Your office is the beach, your uniform a pair of boardshorts, and you could rescue dozens of people a season. According to 30-year veteran Southern California lifeguard Lance Dempsey, “On a busy week-end, there might be 2,000 people in front of your tower.”
Prereqs: It’s far tougher to get a glamorous ocean job than a gig at the local country club—strong swimmers and lifelong surfers have an advantage in competitive places like California, North Carolina, and Florida.
How to Break In: California county and state agencies will hire 16-year-olds if they can pass the swim test. But those tests often occur in February. In a Speedo. The first 40 or 80 people to cross the line get to the interview phase. You’ll line up for the swim test with guys wearing UCLA and Stanford swim-team hoodies.
Pay: In Los Angeles, the hourly wage is $18, with bonuses for bilingualism and for EMT certification in L.A. County; $11.25 per hour in North Carolina.
Romance Potential: The view can be pretty good from the lifeguard tower, but as far as getting a phone number, “You have to play it pretty cool,” says Dempsey. State-beach lifeguards aren’t supposed to leave the tower unless they are making a rescue.
Résumé Skills: CPR and emergency first aid, calm under pressure, killer tan.
“I was 7 when I first started diving,” remembers springboard specialist Grayson Campbell. “ I used to just throw myself off the diving board, but my mom didn’t want me to hurt myself, so she put me in lessons.”
Campbell says his favorite thing about the sport is competition because “it’s where you can show what you’ve learned all year long, and it brings out the best in your diving.”
After winning a slew of national titles, Campbell made finals at Junior Worlds in Australia in 2012. Earlier this year he won silver in synchro at the Puerto Rico Grand Prix. Most recently, Campbell won the 1-meter and 3-meter events at Junior Nationals in early August, which qualified him to represent the U.S. at the Junior Pan Am Diving Championships in Tucson in September. After that? “I’d like to make a senior World Championship team and go to the Olympics,” says the 5-foot-5 Virginia native. “That’s the highest level you can compete in diving.”
But in the meantime, drivers beware. “Officially have my permit,” Campbell tweeted on July 29. Follow him at @gmcampbell1.
My daughters had been angling hard for a floater mat ever since they'd played on them at friends' cottages this summer, and I knew that a mat of our own would encourage them to stay in the lake longer, burn off their wolverine energy, and maybe even help them become stronger swimmers. At 20 feet long and a mere two inches thick, the mat is made from marine-grade styrofoam and looks like a cross between a magic carpet and a slip-n-slide. It functions as a little of both.
Anchor it in lakes, calm ocean coves, or other protected water, and with a buoyancy of 1,500 pounds, it will support the weight of a dozen kids and a handful of adults doing pretty much any activity you can do on land while on water: jumping, sliding, wrestling, sliding, skipping, dancing, sunbathing, hopping. It doesn't absorb water and even fully loaded, the mat doesn't sag or bow in the middle; when you stand up on it, only your ankles get wet.
We bought ours to replace an inflatable water trampoline that lived hard and died young at the hands of my nieces and nephews. Every summer it sprung a leak. At its best, the Bongo was springy and bouncy, but it also had worrisome blind spots: It was so high off the water, you couldn't see little ones when they were on the far side, you could get trapped underneath it, and it was difficult for the youngest swimmers to climb up without help. We debated replacing it with a wooden floating dock but the $3,000 price tag was too steep, and we worried about boats accidentally ramming into it at night.
So when I saw the yellow Floater Mat skimming the lake's surface in front of a nearby cottage like some kind of enormous, man-made lily pad, I was intrigued. At first glance, it looks an optical illusion: How can something so thin and light (it's less than 40 pounds, lighter than my three-year-old) stay afloat under so much weight? But the minute you or your kids play on it, it no longer requires any explanation. It's magic and it works and it's crazy fun, and that's all you need to know.
We planned to anchor ours about 15 feet off our dock. This would give my daughters, who are 3 and 5 and are both swimming on their own, a place to actually swim to, rather than simply hurl themselves off the dock and climb out on the ladder, over and over. My little one, Maisy, has been having trouble sleeping, so I also selfishly hoped she'd tire herself out bobbing back and forth between dock and mat.
