Julia and the Sea

Standing on board, looking at the sea, I‘m feeling both excited and nervous. Usually, Dimitris takes tourists to the remote beaches you can only reach by boat. Today he has a different bunch than usual: 14 women and men who are about to jump into the water and swim two kilometers around an island. It’s called swimtrekking and is by far not as crazy as it may sound. Other people hike in their holidays, we swim.

Simon, one of our guides, is giving us a sign that it’s time for the Oranges. We are split into three groups according to swim speed. I’m in the slow one. We wear orange caps and we go in first, getting a little head start before the pink and yellow caps so we all finish our swim at about the same time. Before we start, though, it’s arms in the air: Eoin, our second guide, has the pleasure to rub Vaseline on our sensitive parts – under the armpits and the swimsuit straps – to protect us from chafing.

I check one last time whether my goggles are tight – nothing is more annoying than salt water leaking into your eyes while you’re swimming. Then I jump. When all four of us are in the water, we confirm once more about the direction we are supposed to swim – clockwise around Mourteméno. Mourteméno is one of four uninhabited islands that lie close to the mainland in the Ionian sea. It is densely wooded with olive and pine trees and has only a few scattered pebble beaches. As always, I do a couple of breast strokes before switching to front crawl. All my nervousness is gone. I’m breathing to my right, two strokes, breathing to my left, and I’m smiling from ear to ear. The sea is perfectly flat, the water temperature is a pleasant 21 degrees, and the topography beneath me is incredibly beautiful. Mourteméno‘s rocky collar displays the wildest shapes under water. There is so much to see and discover that Simon, who tracks us from a small boat, keeps shouting: „Don‘t race, explore!“ He doesn‘t have to tell me twice.

We swim into caves and through rock arches. I check every alcove, spot carmine starfish clinging to rocks, avoid all sea urchins carefully, see fish in all shapes and colors – blue and green ones smaller than my pinky who only show up in swarms and get all agitated when I come close, yellow and black patterned beauties who pose with elegance between the rocks, and grey ones as big as my hand hiding in the sea grass. It’s like swimming in an aquarium.

After about an hour, we have circled the island and climb back on board. In the afternoon, we swim halfway around the next island Ágios Nikólaos; after 1.7 kilometers we finish at a gorgeous little beach where Eion is waiting with coffee and cookies. The water is crystal clear and shimmering in the most beautiful turquoise – I can’t imagine it being any better in the Caribbean.

In the evening, our group gathers in a tavern at the waterfront. We are a ragtag bunch, between 26 and 62, four Germans, two Americans, seven Brits – one of whom lives in Shanghai, another in Spain. One of us came all the way from Zimbabwe. We are ordering Greek salad, mezze and fresh fish, the table is overflowing with beer, wine and ouzo glasses. Swimming makes you hungry and thirsty. Simon is telling us how he became a SwimTrek guide. He had always been passionate about water sports but only a while ago, when he hit fifty-something, did he decide to quit his office job and swap the desk for the sea. Based on the happy face that welcomes us every morning, it was the right decision.

~~~

The next day, my arms feel tired and my neck is sore. But then, again there is so much to discover that every pain is soon forgotten.

On day three the muscle ache is joined by sunburn – being in the water for over an hour I don’t stand a chance, even with SPF 50. Oh well, my thighs will be tanned like never before by the end of the trip – the backside! To protect my back, I’m wearing a swim shirt with long sleeves. Today we only have one long swim: 4 kilometers around Mourtos – another dark green splotch with light grey fringes in the Ionian blue. I’m feeling a little queasy, the 2.5 kilometers yesterday morning were already pretty tough. Back home in Hamburg I never swim more than 2.5 kilometers in the pool. I know, though, that the distance is not the problem, it’s my constant worry about not being able to keep up with the others.

I’m recalling something my guide last year, Tasmin, said. She is from the Channel Islands, has escorted a couple of Channel swims and told me: „Open Water Swimming is 10 % physical strength and 90 % mental.“ I’m breathing in, breathing out, and diving into the next adventure.

Meanwhile, there are now only three Oranges. Rihannon, who works at the SwimTrek office, had to go back already. So it’s just Sheryl, Richard and me. The surface of the water is as placid as in a bathtub. The three of us are swimming at almost the same speed. I‘m quickly falling into my rhythm, my arms surprisingly feel better then yesterday. I’m doing stroke after stroke, hearing nothing besides my breath, and after about half a kilometer I know: This swim is going to be good.

Simon always keeps an eye on us, while at the same time he keeps enough distance with his boat so that we feel happily alone. Only now and then we swim towards him to get an update on how far we’ve already swum and to grab something to drink. To honour the occasion of the long swim the guides today also hand out wine gums – they neutralize the taste of salt in the mouth at least for a short time.

At some point we almost lose another orange cap. Richard is heading toward another island but Simon catches him before he’s gone too far. I can’t help smiling. On our first evening Richard introduced himself saying: „My orientation is disastrous.“ Oh yes. I keep expecting him to collide with a rock but he always stops short at the last second and looks surprised – as if he‘s thinking: „What are you doing here?“ – then swims on. Unlike Richard, I am good at breathing to both sides, a huge advantage to keeping an eye out in open water.

After almost two hours we reach the bay that is supposed to be our destination today, but there are two party boats floating there; the water is crowded with people and their pool noodles. We decide to keep swimming. Simon informs Dimitris over the radio about our new destination. When, finally, after 4 kilometers, I crawl on board, someone hands me a cold beer. I’m wiped out – and happier than I’ve been in a long time.

Life has shaken me quite a bit over the last two years. But at this moment on a boat in the Ionian Sea, I’m feeling one with myself for the first time in a long while. I’m not missing anything or anybody. Like every sports activity, swimming is always therapeutic – as well as being a way to get out in the wild. My biggest joy comes when everything feels right and I reach a kind of flow state: When the water is calm, when nothing hurts, when I find my rhythm und am keeping up with the others. Like today. In this state, thoughts that went in circles back home start flowing as well. What seemed big only two weeks ago is now small. Until I’m not thinking about anything. Except: Oh, look, an orange starfish.

