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Sunday, July 3, 2011

Swimming in the Crest (STAR column)

Wildwood Crest is a place I keep returning to, as noted in other Sojourn columns. Once a year I usually head down to the bus station at 13th and Filbert and take New Jersey Transit to the Wildwood Bus Terminal, and then walk with my luggage to the little apartment that I rent every year.
Ocean swimming has gotten a bad reputation over the years. I know people who will not swim in the ocean because of toxins and pollutants or because they have a primal fear of marine life. While the “ocean is a dirty place” mindset may direct our attention to legitimate ecological concerns, in my mind the concern is inevitably linked with current scientific data on the atmosphere or the air we breathe.
Do we stop breathing because the air around us is filled with toxins?
True ocean lovers realize that swimming in the sea is like taking a leap of faith with Mother Nature.
Four years ago when I visited the Crest after Labor Day I noticed a lot of jellyfish in the water. Not live jellyfish mind you, but those dead blobs of protoplasm that float over the waves like transparent Jell-O molds.
Three years ago I noticed another “impurity”: the water was filled with unusual tangles of seaweed, Seaweed, while a great herbal food (especially in soups) is most unpleasant when it gathers around your body. This year the seaweed problem was minor; there were also virtually no jellyfish, as well as no big fish swimming around my ankles (as there was last year) when I waded into the breakers.
This year, for the first time ever, I experienced the feeling of a crab’s claw clamping down on my feet. One crab attached itself to my little toe and caused me to loose my balance in the breakers. I no sooner disengaged the thing when another one attached itself. I literally had to lift my left leg out of the water and shake it loose in the air. A third crab came along but I think the pounding surf washed it away. For a moment I imagined that I was crab special target #1, caught in some “crab version” of Hitchcock’s The Birds.
Believe it or not, there are big men and big women who are afraid of fish, otherwise fearless individuals who wouldn’t think twice about engaging in a street fight but who run like Goldilocks from the living, wiggling things on the ocean floor.
But nothing, neither rabid crabs, fish as long as eels, or dead jelly fish, can keep me out of my beloved ocean. I’m sure that other Philadelphians, and especially Riverward residents, feel similarly. The ocean is not an antiseptic chlorine saturated pool, but a natural playground. When we swim there we unite with our primal selves. And that’s why I love it.
There’s a certain skill to swimming in the ocean. For starters, always respect the ocean and always be on guard. Whether it’s the paranoid influence of B movies like Jaws, but when I swim in the ocean my eyes always periodically scan the horizon for fins or strange “above water” protrusions. This obsession served me well a few years ago when I noticed a huge 20 foot pier plank, with a number of spikes in it, floating over the rollers towards the beach. Two nephews of mine who happened to be swimming with me then did an altruistic thing and carried the plank to the beach.
Now I’m a firm believer in teaching children to swim if only because I think that conquering a fear of water can have a positive influence on handling a number of problems in life.
When you think about it, there’s nothing more depressing then hearing a strong looking man or woman announce to friends or strangers that they never learned how to swim. They may be a star athlete in every other area of life; they may be able to press 200 pounds, but when it comes to water they are reduced to silly putty. At the beach I sometimes see tough football player types wade in the ocean up to their ankles only to retreat skittishly when a big wave comes in.
Sometimes these brawny characters, though “gladiatorial"” in every other aspect of life, draw back from the ocean like the infirm or a scared young child. Like the Biblical Samson without his hair, not knowing how to swim has rendered them powerless.
A crab, however, may still find their feet delectable.

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