On the Sea of Cortez

A ship is safe in harbor, but that’s not what ships are for.
William G.T. Shedd

I’ve failed to write about my experiences with Swim Cortez for several days. I’ve watched the cursor blink. I’ve even counted the number of blinks per second—a residual effect of counting swim strokes hour after hour. It should be easy to recount the experience or simply rattle off a list about the “Top-10 Takeaways,” but for some reason those words don’t want to end up on the screen. I guess I won’t let them. Instead, I watch the cursor blink.

I actually had plans to write three different posts about the experience: Before, During, After. I even wrote the “before” post in the early morning hours before my flight, but now that I’ve had a few days to think about the experience, I realize that it’s not so easy to separate the three. They are all so interwoven that I simply can’t do it that way.

I think the reason that it’s been so difficult for me to write something is because of my inability to properly process the experience. I went so far as to deny myself the opportunity to process it, telling people it wasn’t really necessary. However, several days after we returned from The Sea, I received an email from one of my fellow crew members (one, I might point out, who is a highly recognized San Francisco firefighter), “Might not seem like much a few days later because we survived, but we were just one small mistake away from not making it. Right up against the edge.” And I damn near started crying. I was in my office and didn’t want to start because I knew I wouldn’t be able to stop. (Thanks for that, Dennis.)

Let the processing begin.

Prior to leaving on the trip, I was feeling uneasy about my lack of experience with water adventures on the open sea. This was not dissimilar to the feelings I had prior to my first big, backcountry backpacking trip. I nearly died on that trip, but suppressed that feeling as much as I could. I mean, did I really almost die, or was I simply a total novice unaccustomed to such conditions and experiences? My friend on the backpacking trip assured me that we were in some delicate situations and that it was okay to feel all that I was feeling. I think Dennis did the same for me with his email.

We weren’t more than 10 minutes into a six-hour boat ride across The Sea to the swim start when I first wondered what the hell I had gotten myself into. Here I was surrounded by a crew of endurance athletes, expert swimmers and, well, total bad asses, and the anxiety I felt about the trip was crashing over me like a 10-foot wave. This boat is pretty small. I don’t really know these people. I hope I don’t get sick. Did I bring the right gear? I know I brought the wrong gear. Where will I go to the bathroom? Can I kayak in these conditions? I was taking deep breaths, playing it cool, making jokes and generally trying to make light of the fact that I was freaking out. How was I going to survive up to 60 hours if I was a mental mess this early into the thing?

The first sunset before we reached mainland Mexico for the start was unlike anything I’d ever seen. The orange glow was … I don’t know if I have the word. Majestic. It was as bright and perfect as anything I had ever seen, a color unknown to me until then. The sky lit up with this glow and soon turned the most incredible array of reds. I started singing “Red Skies at Night” by the Fixx and for a short while, at least, any anxiety I felt was gone.

My job for most of the adventure was to help feed Paul and keep the official logs. I didn’t really want to get into a kayak and I certainly wasn’t going to swim. My job wasn’t strenuous, but it was certainly exhausting. Feedings took place every 30 minutes and the official logs were constantly updated with the events of the swim (swells, wind, swimmers, kayakers, food, anything interesting, etc.).

In between feedings, I watched Paul swim. Sixty-ish strokes per minute. Around a mile-and-a-half per hour. Hour after after. I couldn’t take my eyes off of him. I had thought of the swim as performance art and that’s exactly what it felt like. He was artistic in his motion. In his consistency. I just watched in some kind of awe. What drives a person not only to want to do this, but believe he can? How can we find a way to believe in ourselves the way Paul believes in himself? I came here to leave doubt, fears and judgment deep in the Sea. And, it felt like Paul was helping me do that with every completed stroke.

Paul swam through that first night and through the first day. We were around 20 hours into the swim when the sun had completely set as we were entering our second night on The Sea. After logging and feeding for 10 straight hours, and knowing that the night was going to require all hands on deck, I decided to try to take a quick nap. Within minutes of falling asleep, one of my fellow crew members tapped me on the shoulder, “It’s over. Paul’s out.” Just typing those words now gives me a shiver. “It’s over. Paul’s out.”

Because the water was far colder than expected, the swim lasted about 20.5 hours before Paul started coming down with symptoms of hypothermia. Paul shivered on the deck of the boat as our team worked to get his body temperature up. He was covered in a big swim jacket, a sleeping bag and bodies. Paul’s wife told him how proud she was. I choked back tears and thought about how amazing I felt to be part of such an incredible feat of strength and determination – especially considering the currents, jellyfish and the fact that Paul got stung by a stingray before he ever took his first stroke. I felt good about myself for being there and at ease over the financial commitment I made to sponsor the effort. We all laughed (probably with a sense of relief that he would be okay) as Paul cracked a couple of jokes. And even as I felt disappointment for him, I did allow myself a moment of gratitude that we would be spending the night in the comfortable confines of our hotel.

After Paul, his wife and others loaded onto “the big boat” (a misnomer), there were four people (including me) on one panga and five on the other. Because the pangas could travel much faster than the big boat, we took off for Loreto (and, I’m sure I wasn’t the only person thinking about the hot shower, nachos and tequila awaiting our arrival). We’d see our cohorts several hours later.

I was wrong. It turns out that the first 27 hours of the swim (including the boat ride to the swim start) would be a walk-in-the-park compared to what we would endure for the next 10 hours, as our little panga boats were pummeled by a storm.

