Die Another Day

Yesterday was my exciting first trip to La Jolla Cove, a place I’d been wanting to visit for several months. My friend Helen was there this weekend from Boston and we had plans to swim down there. I was so excited that I could hardly sleep the night before. I knew it was going to be a monumental day for me and didn’t know it would be different than I thought though.

Little Sea Cave

I got to La Jolla at 8 AM. Helen had arranged to meet up with Dan Simonelli, a local open water swimmer. We headed off to the cove. I loved La Jolla from as soon as I got there as it reminded me of Monterey. Down to the fog. Really, I seem to bring fog with me everywhere. We talked with Juan and Mike, the lifeguards, for a little bit before heading off to meet Dan who had just come in from an earlier swim with someone else (forget his name and Helen said he’s an Oak Streaker too although we’ve never met since he swims weekdays and I swim weekends with them). Dan, Helen, I, and a kid in a wetsuit (forgot his name..damn I’m bad with names) took off along the coast since it was a bit foggy. Our intentions were to go across the cove since Helen wanted to show me the leopard sharks. We stopped at a little “cave” (really a small narrow archway). Dan and the kid headed back in and Helen and I continued on. There are A LOT of fish in La Jolla Cove and I was having a great time! The tall patches of grass were showing that we weren’t swimming in a straight line as the water was shifting us left and right repeatedly. My Garmin’s map will probably look like a drunk person trying to walk. Swim swim swim and then suddenly I saw dozens of leopard sharks beneath me. SO COOL!! I love swimming / diving with sharks provided I’m not on their menu. I have the utmost respect for larger sharks and appreciate them from a safe distance (Shark Week was one of my favorite “events” on television growing up).

Leopard Sharks!

Helen and I got to the other side of the cove where I could hear her yelling for me and couldn’t see her. I finally realized the voice was coming from behind me and she was standing on the beach. We had a plan for me to swim back along the coast and she was going to run a few laps on the beach to warm up before diving back in the water and she’d catch up with me. I got to enjoy a few more leopard sharks in my way back. Swimming back seemed like a fraction of the distance as heading out there, as usual. I thought of Lynne Cox again and started sprinting in some sections to generate heat when I started feeling a bit cold. I was doing the “paddle” check to make sure my hands could still form paddles to push the water past me. I got back to the beach and no Helen. Odd. I swam back to the first buoy and looked around and couldn’t see her. I got out of the water figuring maybe I could find Helen from higher up. Mike asked where she was and I said I didn’t know. I told him she was wearing a green cap and swimsuit. He didn’t see her in the water and he is DAMN good at finding people (e.g. he can spot a swimmer with a black cap). He finally found her still on the other beach. I was afraid she thought I was doing laps on that beach and was waiting for me as she kept looking up and down the coast. I started leaving to drive and meet her on the other beach when Mike yelled at me that she had started swimming back. Yipee!

Helen told me that she was waiting for the fog to lift before she swam back. I know that she does this now and will remember it in the future. We both agreed that we could have communicated better about this beforehand. Learning experience.

Helen and I went off to lunch and were meeting another group of swimmers at 2 PM who she said are slower. Okay no problem. I learned at 2 PM that these guys keep up with Helen because they’re wearing full wetsuits AND fins. Great. They were only interested in going to the second buoy (.25 miles) and back and said we’ll meet up at the second buoy and regroup to figure out what to do. Here’s where something went wrong. They regrouped at the second buoy, made decisions, and hadn’t waited for me. They were gone before I got to the second buoy. Not cool. My Oak Streak pod does a roll call / count before heading off and if they do go ahead at least one person stays behind for meeting up with whoever hasn’t gotten to the regroup point. I wanted to swim longer so I went on ahead which isn’t unusual because at my speed I tend to swim a lot by myself. My intention was to swim to the pier that was another 1.25 miles away. About .86 miles into my swim, I started feeling a little uncomfortable about it. The water wasn’t totally calm, there really was no one else out there, I was going slower than usual, and when I looked behind me to the beach, I really didn’t want to swim “all the way back there.” If I had a support kayak or someone else with me, that’d have been different. I decided that I’d have had enough rough water training for today and turned around.

The other thing I had noticed was that the waves had gotten a bit rougher like a storm was coming in. On my way back, there were times when I’d turn to breath and was on the crest of a wave so my body was half out of the water and other times my arm was in the water for the full stroke. I was thinking of my Anacapa swim and how this was good training for it as I don’t know what Mother Nature is going to give me for water conditions that day. When I got to where there were large kelp, I knew I was getting closer and also that if I was passing the kelp, that meant that I wasn’t swimming in one spot. I could see the beach and people on it. I had no idea what was in store for me next.

Little did I know that later these rocks would prove to be a real threat to me.