The Floater Mat comes with an anchor line that affixes to the mat via a plastic grommet. The directions blithely instruct you to cut a hole in the foam, but the idea of punching a screwdriver through a $500 mat gave me pause. I didn't want to botch it right out of the box, so I asked the shop to do it for us.
While the mat isn't heavy, it is awkward to move around, and it took two of us to get the rolled-up foam into our boat for the ride across the lake. Back at our cottage, my stepfather and I tried to unfurl the mat by loosening the velcro straps and stretching the 20-foot long mat out across the dock, but every time we unwound it, it would stubbornly re-curl itself, flopping around like a half-dead fish.
With so much surface area, positioning the pad is tricky. You need to give it ample space from land so that no one hits the dock when they jump in, but because it's only anchored only on one side, the mat rotates freely in the wind. At any given time the nearest side can be five feet from the dock or 35.
The anchor line looked terribly, perhaps fatally, short, but I flung it overboard, and it appeared to hold. In a flash, the girls flung themselves off the dock and started swimming madly for the mat. My stepdad stretched out on it, sunbathing. We could have had a party on the mat. Maisy, who we decided would wear a lifejacket when swimming to the mat, awkwardly hoisted foam over foam to pull herself up, unassisted. The girls proceeded to sprint back and forth, slipping and sliding off the end like penguins launching off the ice shelf.
That afternoon, though, a storm rolled in, pounding the lake with sideways rain and whitecaps. From the shelter of our cottage, I looked out just in time to see the gale pick up the mat on one end and wave it like a flag. That's it, I thought. $500, gone in a single day. But rather than floating away across the lake, it dragged its anchor and smashed up against the cliffs in our little cove. There it rested.
The next morning, we retrieved the mat and did the awkward repositioning dance all over again: drag and paddle, fling anchor, hope it lands. Friends of ours from down the island showed up with their four sons, who along with Pippa and Maisy, turned the mat into a featherweight wrestling ring. And in this corner, six-year-old Rocky from Saskatoon!
It's been windy every day for the past week, and the first thing I do when I wake up each morning look for the mat, as though I'm holding vigil. Has it moved a little overnight? Is it farther out now than yesterday? Is it slowly dragging its line? As soon as the shop gets more anchor lines in, I'm going to put a second one in on the other side for extra peace of mind. As for now, it's still here. I can see the yellow from the corner of my eye, awaiting the next round of action. Maybe tonight Maisy will sleep.
The Float Mat is available in two lengths: 15 feet and 20 feet, for $450 and $550. Go to thefloatermat.com for more info.
On July 12, a group of New York City designers celebrated the successful close of a Kickstarter campaign. Exceeding their goal, they raised $273,000 to build "+Pool," a barge-cum-swimming pool that they plan to float in the East River. The idea: filters integrated into its structure will remove harmful bacteria and contaminants in the water, making the pool safe for swimmers.
Regardless of whether this concept ever becomes reality, it begs the question: Is the East River really that polluted? The short answer is no. But there are some important caveats. Herewith, a survival guide for swimming in Gotham.
You should know, first of all, that according to the city's Department of Environmental Protection, no part of the Inner Harbor (this includes the East River, Hudson River south of its confluence with the Harlem River, and the Upper New York Bay) is safe for swimming, based on water quality standards set by the state's Department of Conservation. That's one reason the +Pool concept is so inviting to New Yorkers who want to splash around outside on a hot summer day. But water quality is by no means a static measurement. If it were, one would never see large, organized swimming events in the East and Hudson Rivers, held by groups such as NYC Swim.
"Considering how many [swimming] events, like triathlons, are held … I am just guessing here, but it can't be that bad for you," an employee with the DEP, who requested anonymity, told me.
Gregory O'Mullan is not guessing when he says: "Most of the water quality by Manhattan is quite good during good weather." That's because studying water quality in and around the city is part of his job as assistant professor of microbiology at Queens College. He recently co-authored a report, however, that shows there is reason to be very careful about where and when you choose to swim around New York. The research shows a strong correlation between the presences of Enterococci, a bacteria found in untreated sewage, and antibiotic-resistant bacteria associated with superbugs.
