Conquering Fears: The Swim

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Although I have a history of conquering fears with competitive skydiving, motorcycle racing, worldwide bungee jumping, mountaineering, caving, and multi-pitch rock climbing, I am not without my fears. And as with most fears, they are irrational.

One such fear is a bit of a phobia around the ocean. Here’s how I attempted to conquer that fear.

This post was originally published in 2008. It has since been updated for accuracy of links and content.

They say that you are either a mountain person or a water person. Water people feel claustrophobic in the mountains, and mountain people feel over-exposed and vulnerable on the water. Having been in both environments, I feel safe saying I am a mountain person through and through.

All this is not to say I don’t like the water. I love being near the water; it’s calming and beautiful. I was a water-baby growing up, swimming as early as the age of two. I lived in pools. When I had the chance to go to a friend’s cottage, I loved lakes too.

I also swam in the ocean growing up from time to time. No problem. No event. All good.

But…even as a child, something didn’t bode well for me in the ocean. From the crabs that wanted to nibble on my toes amidst the thick seaweed in Cape Cod, to the rip tides and currents threatening to whisk me away in Florida, I always felt I needed to be on guard in and around the ocean.

I can’t explain it entirely. That’s why they call it an irrational fear, I guess. All I can say is that I simply feel that there are too many forces that want us out of the ocean for me to want to mess with them. Creatures that will bite, sting, or otherwise find creative ways to kill you. Rip tides and undertow that will drown you. Rogue waves, little waves, big waves, you name it, right down to the tides themselves. It all scares me.

The black eye I got from boogie boarding in the ocean. See? It's dangerous.
Here’s the black eye I got from boogie boarding. See? The ocean IS dangerous.

But here in Hawaii I’ve made a good show of it. I’ve been boogie boarding (although it was dangerous; I got a black eye), and snorkelling and spear fishing (although I contracted a rare neurological disease in so doing).


Okay, so upon further inspection, maybe with my track record so far it wasn’t such a hot idea to do what I’m about to tell you I did. But I did it anyway.

Out by the pier there is a tiny beach, and some buoys connected by rope that stretch out about a quarter of a kilometer out into the water. They are intended to keep boats close the pier, and to allow swimmers a safe place to swim, snorkel, and frolic. People training for triathlons who aren’t interested in doing laps in the pool are frequently seen swimming along these buoys.

I have often looked out at these swimmers and thought that it would be a great workout, and a wonderful way to enjoy the supposed healing powers of the ocean. It didn’t look so far to the end of the buoys. Of course, nothing looks very far over the water.

I knew I could do the actual swim. I may have to stop a few times, I thought, but I’m a strong swimmer. No problem.

It’s just…

Well Nora, what is it? Huh? What?


What already? Are you a scaredy cat?


…And with that I decide to do it. I choose a pretty calm day to tackle the swim so at least I don’t have to deal with waves or currents while I swim. I have a nasty habit of getting a little panicky when I get out a little distance from shore, so I vow to keep close to the buoy line so I can grab on if I need to. Of course, hanging on to a rope doesn’t help much when you’re being eaten alive. No matter.

I also decide to go with snorkel and mask so I can see where I’m going and don’t have to worry about taking breaths while doing the front crawl. I need to make this as easy on myself as possible; I’m getting palpitations at this point.

Into the water I climb. Okay, first part is easy. Mask and snorkel on, check. Okay, it’s go time. Let’s get ‘er done.

With an audience of people gathered to recreate at the pier, I start swimming like the triathlete I imagine myself to be. Beautiful form. Long legs. Graceful kicks. Breathing is constant and controlled.

I move from buoy to buoy like I’ve been doing it all my life. A few gentle waves wash over me. No problem. I pre-occupy myself with the scenery down below: beautiful coral, lots of fish, and golden sand.

The ocean in Hawaii looks harmless enough...

As I continue, the coral starts dropping away as it gets deeper and deeper, and the visibility decreases. I can still see the bottom, no problem. Nice fish. Nice fish. Little fish. Nothing big and harmful lurking.

I stop at the halfway mark and take stock of how far I’ve come. It doesn’t look too bad. Shore seems within easy swimming distance away. Lots of energy and courage left. Let’s keep going.