~~~

On day four the sea is as calm as it’s been all week. In the morning, we do two crossings. What I love about crossings: At some point it’s so deep you can’t see the seabed anymore. Just endless blue with rays of sunshine darting through it. First we swim from the mainland to an island, or rather a big barren rock. From the rock, we swim to the next island that we are circumnavigating. Small Mourteméno is like a big playground for swimmers. Again and again I take a break and climb on a rock to enjoy the view and to see if I can catch a glimpse of the pink and yellow caps following us. In the afternoon, we swim around the second half of Ágios Nikólaos – with that we have circled all four islands.

We have almost perfect conditions on this SwimTrek. It’s not always like this: you can’t book nice weather and calm seas. On other trips, I’ve been swimming against waves and currents so hard that I felt like that I wasn’t moving at all. Instead of taking a breath, I swallowed so much salt water that I thought: Why am I doing this shit? Why am I not lying lazily on the beach? But then, just a short while later, I sat on deck with a mug of hot tea looking at the wavy see and felt a little bit proud that I had overcome this challenge. With every SwimTrek my confidence grows. Today I even go for a swim in the open sea all by myself – unimaginable a couple of years ago.

Finally, on our last day, I’m feeling my limitations despite the perfect conditions. Again, we swim 4 kilometers in one go, this time along the mainland coast, and I’m sensing the last four days of swimming in every muscle, every bone. My arms are tired, my shoulder hurts, every stroke takes all my strength. While Sheryl and Richard seem to get faster every day, I only get slower. I have to try very hard not to focus on the pain but to enjoy every minute in the water. So I focus on my technique, recalling what Simon told me: high elbow – aaa… – and rotation of the upper body. As I slowly fall back into my rhythm, I repeat in my head a sentence that a swim buddy gave me on my first SwimTrek. He told me he always give thanks to his body. This may sound a bit weird but it’s true. I’m forever thankful for this body that carries me more or less easily through the water. I’ve had a couple of slipped discs in the past, in my upper and lower back, I’ve been in chronic pain over month. And now I can swim a couple of kilometers in open water. Therefore: „Thank you, body. Thank you, body. Thank you, body.“

I’m swimming slowly but steadily along the coastline when suddenly Richard is swimming in the opposite direction, toward me. Has he now lost all sense of direction? I’m laughing: „What are you doing?“ With the most lovely British understatement, he replies: „Oh, just taking a little swim. How about you?“ But of course Simon must have asked him to loop around me – that way the guides make sure that the group doesn’t drift too far apart.

Just before we finish we reach one last highlight: two caves. In the first one the water is so cold you could chill white wine in it. The second one only fits three swimmers but has beautiful white stones on the ground so that it’s not dark at all inside. We take a couple of pictures before saying goodbye to the Ionian Sea.

We have swum about 20 kilometers in five days. In the afternoon, I fall into a two hour coma on my hotel bed. Late in the evening, after one last cheery, yet already nostalgic dinner with the group – people I’ve grown so fond of in such a short time – I’m sitting on the balcony with a glass of white wine and a cigarette. I’m looking at the masts of the sailing boats and the lights of Sivota’s harbour. My heart is light. I’m so happy and thankful. And I’m contemplating where I might go next. No matter if it’s Greece, Croatia or Italy, it’s definitely going to be a SwimTrek, that’s for sure. The sea is still calm. Everything seems possible.

(Ionian Explorer, June 2019)

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