Go in weak, come out strong
SWIMMING IN THE OCEAN WITH E.H. MANN.
The day that I meet E.H. Mann at the intersection of Highway One and Noriega is unseasonably warm. It’s mid-September and San Francisco’s Indian summer is in full swing. It’s not yet eight a.m., but already the sun has cracked through the morning fog and is heating the sand beneath our feet at Ocean Beach. I am apprehensive about entering the sea. The very idea of submerging myself in water between fifty and sixty degrees Fahrenheit—regular swimming pools are typically heated to a comfortable eighty-two degrees—makes me feel a little weak at the knees.
E.H. has been swimming and surfing up and down this coastline for the past two decades and lives just a few blocks away. I am less familiar with the beach, and I’ve trekked over from Oakland, buoyed by a traffic-free drive across the Bay Bridge and the knowledge that a good weekend is always guaranteed after swimming in the Pacific.
I have known E.H. for several years; I met him during my six-month stint at Green Apple Books. His name had become familiar to me long before we were formally introduced, and it was usually uttered with a quiet reverence. A staple on Clement Street, E.H. has worked at the legendary bookstore for more than two decades and is regarded as “one of the unsung heroes of San Francisco bookselling,” according to former Green Appler and current owner of Point Reyes Books Stephen Sparks. Known for his eclectic tastes—he was deeply embedded in the punk scene throughout the eighties and nineties, and is a devout Zen Buddhist, surfer, and poet—E.H. has a unique ability to make relatively solo activities feel shareable. Reading, meditation, swimming, all of these take on a communal sensibility when E.H. is involved, and his enthusiasm for such things is contagious.
When we sit down post-swim, I ask E.H. about his love of ocean water swimming. He tells me, “My earliest memories are of being in the water.” Growing up in New Jersey in a self-ascribed beach town that was cold for nine months of the year, E.H. spent his formative years surfing up and down the coast. “If you were a kid that grew up in the Jersey Shore, you spent your whole life waiting for summer.” And although E.H. had always been interested in swimming, it wasn’t until he moved to the Bay Area and began working at Green Apple that he decided to dive in—sans wetsuit.
Usually, E.H. and I meet at the South End Rowing Club (SERC) in San Francisco’s Aquatic Park. Founded in 1873, SERC describes itself as “the oldest athletic club west of the Mississippi” and hosts the famous annual swim from Alcatraz Island to San Francisco. E.H. has been a member at SERC for more than ten years and is a well-known and much-respected part of that community. On nicer Saturday mornings like this however, when the Pacific Ocean isn’t intent on spitting anyone who dares enter it back out onto the shore, we meet at San Francisco’s most westerly point. The pristine weather has enticed more surfers than usual and they are lined up just beyond the breakers. Once we have acclimatized to the frigid water, we will swim past them, deeper into the Pacific, and begin our forty-minute journey towards Lands End.
This morning, E.H. is wearing an old, ripped sweater and his faded board shorts. Often he’ll carry a bulky pair of snorkeling goggles that mask his face, creating a fish-eye effect on his eyes, but today he can’t get them to unfog, so he’s decided to rely on his surfer’s instinct and go without. With so few aquatic accoutrements, he looks part seasoned beach-goer, part wildly underprepared novice.
Unlike the other swimmers I’ve observed at the SERC, who hurtle into the water before their brains can rationalize the decision, E.H. enters the water slowly, mindfully, and without trepidation. Stopping when the water begins to lap above his knees, he focuses his attention on the horizon. Here, he pauses, sometimes for several minutes, adapting to the cold.
E.H. enters the water this way every time we swim. And each time, I try to emulate his fortitude just a little more. I suck my teeth as the salty liquid creeps around my ankles. I’ve never pressed E.H. on what he’s thinking about when he wades into the ocean—it feels too personal. I imagine he is in some kind of Zen place that I’ll never be able to reach, though I have tried to make the process more meditative, taking long measured breaths; breathing in; breathing out. But no matter how much I mentally ready myself for full immersion, I am never prepared for the ultimate shock of that icy water.
Reflecting back on the first time he entered the Pacific sans wetsuit in 1995, E.H. tells me that it wasn’t always so easy for him. “The first time I tried going in, my arms felt like frozen steaks. I remember thinking, ‘How do you do this?’” But something about swimming in the Pacific kept calling him back. And in 2006, after preparing for several months, he completed his first Alcatraz swim.
At some point, E.H. wades in deeper, eventually diving under a breaking wave. He pulls himself back up to the surface and begins his slow, steady, surfer-like strokes. Wide and broad, his style couldn’t be described as elegant, but it is rhythmic and purposeful and he can cover a lot of ground with seemingly little effort. For someone who wades deeper into the surf in fits and starts, yelping as the waves lick further up my body, hopping from one foot to another and paddling with my head above water, it seems almost heroic. Eventually, seeing E.H.’s figure disappearing into the distance, I dive in, allowing the water to tighten around me like a vice.
I usually let E.H. swim out ahead of me, secretly hoping that he’ll fend off anything dangerous before it can reach me. Every few minutes I see him look over his shoulder to make sure I haven’t drowned and I am grateful for this. However confident I may feel in a pool, the ocean still feels like uncharted territory.
When I ask E.H. about the dangerous creatures that lurk beneath the surface (sharks are plentiful in these waters and there have been a spate of seal attacks that recently closed Aquatic Park) or whether he has ever been afraid of being overcome by the cold, he says, “I haven’t really had those panicky experiences people have.” I agree that it is hard to worry about any of that once you’re in the water. “Your mind and body function differently. Things kinda slow down,” he tells me. It is that slowing down that makes cold-water swimming so addictive—the ability to swim away from everything in your mind. It’s an opportunity to disconnect from the world and reconnect to your body.
E.H.’s Zen Buddhist practice and his literary leanings are inextricably connected to his love of ocean swimming. When I ask him to describe his experience in the water, he quotes none other than Moby Dick: “Meditation and water are wedded forever.” He continues, “It has nothing to do with accomplishing anything. It’s just being there. And although there is a lot of complaining before you go in the water, there’s never any complaining once you get out.”
Today’s swim is the kind that merits quiet proclamations of satisfaction. As we emerge from the churning sea, catching our breaths while we dry off, E.H. and I exchange few words—“Wow. Great swim.” “Yeah, what a day for it.” We look out over the vast horizon, now able to share this otherwise lone experience. “I didn’t know if I could do it today,” I tell E.H. He looks back at me and smiles, “Go in weak, come out strong.” –Clara Sankey