by Joe Oakes, Oregon LMSC, Unattached
You have surely heard the Marine Corps motto, Semper Fidelis, or Semper fi. But do you know the similar sounding motto of the US Coast Guard? It is Semper Paratus, meaning ‘always ready.’ And they are. There are times, though, when maybe the coastal guardians are a bit too ready.
We have often been told that we should never swim alone, especially in the ocean, and even more so in unguarded waters. And, as a Water Safety Instructor and an event director, I have passed on that same good advice to many swimmers for many years: it remains an excellent rule for all of us to abide by. But what about those times when there is no one to swim with? What do you do then?
I travel a lot, six months or more a year, normally on board cruise liners, sometimes as a passenger and sometimes as staff. One of the great things about ships is that they are always near the water, hopefully on top of it. Oh, how I love the sea! If there is anything that I love better than being on a ship, it is immersing my ancient body in Mother Nature’s healing briny waters. Thankfully, it has been my good fortune to have swum on every continent and in over a hundred ports.
Let me tell you about a couple of recent swimming experiences in the Azores, a group of mid-Atlantic Portuguese islands. Our first stop was at Punta Delgada on the main island, Sao Miguel. The first thing I do in any port is to look for a place to swim. At Punta Delgado it was easy: Within sight of the ship was a protected cove with a big swimming area marked off by a string of orange buoys. Adjacent to the cove were salt water and fresh water pools, and what looked like changing rooms and showers. Voila! With my trunks under my trousers I approached the lifeguard and asked, in my bad mix of Portuguese and Spanish, how much it would cost (in Euros) to use the facilities. In perfect English he chuckled and told me that I looked old enough to be a senior citizen, so it was all free: pools, cove, showers and lockers. (There are more Azoreans in North America than in the Azores, so most people speak English.) It was a wonderful swim, with the April Atlantic temperature feeling like San Francisco Bay. After a half hour of wet bliss, a hot shower and a cold beer with the local swimmers, I knew that it was a very good day.
The following day we sailed west to Horta on the island of Faial. What a difference! The population of Faial is only about ten thousand. Alas, there is no sheltered cove. Big breakers were hammering the steep, rocky shore. In fact, it looked like there might not be a place to swim. Determined, I took a walk to the east, where I found a long breakwater running straight out into the sea. The breakwater’s sheltered ‘armpit’ looked less threatening, so I sat and studied the wave sets to plan my entry. Shoes, towel and clothing hidden on the beach, with my valuables inside my swim suit, it was no big problem getting past the breakers. Once outside it was a little bumpy, but definitely swimmable. I swam parallel to the beach, staying away from the rocks, communing with the fish, fulfilling my need to be in the water. All of a sudden a big orange zodiac roared up to me with two guys screaming at me, “You must get into the boat: it is dangerous here.” Someone on shore, fearing that I was in mortal danger, had called the Coast Guard to rescue me. “I am okay, let me swim.” “No, it is too dangerous here.” “Then I’ll swim back to the beach where my clothing is.” “No, you cannot. Too dangerous. Get in the boat.” “I do not want to.”
Finally they relented and told me that if I would not get into the boat, I would have to swim to the end of the breakwater and swim back to the shore on the other side. Yeah, yeah, yeah, so I swam out to the end of the breakwater, another hundred yards or so, and did a u-turn to the other side. And what did I find on the other side? It was the outlet of a river coming down from the mountains. My mind conjured up two problems. First, I was swimming in one direction and the river was flowing in the opposite direction. Shite! My second problem was wondering just what kind of detritus might be floating with me in that river. I put my head down and pushed my way through the colder, fresh mountain water, trying not to take any in. I swam to where I could climb out, and realized that I had a third problem: my shoes were a quarter of a mile away and I had to walk back over rough ground barefoot.
The Coast Guard guys were waiting for me. Were they going to arrest me? Give me a citation? Instead, they laughed, handed me a beer and suggested that I do not do that again. I promised that I wouldn’t, not there, anyway. “Semper Paratus, amigos!” And thank you.