Many years ago — 55, to be exact — I was on the island of Mykonos, in the Aegean Sea. I had met a young British woman there, and we were hanging out. One day, on the local beach, we heard that there was a nude beach on the other side of the island, and we decided to go there. Our options were to take a rickety old bus through rock-strewn fields full of grazing goats, or to swim out and around a point. I can barely relate to that 20-year-old me who said, “Let’s swim.”
Out, out, out we swam from shore, until the people on the beach looked so small. It seemed as if we were half a mile out at least, swimming side by side — she in the briefest attire. Suddenly, she said, “What’s that down there?” I looked down through that clear Aegean water and saw a large dark shape. Even now, the memory chills me. Without another thought of my companion, I bolted upright in the water and, like a buzz-saw, sped back to shore, until my cheek hit the sandy beach. Then, I passed out. I have no idea whether she was eaten, or partially eaten, or found another companion. But I survived.
This is who is writing this column. While I spend a great deal of time on the water, in a boat, I spend much less in it. And when I do, on very hot days, I am never far from shore. I like to be able to touch bottom. My wife used to try to lure me into skinny dipping in the moonlight. No way. To me, the water is an alien place. For years, I avoided seeing Jaws (laughable as it is).
That is why I have such great respect for those brave souls who, for the last 34 years, have participated in the annual Provincetown Swim for Life, out to Long Point and back, to raise funds (over $5 million to date) for local worthy causes. This year, on Sept. 11, they will be swimming parallel to the shore, from Snail Road to the new East End Waterfront Park because of — yes, danger in the water. (There is a concurrent swim in Wellfleet’s Great Pond.) The Swim itself is at once performance art, community engagement, and an important fundraiser.
In a way, we are all amphibious. Our ungainly cormorants are my metaphor: in the spring, they build their bulky nests out on the breakwater protecting the harbor. But here is the thing: they fly over the beach, with all the abundant eelgrass in the wrack line, and fly right over town out to Shank Painter Marsh to pick up bits of dried grass and reeds, and then fly all the way back out to the breakwater. They make multiple trips back and forth to complete their nests. They live in and on the water but are tied to the land.
So are we all. Whether you live or visit here, whether you work your ass off at three jobs or just lollygag around having fun, the water defines your experience. Every shop, every bar or club, every restaurant, every rental, depends on the fact that we are on the water. This is, in some undeniable degree, a fishing village, and we depend on this image, tenuous as it is, to define and, to some degree, sustain us. So, while we go through our daily grind, while we live our lives, the harbor, the bay, and the ocean are our backdrops.
How fitting, then, that Jay Critchley, the impulsive activist-artist-mastermind of the Swim for Life, decided all those years ago that his cause would be a swim for life — not another run, but immersion in that medium that surrounds us. And how truly heroic that so many people have put their bodies on the line — the water line — to make our lives better. They deserve our respect and our support.