The first few minutes, I think I’m crazy. The water at Cabrillo Beach is never what a sane person would call warm. A deep trough off the shore provides a steady chill stream. And then there’s the wind. The channel off Point Fermin is nicknamed Hurricane Gulch for a reason. If you swim in the afternoon you have to watch out for the windsurfers that tack back and forth, into the shore and out toward Catalina. This time of year, the sea temperature hovers around 57 Fahrenheit. Even with a wetsuit on, the cold stabs at your face and fingers. When I first dive in, “I can’t do this” is my immediate reaction — every time, every day — even though I know I can. It takes a good 100 strokes for me to acclimate. And then I can’t stop.
Water has always been my element. I stumble on land, am scared to be high in the sky, but take to the sea like a fish. Still, I never thought I’d be an ocean swimmer. Body surfer, sure. Lake swimmer, yes. But for the first several decades of my life, I stayed close to shore even when catching the big waves. Then I moved next to Cabrillo Beach.
Cabrillo is a half-circle bay bordered by the cliffs of Point Fermin on the west and an artificial jetty of rocks on the east. Actually, it’s two beaches: The outer one I just described faces the Pacific, and the inner stretch faces San Pedro Bay, aka the Los Angeles harbor. The inner beach, also called Mother’s Beach, generally gets an F from Save the Bay because let’s face it, it’s a city beach with little ocean current. Tankers barrel in and out. Boats anchored in multiple marinas dump crap, literally.
But the outer beach earns an A, thanks to that gulch. I paddle the inside but only swim in the outside.
Swimming is not just exercise; it’s meditation. I count my strokes like a yogi counts breaths. The strokes are breaths too, of course: nose up for air every four counts. I’m scarcely alone out there: The Cabrillo Beach Polar Bears, a club that sponsors a New Year’s Day plunge, keep an orange buoy moored several hundred yards off shore, with a thermometer letting visitors know yes, it really is still 57. Sometimes I run into neighbors out at the buoy, stop and ask them how their family is doing. The first several times I swam to the buoy, it seemed impossibly far, and I clung to a boogie board for safety. Eventually I graduated to no board, just flippers, then no flippers. Nowadays, I swim right past the buoy and keep going.
These days, I need that swim more than ever. There’s a kind of ecstasy I get, pulling my body through the water, watching my hands cut through the sun on the surface, or lying on my back and staring up at the sky. And then there are the days when I think I am alone out there, in my groove, a trance — and suddenly, a dolphin swims right underneath me, or I roll over and discover I’m in the midst of a chattering porpoise pod.
The joke in my neighborhood is that we live in a small town called San Pedro. When I look across the inner beach and see the cranes and cargo ships of one of the busiest ports in the world, I know that I also live in a big city called Los Angeles. But when I’m out there in the ocean, floating alongside the kelp forest, I feel one with the world.
Of course today was a day to feel wonder and unity: a new dawn, a new day, a new life — “fish in the sea, you know how I feel.” A day of unity, of the renewal of accords and the return of water rights, of embracing the great middle of our country and its edges, of poetry and music, of a cowboy’s grace, of seasons of love, of a Boricuan from around the Bronx block singing this land is your land, a land of hope and dreams. The first day a woman, a Black woman, an Asian woman, became second in command of the United States. Hallelujah.