I was surprised by the first “bounce” of the boat. The wind was kicking up and the surf was getting choppy, but the explosive sound of the boat crashing back to the surf was shocking. Our captain, Jerry, let out a playful holler, which made me think we were okay. I sat in the chair next to him and convinced myself that it was fun. After the first wave broke on the bow of the boat, however, Jerry’s fun calls quickly turned to curses. And when he called the panga in front of us on the radio to say, “We can’t take another wave like that,” I had flashbacks to my first hike and Jeff telling me, “we’re fucked.”

I explained to Jerry that the expert isn’t supposed to feel that way, or at least let on to the inexperienced crew that we might be in some kind of trouble. He calmly explained to me that the boat wasn’t designed to take waves like that. It was pitch dark outside and the sky was brown. Again, Jerry made no attempt to soothe my aching soul, as he said, “I’ve never seen the sky this color.” Awesome. (Jerry and my friend Jeff would get along famously.)

Wave after wave crashed over the boat. We were soaked to the bone. The crew on the boat in front of us was soaked to the bone. We bounced through the surf and I was convinced the boat would come apart each time we flew up and over a wave. The sound upon landing was deafening. Jerry’s wife pointed out that there was water coming into the boat. I casually ignored what this might mean. I think Jerry did too, frankly. Even as this went on, I closed my eyes and tried to sleep, hoping I would just wake up and we’d be … somewhere. Anywhere that wasn’t where we were. There was no sleeping, however, as my body kept getting thrown into one railing or another.

Jerry needed to rest and Edna took the wheel. As much as Paul’s effort was a kind of performance art, the way they took control of the boat in these conditions was artistic in itself. I know nothing about driving boats, but I know that there’s not a whole lot of traction. You slide. We had to dial back the speeds, which made things even more complicated, as the slower you go, the less control you have. Then Edna needed a rest.

I’m pretty sure that I would have volunteered to do anything in that moment if it would have gotten me out of driving the boat. In the moment, I would have rather been cleaning port-a-potties at a weeklong Mexican food cook-off with my bare hands. I didn’t want to take the wheel. There wasn’t much choice, though. “Just aim for that star,” she said. “Aim?” And then in my head thought, “I don’t want to be the guy who was at the wheel when we all died.” I aimed for the star. Turns out, I have really shitty aim when driving a boat. After only a few minutes, Edna came back to take the wheel.

The waves continued to break on the boat and us. Thankfully, Jerry’s thought that we’d be doomed after one more wave turned out to be wrong. We were no longer heading for Loreto, and instead, made our way to a safe bay. We were running low on fuel, we were out of warmth and we were in the midst of the longest, worst night of my life. We pulled into a tranquil bay at 4:30AM. The swim had ended about 10 hours earlier and hot showers, tequila and nachos were nowhere to be found.

At this point, the plan was simple: We were going to wait for the light to break and we’d motor back the last 30 miles in daylight. Soaking wet, emotionally and physically exhausted and freezing cold, we all fell asleep for an hour. When we saw daylight, we untied our boats and sped off to Loreto (not before a quick scare when one of the boats wouldn’t start, of course).

As we made our way down the Baja coast towards Loreto, the sunrise was spectacular. We all turned toward the sun to welcome the warmth and gazed in awe at the surrounding scenery. Hours earlier, in the darkness of night, this same terrain was its mean, evil twin. This morning, pure beauty. We hadn’t heard from the Big Boat for nearly 12 hours by the time we got to the hotel. We had no idea that their adventure was on par with ours and maybe even worse, as they were on their way back to mainland Mexico, unable to make the trip across The Sea.

When we got on shore, I asked another crew member where that night ranked on his list of most miserable nights. The former firefighter and lifeguard responded without a breath, “Easily top three.” I felt vindicated that, for me, it held the top spot without a close second. For the remainder of the day (and especially after the rest of the crew, including Paul, finally arrived via private jet), we enjoyed our tequila, nachos and hot showers. But mostly, we enjoyed sharing stories.

From the very start of the adventure, it was apparent that there were always multiple events happening. Multiple experiences. There was Paul’s attempt at the open water swim world record, but there was also whatever individual experience each of the crew members was having. My challenge was well documented and I’m confident that I left those demons in The Sea during the night.

I could list ten things I learned, but the fact is that there’s only one that matters. In the hours leading up to the swim, I called my friend Jeff to tell him that I was freaking out and needed a bit of a pep talk. He texted me back, “Remember you can do ANYTHING in the moment.” I never could have imagined that we would have run into that storm or that we’d have to endure 10-12 foot surf for 10 hours. But I kept holding on to this thought. A series of moments. That’s all 10 hours is. One moment after another. If could breathe through one, I could focus on the next. I made it. We survived. And that’s no overstatement of the situation.

I’ve fought the feelings because I know so many people that have survived so much more. I brushed it all off with a kind of “it’s no big deal,” in the same way I brush off any personal achievements. I held on. That’s all I did. Jerry deserves the credit. Paul deserves the credit. Edna deserves the credit. The rest of the guys who got in the kayaks or swam with Paul. They did more than I did. Me? I just held on.

This is why I haven’t been able to write. I’ve been feeling like it wasn’t a big deal. I wouldn’t allow myself the big deal. But Dennis’ email confirmed that it was a big deal. And I finally let myself go there.

Yes, the survival is a big deal, but maybe even something far more important than the survival is the death that occurred. The death of doubt and judgment. Of course, I thought a lot about my family and friends during those long hours, but I also kept telling myself that when we got through it, I was going to stop all the second-guessing. After all, that’s why I went on this adventure in the first place. I might not have successfully killed that giant if we hadn’t hit the storm. Maybe I needed the storm to do that.

Lots of people have asked me if I’d go back if Paul tries again. They’re surprised when I hesitate. Because I think I would. I think sometimes we need to be near death in order to get closer to life.

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.
Mark Twain

One thought on “On the Sea of Cortez

Leave a Reply