Monday, September 10, 2007

A Mermaid and Turtles

There are fast things in the sea, and I tried to date one once in a relationship that in the end felt no longer than an ocean wave hurling through space until it reached the first obstacle then crashed in on itself. I met her a year ago on the flight to the Maui Channel Swim, and guessed correctly that she was also a swimmer. Having done the race before that (this is my third time) I explained to her about the sea between Maui and Lanai, how the boats cluster at the start while the first group of swimmers huddle on the beach for a swim prayer, how to site off of the second peak of the west Maui mountains at the start and then eventually aim for a series of hotels just north of Lahaina, and how my band of six swimmers had a pleasant day in the sea. I told her not to worry, that she looked like a pretty strong swimmer, and if she had any concerns or wanted to chat she could contact me, the proud champion of the slow lane at the local ymca masters class.

She waited through all of this with only the occasional sigh and did her best to be polite as I explained (incorrectly again) how to do the halfway to Hawaii game on the airplane flight. She looked over at her friend who had another seat and then rolled her eyes as she came back to me. She wanted to be as gentle as possible and she quietly said that she had soloed the 9.5 mile swim the year before. That was even modest: she had actually won as the first female swimmer with a time faster than our group of six swimmers combined and had earlier that year swum the 28 miles around Manhattan. She was an ex pro triathlete and probably didn't need advice from a guy who still has problems with flip turns.

Sometimes I think that the reason that backstroke is my relative strongest is that I have spent a lifetime practicing backing out of conversational holes.

There are fast things in the sea, and I kicked one the day before the race. Along the Sheraton side of Black Rock I saw a medium size turtle weave through the crowds of parents and their small children, and a high school football team that was spending its preseason getting tanned. Normally the turtles never go to that side (they stay about a third of the way in on the other side of the rock) and I worried that they have run out of food near their home, that the new time share complex had pushed it away, the same way it squeezed the locals off the beach so that they have to do their lulas elsewhere.

I watched this turtle swooped past me with the elegant grace and the occasional paddle. It was meant for the sea and spent its time chewing on things near the reef. I followed the turtle for a while (keeping what I thought was good distance) when all of sudden what felt like a battle cruiser passed by, More of a mythological beast with barnacles attached on its shell and near its eye. the head turtle was bigger than a four person dinner table, and the water rushed around his flapping as if he could almost control the currents. As I turned to get out of the monsters way I gave a quick kick behind me accidentally on the top of the other smaller turtle’s shell. I felt my race karma draining and wasn't sure if the proper penance was once again swimming backstroke to the shore.

To go back to a race that you have done before is a bit like visiting an ex girlfriend. There are the moments of familiar joy followed by the reasons it fell apart. The 2007 Maui Channel swim felt like an unstirred mai tai with the first 2/3 of the race in the gentlest sweet water in the world followed by an undiluted shot of reality. The organizer kindly waited until the last of the 73 boats had made its way to Lanai then waved the green shirt for the minute warning followed by the horn to start the race.

Our first swimmer had a long cadence, and the rest of of the male portion of our team was quite pleased that he had decided to swim next to an all women's team boat. The participants during the race are spaced out far enough that you can't get the voyeuristic glimpse you get from sessions in swim lanes, but instead start to think of the personalities of the other teams based upon the shapes of their boats. There are the fishermen, the pirates, the pluggers, the catamarans, and the smaller dinghy (used to support the solo swimmers). The other boats serve as benchmarks, because out in the middle of the channel you can’t see the progress compared to the distant islands but can grasp how you have gained or lost relative to the USS Minnow.

The women’s team dropped us during the second leg, and we would spend most of our day battling a boat we dubbed the pirates.

Though sea was smooth for the first two rotations, one of the swimmer’s stomach decided to make its own choppiness. She rallied in her times in the water then lay fully drained of fluids in the cabin as the rest of us battled the sea.

For most of the way the water was gentle, and it rocked us with the slight touch that a mother cradles her child to sleep. Our biggest disaster (tiny compared to the year before when our first boat’s engine broke) was that we had left the beer back in the house. The other veteran on the team and I joked that it we would be an hour faster, but the truth was with the much kinder sea we improved by two.

The chop came when we made it past the lee of Molokai, and the slapping did its best to disrupt our rhythm. We had to go back to breathing on the right side, because to use bilateral technique was to taste salt.

We made it back to Ka'anapali, but not before our nemesis pirate ship separated themselves from our competition. To make it easier for our captains return we swam with food and extra clothes in white plastic bags towards the beach and pushed our goods like castaways onto a desert isle. Some of the people on the beach saw us arrive, and after all that sun and sea I didn’t quite have the wit to tell them that we were shooting a scene for “Lost.”

There are faster things than me in the sea, and I saw her again a couple of days later at the local 2.4 mile swim. It was just before the prayer, and she didn’t realize that she was standing next to me. I said hello, and asked her how her team swim did.

“Well,” she replied. “You know, it is the Maui Channel.” We then drifted apart to head towards the starting line. I know I won’t return for her, that we are from two separate worlds and only in a few months in one particular autumn did the ocean hold us together. But I will come back to the channel perhaps to see the whales as they migrate or to apologize to a turtle. There are things faster than me, and I must come back to appreciate the struggle of swimming in their world, that the days spent under starry skies and with good friends are some of my best of the year.