Ocean swimming on Martha’s Vineyard

Bella Bennett (left) and Kaija Nivala participate in a benefit swimming race earlier in July off State Beach in Oak Bluffs. The Island's east coast has normally calm waters, good for swimming long distances. — Photo by Susan Safford

Richard Dubin, a real estate lawyer, tennis player, and home builder, has swum around the Island three times in the last three years. He is doing another circumnavigation this summer.

Nibbling away at this aquatic marathon, he swims stretches of about a mile whenever time and conditions permit, and he maps his progress fastidiously with something he calls a swim map.

Why this particular obsession?

“I’ve always liked to swim.”

Mr. Dubin was on his high school’s swim team, and he swims for exercise in a pool in the colder months but he prefers ocean swimming.

“I like it 10 times better. You don’t have to turn. It’s easier get into a groove. You’re much more buoyant. I try to swim with the current if I can,” he explains.

Two local swimming instructors are equally enthusiastic about swimming in the ocean. Michael Wooley has been teaching kids and adults to swim for 20 years.

“I have always found water to be incredibly healing. We are the same percentage of water as the earth, which is no coincidence. Swimming is returning to where we’re from. For me that’s sacred,” he says.

Although he teaches in pools as well as in the ocean, and prefers to start kids or complete beginners in a pool, Mr. Wooley enthuses about the joys of ocean swimming.

“When you’re swimming in the ocean you get to discover all the amazing life. I recently swam with a dozen striped bass. Every now and then you’ll see a stray tropical fish,” he says.

Robert MacLean teaches only in the ocean. He developed a passion for swimming when he was recovering from an injury incurred while running. He describes swimming as a low impact, full-body workout but, just as important, “The best thing about ocean swimming is getting outside of yourself — merging with your environment.”

He notes the benefits of exposure to the negative ion rich atmosphere of the ocean — “It’s both calming and relaxing.” The breaking of the surface tension of water, by waves, water falls or evaporation releases negative hydrogen ions in the atmosphere — that’s his scientific exploration.

Both instructors agree that the key to effective swimming is relaxation. And teaching people to relax can be the greatest challenge, especially in the ocean.

“I take people from fear to ecstasy,” Mr. Wooley says. “From tension to relaxation. That’s what establishes buoyancy. The changes in people’s energy is just astounding. That is the greatest moment. Getting them to establish their personal buoyancy.”

Mr. MacLean says, “The most crucial thing is being relaxed and aware of your surroundings. The more fully oxygenated you are, the more efficient you’ll be. When you’re calm and relaxed your buoyancy is up there. Your lungs are like a bladder.”

Mr. MacLean adds that adopting an alternate stroke method is vital in the ocean. Most people tend to breathe on one side only and he believes that can be a disadvantage when faced with waves and other ocean conditions.

“When I’m training, I teach stroke symmetry,” he says. “Being adaptable is key. Breathe when the ocean is telling you to breathe. You’re learning to use your momentum and allow yourself to glide. Not muscling it. There’s almost an effect you can get in the water of letting the momentum carry you.”

Mr. Wooley, who teaches beginners and kids as well as experienced swimmers, doesn’t believe switching sides is necessary, but he does stress adjusting your stroke to ocean conditions. “You want to get into a groove with the patterns of the waves. Your breathing patterns work with the pattern of the waves. It’s a great thing to learn how to time your process. You learn to change your strokes. Your arms should be higher in waves. Your strokes change in the water condition.”

Mr. Wooley, who says he has taught more than 10,000 people to swim, stresses the value of learning to swim as early as possible. He believes that fear is instilled in kids at a very young age, usually through their parents. He says, “To get as much out of the water and be comfortable in the water you should start at 3 to 6 months of age. The youngest kids are the luckiest kids. They become so easy in the water right away. The energy transfer is an amazing part of the process.”

That fear of submerging oneself in water is often compounded by the perception of dangers in the ocean. Says Mr. Wooley, “You need to understand when it’s safe and when it’s not safe to swim. I always ask people when it is that they’re afraid to swim — alone, in thunder and lightning, in murky water.” Rip tides are, of course, best to be avoided, but getting accidentally caught in one does not need to prove disastrous.

Says Mr. Wooley, “A big part of what I teach is the safety element.”

He tends to demonstrate a rip current pattern by drawing it in the sand for kids. He says, “Go with the ride, and it will dissipate. If you know how to float you’ll never be in danger in the ocean. That is the most important thing to remember. You’re going to float and see where you’re getting pulled and then decide how to angle out of it and swim with the current. It’s about relaxing and being confident.”

Mr. MacLean has similar advice, “You need to dispel the panic reaction to a rip tide. The risk is panic. You must remain calm in a rip tide. Either begin to swim parallel to the shore or just chalk it up to taking a ride. You can start swimming on a slant. Usually the rip will fan out. There’s a risk in thinking you can beat something that’s stronger than you are.”

In addressing other dangers of the sea, Mr. Wooley, an accomplished diver, says he also knows quite a bit first hand about sharks. “Sharks rarely attack humans,” he says. “They’re more afraid of you than you will ever be. They go in the other direction.”

Mr. MacLean also downplays the risk of shark attack, but he does mention a few things that can help avoid attracting unwanted attentions, “Don’t wear jewelry. Be a little more conscious at dusk and dawn. Don’t swim where the seals are.”

Says Mr. MacLean, “For those who have trouble being in the ocean, you go from the sense of fear and trepidation to respect and comfort, to wonder. That’s the learning curve.”

With so much to see and with changing rhythms, there’s no need to get bored while swimming in the ocean. “Once you go past a point of 20 minutes, you get a feedback loop of energy,” says Mr. MacLean. “After 20 minutes, your body starts to use oxygen more efficiently. Your blood cells are more enlivened. You become more limber. Your breathing comes deeper. You’re stretching your muscles and putting some demand on them. You become more limber and your breathing comes deeper.You get what’s known as the second wind effect. You’re able to dig a little deeper for a physical or mental affect. The chatter begins to dissipate.”

Says Mr. Wooley, “Ocean swimming is my serenity. Its my place of peace. Swimming in the ocean is so much more peaceful than being in the pool. The greatest thing about the water is that it removes the gravitational antagonism that you experience on land. Water is the life force of all living beings. It is our gift to be part of it.”

We are also blessed with some exceptionally clean and clear water on the Vineyard. Mr. Dubin, who works on the Cape, and is now attempting to complete a section by section swim from Woods Hole to Hyannis, concurrent with his Vineyard swim, finds the Island swim more enjoyable. He says, “Swimming is better on the Vineyard. The water is clearer. It’s almost uniformly clear from Aquinnah to West Chop light.”

Gwyn McAllister, of Oak Bluffs, is a frequent contributor to The Times.