Here's how to avoid all of those nasty pollutants:
1: Understand why and how water quality is sometimes poor. NYC, like many old U.S. cities, has an antiquated sewage infrastructure that combines waste from buildings with stormwater runoff in the same system. Given that, and the population explosion the city has seen since its founding, it does not take much of a storm for the quantity of sewage to overwhelm water treatment plants. When that happens, some of the combined runoff and sewage is diverted away from the plants—and it goes straight into the rivers and bay! This effluent, called combined sewage overflow (CSO) does get diluted and dissipates before long. But swimming after a rain storm is never a good idea.
"I've spent years dealing with New York water quality and I am shocked by how many New Yorkers don’t know about CSO. People don’t get it. Until they do, we have to be careful about opening up things for recreation," says O'Mullan. Thus, the official word from the DEP is "stay out" because the water quality is sometimes high, sometimes low.
2: Educate yourself. In May, a new right-to-know law passed that requires publicly-owned sewage treatment plants and publicly-owned delivery systems (pipes and pump stations) to notify the public when untreated water is discharged into state waterways. You can check the DEP's website for CSO advisories. You can also sign up for text or email alerts from the Notify NYC website. But the notification systems are far from perfect, reliable or efficient yet, argues O'Mullan. Local clean water advocacy group Riverkeeper is pushing to expand the law to include privately-owned wastewater treatment plants and delivery systems. It argues that information about hazardous water conditions should be as accessible as storm warnings, amber alerts and similar public safety systems.
There is, however, a wealth of data about the Hudson estuary available online, thanks to Riverkeeper, which regularly checks post-storm water quality at 75 different locations. You can narrow in on the ones you're interested on its website and also download its yearly water quality report.
3: Be selective. While water quality ebbs and flows with stormwater runoff, there are many places you're best to avoid. Industrial, inland waterways used for shipping are generally unsafe – not just due to poor water quality but also boat traffic. I'd avoid jumping in right next to a water treatment plant, myself.
4: Consider your health status. The majority of water-borne illnesses are never reported, and because of that there is very little data on the impacts polluted water makes on public health. People who suffer symptoms related to exposure to bacteria while swimming are quicker to blame them on eating bad seafood or some other unrelated cause. If you've got a cold or your immunity is somehow compromised, take extra caution about taking a plunge in water, even if you can't find any alerts from the city.
5: Focus on the big picture. The +Pool project is intriguing, but the longer-term solution to fighting polluted water in NYC is to prevent pollution from entering the waterways in the first place. The city is spending $2.4 billion on a plan to support green roofs, permeable pavement, rainwater catchments and other infrastructure elements that will reduce stormwater runoff from entering the sewage system. Push for these solutions where you can and if you own your home, think about installing your own. "We're trying to make the city less impervious," says the DEP employee.
"Ultimately, we should be moving toward the goal of the Clean Water Act: surface waters in this nation should be swimmable, period. That doesn’t mean that in the meantime we shouldn't be giving people a way to enjoy the resource. If this +Pool does that, wonderful," says O'Mullan. But information about water quality "should not be an underground knowledge" that only really active swimmers know how to obtain. "We owe people more than that."
At first, the jellyfish were easy to negotiate. I swam through them, maneuvering like the Millennium Falcon in an underwater asteroid belt. Other swimmers occasionally came up for air, talking and laughing, and at one point I saw our coach, Ned Denison, holding a jelly in the palm of his immense hand, pretending to eat it. Then we hit the wall, and there was nowhere to go but through it. That’s when people started screaming.
It was day two of Cork Distance Week, Denison’s grueling training camp for open-water marathon swimmers. Every year, 50 masochistic souls show up to dunk themselves in County Cork’s numerous lakes, reservoirs, and rivers, as well as the cold North Atlantic. June in southern Ireland means cloudy skies and icy oceanic winds, with water and air temperatures hovering around 60 degrees. This morning’s itinerary was supposed to be relatively easy: a couple of miles down the coast, followed by a short swim up an estuary that feeds into Lough Hyne, a placid tidal lake. After that we’d warm up with hot tea and biscuits.
