Joan Phaup: Sea stories

Posted:  Saturday, February 4, 2017 - 3:15pm

Why did I do it? I'd heard about the Islesboro Crossing for LifeFlight, knew it was a big fundraiser and admired people who'd done it, but swim the three miles myself? Nope. A Facebook tag changed my mind last year: "Joan Phaup, you'd love this!" With two seconds' thought, I enlisted. A rash move? Perhaps. But this adventure had been a long time coming.

The ocean first grabbed me when I was 4. It was hot that day in Malibu. Standing on the shore in my blue shorts and striped tee shirt, I curled my toes into the soggy sand and watched the waves inch toward me. When a surge reached my shins. I dug in hard and braced my knees. The tug of the tide scared me, but I let the water carve rivulets beneath my feet while I fretted about the force that was pulling me toward the deep.

I started kindergarten a few weeks later. Our teacher took joy in the sea and taught us its wonders. When Mrs. Gant put starfish, shells, and sea horses on display, the biggest hit was a conch: if you held it up to your ear you could hear the ocean roar. Having sensed the sea's potential fury, I didn't want to hear it. I wouldn't even touch that shell.

The school year finished with a class beach party near Mrs. Gant's house.

"Never turn your back on the ocean," she declared as we walked along the shore. Her turquoise muumuu billowed as we hunted for shells, rocks and sea glass. "It can surprise you if you're not careful."

I've wavered between caution and derring-do ever since – sometimes bounding into the sea when I should have held back or chickening out when I should have jumped in.

When I was 9, horsing around in the surf with school friends started dissolving my fears. We'd get a roller-coaster thrill from jumping over the biggest breakers. With smaller ones, we found the perfect moment to launch ourselves from the curl to get a smooth ride. Sometimes we'd plummet over a wave, tumbling around as the water pummeled us. I'd curl into a ball and hold my breath until the foam receded. Calm amidst chaos: a life lesson.

The lifeguards put on a school assembly every spring. Our bronzed idols explained riptides: how to spot them and what to do if one caught us. But our judgment was not always sound. Wendy, Keith and I got carried out by a riptide once and only realized what had happened when a lifeguard ran toward us offering help. We said no thanks. He watched us as we skirted around the rip and ambled back onto the beach.

When I was 19, six-foot waves enticed me at Will Rogers State Beach, not far from my first tidal tip-toe. These giants were perfect for roller-coastering but deadly in the eyes of the lifeguard who swept down upon me. I laughed at him. "You shouldn't be laughing," he yelled. "You're in trouble." He threw his buoy around my waist, whisked me back to shore and raced off to grab someone else. He'd been right. Turning around afterward, I realized how treacherous the water was. I would never be that cocky again.

After college, I wrote for Santa Monica's evening paper. One day the city editor handed me a note bearing two names and a phone number. A local woman had drowned. "Call her father and find out what you can."

She was 27, recently engaged, walking at Big Sur with her fiancé. A rogue wave had caught her and swept her out to sea. She had vanished instantly. An excruciating interview with a distraught dad. I spoke softly, stifling my own tears to get through it. I took notes by hand instead of typing, straining to hear him. He thanked me for my sensitivity. I repeated my condolences, hung up the phone and dashed to the bathroom to sob. Then I returned to my desk and wrote the story, which haunted me for weeks.

This tragedy and my own misadventures might have persuaded me to avoid the sea, but I think its rewards outweigh its risks. I wouldn't want to give up skimming under a breaker just before it crashes down and emerging dolphin-like at the other side, or dashing into the surf on a blistering day.

Now living near relatively calm shores, I've lost my knack for catching waves. I've taken up distance swimming instead. Out of season, I'm at the YMCA, but the lakes, Curtis Island and the bay beckon on warm days. Some people think swimming is boring, but I pass the time singing songs to myself. The bubbles that form on my fingernails with each stroke wobble like mercury, then waft up toward my face bearing musical memories.

My play list often starts with tunes from my eighth-grade summer, when I spent nearly every day on the beach with my pals. We told time by the songs on Ron's transistor. "Let's swim after three songs" – or "Volleyball in two songs!"

I favor tunes in 4/4 time, which matches my swimming rhythm. I push my left leg down to balance my right arm as it hits the water. After two short kicks, it's right leg down, left arm reaching. One and a two and a one and a two and a.

Many of my old beach-day favorites fit that bill. We loved Motown, The Beatles, The Animals, The Turtles. Sam Cooke's song about "what a wonderful world this would be" was on the radio that summer, making it cooler than ever to be a dolt. We didn't believe things would work out that well for a guy who didn't study, but the tune was catchy. Fifty years later, I often find myself in the Y pool silently singing "Don't know much about history...."

I never get through an entire song. My music meanders from that long-ago summer through all the decades since. Within 200 yards, I can paddle from Colorado Rocky Mountain High to Ventura Highway with a trip down Country Roads in between.

Music helped me get from Northport to Islesboro during the LifeFlight Crossing, which took 40 minutes longer than I'd hoped. No matter. Time for more songs! And any boredom I may have felt evaporated about three-fourths of the way to the island, when I saw a huge fin sticking out of the water a few dozen yards behind my left shoulder. I panicked to the tune of dduunnn dunnn... duuuunnnn duun... but slowed back down when I heard the good news: "Don't worry, it's only a sunfish."

Before the swim, my friends and I had tittered at the thought of creepy creatures lurking beneath us, but in we'd gone regardless. There was too much joy to be had out there to let our fears stop us.

So it goes every summer: The sea draws me in, and I'll never turn my back on it.

Joan Phaup moved to Camden from London, England, with her husband and two children 22 years ago. A fourth-generation Californian, she began her working life as a newspaper reporter and enjoyed a long transatlantic career in public relations before starting her own editorial services business.

We tell stories.
We tell stories to make sense of our lives.
We tell stories to communicate our experience of being alive.
We tell stories in our own distinct voice. Our own unique rhythm and tonality.

Transformations is a weekly story-telling column. The stories are written by community members who are my students. Our stories are about family, love, loss and good times. We hope to make you laugh and cry. Maybe we will convince you to tell your stories.
— Kathrin Seitz, editor, and Cheryl Durbas, co-editor

"Everyone, when they get quiet, when they become desperately honest with themselves, is capable of uttering profound truths. We all derive from the same source. There is no mystery about the origin of things. We are all part of creation, all kings, all poets, all musicians; we have only to open up, only to discover what is already there." — Henry Miller

Kathrin Seitz teaches Method Writing in Rockport, New York City and Florida. She can be reached at Cheryl Durbas is a freelance personal assistant in the Midcoast area. She can be reached at