This is part of our “How to Be Happy in Paradise” series.
One happiness routine to explore is ocean swimming.
Before you dismiss it out-of-hand, let me describe how I came to embrace ocean swimming.
But, first, let’s set the stage.
Think back to all the warm summer days you have spent on the beach.
Most likely you saw people standing in the water, chest deep, waiting for a wave to come. They would body surf the wave in, or simply jump up and over the wave while shrieking with glee.
Then, once in a great while, you may have noticed – way, way (way) out there – beyond the breaking waves, the steady stroke of an arm.
And you realize that there is an actual human being out there in the ocean. All alone. Swimming!
“Yes! By God! It’s one of those lunatics – an open-ocean swimmer.”
Ocean Swimming Craziness
If you are like me, you may have thought:
- That person must be Freezing!
- How can they swim out there with all those waves and the strong current? (“Oh, I know,” you think, “they probably swam in college, or perhaps in the Olympics”)
- To be honest, this next one is usually #1: “That Dude (dudette) is definitely shark food. We should probably all get out of the water right this second before there is a shark feeding frenzy.”
By this point, you are beginning to relive scenes from the movie Jaws. Your eyes have glazed over and you are breaking out in a cold sweat, as you imagine that it is you out there in the water about to be eaten. Finally, you must force yourself to stop thinking about it altogether.
Since arriving in Puerto Armuelles in late 2006, I have revisited these fears, as well as other prior, harsh judgments about ocean swimmers and ocean swimming. This was actually forced upon me.
You see, I am by nature a daily exerciser. I can get by without exercise. However, I definitely feel my happiest, most optimistic when I exercise a moderate amount every day. Ideally, for 20-40 minutes a day, sometimes a bit more.
Surfing – More Intense Exercise
For the 1st decade we were in Puerto Armuelles, I surfed. That is, whenever there were waves. Generally, there is surf here about 1/3 of the mornings, 5 months of the year.
(FYI: surf season in Puerto is usually April thru October, although we can have a swell in other months.)
Surfing was not a moderate amount of exercise for me. I was already in my late forties when I took it up, and I rode a pretty shortboard, which required a lot of paddling effort. Also, I would usually get so interested (aka “obsessed with”) catching “just one more wave” that I could easily find myself in the water for 2 hours or more if the waves were good.
For some people, this is not too much exercise. For my aging body, it was definitely a lot of exercise, certainly more than I required for health and happiness. Although, after an early morning of good surfing, I always felt wonderfully relaxed.
From Surfing To Swimming
Even before I phased out my daily surfing, which happened about a year ago, I relished the days without any waves. Then I would go for a casual swim and give my body a bit of a break. (I still haven’t completely quit surfing, because surfing is really, really fun!)
I swim for the fun of it, as opposed to surfing which, although very fun, was also “my other job”. If you talk to surfers, you will find that many of us are the same. Surfing is not just for fun – it is a daily need. (It is probably not that different from smoking crack cocaine. Except that we don’t hang out on the street corners and surfers generally look like fit athletes, rather than addicts.) The bottom line with surfers is that if we don’t get our quota of waves, we quickly begin to suffer withdrawal symptoms. We just can’t enjoy our day as much.
Swimming for me is a lot less of an addiction. It is more of a daily meditation practice. For me, swimming is about the journey and not about the destination. I suppose, if I took swimming seriously enough, it could also become a “job”. But I don’t want to make it into that.
What I find is that ocean swimming in Puerto is the absolute easiest way for me to get into touch with the present moment. To just “be” with myself, and with nature.
Puerto Armuelles – Perfect For Ocean Swimming
What makes Puerto Armuelles such a good place to start ocean swimming?
If you look at my list of the things that seemed so unnatural about the “lunatic open ocean swimmer” in my earlier description, you will notice that I mentioned:
- Cold water
- Need to be an expert swimmer
- Big scary fish
Fortunately, none of these inconveniences is present here in Puerto Armuelles.
