A Venice First Being Last

When I initially moved to Venice, of course I wanted to go swimming. In the ocean, right down the street from my first apartment. I woke up, put on my trunks, grabbed a towel and headed out to the shore at the end of the block.

It turned out to be the famous nude beach of 1974 - somewhat shocking, revolting and freeing at the time - but still it was the Pacific Ocean. My ocean.

I remember spending as much time as possible out there on the beach, all day, every Saturday and Sunday. Bronzing in an au-natural grandeur, but also trying to become the best beach boy among the waves that I could. No boards, just the body. Surfing was all about the natural rhythm of the body with the waves. Mother nature caressing your God-given soul. And getting into the rhythm of the surf. And being fucking happy...

I remember many Sundays, there was an old guy, positioned way out beyond the break, wearing an old, floppy hat, just hanging out for like seeming ever. Then, suddenly, the wave of his dreams came in, after all this time, and he was ON IT. And man, he caught it supremely, with his cap flying off mid-wave, but he didn't care, cause he was catching the wave of his life. And then he was gone, seen nevermore... I guess until maybe next week and another perfect wave, but that was a long time ago, and all I remember was the great sun, the greater surf, and my growing appreciation of the ocean and all she had to offer.

I lived there for 3 years, but after that first summer, things got all hazy as far as the beach, the surf, the water and the summer became. 1975 - 76 became a daze of friends, experiences, some beach time, and lots of other good Venice times. My scope locally was expanding. And not all of it included the beach. Bummer.

And then I found the canals, a great house looking right up Eastern Canal, and I got back into jogging or biking to the old same beach, and swimming at I believe sunset, to help replenish the old batteries and reinforce my existence here on this land's edge. I could be a master of my life, my surroundings, and of my ideas that were still forming in my conscious.

But that damn canal life introduced me to a whole other groovy aspect of Venice, and I seemingly lost touch with the beach. Then moving to Central Venice, getting married and having a kid kind of also distracted me from this primal wave urge - oh, you don't know how I loved to catch a great wave, look to my left, check out the mountains with the sun setting slowly beyond them, all within the crisp glow of this peaking wave that I've totally got nailed - but I did my best to keep up the late-afternoon vigil of at least swimming in and trying to catch a few blown-out waves.

And then the move down the street totally did me in. I still kept running daily, but never under the call of the surf. Sometimes late at night I would wake to the pounding of the waves, and instead images of roaring tigers from far-distant circuses filled my head, but never the incessant beckoning of the siren-surf.

Until I went to the library - the damndest of all places you'd think of to renew this long-lost lust - and found the dvd of Lifeguard. Back when it came out, I'd fantasized that this would be my Southern Californian life - before I even moved here - and then it just kinda happened. And here was this movie - all encompassing the beach life style I'd imagined, and reinforcing those long-seemingly-lost ways of ocean swimming. The day was Saturday, May 27, 2006. I watched that movie and said, "I can do that. I can swim again. I live here at the beach. And I'll do it." And two days later, there I was, back at the beach, my beach, Westminster beach, the same beach I'd called my own 29 years before.

It turned into an instant daily ritual, running down to the beach, entering the unusually warm water that summer, swimming out past the old breakwater - about 60 strokes - and just lollygaging in the bobbing surf, refreshing my spirit with the wonderousness of this mother, the ocean, and all she had to provide for us. Plus the renewed energy of NATURE, which can be so totally lost in our daily rituals of maintaining our lives here in groovy Venice.

Anyway, back to the idea behind this first Venice last column. I'd been all of a sudden rejuvenating myself once again from late May through November 20th, swimming and appreciating my life so much more. I guess I stopped this daily ritual because the water was getting too fricking cold, or something. Maybe it was that I didn't want to swim in the early morning dark.

I did plan, however, to contact the Venice Penguins Swim Club, and was determined to sign up for their annual January 1st ocean plunge. All right! Bring it on!! I was going to be a Penguin!!!

Luckily, and smartly, the Penguin Club schedules their race at noon, so no matter how late you were out the previous night, at least you've got half the day to prepare. Or at least that's how I saw it.

And by 10:30, I was ready and chomping at the bit. Fortunately, it was another glorious Southern California January first, and I couldn't wait to take my New Year's dip. I'd actually tested the surf a couple days earlier, just seeing how cold the water was and all, and after completing that trial run, exiting the water with another triumphant feeling, as always it seems, I knew I was ready for this 47th annual event.

I signed in early, yet was still number 38, and dying to go. The formal way of holding the event, I found out, was first enticing everyone into the surf, only waist deep, going around one lifeguard then crossing through the surf to another, then heading back in. And those bastards kept moving away from us, so it forced us to spend more time in the not-so-warm surf. Oh, those tricksters...

And then it came time for the official 'race.' There were maybe 75-80 contestants at the starting line, a lot much more older than me, and a bunch much younger. I didn't care, I was out there to enjoy myself. This whole affair seemed just enough disorganized that there wasn't any competitive vibe at all. Not with an old lady of 85+ in her Speedo acting like a high school cheerleader, encouraging us all on. Maybe it was the kelp wreath she sprouted, I don't know.

