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  • Writer's pictureNadine Bennett

An honest look at strategies for dealing with my fear of swimming in the sea

If you've never swum in the ocean before, you'll get it.

We moved to a small community on the Northumberland Strait, in New Brunswick (Canada) about 6 months ago. No longer land-locked in Ontario, this opened up a whole new world of learning to swim in the ocean, and now I'm daydreaming of channel crossings, here and in other parts of the world. I even started looking at maps, and figure I'll have to learn about tides and currents. Dang! My bucket list pretty much tripled overnight.

But if you've never swum in the ocean before and have an over-active imagination like me (raised on horror movies in the 80s), it's kinda scary. There's giant jellyfish, ravenous deep-sea monsters, and long seaweed that could easily reach up to wrap itself around your legs. Fears aside, I have been doing some ocean swimming in Baie Verte, the shoreline is a shallow shelf about 300m out, and then it drops off into deep blue oblivion. I stay within that 300m stretch of course, because I'm petrified of going further without support.

The first few swims I did were in February, and even in the comfort of familiar icy cold I was terrified there was something sinister lurking below, having learned that a new girl just moved to the area and would make for a tasty snack. Nothing bad happened of course, and I slowly became more comfortable with the ocean over time. I was visited by a curious grey seal a few months later, followed my instincts and bolted back to shore, but bravely got back in and continue swimming a bit to prove to myself that I could. Apparently, I can still learn new things. A whole new wonderful world is opening up to me...

I finally connected with local swimmers, thanks to the Southeast Storm Triathlon Club page, and went for a swim with a new friend Jessie last Saturday at Parlee Beach. This was my first "real" swim in the ocean in a long time, away from shore, in water over my head. It really got me thinking about my fears, and what I was going to need to do to take it to the next level in order to make channel swims part of my future. So I broke it down:

  • I'm afraid of how I'll react to things I don't know or understand (jellyfish)

  • I'm afraid of things that could seriously hurt me (toothy critters, like sharks)

  • I'm afraid if I have a bad experience, it will ruin something I love (swimming)

I was happy to finally be out on the water with another swimmer, although she's much faster than I am. That's ok, I'll learn new things, I'm sure, and maybe I'll even pick up some speed too. We swam along a set of buoys, and then back into shore directly against some decent chop. There were quite a few jellyfish, and I'm not afraid to tell you I let out a scream underwater a few strokes in, when I swam up against a pretty big one. It's only the second time I've swum with jellyfish, the first was on a trip to Dubai, they were pale white and you really didn't spot them easily, you could only feel their soft blobby bodies if you touched one or felt their sting as you passed by. But these were lions mane jellies, a deep purple-brown, and there were all sizes, lots of little babies and a few larger ones with long stingers. All that work I've been doing to keep my head looking down when I swim meant I didn't see them until they were practically under my face, so I'd get quite startled when I came across one.

We had a great swim, but I was a little frightened by the jellies, because they aren't familiar to me, I don't know how much their sting hurts or what happens if my hand gets tangled up in one. For the rest of the afternoon, I kept thinking about them, and I woke up the next day convinced I need to seize the moment and go learn more. I drove back down to Parlee Beach, equipped with a camera and fins, and swam out to about chest-deep water. Here's a little look at what I came across along the way, a large jelly, little crab, and a moonsnail:

So before I tell you more about my adventure with jellies that day, let's talk about fear. How we deal with fear is very individual, what works for me may not work for you, and that's ok. Don't let anyone tell you how you need to react or deal with it, some things you just need to figure out for yourself. Here are a few strategies, some work better than others for me...

1. Look at evidence, to understand facts about your fear:

Yeah, I started with the strategy I hate the most, the statistics of it all. I've had people tell me, in a brave voice, well how likely is it you'll be bitten by a shark anyhow (fuck if I know), or, well it's not really people they're after (tell that to Eric Shall). Ok I get that most swimmer shark encounters happen in warmer waters, which I'm less likely to be in, but still. Telling me it statistically isn't probable doesn't do a thing - zero - for my fear about it. I actually got to meet Eric at a swim a few months after his encounter, we were all standing on shore waiting for the start, I looked over and recognized him by the wide scar across his belly. We chatted a little afterwards, nice guy. It must take a lot of strength to get back in the water after that. Don't talk to me about numbers. Sharks are real, jellyfish are real, fear is real, I can't use my brain power to rationalize it and magically make it go away.