Denison, a 55-year-old, six-foot-six-inch American with the wingspan of an albatross, had separated us into groups according to speed. I was trailing Barbara Held, 59, a powerfully built retired firefighter from San Diego, trying to stick by her muscular flanks. I quickly lost her in the choppy waves, but a little bit of confusion is guaranteed in open-ocean swimming. We managed to make it to the mouth of the estuary with no major incidents. Then we met the jellyfish.
Most were moon jellies—flat, translucent, dinner-plate-size things that didn’t deliver much sting. Occasionally, though, we saw brown, mushroom-shaped creatures the size of buckets, trailing long sets of ribboned, blood-colored tentacles stretching three feet or more: compass jellyfish. Those you didn’t want to touch. At first I evaded the big ones and batted the moon jellies out of the way, but then the translucent cloud thickened and the spaces narrowed. Soon no amount of twisting and thrashing helped, and I began to feel them along the length of my body. They were like stars in the night sky, endless. Now we started cursing the jellies, the water, Denison, and Ireland with real fury. The desire to get out of it, to get away, was so urgent and powerful that the brain went into primary survival mode: forward, through it, it must end!
Carmel Collins, a sturdy woman from Cork, brushed a large one with her face. The skin on her cheek quickly became raw and inflamed, as if she’d been badly burned; in a few hours it would swell into a row of knobbed pustules. I raised my head at one point to see a grizzled Irishman spitting out pieces of jelly that had caught in his teeth. He gave me a lopsided grin and a thumbs-up sign. Other swimmers were brought to tears, and I remember my own actions with some embarrassment. I writhed on the surface like a harpooned seal and squealed in a voice I’ve never heard before.
Eventually, we were out of it, moving into the broad, gentle waters of the loch. The jellies became sparse, then disappeared altogether. Swimmers cried out with glorious relief. We went another 500 yards, then hobbled up the boat ramp, where the support truck waited for us with towels, clothes, and hot drinks. Blue lips sipped tea; trembling hands slipped off suits behind car doors. Chris O’Sullivan, a dark-haired, intense-looking 36-year-old who runs an IT company in Carlow, emerged from the water, chattering and trembling, his torso and neck laced with fine red lines.
“How was it?” Denison asked, wearing an elastic Jim Carrey grin.
“Brilliant, beautiful, simply brilliant,” said O’Sullivan, smiling and clutching his goose-bump-covered torso. “I’m stung to bits, you fucking bastard!”
SANDYCOVE ISLAND is a small hunk of rock that rises from the sea at the mouth of a set of rounded bays. It’s topped with a toupee of grass, which a clan of feral goats feast upon. On a clear day the water is emerald and stunning to look at, and sitting on the stone seawall in the sunshine, you would swear you were on the Mediterranean. The bay side is protected and calm, the ocean side rough and rocky. Doing a lap around Sandycove gives you a sampling of the best of ocean swimming—weedy bottoms and reef sections on the interior, and sea swells and deep water on the Atlantic side.
People come here for one reason: to prepare themselves to swim across the 21-mile English Channel, which is considered the greatest single test for serious open-water swimmers. More than 50 successful Channel swimmers have trained with Denison. The experience is not a pleasant one. Each session lasts between 90 minutes and three hours, with a total distance of about 60 miles for the week—a staggering amount of swimming for anyone, in any situation. The camp culminates with two extreme sufferfests: Denison’s infamous (and optional) Total Body-Brain Confusion swim, which is designed to teach swimmers to manage worst-case scenarios, and a six-hour English Channel qualifying event, which is required for those who wish to attempt a crossing. Denison gleefully described the week as a “cold, hard slog,” which was something of an understatement.
According to the World Open Water Swimming Association, Denison’s annual getaway is the “most brutal, the most unforgiving, the [most] downright dastardly difficult open water swimming camp in the world.”