But then there was the competitive bunch, all hungry and eager to prove this accomplishment. I remember talking with a guy from Riverside who'd been gearing-up seriously for this event for at least 9 months, and he knew his predicted time, and how many strokes per minute he'd be doing, and what the temperature of the ocean was, and how that would affect him and everyone else. And I just told him I lived 5 blocks away and I'd been swimming all summer long and I wanted to give this a try. We soon parted ways.

So there I was at the starting line, trying to look all confident for the cameras. I think the Venice Paparazzi got me before the start. And then we were off, everyone immediately rushing into the bracing surf. All I remember, not exactly sprinting in the water, was listening to the yelps howls and hollers of those brave souls out there ahead going the distance.

It was a true surge of energy displayed by all the entrants, crashing through the breaks out to the first buoy, then turning right northward, another 60 yards to the next buoy. I seemingly just held back, not furiously rushing into this chilly surf, getting acclimated as I usually would during my previous summer-fall rituals.

Well, I guess this tactic put me towards the back of the pack. After all the howling was long gone, it was time to swim, and I was doing my best. I swam out past the first buoy, the lifeguards on their surfboards all encouraging us on. I turned and headed northward. I remember looking up and seeing the pack just leaving me behind. Still, I ventured forth. The only problem, I soon realized, was that I breathed from the right and the waves were coming from the left. So after just a few strokes, I'd have to bring my head up and see when the next wave was coming in. And lose time.

It got to where I was almost to the second buoy. I thought I was doing ok, the water wasn't really that cold, and at least there was still a pack of us going at about the same rate. No problem. And then just as we're approaching the buoy, and the turn for home, I hear "Help! I can't breathe! Help!" The guy next to me suddenly gave out and decided to freak out. And the lifeguards were all over him. "Here. Get on this board. You're gonna be ok. We'll take you in."

This again took my concentration away from just swimming, and onto what was going on around me. So I look up, again, and see that he and I are the only ones left, and now he's getting a free-ride in. Ok. So I surge on.

When I get to the final buoy heading for home, I hear a voice from some lifeguard from somewhere stating, "Sir. Turn and swim away from the beach. Swim away from the beach. Immediately."

Again, I popped my head up, looked to the left, and saw a huge set of waves about to pounce on me. I pity the poor guy drowning on the surfboard, I thought. And I hauled ass as much as I could away from shore.

I'll always give it to the lifeguards - that's why I was here ultimately, wasn't it because of that movie? - that they had everything in hand. And they weren't gonna take any chances with any old swimmer out there in their surf. And I acknowledged their presence by my years of ocean swimming and immediately dove under the first humongous wave, just as it was about to crash and hurtle me into the 'washingmachine.'

I luckily made it through, but knew I had 2 more waves to beat also. The lifeguards were right. Swim away from the shore, bro, and as fast as possible. I churned with all my might. Here came number two. Another huge monster. I took a breath and dived under it as best I could. And then came up swimming.

I think if I hadn't swum all these years in the ocean and known what to expect, I might have been a big problem for those lifeguards, out there enduring the chilly surf. But I did know what to expect, and I kept swimming outward, expecting that third, final big wave. And here she came. I dove underneath as best I could again, hoping to not be pulled into her surging on-shore power, and fought to come up behind the powerful wall of energy waiting to drag me back into its vortex. And wipe me out.

I came out ok.

I knew I had survived the big set, but still had to swim extra long to get ashore. The lifeguard seemingly hovering over me asked if I was ok, and responding to the affirmative, I headed off toward shore. At least I was familiar with swimming into shore, and after that big wave surge cycle, I knew I had it made. I was gonna get my rhythm back and end furiously.

I don't know, after maybe 10, 15 strokes, here comes another lifeguard, swimming out to me. "How ya doin?" he casually asks. "Fine," I respond. "Is there a problem?"

"No. Mind if I swim in with you?"

"Sure. That's cool..."

So we swam in, at my rate, until he says, "I think we can stand up now." We were in about 18" water, which is great for those photo-baywatch-finishes. Then he says, "I'd advise you to run in, so it looks good on camera!"

I ran in, just finishing after the surf-board accompanied wuss who couldn't breathe, with hearty souls applauding every entry's exit, and my loving wife waiting for me with a camera finish and a warming towel. "Dear, aren't you freezing?" "Nope. The feeling of accomplishment warms my soul and keeps me alive and energetic!"

I later found out, it wasn't actually surprising, that I'd come in dead last on the New Year's Day Venice Penguin Club Swim for 2007. After a few cocktails that night in celebration, we decided that a new award should be given, to the swimmer that does come in last, the Enduring Penguin Award.

I hope that this new award is a carrot placed before all those that read this column. Maybe you too can achieve this greatness (?) and force me to relinquish my crown in 2008. Just remember, Abbot Kinney reportedly swam every day in the ocean, and so can you.

Come on in, the water's fine!