Swimming in the Middle of the Ocean
By William Yates
This piece first appeared in Sail Magazine

The boat floats motionless on a mirror sea, a sea that sparkles like silver sequins.  I am at 35 degrees north, nearly 1,000 miles off the coast of California, yet it is sultry, tropical hot.  The ocean is a rich, turquoise-blue today, a lighter blue than usual.

I stand at the stern of my 38-foot sloop, Obsession, arms resting on the stern pulpit's stainless steel tubing, my eyes fixed on the magnificence of the day.  My mind moves about like a butterfly, soaring and fluttering from place to place, occasionally resting at one spot for a while, then moving on to somewhere new.

It is my eighty-second day alone at sea. I am naked;  my body is brown from weeks of tropical sailing. The sun feels soothing and uncomfortable at the same time.  I look into the sea over the stern;  my face stares back, mimicking my movements. There is not a ripple on the water, not a wisp of breeze in the air, not a shred of cloud in the powder blue sky. The sails hang limp, like a handkerchief held from a corner.

The sun's rays bend prism-like into the sea.  My eyes are drawn into the depths.  It is hypnotic;  I am mesmerized.  The water is clear as plate glass. It looks cool, seductive, inviting.  The thought of swimming strolls into my mind and takes a walk around. I imagine how it would feel to dive in:  refreshing, relaxing, cool.  The vision grows rapidly, like a pressed sponge that has been plunged into water.

"Why not?"  I murmur.  I have been through many other calms, but none this pure. I had been through two storms, one under bare poles. I wonder why we sailors say bare poles when - at least in my case - it was really bare pole.

Sailors say lots of things that really don't make sense.  I had broached in mean, freight-train moving, breaking, following seas.  I had endured having the boat submerged under towering, breaking waves.  I had picked flying fish and squid off the deck in the dawn light.  I had been surrounded by hundreds of frolicking porpoise and had watched in awe while whales breached 100 feet from the boat.  I had sailed with night skies so clear it was as if being in a planetarium.  I had experienced days and days of flawless weather, calm seas, and 20-knot winds, conditions that granted me perfect sailing.  I had experienced so much.

But I had never been swimming in the middle of the ocean.

Francis Chichester had done it, hadn't he?  Of course he had.  Robin Knox Johnson had done it, too.  So had Dodge Morgan and Joshua Slocum and Alec Rose and scores of other solo sailors.  Not that I compare myself to these accomplished men, but I have an index of shared experiences, and swimming in a dead-calm sea in the middle of the ocean is missing from my checklist.

"Go for it, Bill," I say aloud.  Excitement grows.  This will be fun, I think, and it will feel fabulous.  My eyes follow the shafts of sunlight reaching down into the water.  It is three miles deep where I am.  That's very deep.  I begin to run through a mental checklist for the dip.

Rig the ladder.  Get a light line to tie around myself - just in case.  Don't be stupid.  Be careful.  Get a towel.  My body tingles in anticipation.

I look at my face in the water.  I am smiling.  I am ready.  A six-foot shark moseys up to the wind vane's rudder and sniffs it like a dog checking out a hydrant.  The water is so clear it is as if we are separated by a fluid sheet of glass.  This is a healthy, well-nourished, perfect shark, in the prime of its life.  The rudder doesn't keep its interest more than a couple of seconds, so it turns, its leathery hide creasing in taut rolls where it angles, and saunters off to the west.

It is an hour before I close my mouth.  

I’ve never gone swimming in the middle of the ocean.  (See more photos!)

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