I arrived on a warm Saturday and headed out to Sandycove Beach to meet my fellow swimmers and our fearless leader. It was an impossibly beautiful morning, with the sun shining hard and the sea undulating green and cool. Denison’s neck and armpits were slathered with milky white lanolin, a heavy lubricant made from sheep’s wool that prevents chafing. He looked like he’d just walked out of a brawl at a Krispy Kreme. He pointed a long arm at Sandycove and the ocean beyond and exclaimed, “This island is magic, and this water is lucky!” Then he added, “It will also break your heart.”
A former all-American water-polo goalie at Columbia University, Denison moved to County Cork in 2001 when he married an Irishwoman, Anne O’Leary. (They’re in the midst of a divorce.) Over the next decade, working as an IT project manager, he piled up an impressive open-water résumé, swimming around Manhattan and from Alcatraz to San Francisco, and crossing the English Channel in just 12 hours. (Most swimmers take at least 15.) For almost six years, Denison held the world record for the fastest crossing of the notoriously difficult 20-mile span of Pacific Ocean between Santa Cruz Island and the Southern California mainland, and he is one of only five humans to swim across False Bay in South Africa, a 20-mile stretch that’s full of great white sharks. Last year he was inducted into the Florida-based International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame. Denison launched the camp—which costs $52, plus extra for the Total Body-Brain Confusion swim and the English Channel qualifying event—in 2009. He has no trouble filling the spots, personally inviting and vetting each swimmer. Every year he has to turn more people away.
My first invitation came a couple of years ago when I was living in Ireland and researching open-water swimming for a novel I was writing. If you’re interested in swimming in Ireland, you know Denison; we were introduced and quickly struck up an e-mail correspondence. This was kind of like receiving sporadic lines of surrealist poetry written by a sadist. Sample missive: “I am testing goose fat as a lubricant today.… Last week I took a full gulp and had to stop to puke.”
Denison and I hit it off. Like him, I’d also come to open-water swimming after a collegiate water-polo career, in my case at James Madison University in Virginia. When he first dangled a coveted spot at his camp, I declined, unsure of my ability to hack it. Then, last year, I reached out again. I’ve always loved swimming in the ocean, even completing the crossing to Alcatraz, but all my open-water swimming had been in wetsuits, which are banned by the Channel Swimming Association, since they’re positively buoyant. And lately I’d found myself blanching at the thought of getting in the ocean at all. I was about to turn 40, going soft. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to try the Channel, but I did want to toughen up and go “full togs”—Speedo only. Ned quickly responded: “Get in the coldest water you can find and train, hard.”
Now, standing on the beach and looking out at Sandycove, I was surrounded by a phalanx of swimmers in various states of undress. Most were Irish, but there were also a few Americans and Canadians. Just glancing at them, you’d never guess that they were elite endurance athletes. If there is a solid physical characteristic by which to identify longdistance open-water swimmers, it is that they look precisely like your average heavyset man or woman on the way to Target. Being a little heavy is a physiological advantage in a sport that requires you to endure frigid conditions for hours on end, so swimmers often try to gain weight before big events. They are also serious about lubricant, using various oils to prevent chafing in the salt water. My cohorts swathed their thick necks with lanolin while wearing stocking caps, Speedo-style suits, boots, and long coats.
A middle-aged man named Paul Massey, from Kent, England, pulled off a sweater to reveal a broad, bulging midsection, as if the local butcher had decided to strip down on the quay. Barbara Held, the firefighter, wore a long insulated coat, as did Sandycove veteran Charlotte Brynn, a slender, 46-year-old Kiwi who now lives in Vermont and has been open-water swimming in the frigid lakes there for nearly a decade; she came to camp ten pounds heavier this year. A 30-year-old woman named Lisa Cummins stood by the boat ramp, looking like a bystander who’d come to check out the crowd. Cummins is the only Irish citizen to do a double Channel swim, which is when you go from England to France, touch the beach, and then turn around and swim back.
