Saturday, May 23, 2009

Dania Beach, Florida

How could I forget my first love? To swim, just swim in the ocean with no need for fancy equipment.

I drive directly to the beach after landing in Fort Lauderdale. A dive shop appears on the left, and after brief consultation with its Peruvian manager I learn of ample freediving and snorkeling opportunities all along the coast. I've always wanted to go to Peru but he prefers the warm water and weather of Florida. Unfortunately at the moment the wind is up and visibility poor. Onward I drive blindly in search of a place to jump in, arriving at Dania Beach.

Too warm in long pants worn for air conditioning, I crest the dune for a peek before paying to park. Red and blue flags over the lifeguard tower warn of jellyfish and hazardous conditions. I call up to the tower and a bronzed figure emerges from its shade. He explains that while jellyfish are rare, it's the rip current that people have problems with. It sounds like I could still go for a swim in the right section of beach. I'm not sure how to respond to his question, "What are you here for?" I just want to be in the water.

After a quick change and lathering of sunblock, I return to size up the waves.
Sunbathers doze in folding chairs with stunted legs. Frothy sand-filled water marks the rip current shooting straight to the Bahamas from the base of the lifeguard tower. I wade in downshore, shuffling my feet as I used to do in San Diego to evade stingray encounters. With freediving fins and a brand-new mask, I happily cruise out through the breakers, my arms outstreched like the prow of a small flexible boat, my frame rising and falling with the surge.

The tawny lifeguard climbs down to go for a swim break and we chat about ocean pastimes. He grew up far inland, until the day he decided to drive to Florida. Here he took up surfing, swimming, became a lifeguard, and now spends his days at Dania Beach. We swim short laps back and forth, crawl and backstroke. He is surprised I can keep up. I'm not in shape for swimming, yet a muscle memory lingers and that same dogged rhythm
returns for short stretches with steady technique cultivated back in high school. And the fins help a lot.

A handful of surfers struggle with uneven, criss-crossing waves. The lifeguard bodysurfs back in and I wait a long time for the perfect wave. It comes and I miss it. Behind is a second wave that I catch with quick flailing arms, then head down in the foam for a short ride. When the biggest waves crash, I duck behind and beneath them to skim above rippling sand before emerging again in quiet water. In peaceful troughs I float on my back and stare at the sky in disbelief, savoring the sheer simple pleasure of being. Immersed in the ocean that I love, I remember her again with a mixture of gratitude and guilt for having forgotten.

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