1). The water in Puerto is always bathtub warm (78-85 degrees Fahrenheit)
It is amazing just how big a difference it makes to swim in warm water. The experience is not intimidating, or alien. You feel as if you belong in the water, as if you were born there…and if you think about it, you were.
2) The water is shallow
Because of our gently sloping sandy beach and the fact that we have no waves for much of the year, you only need to wade out into the water a bit over knee deep in order to start swimming.
If you swim parallel to the shore, you never have to swim in water that is over chest deep.
To me, this is reassuring. Although I have spent a lot of time in deep, dark cold ocean water, I have always found it a little scary. Those are the places where sharks hang out waiting to eat a seal or sea lion. I have always been very careful not to let my mind wander too far into “What if?” when in those deep cold water.
I must admit that I feel most comfortable in warm water about waist deep, or not much deeper than I am tall. Thankfully, the little swathe of the ocean where I swim, right in front of Corazon de Oro is the perfect depth for me.
3) No man-eating (or woman-eating) sea creatures.
A few years ago, when I was still kiteboarding, I did a brief study of shark attacks in around Puerto Armuelles. I wanted to know just how big a risk I was taking every time my kite went down offshore, and I had to swim in.
To my great relief, I found that there has only been one recorded shark attack near Puerto Armuelles. (However, the story has been retold so many times that you would think that a 100 people had been attacked and eaten, just last week).
The story that I heard goes like this. A man diving for conch was attacked by a large shark about 30 years ago out at the tip of Punta in about 65 feet of water. According to reports, the man lived for years after the attack and continued to dive for conch.
Please note: Punta Burica about 10 miles away from Puerto Armuelles. It is by the open ocean with rocky ledges that drop off abruptly from shallow reefs, to open ocean 100s of feet deep. Diving for conch every day, day-in-and-day-out, for a lifetime, in the deep open ocean, is quite different from swimming a few yards off a sandy beach for 30 minutes each morning. All the locals in Puerto, with whom I have spoken, agree that they have never, ever seen a shark, (ever). There are certainly no recorded shark attacks at any of the beaches in Puerto Armuelles.
4) The beach is usually sandy & the early morning ocean is often flat.
It makes walking out into the water more pleasant. You won’t need any special footwear.
It also makes it easier to swim. Especially in the summer, the water is flat as glass in the mornings. (In Puerto, they say flat as “espejo”, which means a mirror). Which is very pleasant.
This perfectly flat water makes stroking and gliding much easier. Perfect for any swimmer. And especially easier for someone just getting started with salt-water swimming.
5) Salt water is wonderful.
Not only does it make you feel healthy (no chemical aftertaste). It also makes you more buoyant. This means that even a skinny guy like me can float, at least a little bit.
Plus the salt water makes it much easier to swim well. You won’t be struggling to maintain a neutral, horizontal position in the water. You can more easily find that “sweet spot”, or ideal balance in the water.
If you are skinny, like I am, wearing a slightly buoyant rash guard or wetsuit top, as I do, will make it even easier.
6) You will most likely have the beach to yourself
The beaches in Puerto are often empty of people. Which means, if you are a shy beginning swimmer, there is no one out to judge you. (Plus, if you are around my age, you most likely have realized that no one is watching you anyway—-and they never were. We just thought they were.)
7) No chlorine!
If you have tried to swim in a pool, but were unable to tolerate the intensity of all that chlorine, you will appreciate the complete absence of it. It is so nice!
8) Quiet and in Nature
Indoor swimming pools are NOISY! It is deafening to be in such a large space where every surface is hard and reflective.
I find the noise, the cold, the chlorine, and the total absence of nature, to be big detractors from the experience of at most swim pools. It is a totally different experience when you swim in the ocean.
After years of swimming in Puerto, I still favor swimming on my back for long stretches of time. It is a lot more relaxing. I don’t have to think about coordinating my breathing with my strokes.
Plus, an added benefit of swimming on my back is staring up at the sky. I can enjoy watching nature, for example:
- White clouds gently moving in the sky.
