is in trouble. This premise assumes a lot of factors that may not actually transpire.
Being in a group of ocean swimmers isn’t exactly like a social jog through the park. Everyone swims at different speeds. Very few people swim in a straight line. It’s nearly impossible to communicate above the noise of the wind and waves when everyone is wearing swim caps. Foggy goggles and choppy ocean swells often eliminate your peripheral vision. (Put it this way – there’s a reason every tri course is lined with kayakers. Is there any other sport that employs people merely to ensure that the participants stay in bounds?)
In these situations, each swimmer is practically on his or her own anyway. The best you can do is to have a designated turn-around point where you count heads to make sure no one is missing. But if someone starts choking and drops from the group, it could be 15 or 20 minutes before anyone notices and starts looking for him.
That’s assuming the group would even decide to look. I’ve been in groups where we count heads at the turnaround and come up a couple people short. Somebody usually concludes that those people must have turned back early, and thankfully, that’s always been the case.
My point is that merely having other bodies in the water doesn’t necessarily make you safer. Besides, if I had a medical emergency in the ocean, it’s not like my partner could do CPR on me out there. But could he help me with…
Reason #3: Predator attack
This is the thought that strikes fear into the hearts of novice swimmers everywhere. Nobody likes to picture getting attacked and devoured (on that thought – I loved Deene's comment on my last post, quoting Gil from “Finding Nemo” and saying that I would now be known as Sharkbait. It takes skill to trash talk someone by using a pop cultural reference that’s precisely topical. I wish I had thought of it first.)
Anyway, the potential for attack comes in two varieties: the “rip your limbs off and kill you immediately” method (like a Great White shark), and the “injure or paralyze you just enough that you’ll die a slow death before scavengers pick you apart” technique (like jellyfish). Granted, both of those ways sound pretty unpleasant. But think of them in running terms, and see if they still horrify you.
• Great White attack. This is a legitimate fear in some ocean regions, especially on the Northern California coast. But do you know how many shark attacks have been documented in the entire history of Monterey Bay? Exactly one. I know this statistic because my son and I saw it on Mythbusters – and those dudes wouldn’t lie.
Anyway, the Great White in the ocean is like the mountain lion in the hills: yes, it’s out there. Yes, it could kill you in a flash. But it doesn’t want anything to do with you, and would rather remain unseen.
The odds of you being attacked are a much lower magnitude than being struck by lightning. Sure, it could happen. But are you so terrified of lions that you avoid running on trails?
• Jellyfish sting. Unless you’re swimming in Australia, you’ll never find a jellyfish that can kill you with its sting. The real danger is suffering mild muscle paralysis, which can lead to drowning, so swimmers are advised to exit the water if they ever get stung.
Although I’ve seen several jellyfish in the ocean, I’ve never been stung – or if I have been, the wetsuit protected me from it. But if I do get stung, I’m close enough to shore that I could make it out of the water to get assistance.
Think of jellyfish as the rattlesnakes of the ocean. Your odds of being stung or bitten are roughly the same. Attacks usually happen by accident – stepping on a snake, or swimming into a jelly. The proper response to both incidents is to get antivenin as soon as possible. You should know these things, but you shouldn’t avoid the activity for fear of them.
In the end, what it comes down to is your willingness to take a calculated gamble. There is inherent risk of harm in running and cycling (I haven’t even mentioned getting hit by a truck yet) just as with ocean swimming. If you run or cycle alone, you knowingly diminish your chance of having help available should you need it.
Yet if you love trail running, you’ll take those odds to do something you enjoy. Ocean swimming is no different, and that’s why I usually don’t have any qualms about going solo.
(Finally, on a related note…if my body should wash up on the beach someday, would someone kindly submit this post along with my nomination for the Darwin awards? I’d appreciate it.)
August 16, 2006
"Takin' on the jellies ... awesome."