Catalina, Part 3 – In deep water

San Pedro Channel - bathymetry by Scripps Institution of Oceanography

There’s no “going back” in a channel swim. No parallel shoreline to offer a mental security blanket and visual stimulation. No (predictable) current to artificially speed your progress. No intermediate landmarks for last-minute course adjustments; the stated distance is your best-case scenario. The only escape from a channel swim is getting on the boat – and even then it might be an hour’s ride to the closest shore.

So, starting a channel swim feels a bit like stepping into the abyss. That’s almost literally true in the case of Catalina, where the ocean bottom drops off to nearly 3,000 feet within 4 miles. Everything I said about the MIMS jump shots is true of a channel swim – but moreso.

Some people can swim through deep water without a second thought. I am not one of those people. No amount of rational thought can persuade my lizard brain that 20 feet of water is no different than 20,000 – I’m only swimming in the top 2-3 feet of it anyway.

This, for instance, is horrifying to me:

I know what you’re thinking: Marathon swimming’s a curious hobby for someone scared of deep water, right? But it’s just an obstacle-to-be-overcome, like any other. If you’re a slow swimmer, you can train harder or take stroke lessons. If you get hypothermic easily, you can eat peanut butter and ice cream.

How does one overcome a fear of deep water? I have a couple degrees in psychology, so I should probably know something about this stuff. Perhaps I should:

  • Take up SCUBA diving, as a form of exposure therapy?
  • Train myself to imagine swimming “through a pipe“?
  • Try to address the underlying cause? Which in my case is probably my first swim lessons, when the instructor forced me to swim in the “deep end” of the pool. (When you’re 3 years old, that shit will stick with you.)

Actually, I did none of these things. I still get creeped out by deep water, but I found a way to avoid thinking about it. I close my eyes. Seriously – I just close my eyes. I open them briefly for sighting, or to spot my paddler, but aside from that I keep ’em closed. The lack of visual stimulation allows me to focus on my stroke, my rhythm, the music in my head…. anything other than what the fuck was that down there?!?!

Again, I know what you’re thinking: But then I won’t be able to see the shark when it’s coming up from below to eat me. That’s true. On the other hand, if a shark is coming up from below, determined to eat me, there’s not much I can do about it anyway. And in the meantime, I avoid seeing all the other stuff (real or imaginary) that I might think is a shark coming to eat me.

Anyway, it works. You know the end of the story: I finished my Catalina swim – and managed to maintain a zen-like calm all the way across. Score one for denial.