On the seawall a swarthy five-foot-eight, 31-year-old man stripped off a shirt to reveal a Speedo with a Hungarian flag across the ass, as well as a full-color flag tattooed on his calf. His body was covered in tattoos. This was Gabor Molnar, perhaps the best swimmer at camp besides Denison. Molnar moved to Ireland seven years ago and now works in the duty-free shop at the Cork airport. Molnar only dabbled in open-water swimming until he discovered Denison’s camp in 2010; since then he’s become a Triple Crown swimmer—someone who has completed the English Channel, the Catalina Channel, and the 28.5-mile circumnavigation of Manhattan. Now he refers to himself as “the swimming Hun.”
I smugly regarded the heavy coats, caps, and blankets that swimmers brought. A bit much, I thought.
Then we got in the water. A day later I was borrowing a wool cap from Denison to put on over my own wool cap, sitting in my rental car, heat full blast, trying to unclench my white hands.
MARATHON OCEAN swimming is a throwback. It’s tempting to compare the sport to alpine climbing, but this would be apt only if you scaled Everest without clothes, shoes, and oxygen, and if you had to deal with the real possibility that a yeti might emerge from the snowy depths to take a bite of you. In marathon swimming, you are almost literally naked. With the exception of recovery drinks and a few changes to goggle technology, nothing much has changed since 1875, when the British captain Matthew Webb smeared himself in porpoise oil and breast-stroked across the English Channel in almost 22 hours. You’re not competing against other swimmers, just the clock. Wealth and fame are elusive for all but a few swimmers with talents for publicizing themselves, like Lynne Cox and Lewis Gordon Pugh. There is perhaps no greater example of man versus nature in endurance sports.
When your body temperature drops significantly, it takes time to recover. As the camp wore on, the cumulative effect was especially challenging. Two days after the jellyfish incident, we went for a grueling three-hour morning session in the ocean at Garryvoe, a wind-blasted beach east of Sandycove, where I once again attempted to trail Held, only to have her churn away into the distance. Then I dragged myself to my hotel in Kinsale, napped for three hours, wrapped myself in blankets, and numbly stared at soccer on the computer, dreading the afternoon swim: two hours in the cold, dark River Blackwater in Fermoy. Did I mention it was pouring rain?
I was already shivering when I reached the parking lot. By the riverside, Denison was yukking it up with Molnar, stripped down, his torso smeared with sheep grease. Once we got in the water, though, the swim was relatively easy, thanks to a gentle supporting current. Held bobbed up and down, occasionally taking pictures of the scenery and other swimmers with a waterproof camera she’d stuffed into her suit.
Still, the water temperature felt arctic, thanks to the mounting hours of our suffering. Trying to walk out of a river when you can’t feel anything below the knees is both a logistical challenge and a comical sight. After our swim, we staggered up the boat ramp like so many fiddler crabs toward Ned’s aging Land Rover, which was packed tight with thermoses of hot water, tea packets, tins of hot chocolate and instant coffee, recovery drinks, protein powders, towels, wool blankets, emergency reflective blankets, hoodies, track-suit bottoms, first-aid kits, GPS equipment, lanolin and other lubricants, socks, biscuits, candy bars, and whole slabs of chocolate cake. We went at the spread like shivering zombies.
Brynn, the Kiwi, approached the food warily, with a gray face. She appeared to have aged since the beginning of the swim. People rushed forward to cover her with blankets. This was her second year at the camp; she was preparing for a Channel attempt later that summer. She looked hypothermic after every swim. You’d think the repeated abuse would cause her to take up something less punishing, like badminton, but she was resolute. “The best lessons are the toughest,” Brynn told me later, “and Ned puts together a nasty, unpleasant lesson.”
She wasn’t the only one suffering. By this point I was eating four meals a day—a full Irish breakfast, fried fish and chips (sometimes twice a day), and an endless supply of fruit, pies, cakes, and biscuits washed down with water and recovery drinks, plus the occasional midnight tray of french fries. If you have trouble continually gorging yourself while training for the Channel, you can waste away in a hurry. O’Sullivan, the 180-pound IT consultant from Carlow, had discovered this the hard way. When he first joined the camp, in 2008, he was burning 8,000 calories a day and taking in just 6,000. He called Denison in despair one night, seeking help. The coach replied, “Go down to the shop, find Ben and Jerry. Eat it. Eat it at night, the last thing you do before you go to bed. Do it every night.”