2. Face your fears, to make them less scary:

Now this is a pretty reasonable approach: face your fears head on, know them, understand them, make them less scary. This works really well for a lot of people. I suppose it really depends on what the fear is though, for this to work. I went back to Parlee Beach to confront my fear of jellyfish, to try to figure out what exactly was frightening, but no amount of looking at sharks will make me fear less for my life. So I don't beat myself up if I can't face a fear or get past it, I'm not a weak person, sometimes this just isn't the right strate

3. Zone out of the fear to find your centre, to find your calm:

Another way to deal with fear is to find a mechanism that gives you some way to step outside of the fear and find a centred place of calm, even if just for a little bit. When I feel a moment of heightened panic in the water, I close my eyes underwater and focus on the rhythm of my arm strokes and breathing pattern, pull and inhale, pull and exhale. Sometimes I'll try to think of something completely different, a happy place or feeling, or a visual that makes me laugh. Or a song, I'll start humming something or running through the lyrics. It doesn't really remove the fear, but it's a distraction and helps me overcome panic long enough to get centred again and get my head back on straight.

4. Imagine the worst, and what you would do if that happened:

Now we're talking, I do this one a lot. Imagine the thing you're afraid of coming true, how it would play out, how you would respond, what would need to happen to be safe again, how could you best prepare for it assuming it will happen. It's mentally hard to walk through a scenario of something bad actually happening, it can be frightening, but I've also found it kinda comforting at the same time. You start to realize your own strengths in how you visualize yourself responding, or that you're more prepared than you thought you were. And you might think of new things to implement, ways that you could be more prepared to avoid or deal with the fear if it were to come true. In my case, I started to think more about the importance of the safety plan for the support boat, making sure the safety briefing covers steps necessary to get me out of the water, what supplies are on board, etc.

5. Talk it out (maybe even laugh a little), to help make the fear known:

Yeah, I'm a talker. I'm pretty sure I drive my friends crazy talking about the worries on my mind, and I had a coach once tell me I need to be more positive and not psych myself out so much. What people don't get is I'm not looking for reassurance or sympathy, just an ear to listen or someone to help me talk through the fear. Sometimes just letting someone else know I'm afraid feels good. But you have to be a little careful with this one, you might end up causing someone else to feel a fear they otherwise had under control. Feel out the situation, know who you can talk to, and good friends will tell you to shut up if they've have enough. You might even get to the point where your fear becomes something you laugh about with those friends. Case in point, while I was out in the water looking at jellies that day, a good friend messaged me a pic of a toothy grinning shark. Thanks...

6. Let yourself get pissed off by how you feel:

A few years ago, I had a swim that changed me, in a really good way. I was swimming at the Memphremagog Winter Swim Festival in Vermont, USA. A 25m, 2-lane pool is cut out of the ice on the lake, and swimmers can sign up for everything from 25m to 200m. It was cold and really windy that day, and I was getting ready for my first 200m competitive ice swim ever. I was really nervous and felt a deep fear, but couldn't really pinpoint what it was - I had trained for this, and knew I could get out if I needed to. I couldn't name the fear, but it was definitely there. And while I was getting my cap and goggles ready, I started to feel really mad, not at myself, but at the fear itself. I marched down to the water, pissed off that fear was messing with my head. I didn't try to suppress it or push it away, I accepted it but wasn't willing to let it take over. And I had probably the most epic swim of my life. After that, I realized I could do pretty much anything I put my mind to.

Ok then, enough theorizing, back to my jellies swim. This fell squarely into the "face your fears" strategy, with a touch of the "imagine the worst case scenario coming true" added in. I swam out to about chest-deep water, spotted a decent sized jelly, and floated above it while watching it move through the water. I realized it was actually really beautiful, the way it relaxed its muscles to draw in water, and then force it back out again to glide gently forward. I then sized up its stingers, which were MUCH longer than I had noticed at first glance, there were a few really long ones that trailed at the back, barely a whisper but guaranteed to deliver a nasty sting. I thought about reaching out to touch the stingers, to see how bad it would hurt and whether I could handle it, but decided to wait for another day. I was alone that day, and besides I'm a talker, remember? I'd have had no one to complain to on the ride home about how much purposefully touching a jellyfish's stingers hurt my poor little hand.

What did I learn that day? It's ok to be a little freaked out, lions mane jellies are dark in colour and kinda pop up suddenly into your field of view when you're swimming, I'll have to swim with them more to get used to it. The stingers are much longer than I realized, so I know that I might get stung even if I seem to stroke far enough away, and not to be too surprised when that happens. And that they are really kinda cool to watch.

Like with any puzzle, I now have a couple of questions that need answering too:

- Do swimmers ever get tangled up in jellyfish while swimming, is that a thing?

- What should I do if it happens, considering I can't touch the support crew or boat?

See? Fear not completely gone, but replaced with appreciation and interest...

Bonus footage, I also came across a little crab:

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