My breathing has increased, but I’m not tired per se. Just yesterday I swam a kilometer in the pool; this is nothing by comparison. Keep going. I watch my form and make sure my movements are maximizing my glide through the water. I have a nasty habit of kicking from the knee down instead of with my whole leg. I adjust my kicks and feel myself propelling through the water faster. Excellent.

A few buoys later I take stock again. Shore is getting further away. The bottom is getting deeper. I am swimming towards a great blue void in front of me that is eerily telling me to be careful. No, it’s not telling me to be careful; it’s telling me to stay away. Keep going, Nora; it’s all in your head.

You don’t have to go to the end, just to the next buoy, I tell myself. Just make it to the next buoy. You can reevaluate then. The next buoy comes. Breathing is still fine, not feeling overly panicky. Can still see shore.

I keep going. I’m in it now. I can’t possibly turn around before reaching the last buoy at this stage of the game – I’m pretty much there. Keep those legs kicking properly. Make sure those arms are propelling you through the water.

Whew. Out to the end. Made it. Quick internal check: feeling pretty good. Coughed a few times, but haven’t swallowed any water, and breathing is decent. I’m tired, but now I have no choice but to keep going. And I have no desire to stay out this far from shore for any length of time.

I turn around, victorious with having made it to the very end of the buoys. Hopefully the current and tides will help bring me in; it was quite a slog to get out here.

Keep those legs kicking, those arms. Occupy yourself with the scenery…what nice fish. Nice yellow and black and blue fish. Fish. Big fish. Really big fish. They’re in the ocean too. What’s that I hear behind me? Is that a monster-fish? It sounds really big. Really, really big. Do I look back to see what it is? Would it matter? If it’s going to eat me, it’s going to eat me. I could try to swim faster, but…

Looking out a the ocean, never mind the ocean phobia

Yes. Swim faster. That’s a good idea. The big fish behind me gets louder. Shit…it’s closing in on me. I’m a goner, for sure. Don’t look. Don’t look – it won’t help. It will only make you panic. Wait a minute – I already am panicking!

Hold on. Listen. (Keep swimming like mad, but listen). What is that sound? Is it really a fish? Or a boat? Or…aw man. It’s just my feet breaking the surface of the water as I kick. Wow. Am I embarrassed or what. Keep swimming.

I take comfort in the ocean floor creeping slowly upwards towards me. Wow – is there ever a lot of life on this reef! Hold on…am I going the right way even? The reef really seems to be coming up on me faster than it dropped off going the other way. What if I get beached or something on the reef? Or cut myself on the coral? Then I’m a goner for sure…no hope for a bleeding swimmer out in the ocean with a big sea-monster chasing after her.

Keep swimming. Don’t stop now. Breathing is getting heavier, but so is the stress level. Just keep going. Maximize your kicking. And for the love of god – paddle! Breathe. Kick. Paddle. Breathe. Kick. Paddle.

Standing on a rock near the ocean in Hawaii

People on the shore are shouting. Why are they shouting? Are they calling to me? Is there something I need to know? Is a large out-of-control boat about to run me over? Is there a giant sea-monster behind me? Are they waving madly at me? Don’t look up. Don’t do it. You don’t want to look up in time to see them waving madly at you and slow your progress against the sea-monster. Rogue wave. Jellyfish. Giant man-eating turtle. Just keep going, keep going.

Getting closer to shore. Gosh – does this swim ever end? Why the hell did I decide to do this anyway? What hair-brained idea was this to swim in the frigging ocean? What made me think I could swim with the triathletes? They probably slather some sort of anti-ocean cream all over themselves anyway, to make them impervious to all the ocean’s perils. Where’s my damn anti-ocean cream? Yup – I left it at home.

Home. Shore. Keep swimming. Legs, breathe, paddle. There’s nobody but you to finish this swim. No help. You’ve got to do it on your own, so get it done!

Hawaii Ocean with cliffs in the background

Finally after an eternity of swimming and fighting the forces of the ocean, I see a body. Oh shit – it’s dead. A dead body? What am I swimming into? Is this why people were shouting on shore? Were they telling me to stay away?

Hold on. The body moved. They’re not dead; just a Japanese tourist floating on their back in the water by the shore. Whew.