A RIVALRY SOON developed at camp between Denison and Molnar. The two knew each other well, routinely finishing in first and second place in local competitions. (Denison’s grudging praise: “Gabor considers all other swimmers his enemies, in the best possible way.”) Still, Denison usually won their races, and one of his favorite tricks was to drag the buoy marking the finish line down the beach, extending both his margin of victory and Molnar’s suffering. Not to be outdone, Molnar had recently gained some local fame for completing a race around the island while wearing a “rat thong” swimsuit, which is basically just what it sounds like. Ned called it a “mouse thong.”
But there was a serious purpose in all the torment: to teach us to survive in an uncontrollable environment. When you submerge your body in 52-degree water, the shock of it drives your head up. A part of your brain pushes strong signals of self-preservation to the body to at least get the head out of this frigid mess. Your lungs heave for air, and your mouth assumes ludicrous shapes as you gasp in instinctual horror. The pores of your skin tighten, sending screaming messages of pain through your nerve center. You can practically hear your immune system and the body’s other natural defenses grind into frantic action.
Thirty minutes in, if your stroke rate is solid and your heart rate is up, you begin to get comfortable, even euphoric. Imaginary phantasms and hallucinations are common. During his 2009 English Channel crossing, O’Sullivan spent several hours watching World War II–era planes and ships rising up from the dark in ghostly maneuvers. “Earlier that week, I was thinking about all the wreckage that must be on the bottom of the Channel,” he said. “It seemed completely natural and real, and was actually quite calming.”
Each time I took a stroke in the waters near Sandycove, fully exposing my torso, I began to imagine scenarios in which a marine animal would lunge up out of the deep and clamp onto my rib cage. There was a strange comfort in this realization: you are so vulnerable that if some creature wants to take a bite out of you, there is nothing you can do about it. So you relax, instead reveling in the open nakedness of your body, and in this abandonment of responsibility there is a kind of serenity.
The second hour is when the suffering really begins. The extremities go first, the toes blinking out one by one like a string of fading lights in the distance, and soon you can’t feel your feet. Then your hands go, and you suffer from “the claw”—a gnarled clenching of the fingers that leaves you unable to take a powerful stroke. As your body temperature drops further, it feels like a slow, convulsive shudder in your core that you can’t stop. You want out, badly. If you push past this, you will feel comfortable again, the strongest euphoric feeling yet, like you could swim forever. Soon after that you will be dead.
Seven people have succumbed during attempted crossings in the modern era. The most recent was Paraic Casey, a square-jawed, 45-year-old man from Cork who was at camp with me. A veteran of Cork Distance Week, he attempted the Channel a month after camp and was just a half-mile from the French coast, his wife beside him in a support boat, when he suddenly stopped swimming. He could not be revived. The official cause of death is still unknown; the family elected not to have an autopsy. Casey is the only camper who has died. Denison was shocked. “It is very common for swimmers to suffer physical pain or to lose concentration,” he said. “This was not the case with Paraic. He swam strong, no uncertainty or hesitation, in good conditions.” His fate underscored the very real peril inherent in open-water swimming, which is why Denison’s camp exists. The Total Body-Brain Confusion swim was designed to confront aspiring Channel swimmers with as many chaotic scenarios as possible—and to teach them to recognize their own limits. At the beginning of camp I thought about signing up, but I decided to bail following the jellyfish incident. I like to push myself physically, but this was a level of suffering I was unwilling to endure.
Instead, I’d haze the poor bastards. A Cork Distance Week ritual holds that TBBC veterans get to hop aboard boats and rattle the rookies who are preparing to swim the Channel. I’d join Denison and Molnar for some aquatic frat-pledge action while Held, Brynn, and about 30 others toiled. (A group of 40 also planned to do the six-hour English Channel qualifying swim.)
