The Swim: Man’s struggle with the sea leaves him high and dry
By Bobby Burns
Sunday, August 12, 2018
The ocean pounded the shore when we arrived at Atlantic Beach on July 22 for a seven-day stay.
“Pounded” really doesn’t capture its character. It churned and roiled.
We rented a beachfront cottage at Ocean Ridge, a knotty-pine paneled, weather-tested but well-kept home owned by the Roberson family from Tarboro. The beach was a little more than first-down yardage from the porch. A few steps over the dunes brought our bare feet to the water’s edge.
The first morning I awoke about 8, and without even washing the sleep from my eyes I exited through the basement door and walked by myself to the sea.
Because it was not raining — rain and rough weather was expected through the week — and the clouds had cleared around that section of the coast for at least the moment, I decided the time was right for a swim.
The steady wind driving the ocean to the shore — low tide never seemed to come our entire stay — also drove in the warmth of the Gulf Stream. I might have turned back had the water been cold.
A swath of rolling gray seawater gave me enough space past the first set of breakers that I could frog kick against the current pulling me to from east to west, parallel to the shore.
I love the density of ocean water. It allows even a 230-pound man like me to float with ease. I turned from my stomach to my back then to my stomach again as I kicked and pulled through the chest-deep sea as if I were on a treadmill.
The swim is a spiritual renewal that I have honed through the years. My first beach was Holden, when I was 2 and 3. Later we lived in Jacksonville, Fla., and a bit farther south at Ponte Vedra. As a young man after college, I swam the rugged coast off Nags Head at the invitation of a friend who was with us at Ocean Ridge and who still shares my affinity for the sea.
I cherish such friendships even more at 52 because so many of the people I loved the longest are gone. My brother and I tried to surf on an old double-finned board when were kids. My father threw us both over the waves. My mother scoured the shore for sharks’ teeth and over decades filled a Mason jar full of them.
She was the last one to die. It was on Sept. 3.
Several weeks later I took a large box full of shells that she had collected to the Greenville Goodwill after no one would buy them at her estate sale.
I should have brought them to the ocean with me to return them from where they came.
I came to the ocean that day carrying it all in my heart and wanting to swim away the hard edges. After chugging against the current for a while, I changed directions and churned freestyle to the west. I pulled my head up for air every other stroke and quickly swam several houses down from the Roberson cottage.
I was the only one in the ocean and the beach was empty.
I stopped and treaded water for a moment then allowed myself to sink. The water was over my head before I hit the sandy bottom with my toes.
Three people had drowned the day before on different parts of the North Carolina coast. I knew about the red flag warnings. I decided to swim for shore.
The strength of the current and the extent I had exerted myself heretofore began to set in.
I swam to the north as hard as I could and made very little progress. I told myself not to panic but fear visited me still.
I pulled hard at an angle and caught the cusp of a wave and then another to push me closer to shore. I finally could touch bottom, but I didn’t stop swimming until I was rolling on the sand.
On the beach I dried off the water and shook off the fear.
I felt a little old and out of shape, and a little silly for being scared, but I was glad to be alive.
Bobby Burns is executive editor for Cooke Communications. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and 252-329-9572.