In the seven years we have been wintering on Hilton Head Island I have never once swum in the Ocean. It hurts me to say so but it was always too cold. The Atlantic – at least north of the Georgia/Florida state line – can be a formidable body of water, make no mistake. Once I recall having stuck a sandalled foot into the brine just to say I did it. Yet even when the ambient temperatures rose to the high 70s and zealous swimmers and surfers were gambolling in the water I hadn’t dared to take a chance. Perhaps my memories of swimming in the Atlantic in Nova Scotia in late summer had conditioned me to resile from the project. But today that changed. Today I went for a swim in the Atlantic Ocean on Hilton Head Island! And the water was fine, just fine.
This uncommon event did not come about without application. Early this morning I resolved not to go bicycling even though I have normally done so almost every day for the past five months. I am increasingly convinced that much of my muscular incapacity in the morning is due to tension caused by bicycling. I have attempted to relieve the tightness of my hamstrings and calf muscles by stretching and touching my toes but that hasn’t helped much. Nor have the regular visits twice a week to the chiropractor dispelled the problem. In anticipation of our upcoming departure from the Island and a four-day drive to Canada when I shall be obliged to sit – something which I know exacerbates the stiffness – I decided to abandon bicycling altogether for the next several days. Primarily I want to see whether it makes any difference. Besides, the appeal of bicycling has worn somewhat thin after all these months (well actually after all these years because bicycling is what I have been doing almost every day of the year since I retired in April of 2014).
Finding something to do in the middle of the day – other than my ingrained habit of bicycling – is as a result somewhat of a trial. Certainly I like to read. But normally I do that in the evening. In the morning while having my breakfast I handle email, check Facebook, call my elderly mother at the “Nut House” (as she distinguishes it), deal with advisors and scan the news channels. When I finished breakfast this morning, I parked myself in the cushioned wicker chair on the balcony. It was a magnificent day, promising a high of 80℉. I nestled in, positioned myself as best as possible to see through the railing to the sea and then alternated between reading a Virginia Woolf novel, lifting my head to squint at the Ocean and drooping my head to doze to the sound of the birds and the surf. Increasingly Virginia became less captivating and the Ocean more absorbing. I watched people porting beach gear trek along the boardwalk over the white dunes to the seashore, their incoherent images like daubs of paint. On the shore there were gaggles of people (probably families) playing sports, chasing balls or frisbees. Occasionally couples cycled on the beach. The wind was noticeable, it blustered into the alcove of the balcony and translated to white caps on the green water in the distance.
I made up my mind. I was going to the beach! For a moment I weighed the advantage of sitting by the pool but abandoned that initiative, too many people. I also decided to don my bathing suit instead of just wearing my athletic shorts. It was then I knew I would confront the Ocean. I would have gone with only my towel in hand but we exhumed a low-profile beach chair in the outside storage locker so I took that along as well. And my canvass beach bag in which I deposited my door key and lip balm. I was set for the beach!
I left the condominium by the interior stairwell and headed round the corner towards the beach. The weathered wooden boardwalk is well constructed but it dissuaded me because it is considerably elevated above the dunes. So I opted to avoid climbing the stairs and instead to follow the well-worn sandy path beside the boardwalk. At the end of the boardwalk there was a broader path over the flats cluttered with seaweed debris and bits of driftwood. The sand was fine and soft. As I slowly approached the Ocean the sound of the surf heightened. The wind was blowing hard directly out of the southwest, perpendicular to the shore, exactly in line with the sun which was now almost at its midday peak.
Most of the people who were already at the shore had arrested themselves precisely where they left the dunes, conveniently closest to the boardwalk far behind them. To get away from them I moved further along the shore from Calibogue Cay in the direction of the open water of the Ocean. I wanted to stare far out to sea towards England, a view unobstructed by the coastline of Daufuskie Island. With some calculation I unfolded the beach chair and deposited it on the sand. Descending into it was a complication. The seat of the chair couldn’t have been more than two inches above the beach. Given the condition of my knees, that constitutes a long way down. I capitulated and collapsed onto the beach, not stately but no other way to do it. I settled into the canvass hammock in line with the blazing sun, stretched my legs, closed my eyes and listened to the surf.
The green Ocean was a tumult of large heaving waves, crashing one upon the other, rushing to the beach on a flat frothing plate where the deflated foam swirled about then disappeared before the symphony started over again. There were clumps of seaweed that looked like bamboo bunches scattered on the beach. Forward to my left was a large piece of gnarled driftwood embedded in the sand. It would I thought soon be submerged in the rising tide. The water lapped closer with each successive repetition of the waves, licking the debris and the driftwood, sometimes surpassing them both. I tried in vain to make out whether the incoming tide was imperceptibly shifting the bamboo bunches along the beach. Swarms of grey and white sea birds, very like seagulls but distinctive with long orange beaks, landed on the shore, their wings like white linen napkins in the wind. Then as quickly they flew into the sky and regrouped further along the shore.
Remarkably – given this gallimaufry of sights and sounds – I drifted into oblivion, mesmerized by the heat, the wind and the sounds. The wind was howling about me, buffeting my ears but cooling me as it did. Now and again I was stirred from my somnolence by the dust of the beach, kicked up by passers-by, the grit blowing into my face like fine powder that thinly caked around my closed eyelids and got into my hair. I watched the beachcombers stopped on the shore pointing like iconic explorers at dolphins which leapt out of the water in unison. A portly man stood nearby, his loose-fitting white Polo shirt dreamily billowing in the wind. Against the glaring sunlight he was but a silhouette. The sea glistened. I watched children cautiously venture into the crashing waves, pushed along by the strength of the tide and the power of the sea.
At last it was time. I clumsily disentangled myself from the tiny beach chair, twisting onto my knees then hoisting myself on the back of the chair. I am constantly reminded of the indignity of aging. I removed my shirt and secured it around a leg of the chair. I knotted the tie of my lemon coloured swim suit and confidently strode towards the sea.
The initial border of sand under water was very soft and I sank down several inches with each step. As I plod further into the Ocean the floor of the sea became more durable. Soon however I was having difficulty resisting the waves which seemed to gather ferocity with each turn. And the power of the current was undeniable. A quick glance back to shore told me I had unwittingly drifted southward a considerable distance. I accordingly pushed back in the direction whence I had come, deliberately trying to regain my perpendicular alignment with my beach chair. Contemporaneously I moved deeper into the sea, determined to get myself into more depth so I could submerge myself completely. I saw a large approaching wave and knew the time had come. When the wave was almost atop me I sank under water, only to be tossed about unceremoniously and dragged southward once again. But I was completely wet. Now it was easier to broach each advancing wave. Again and again I dove into the waves and rejoiced to be enveloped by salt sea water.
Back on shore, after being battered by the incoming and receding waves, and having struggled to mount the soft sand, I collapsed again into the beach chair. The salt water moderately oiled my skin. As the water dried it tightened my skin and eventually began to itch. I put on my white shirt and relished the violent wind. The semi-circle tracks in the sand in front of my beach chair mirrored the rotation of my chair as I instinctively followed the path of the sun. By now I had begun to feel the moderate sting of a sunburn in spite of the refreshing wind. I guessed I had spent close to two hours at the beach.
It was time to leave. My first swim in the Ocean on Hilton Head Island could not have been more of a prize. Though I was already contemplating a return visit in the next few days – or whenever the weather cooperated – I resigned myself not to expect such ideal conditions. I accept that today’s acquaintance may have been serendipitous, coinciding with what might be a final visit. I trod across the glaring white sand towards the boardwalk. The sound of the sea gradually muted.