I got within about 50 meters of the beach and was in the home stretch. A wave smacked me from behind so I looked behind me. There was a six foot wave heading straight for me. OH. F***. I dove underneath it and wasn’t far enough as it somersaulted me twice underwater and ripped my goggles off. I was helpless as the water around me got darker. I had no idea which way the surface was. I had two thoughts: “I’m going to die” and “Mark Foo.” Mark Foo was a legendary world class big wave surfer killed at Mavericks by an 18 foot wave. I picked a direction to head in and was semi-relieved when the water turned white. I didn’t know how far it was to the surface still and was relieved when I finally broke it. Felt my head and remembered my goggles were gone. My camera had been completely pushed out of my swim top which luckily that was tethered.

I looked behind me and there was a second wave coming. S***. I don’t want to go back underwater. I could see Mike’s binoculars fixed on me. Everyone on the beach is staring at me. Second wave hits and I’m underwater praying that this one doesn’t kill me. I again make a lucky guess on which way to head. Third wave coming. F*** DUDE. I wave my arms at Mike to let him know that I need their help. My brain says “SWIM!” and my body says “I can’t.” I’m terrified. I’ll learn later that Juan already had put his fins on after the second wave and had jumped in the water when I signaled. After the third, a seal popped up five feet from me barking loudly towards the beach. I’m not sure if he was barking “WTF?” or “HELP! PERSON OVER HERE!” for me. Either way I really wanted to grab and hold onto him for dear life. I was five feet from a bunch of rocks at this point and had no idea how I was going to get out of there with images of another wave finally slamming me into the rocks. I’ve never been so scared in my life then the last few minutes.

Suddenly I hear Juan behind me telling me to turn around and grab hold. He towed me back around the rocks to the beach. The big waves are gone now. He asked if I was cut anywhere. I said probably since I could feel the area around my knee and bottom of my feet hurting. Once I was out of the water I could see that I was scraped all along my right leg and cuts across my toes, top of my feet, and right heel. I had no idea when I got cut or how. Juan cleaned and bandaged me up and said to watch the cuts carefully since there’s a chance they’ll get infected. Helen said she was panicking the entire time as she watched it unfold.

Most of the scratches on my right leg which go all the way up to my hip. You can see my bandaged heel in the background that sustained 4 cuts. I also had cuts across both sets of toes and the top of my left foot.

I’m not turned off or afraid of open water swimming. I could have died yesterday. I had bad timing of when I came into the beach. It happens. Juan said that a couple of days ago they had had 10 foot waves. It happens. They’ve had to rescue some of the strongest swimmers because once you get trapped in the series of swells, it’s hard to get out of. Mike commended me on doing the right thing by letting him know when I needed them. They said too that if I let them know where I’m heading, they’ll keep an eye on me to make sure that I’m safe. These are lifeguards who take their jobs seriously and I really appreciate it. Despite the potential wave sizes, La Jolla Cove is one of the safest places to swim because you have people like Mike and Juan watching out for you. Juan said that he wants to see me back down there swimming which I fully intend to do. These guys are open water swimmers too; they get it. Juan’s training to swim Catalina.

Am I doing something dangerous? Of course. I also get out of bed in the morning and who knows if I’m going to get into a fatal accident doing that, driving to work, or anything else really. Everything you do has risks involved. Don’t sit there and say “I KNEW this was going to happen!” Yeah well, one could say that about getting into a car accident because one is around a car at all. S*** happens. Deal with it. I hope if you know me that you know that I’m not a stupid “extreme” person and don’t do it for the thrill or excitement or because I could die from it. Please. That’s not who I am. I cave, swim, go canyoneering, skiing, diving, etc. because I really love doing them. I’m afraid of dying. I’m afraid of getting hurt. I’m not a jackass and hope you trust me enough to know that I’m not and never will be. My 12.2+ miles Anacapa-Ventura swim? You better believe that I’m training for it and reaching out to every single available resource I have to prepare for it. I take this seriously. I don’t care if people think I’m a badass for it (and actually I get a little embarrassed when people bring it up) as this is what I do and who I am.

The only thing that really bothered me were people who weren’t there and assumed that I did some f***ed up “damsel in distress” to meet the lifeguards. SERIOUSLY?? I have never ever ever pulled that kind of bull**** in my life and find it really pathetic when people do do that. I don’t play games with anyone and especially not something that would potentially risk my own life. I could have died. It isn’t funny. I never found it funny for a second. I haven’t made light of it and not sure if I ever will. No I did NOT find the lifeguards “cute” afterwards. They’re professionals. I don’t find someone cute because he saved my life. I would hope that if you know me that you wouldn’t think of something so shallow makes me who I am. I’m the girl who doesn’t want to give the guy/porter/shuttle her suitcase because I can carry it myself. I work in a male-dominated field. A lot of my guy friends say that they forget I’m technically a girl sometimes. It’s like my relationships..I’m looking for companionship and if you think that I need someone to take care of me, we’re going to have issues.

Off to buy another set of polarized Finis goggles now to join my Oak Streakers pod again in 2 weeks.

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