Moonset Swimming at Dawn: Treacherous Enchantment

moon-over-sea Harvest Moon 21 Sept 2021 from the Sea

Tuesday (21 Sept 2021) will live in my body and mind in a powerfully visceral way for a long time. Before waking I had a brief vague dream, right on the edge of consciousness. Bold capital letters, first in red then in black, flashed across my forehead: FEAR, FEAR. I awoke, disturbed. A premonition? Assessing, I told myself, There's nothing to fear in this moment.

I looked out the window and the brilliant, white-gold harvest moon (the last full moon closest to the autumn equinox) blazed in the black sky, still high, beckoning. Summer ends and fall begins tomorrow. I (and my spirit) rose, heeding the call. Wouldn't it be wonderful to swim with the full moon in its rising and setting, experience the full cycle? The night before, in the dark water, I had gasped in deep joy as I turned to face the rising moon. How even more marvelous to say goodbye again to the moon (and summer) from the sea as it set into the water! Harvest Full moonrise and moonset swimming in 12 hours, an experience to remember deep in one's fibers.

With eagerness, my fear shaken off, I headed out into the dark, still sleeping earth, only a cock crowed in the distance. Unfortunately, I left my faithful friend, long acquired and hard earned, Wisdom at the door and took the hand of Foolishness instead. Or, perhaps, it was Eagerness, Joy, Beauty-seeker or Wild. Maybe all of them? We all skipped down to the Sea together. I realize I am being a bit harsh on myself and Wisdom did trail behind but I knew better, much better, than to go to the Cove at ebbing tide. I let the Moon enchant me, the deceptively, calm-appearing sea fool me and the Tide and Sea taught me a very stern lesson in humility. 

Reaching the Cove, the Sea appeared fairly calm. And the truth is, looking at the videos, it's evident the sea was not visibly rough. But I really only had eyes for the Moon. My major errors: not pausing to factor in the ebbing tide's power, vastly increased during a full moon and at certain points in the tide's 6hr out/ebbing cycle and the ocean's wild unpredictability.

The moon's setting coincided with the ebbing tide (as it does. Just as the night before with the moonrise, I enjoyed the flooding/incoming tide.) And the Cove is particularly bad with an ebbing tide due it's shape, rock formations and narrow-ish entry/exit channel.

The sea at dawn appears calm. It's low tide, still ebbing with the Harvest Moon when tides are particularly strong.

The waves near shore were nothing special. The water looked a bit edgy further out but nothing I've not faced before. And, frankly, I find it quite exciting, thrilling and exhilarating to be tossed about in a big sea. I undressed, stood on the rocks, assessing one more time and then took off, heading towards the golden moon, slipping easily out into the deeper water (see video)

Once in, the water felt very squirrelly, unusual, coming at my body from multiple directions, in quick succession. Strange sensations, an agitated Sea, unsure and fighting with itself, creating odd water and wave effects on the surface. And me, inside, bounced and buffeted, rising and dropping in the peaks and troughs. There's an incredible rush I feel as a big wave moves around and through me and this was intensified in this dark, gun metal grey, wild and strange sea. Looking east towards the mountains, dawn light glowed as the waves marched awkwardly towards shore.

In the western sky the moon would float, disappearing then reappearing from behind a mountain of water, slowly making its way down to horizon's moving edge. I took my camera to capture the moon's bewitching beauty and captured more than I anticipated. 

Looking west, the moon slowly sinks to the mobile horizon
Looking east towards dawn, the wave, another mountain

After 10 minutes of pure delight, dancing with the moon, laced with edgy excitement, I started to head back towards the entry/exit channel. And then I felt it. A terrible change move through the water. I looked out towards the open Sea and I saw a very large wave forming. Then it hit me - F--K! The ebbing tide. Three or four big out of place, incongruent wave sets came in. And, what comes in, must go out! Plus more water because it's the ebbing tide on waves carrying a huge amount of water over a relatively shallow zone due to the low tide. Again F--K! Get ready because it's suction out time!  

The next video captures well the odd behavior of the water during the swim and how much rougher it was in the water than visible from shore or the photos illustrate. Observe the way the waves and water move in opposing directions. The body can feel these strange sensations and that was how I knew an important shift was occurring as masses of water were entering the Cove. Around 1:35 of the video the big sets start to come, I realized there would then be a powerful pull out. It was time to stop filming and keep my head clear. I put the video to Moby's expressive song: Natural Blues. Vera Hall's lament, "Oh, Lordy...Don't nobody know my troubles but God," felt very appropriate.

