Lessons learned from swimming scared

It is not a good feeling to realize — after you have swam some 250 yards from shore — that you are alone.

All those paddleboarders, kayakers, canoes and other swimmers who seemed to be out in numbers earlier at Kalapaki Beach are suddenly nowhere to be seen. The only people are dots back on the beach.

It’s not a great feeling to realize that even if you started yelling for help, waving your arms, that probably no one would notice or even get there in time to save you.

And it’s an even worse feeling to know you are a mediocre swimmer and you did something really dumb by swimming so far out by yourself.

I was that person on Sunday.

I ventured so far out because I was determined to swim around the orange buoy. I had tried twice the day and both times, turned back early because my fears got the best of me. Those fears are, sharks and drowning.

But on the third try, as I stopped short again, I convinced myself to keep going. Another 25 yards and I had it. As I circled the buoy and looked down into the murky water at the tethered line of the buoy, panic began creeping in. I looked around and to my dismay, saw no one. Where the heck did all those paddleboarders go? What am I doing out here alone? My dangling legs would surely attract a shark.

I tried to swim and found I couldn’t breathe. I was starting to hyperventilate. I stopped, treaded water and gasped for air. I tried to calm down. Relax, I told myself. If you have to, you can float all the way back, right?

“Swim for 30 seconds. Then you can stop,” I thought.

I made it for 30 seconds. Shore was still forever away. That buoy was still right next to me.

Again, I swam. Thirty frantic seconds. Stop.

This time, I looked back. The buoy seemed farther away now.

My heart rate slowed. I took a deep breath. I found my stroke, as poor as it is, and pushed hard toward the beach. I would not drown on this day.

Later, in chatting with my friends, Dr. Monty Downs, president of the Kauai Lifeguard Association, and Jim Jung, KLA vice president, both emphasized the same thing when swimming and you get in trouble: Don’t panic. When you panic, you lose your breath, and when that happens, you start splashing and floundering and it’s then you can slip under water. As long as you keep your wits about you, you can tread water until help arrives or you make your way to safety.

They also told me, don’t swim alone A bad idea. For a weak swimmer like me, a really, really bad idea. A key to safe swimming is to do so at a lifeguarded beach. Kalapaki, which has no lifeguards, is not the place to swim far out, alone, even when the water is calm. Conditions can change, Jung said, very quickly.

Jung, by the way, shared a story with me that in his younger days, he would swim from Kalapaki Beach by the mouth of the stream to the lighthouse, and back. One day, he said, he and Jiro Yukimura collided in the middle of the bay as one was going out, and one was heading in. Scared the hell out of both, but not enough to keep them from completing their swims that day.

Neither man, Jung said, ever worried about sharks, hammerheads, that live near the mouth of the harbor. Big ones, I’m told. And smaller ones in the small boat harbor that the kids catch.

Jiro was too tough for sharks to try to take a bite out of, Jung said, laughing, and since Jung was a lawyer, no sharks wanted to mess around with him, either.

I laughed at this story and counted my blessings I was around to hear it.

I have to continue my swimming. My preferred sport, running, is out for awhile due to sciatic nerve issues. The Hanalei Bay Swim Challenge is coming up in July, and I’m tired of finishing almost last. I guess I can run scared, but I can’t swim scared.

So relax. Breath. Calm.

I can do it.

I’ll return to that buoy, some day, too, and prove I’ve overcome my fears of the deep, but not alone. That’s what friends are for.

•••

Bill Buley is the editor-in-chief of The Garden Island.

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