Last week, an old friend and I had a conversation about swimming. We’ve been having variations on this conversation for years. This time, he asked me about the distances for the four swims that make up SCAR Swim. I told him.
Then he asked, “Can you rest during the swims?”
I said, “Yes. Of course. There’s nobody there with a cattle prod.”
He looked at me as if I were being deliberately obtuse. “Can you swim to the shore and sit there?”
“What?” I said. “Why? Why would I do that?”
It’s taken me a while to figure what people are talking about when they ask, “Can you rest?” Different people think about swimming in very different ways. When I talk about swimming, I am thinking of it as the process of using my body to move through water. In order to rest, I stop moving. When someone like my friend talks about swimming, though, he is thinking of it as a struggle, an activity in which you use your energy to stay afloat. In this way of thinking, swimmers can only rest on solid ground; if they stop moving, they sink.
Let me assure you: when people like me swim 5, 10, 17 mile swims, we are in no way struggling to stay afloat. These aren’t exercises in long-distance drowning avoidance. When we swim, we are using our energy to move through the water, not to stay on top of the water. We float.
I’ve done experiments. (You can try them too.) If I go under water and curl into a tight little ball like a doodlebug, I will slowly float up and come to a stop with my shoulders and neck breaking the water’s surface. If I put myself into a vertical position — as if I’m standing — in a deep pool or lake, I will float so that the top of my head will be above the water, with the water line going across my forehead at the goggle line.
I can float on my back for hours. I might be able to float on my back for days; I’ve never had the time to find out.
I can rest floating in the water.
In contrast, heading to shore and getting out of the water is a terrible idea. First, going off course (and then returning to it) wastes energy; you’ll swim farther than you need to. But more important, getting out of the water is dangerous. Gravity is out to get you, my friend, and when you stand up after a long swim, you are likely to fall right over. That’s why there are people waiting just past the finish line at long swims, to grab you and help you out. Combine the difficulty of standing up with the unknown dangers of a strange shore — slippery rocks, poison ivy — and you are asking for trouble.
There are a few reasons why you would head for shore, and they all involve serious emergencies: dangerous weather, a medical crisis, sharks. In those situations, the race director may need to clear the course, directing everyone to the closest land.
To rest, however, you don’t need to go to land. You can rest anywhere: lie on your back, look up at the sky, and float.
If you are concerned about what happens when an open water swimmer gets tired, you might want to read Questions about Open Water Swimming: 4) What Will You Do if You Get Tired?