On the eve of the TBBC swim, Denison and the crew gathered on a beach at Garrettstown for a “play” session—a break from training. The air and sea temps were in the low fifties, with howling winds that ripped towels out of our hands and flung them across the road into green fields. A wide, sandy stretch that emerges from nowhere, the Garrettstown beach was deserted, save for a couple of kiteboarders. On the shore, the campers stripped down and began frolicking in the waves, body-surfing, riding inflatable rafts, chasing each other in the surf. Maniacal, I thought, as I shivered on the seawall, wrapped in every bit of clothing I’d brought to Ireland.
Denison clambered through the waves like a watery primate, grinning, shouting, gray surf exploding around him. The swimmers began gathering around him as if he were a bonfire. Lisa Cummins used an inflatable raft, Brynn stroked elegantly, a white-lipped smile on her face, and Molnar bodysurfed the pounding waves onto the sand. I slipped out of my coat and shoes, the sand gritty and cold between my toes as I walked toward the water, pulled by Denison’s centripetal force.
THE NEXT MORNING, I stood in a small powerboat with Molnar and Denison as we motored alongside Held, who was swimming in the open ocean for the TBBC. Molnar dropped his pants and squatted over the gunwale, and I grabbed his hand to steady him as the heavy swells slammed into the boat. Held plowed through the waves with a powerful stroke, the skin around her shoulders cooked-lobster red, her face the color of old porridge. She’d been in 54-degree water for about three hours, much of that time lost and confused. Her mouth contorted in a Stallone snarl as she breathed. Then Molnar dropped a couple of chocolate-covered biscuits he’d brought onboard between his legs and into the water, simulating an open-air defecation. Held grinned, never breaking stroke.
“I love this part!” yelled Denison, standing at the wheel in a dark insulated trench coat and wraparound sunglasses, smiling into the wind. He zoomed off, looking for someone else to mess with. For nearly four hours, Denison had been choreographing an elaborate fool’s errand—breaking swimmers up, telling them to go to various boat buoys, then instructing them to double back or swim in circles. After a couple of hours, he told some swimmers to return to shore, only to stop them a few hundred yards from the beach and direct them to turn around and once again make for the open ocean.
Maintaining mental focus was the point, and verbal quizzes were part of the play. At one point, Denison asked a camper from Cork if she wanted mayonnaise or ketchup on her chips. She gave him a double thumbs-up and said “Chips!” in a heartbreaking, plaintive tone. Denison asked other swimmers their dinner plans. Molnar called over a baffled group of swimmers, their ashen faces glowing in the dark water, to ask them a question in Hungarian while Denison and I snacked on fresh brioche. Then Denison told a group that the propeller was broken and instructed them to circle the boat indefinitely, until the thing was repaired. So they swam in circles. Then Denison split them up, sending them out at different angles. Alone.
“Swimmers build an open-water toughness only through conquering new challenges as they build up their distances,” Denison said. “The TBBC is designed to test them thoroughly.” I didn’t ask how a tattooed Hungarian taking a dump off the boat figured as a possible occurrence during a Channel swim. Denison knew what he was doing.
“Keep swimming!” he bellowed into the wind as a set of floating eyes looked up quizzically. “Swim! Don’t stop! Don’t let me see you bobbing around like a seal! Put that head down and go!”
They went on. And on.
After some time, people had to be helped aboard the boats. Nobody quit, it’s just that Denison saw something he didn’t like. Rattling teeth, skeletal faces, lack of verbal response. A couple of hours in, we were seaward of the island when Denison decided to pull Brynn, who kept bobbing like a seal. We threw her a water bottle, and her clawed hands struggled to hold onto it. We shouted instructions, questions, but she only stared at us, white faced, expressionless, and so we cut the engines and Molnar and I pulled her over the transom. We covered her body with towels, and I poured hot tea from a thermos. I thought she might be angry with Denison, or upset in general, but she only grinned and gratefully accepted the drink with rattling hands.
Then Denison gunned the engine and we thundered off, pursuing other pods of swimmers who were disappearing over the horizon, our captain pointing his long arm into the sun, yelling, “Forward, goddamn it, swim!”
Matt Bondurant (@mbondurant) is the author ofThe Night Swimmer. This is his first story for Outside.