By James Van Pelt
Nothing like a bandit, October open water swim in the Massachusetts Atlantic to get your heart pumping, a chance for the rapture. Thirty-degree air and fifty-degree water. A fog shroud hovering twenty feet above. I reach behind for my zipper strap, pull the wetsuit closed.
“Keep the shore to your right,” says the course marshal. “Anissquam Lighthouse is halfway, about two miles from here. We’ll have hot chocolate and mylar blankets at the Plum Cove Beach finish. Remember, you’ve waived liability, and if you’re caught, you don’t know anything about us.”
The governor banned open water swimming last summer. Too many drownings, too many missing swimmers. Still, you can’t fight tradition. Seventy years of the fall classic across Ipswich Bay.
Oh, and the stories! The close calls! The brushes with the transcendent! I could tell a few myself.
We wade knee deep into the waves, sixteen of us this year, repeat swimmers except for two newbies.
“Will the fog come down?” The woman next to me adjusts her cap. I don’t know her.
“Probably,” I say. “The currents are the trick, though.” She looks nervously at the sea.
I double check my goggles, a new pair with GPS assist. No hugging the shore this time. Tiny LEDs in the lenses glow green when I swim in the right direction.
The starter blows the whistle, and we lunge into the waves. Freezing on the face and hands, but not terrible.
Experienced swimmers track on me, last year’s champion. Rhythm’s the secret. Settle in. Steady stroke. High hand recovery to keep from catching the chop. The inexperienced pop their heads up often, checking their bearings, veering off course, wasting energy.
Deep water. A steady wash moans over the ears. Only darkness below, starless space—my hands interrupt the view. Last year a swimmer didn’t finish. The year before, we all made it. Years ago, half the field vanished, nine swimmers, the lucky bastards. Bit of a scandal, really.
At forty minutes now, the lighthouse should be to my right, but the fog has dropped. Gray all around. I chance a look over the shoulder. A hundred yards back, churning arms show the closest pursuit.
Head down, I pick up the pace. Below, the depths are turbid. Something eldritch passes beneath. My heart in my throat, I continue, but my attention is down, always down. Will this be my year? My unnamable intentions are clear. I have walked Innsmouth’s streets. I have studied blasphemous texts, imprinted them on my cyclopean hopes.
A tentacle rises, flicks, then disappears, heading behind me.
A distant scream, a horrendous splashing. I glance again, but the close pursuit is gone. Calm sea.
Glory welcomed three entrants this year. I accept the tiny, squamous trophy on Plum Cove Beach. Frost coats the sand. They clap my back in congratulations.
“Don’t wait the bus for me,” I say, and pull the goggles over my eyes, heart full of hope. “I think I’ll swim back.”