I put my feet down on the soft sand in waist-deep water. I take off my mask and snorkel. Take stock. Breathing pretty good. Fingers and toes in tact. Slightly panicky, but I’m free now – I did it.

I emerge from the water in front of my audience as if this is the hundredth time I’ve done this swim today. No problem. I’m training for a triathlon, didn’t you know? Yes, of course I’d be happy to sign autographs. Please – not all at once.

sun setting through a dramatic sky over the ocean

Although I’m a superstar in my head, there is very little commotion around me. I’m sure nobody even noticed my swim to the end of the buoys and back, much less the imaginary monsters chasing after me, the rogue wave I survived that almost took out the city of Kona, and whatever other perils I dreamed up while out there by myself a quarter of a kilometer off-shore.

For all the people enjoying a sunny day at the pier, it was just another day.

For me, it was victory.

And tomorrow, I’ll do it again.


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14 thoughts on “Conquering Fears: The Swim”

  1. You should be able to get some mileage out of that shiner.:)I like those beach pictures. Sounds like your still having a great time. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Oh my gosh, your post is SO FUNNY! Only because I’ve had a flying experience just like it, in this teeny-tiny rickety old plane (my perception, of course, and not very accurate) flying over the mountains in Panama, throwing us around like mad and I was sure we were about to plunge to our death the entire time. And yes, everyone else on the plane thought it was a very nice flight… this was my own personal phobia and anxiety attack, silly me!

    I love your writing, Nora – you keep me inspired on my own journey!

    Cheers from the Oregon coast~

  3. @Mark: Yup – I certainly did get some mileage out of the shiner! Although I often forgot I had it and would wonder why people gave me funny looks in the street…

    @Panama Jenn: Thanks! It’s amazing about these silly fears…perception is amazing. Maybe I’ll get up the courage to face a few more of my silly fears and share the results with you too….maybe….(smiles)

  4. I’ve heard a similar statement recently, but described as “smelling land” vs “smelling sea”. For sailors, when they smell the surf, they describe it as smelling land. For landlubbers, smelling surf means water.

    I heard this during a CBC interview of the author of Smelling Land, a book about rethinking the hydrogen economy. I haven’t read it yet, but hoping to real soon.

  5. What a fantastic story~!

    I loved the possibility of a giant man eating turtle. Perhaps he will spare you because you are a girl. hahaha

    <3 natty xxx

  6. @Natty – Thanks! I’m sure there are giant man-eating turtles out there….it’s a big ocean…. 🙂

  7. @Devin – Thanks! I want to write more narrative stories in this style… really gets the emotions in the heat of the moment across!

  8. I’m definitely a mountain person as well. Good for you for breaking out of the comfort zone for a successful swim!

    • Britany – It was one of those experiences I had where the narrative that you read in this piece was actually going through my head as I was swimming. It was comfort-zone-scary, but also quizzically fun! (When I wasn’t worried about the sea monster behind me).

  9. It is good to have a healthy respect for Mother Nature. I’ve know first-class pool swimmers who feared for their life half way through their first open water race.

    That said, congratulations for trying it anyway! It sounds like it was a good location to push your boundaries – lots of people, well traveled route, with buoys and ropes. Have you done more open water swimming since?

    • Hi Ras,
      The biggest baddest open water swim I’ve done since put this swim to shame! It was in Grenada, and involved swimming out 1/2 a kilometre from the beach to a reef, “floating with the current” parallel to shore while snorkelling/spearfishing for 2-3 kilometres, then swimming back in to another beach.
      Despite having fins, wetsuits, and proper gear, we were dismayed to discover – the hard way – that the current was NOT moving with us once we got out to the reef…..and the swim ended up being a 4 hour slog against the strong current – with thousands of jellyfish and all.

      I’ve got my big girl medal now when it comes to surviving scary swims! 🙂

  10. ~8 years on the rode overseas, never did I ever have any boating experiences. You are
    whetting my appetite to travel the seas. I would like to help on a luxury, private cruiser for awhile, but guess what? I cannot even float! I do int’l cooking, excellent hostess, can “fill-in-the blank,” would anybody consider? You know about the Charitable Cruise I’m planning to the US Virgin Islands. I wonder if that would be a good time to stay on a few months on a cruiser.

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