The truth is sometimes we just find ourselves in a swirling mass of chaos beyond our control - the deer that leaps in front of the car and freezes in the headlights, the pandemic that comes turning upside down individual and collective lives, a volcano that erupts when you are there, or the full erasure of your YouTube channel without warning due to misinformed and unfair censorship** - and we must do the best that we can, make the most of it when chaos presents itself. Wisdom came back to me then when I needed her. Thank you.

I couldn't move perpendicular to the current because I had rocks to the left and right. Looking down, the water only moved in one direction, out. You can't fight that kind of current no matter how strong a swimmer you are. I could feel myself pulled out. It's a horrible feeling that loss of control and impotence. I swam away from the center of the channel towards the least dangerous rocky area. I began to make slow progress doing some kind of side stroke, without exhausting myself or panicking, the worst thing you can do.

I saw a rock fisherman on shore, running along the rocks. So, odd, I managed to think, I've seen no one of late. There was nothing he could do anyway. I sensed his concern. I felt the shame of being in a situation I didn't think I should be in. I held on, confident I could return safely to shore if I just waited out the dreadful pull of those big sets. I knew they would pass.

When the big sets came, the water behaved particularly chaotically, pushing and pulling against itself. The mound in the background is not a rock, but a wave that doesn't appear to make any sense.

Then, gradually, the terrible ebbing subsided and I made further progress towards shore. The fisherman reached the beach, no longer worried. I pulled myself through the kelp and sat waist deep, small waves lapping against me, relieved, humbled, shaken, deeply grateful. 'Oh, Lordy....' We never looked at one another in the eyes. I sat looking out to the calm appearing sea, humbled. And he just went on his way, rod in hand, and didn't look back.

Someone wrote to me and said I had conquered the tide and I said, No, the tide is not to be conquered. It is to be respected, known. I humbly bow to the Ocean, the Tide and the Moon. I know I am just a mere daughter of the Sea, grateful for my tiny, insignificant existence on this Earth. Dear life hangs by a thread and sometimes we find ourselves out of control with nothing to grasp onto to pull ourselves to safety. We must draw on those inner resources as we navigate the wild sea. It's okay to be reminded once in awhile, puts things in perspective.

Some of the unusual surface effects just before the big set, the moon is now very low in the sky and close to setting.

Immense gratitude I felt then and I feel now. Thank you for sparing me this day to return again, a little bit wiser. As one lifelong surfer (@timorrell1) wrote to me in response to my Instagram posts on this wild swimming experience: 

 "I've had these moments...when you push the boundary, where brave blurs into foolish...the sea will always find your weakness and show you a lesson!" 

Yes, the ocean will find your weakness but also sends reminders/warnings - keep sharp. I tell this story to remind you to employ your wisdom, don't be overly confident, watch the signs, remember the Sea's incredible unpredictability, and be aware of your enchantments in order to see through them to safety.  Perhaps someone who might need to hear this will and remember the next time they face an enchanting ocean and an ebbing tide. Facing the sea there is always an inherent power and chaos beyond our control but you can be prepared with knowledge and skills. Of course, I'm also speaking about life in general.

I picked myself up from the beach and went back to the changing rock to get my things. Many layers of thought and feeling washing through me. The moon had set but the sun had not yet risen. As anticipated, this experience of swimming with harvest full moonrise and moonset would remain deep in the fibers of my being. But not exactly as I had imagined before setting off! Wow!

I rushed off the beach heading home, walking up the sand towards the dune. I paused, though, at the top, looking back one more time, the sea appeared calm again, a very 'swimmable' appearing sea. I felt compassion for myself - it really was deceptive even for a very experienced swimmer who knows these waters well. The eerie premonition of fear came back. Clearly my instincts are deeply intact. I need to trust them. Be careful with what lies below the surface of a deceptive façade. One of the lessons of the summer season. 

Then I looked forward, ahead to the sun, just about to rise over the ridge, bringing with it the promise of the new day and season. Summer is over, I realized. Death marks new beginnings, transitions from one place along the journey to another. It's time to reap the lessons of summer and look forward, not back, to the new season stronger and wiser. 

The sea's life-affirming gift to me - shaking me into consciousness, aliveness, total clarity of vision in the moment. Does this experience damper my love of the Sea? No. I will not be governed by fear nor deceived by foolishness. I will always respect the Sea but I will return again and again prepared to accept the consequences of the unpredictable pie it may serve me. Some doors close and new ones open. It's okay to let them close, harvest the lessons, carry them deep inside to flourish in another place, moment and time. I welcomed the new season and the new day with even deeper appreciation for this precious life, the Sea, our planet and its many inherent mysteries. I swim into the new day and the next chapter of my life.

Poem: On Being a Leaf
Poem: Shard [on grief] by Lily Robinson

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