- Frigate birds pivoting back and forth like black paper kites
- Squadrons of Pelicans flying overhead in perfect v-formation
I have had some incredible moments when I am just suspended there “in the zone” while swimming parallel to the beach. This is a magical, meditative time for me. I am just being. The world is the star of the show. I am simply taking time out to observe, gratefully, a tiny slice of it.
How To Get Started Ocean Swimming
How did I get started? I suppose as with most things I’ve done, I just started.
At first, I was terrible. But I didn’t give up. Then, later, I learned a little bit about what I was doing, and my efforts began to pay off.
Of course, this is all relative. I am still not a great swimmer. However, I enjoy swimming, and I think that I am still improving, little by little. Swimming well is not a preoccupation for me. The main thing is that I am able to participate in this great activity. That is all that I really wanted out of swimming.
Google is your friend
Now, it is likely that you are different than I am. You probably want to learn how to be a competent swimmer, before you start swimming in the ocean. (It’s okay. I get it. Following a logical course of action is an admirable quality.)
If you want to be a better swimmer, faster. I recommend that you do the same thing you would do if you wanted to learn anything. GOOGLE IT!. There is all kinds of information about getting started swimming, swimming for adults, triathlon swimming, and thankfully, even open ocean swimming for beginners.
So, just hit your computer, and do some “armchair swimming”. I actually believe that you can learn a ton about swim technique, just by watching online videos.
If you break what you learn down into small “chunks” and only practice one technique at a time, you will be amazed at how much you will improve.
Total Immersion Swimming Program
As you browse the available information online, you are bound to come across a swim course called Total Immersion Swimming. A friend of mine told me about it years ago. After swimming in Puerto, I finally signed up for one of their weekend swim classes, during one of our visits to Seattle.
After taking this course, my friend participated in iron-man competitions, which includes a 2.4-mile swim, a 26.2-mile marathon, and a 112-mile bike race. I am in awe of anyone who can sustain that level of intense exercise. But, I was blown away when he said that he was able to keep up with “the pack” at the front of the race in the open ocean swim, despite the fact that he had never swum on a team in high school or college. “How the #$%@!#$ do you do that?”, was my obvious question. “Total Immersion Swimming“, was his response.
A friend of Betsy’s sister, who took the course with me, improved greatly after taking the course too. Upon completing the course, she began to regularly swim across Seattle’s Lake Washington, and back (over a mile), with a group of similarly skillful swimmers.)
What I learned from Total Immersion Swimming
My own improvement after taking the Total Immersion Swimming weekend intensive was far more modest than my friends. But, I learned a lot from their weekend course. Most importantly, I learned a handful of techniques that gave me a standard to shoot for every time I swim. However, my execution, particularly my ability to breath efficiently is still very much a work in progress.
The part where I felt the most growth (not surprisingly, this is also the part that I like best) was the ability to sense whether my body was in a state of balance in the water. I had never before thought of swimming as balancing my body in the water. This concept alone, without any swimming techniques, is reason enough to be grateful for taking the course. Balancing one’s body in the water is amazing!
When you see a video of yourself swimming at the beginning of the weekend course, you can’t believe you were not swimming in what you thought was a very horizontal position. You were actually swimming in a half horizontal, half-vertical angle. That is you were swimming at a 45-degree angle through the water – dragging half the water in the pool along with you. No wonder you feel exhausted after just a few minutes. My own video at the beginning of the weekend course, was pretty appalling (which was good, since it left me so much room for fast improvement). I could go on about it, but if you are interested, you can learn more online. (FYI, I don’t make any money recommending Total Immersion Swimming, I just love it.)
Now, I can swim for about 20 or 30 minutes without stopping. And I enjoy my swim completely.
My daily ocean swimming has enhanced my health, happiness and overall quality of my life here in Puerto Armuelles.
If you are looking to explore more ways to be “Happy in Paradise”, I recommend giving ocean swimming a good, thorough try.
You may also find that it makes you healthier and happier too.
Thanks for reading
Great article Reyn.
You still in Puerto?
Great article, planning to be there January or February.