Oct 192015

The water’s where I go to regain balance when I’m stressed, to escape when life hurts. That’s why most days of the week even when the water’s cold, the deck is slick with ice or it’s pitch dark, I haul myself out of bed at the crack of dawn and submerge my head in chlorinated water.

Usually, I’m barely awake and a little disoriented when I first dive in. But when I emerge from my hour-long outdoor swim, I feel transformed. Instead of dull and lethargic, my thoughts feel focused and sharp and my mind feels relaxed and calm. All stiffness is replaced by a feeling of youthful exuberance and my skin tingles in a way that’s a pleasant reminder I’m alive.

Still…I’ve always wondered what it would be like to take this swimming experience outside the confines of a concrete rectangle. On countless beach vacations, I’ve dreamed of swimming beyond the buoys, crowds and stirred up sediment. I’ve gazed out at the sea and fantasized about swimming for hours with no worries about boat traffic or being carried away by a current.

When I first came across the Big Blue website, my husband was a new swimmer, training for his first triathlon. I bookmarked the site, followed Big Blue on Facebook and jealously read the trip itinerary. Wow–daily swims around islands in the Ionian Sea, crossing channels and hugging coastlines. Sounds like a swimmer’s dream come true. If only Chris was ready for that, I thought.

Five years later, Chris had completed countless triathlons and trained with the Masters swim team daily. Last spring after we finished a lake swim, I felt confident he could enjoy a swimming vacation. So I burst out with, “Can we please do that swim trip in Greece?”

Fast forward to six months later… Chris and I sit shoulder to shoulder on the deck of a boat called Mogli near Lefkada Island, Greece. We’re chatting with new friends we’ve met from Australia, the UK and Israel as the boat bobs over waves toward our latest island destination in the Ionian Sea. The sea between the Greek mainland and Lefkada is a swimmer’s playground with dozens of islands around to explore. Topped with olive and fir trees, they are rimmed in white limestone and aquamarine water that transforms into a luxurious blue as the water deepens. The sea is such a postcard perfect blue I’m tempted to close my eyes for a few seconds to see if its still there when I reopen them.

Neither of us are open water gurus. We worry the swims might be scary, that we might feel alone and vulnerable out in the ocean. But with the support of our guides on Mogli and the inflatable boats, we feel safe. Most of the time, we hug the shoreline of an island, hovering over a limestone bottom barely over our heads. Most significantly, our guides Michael, Jax and Noa choose fortuitous swimming spots with minimal boat activity and calmer water, escort us every stroke of the way, and offer us juice and water at regular intervals to keep us hydrated.

The trip feels like a magical dream. Every morning after a relaxing and scenic boat trip, we swim around different islands and enjoy long lunches in quaint villages. The three speed groups that have been established allow us all to swim at a pace that feels right. My pink swim group buddies are my husband, Chris, and Fran Lou. We are soon dubbed “the explorers” because we rarely miss the opportunity to capture a photo, propel our way into a cave or surface dive to recover a sea urchin skeleton from the bottom. All three of us are athletic and adventurous so we make a great swimming team. Suzanne Williams jumps in to join us for a couple of swims, instantly adopting the adventurous, explorer spirit, pointing out starfish nestled in the limestone beds as we swim along.

In the pool, I felt confined. In the Ionian Sea, I feel suddenly free. I cruise along, gliding through the buoyant, salty sea until every smooth stroke feels like meditation. Peering through that crystal clear water, I watch schools of fish dart out of my path. I slide my hand over beds of tilted and buckled limestone that have been subjected to millions of years of the earth’s compressive forces.

Without the predictability of a black line or a wall, my mind is excitedly anticipating what might happen next. Are there fish behind those rocks? Will there be bigger waves after we round that peninsula? Will we be able to squeeze into that cave?

After exploring a cave, Fran climbs up onto a big shelf of limestone outside its mouth. I take a picture of her smiling and flexing her muscles.

When it’s time for another channel crossing, my heart rate accelerates. It’s harder work and the seas are choppier. The white limestone bottom drops out from beneath us and all I see through my goggles is cerulean blue water. Is the water one hundred feet deep or five hundred feet deep? Dozens of feet below me, a milky white jellyfish opens its umbrella like body before closing it again, propelling itself through the water. What else lies below us, I wonder. Fish, dolphins, sea turtles? A shark, perhaps? Not knowing makes the experience more exciting. It’s my adrenaline rush for the day.

On our final day, we stroke across a small channel from Skorpidi Island to Skorpios Island. Skorpios Island, once owned by Aristotle and Jacki Onassis, was recently sold to Ekaterina Rybolovleva, the daughter of Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev.

Swimming through crystal clear water alongside this idyllic island is like starring in a James Bond movie. The Spy Who Loved Me song plays in my head as I turn my head to breathe and see a stone wall hiding an expansive villa. Then I see acres of lush green forest, where security cameras peering out from the foliage serves as the only reminder that someone lives here and is watching our every move.  As we round another point, buoys prevent us from swimming too close to a second villa perched above the beach. A bodyguard wearing a crisp white shirt and sunglasses observes us from shore.

“Six thirty three,” Gary shouts when I touch the wall after a five hundred yard timed swim at Masters workout. I’m jarred back to the present. It’s been weeks since Chris and I returned from our wonderful vacation in Greece. But whenever I’m in the pool, my thoughts often drift across the Atlantic and back to the Ionian Sea and once again, I’m gliding through the salty sea, relishing how it feels on my skin. And after a hard workout, sometimes I close my eyes, float on my back and imagine I’m bobbing on the waves and that I’m still surrounded by amazing world of blue water and green islands that is Greece. That fantasy will just have to do until I get a chance to go back.

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