The author (on the right) with her parents and sister circa 1975.

“I go beach.” As my parents tell it, this was the first complete sentence I ever spoke. (They weren’t sticklers for grammar.) To celebrate, they immediately bundled me into my car seat and brought me down to Green Harbor to fulfill my request.

Proximity to the beaches was one of the reasons we moved to Marshfield, and for the first six or seven years we lived here, we devoted most of our summer days to playing in the sand at Rexhame and Burke’s Beach. But then my father took a job with a pool construction company, and before long we had an in-ground pool of our own.

We didn’t stop going to the beach, but for the most part we stopped swimming there. The choice, chlorine or not, between eighty-degree and sixty-degree water was an easy one to make. And even though my mother had become skilled in the art of gathering toys, towels, snacks, sunscreen, and any other beach paraphernalia — plus two toddlers — and packing it all in her little yellow Toyota, and carrying it all from the parking lot to the beach, and bringing it all home again . . . she was more than ready to give it all up for walking out the back door to the pool area.

There’s more to the beach than swimming, and in many ways a backyard pool, no matter how nice, cannot compare to the ocean. For example, one of my favorite things to do is to stroll along the shore at the end of the day. Especially when summer is at its hottest and most humid, I find a trip to the beach in the early evening to be quite refreshing. It always seems to be ten degrees cooler there. Walking the perimeter of a pool just isn’t the same.

On the other hand, with a trip to the beach comes a lack of privacy — and often a lack of restrooms as well. Plus there’s the crowds, the blaring radios, the screaming kids . . .

Either way, you get something good, but you also make a sacrifice.

After the pool went in, swimming at the beach became an increasingly rare event for me. By the time I graduated from college, at close to ten years had passed since I’d stepped deeper than my ankles into the chilly waters off our coast.

Somewhere along the line I had come to the conclusion that the water at our local beaches was only warm enough for swimming during the last few weeks of August. And somehow, for many years in a row, I managed to miss those two or three weeks, being out of town or otherwise occupied.

That all changed a few weeks ago. It was the end of a long day, and on the way home from work I decided to stop by the beach for a walk. I’ve been doing the after-work beach walk regularly for a few years now, but I’d always parked at Rexhame so I could be near the South River (a generally good place to swim — more on that in my next colum). But this time I parked at Avon Street in Marshfield, the same lot we used to park in when I was a kid.

I made my way down to the water so that I could walk in the wet, hard-packed sand on the tide line. I braced myself for biting cold as the first of many waves rolled toward me . . . But the water was warm! Certainly not as warm as our 87-degree pool, but warm enough to swim. But I couldn’t — I didn’t have a towel or bathing suit, and I didn’t feel like driving home to get them . . . and I wasn’t about to go skinny dipping on a public beach.

After 20 minutes of walking, though, I could stand it no longer. I had to swim. It was already 6 pm, but I hurried back to my car anyway, rushed home, changed into my bathing suit, and was back to the beach within 20 minutes.

I have to admit: it’s not just inconvenience that’s prevented me from swimming at the beach all these years — it’s fear. As much as I enjoy walking there, playing in the sand, and listening to the surf, I’m glad we have the pool because I’ve never quite felt comfortable swimming among the rocks and waves and seaweed, not to mention the dreaded undertow.

There’s a reason of sorts. When I was very young — about 2 1/2 — my very pregnant mother and I were wading in the shallow waters just off the coast. It’s too long ago for me to remember clearly, but as the story goes, a large wave caused us both to lose footing and fall over.

I remember being swept underwater. I remember not knowing what to do. My mother reached out, found me, and pulled me tightly against her belly as the wave retreated. (As the family legend goes, this is why, a week later, my sister was born with a smooshed nose.) We were okay, but spooked.

We didn’t stop swimming in the ocean after that, but we were certainly a lot more cautious about it. It never really felt safe.

But twenty three years had passed. It was a beautiful day, the water was warm, and I was tired of being afraid of the ocean. I was ready to swim again.

I waded in, letting my body get used to the cool water, turning to avoid oncoming waves. I had to laugh at myself — why would a person with a pronounced fear of water choose to try beach-swimming for the first time in at least ten years at 6:30 on a Tuesday evening, alone, after the life guards had gone home? Still, there were plenty of people on the beach, the water was calm, and it seemed like the right thing to do.

I went in as far as waist-level. (Mom’s rule was always “Don’t go in above your waist”). I bent down to wet my arms and upper body, and then slowly turned, facing out to sea. After a while, I began leaning into the waves a little, and when my courage was good and high I dove straight into one of them. Then another. I giggled. It was fun.

I felt like a kid, gleefully playing in the waves — not quite carefree, but enjoying it much more than I ever had. I swam for quite some time, only quitting when the air grew cool and my fingers got pruny.

I know I’m not the only one who thinks that the ocean here on the South Shore is too cold for swimming. Plenty of folks have agreed with my claim that ocean swimming should be reserved for the end of the summer. But in talking with people over these past few weeks, I’ve gained some valuable insight. I can hardly believe I’ve lived here this long without knowing this: Ocean temperatures can vary dramatically from day to day, hour to hour. It depends a lot on the tides, as well as offshore storms and currents, and air temperature.

For me, swimming in a natural body of water like the ocean or a river is generally a soothing, healing experience — I feel as if I am being cradled in the arms of Mother Nature herself. On the other hand I must always remember that the natural world can be unpredictable and even dangerous if it is not regarded with honor and respect.

If you — like I did — have given up on the ocean as a place to swim, I suggest you try it again. It might require a few attempts — you’ll have to catch it in just the right conditions — but sooner or later you’ll find a day when the water is warm and calm and clear enough for good swimming. Play it safe — bring a friend, or at least stick close to the life guard station — but try it. It may surprise you.

by Kezia Bacon
Assistant Director, North and South Rivers Watershed Association
July 1997