The beach in San Diego is picturesque. Rolling waves, golden sand, and temperate sun abound. On most days it is a zen-like haven (until after sundown when some areas have been zoned by local gangs), where one inhale brings you peace and an exhale drowns your stress in the ocean. Dolphins chase wave-lines in schools and whales play just a hundred feet offshore. It creates those times that stay with you, images locked in your brain like a personal national geo archive. The San Diego Ocean is a powerful keepsake of life.
It is also a training ground where the Navy Seals weed out recruits susceptible to hypothermia during something called “Hell Week”.
As the story goes, Seal Officers send new recruits into the water during colder months and, early in the morning, have them laying in the waves wearing only standard fatigues and large doses of testoterone for protection. About ten feet away on the sand, tables are set up. They have coffee, bagels, towels, sweatshirts, blankets and various items the Coast Guard routinely uses to stave off hypothermia during air to sea rescues in Alaska.
It is here that the Officers set up camp in comfortable folding chairs when they are not yelling at the recruits. They drink the coffee. They eat the bagels. They invite the recruits to join them because it is such a lovely experience compared to the extreme shrinkage currently being felt in the ocean. One by one the recruits leave the water. Some engage in a walk of shame, head drooped, trunks dipping dangerously low with the weight of water and fatigue. Sometimes bad things happen to the coffee cups.
Ultimately a select few fantastically hardy, brave and slightly crazy men make the cut and are hired on to do far crazier things in defense of our country. These are truly amazing men. I’ve had the honor of meeting them. I can honestly say they are unparalleled in their loyalty, steadfastness and strength.
Which brings me to my next point – if you are not a Navy Seal, do not go running into the ocean in San Diego without a wetsuit when it’s not late July or August. You will not make it past 5 feet. And if by some miracle you do, someone will have to rescue you from self-induced hypothermia and stupidity, and it is highly unlikely that the people laughing at you from the beach are going to be that someone. Also keep in mind that everyone on the beach who sees you is laughing at you.
This is not from nastiness. I remember getting off the train in northern Italy, where locals sweetly pointed at me and laughed because with my bare shoulders I must be a hooker (I’m not. Let’s be clear about this). It wasn’t nasty. It’s just that we came from different places with very different norms.
Winter, Spring Break and 3-day weekends brings many tourists to town year-round. As they flood the city there is one constant truism – they will get near the ocean and some of them will lose their minds.
Whatever the reason, they are determined to go for a swim. Sometimes in itsy bitsy bikinis. Sometimes in speedos (these are the days that I wish I had both a viode-camera and MIB neuralizer in my beach bag). Many times no forethought has gone into the adventure. All towels & warm clothing have been left at the hotel because hey, this is San Diego. They’ve got this.
Last February I watched a teenage girl in t-shirt, jeans and sneakers walk onto the beach and ROLL in the shoreline water like an excited Datsun because she was afraid of undertows. Apparently freezing to death wasn’t on her radar. 2 minutes later she was sprinting back to her car on tiny legs, sand flying from the kickback.
One March, 4 guys in their early 20′s formed a casper-white line and ran at the water like ghosts (still drunk from the night before), forcing themselves to laugh instead of vomit in front of the girls sunning themselves on the sand. They kept those smiles plastered on until the first wave hit. Then they all sucked in an air & water mixed cocktail from the shock.
One dove in, thinking that covering his head would help his body adjust. Joke’s on you, buddy. That might work in your pool in Cleveland, but here in 50-ish saltwater you could drink it and pretty much get the same result – a quick trip to the local med station.
His friends helped him out before collapsing in a shivering heap on a pile of beached seaweed. The bikini girls didn’t twitch. To be fair, they too were probably recovering from another fun-filled spring break get-me-sick-and-sloppy binge night.
Buffalo Girl Travel tip – For those of you still undeterred, let me describe what a dip in the water feels like once summer has gone. You arrive at the San Diego beach and pause.
You take in the pure, majestic beauty unfolding before you from toes to horizon. You marvel at the pristine sand. You casually watch the volleyball players and admire… their skillset. You feel the rush of the ocean as the waves move back and forth with a crash and swing.
And then you make your first mistake – you take a deep breath. Oxygen fills your body. You’re invigorated, strong, healthy. Invincible? You fail to notice that NO ONE ELSE IS IN THE WATER.
You strip down to your bathing suit and run toward the ocean as one lover running to another after a long, desparate separation. Your toes hit the water and a single thought races to your brain – ‘holy sh*t, that’s f*cking cold’ – but it’s too late.
Your momentum carries you in until the first wave hits your chest, pushing you back. Suddenly your lover has gone from delicious to the Devil and you do not feel like you’re in water – you feel like someone angry is throwing a million burning pins at your skin.
You open your mouth to scream, or, perhaps, to suck in oxygen to counteract the pain in your lungs. But you are instantly rewarded with a giant gulp of seawater while ocean weeds wack at your unmentionables. You turn and stagger to the beach while more waves hit your back.
You realize that fire can feel cold as well as hot, and maybe those PBS cold fusion scientists you were laughing at last week in their undershirts and coke-bottle glasses were onto something after all. You lunge-walk to your towel. Your suit begins to lose its integrity but you don’t care if you moon the entire beach because in all likelihood the paramedics will shortly be removing your remaining clothing anyway.
An hour later you sit before the ocean again, only a little worse for the wear. From a safe distance. In an oversized sweatshirt, socks, hat and 2 pairs of leggings, clutching a mug of coffee close to your chest. You vow to return in the summertime. Or just go to Hawaii.
And how do I know these things? Because coming from Buffalo, NY grants you unique insight into many things – humor, neighborly support, how to enjoy a blizzard, and yes, experience in overenthusiastic stupidity at the sight of sun and water. The Pacific rocks. But you have been warned.