Mr. Chatterbox: Swimming in the Gulf

By Robert Plunket December 1, 2012

THIS MONTH: Swimming in the Gulf—the perfect exercise regimen.

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(Michael Muscarella)

I hate exercising. I hate everything about it. The effort it takes, the time it consumes, the soggy atmosphere in the gym that reminds me of so many unhappy times in junior high. Imagine—people spend good money to go to a place and exhaust themselves on machines, like so many hamsters. No wonder I put off a concentrated exercise plan as long as I could, until I finally got to the age where I just had to do something—or die in about six months.

So you can imagine how excited I was to finally discover a form of exercise I like. I've never seen it listed in any "routine" or "regimen." As far as being accepted by the National Exercise Association, it isn't even on the radar. And most amazing, you can only do it in Sarasota (or a small, select group of similar cities). I call it "swimming in the Gulf."

Yes, every afternoon when the sun has sunk sufficiently low on the horizon, I drive out to Siesta Beach and swim for about 45 minutes. I use no particular stroke, or rather I use a whole lot of different strokes. Speed is not an issue. I just keep going until I've swum past three lifeguard stands, then I turn around and swim back.

But it's hard to swim in the Gulf, you might say. All those constantly changing currents and eddies. Yes, and that's exactly the point. You get tossed around, churned, swayed, pummeled and so on. Most of the time it's calm and gentle. But sometimes it can be like trying to swim in a Maytag. And it's all these constantly changing forces in the water that give you the resistance you just don't get in a pool at the Y. Every muscle comes into play as you try to keep your balance and your direction. The water is constantly tossing you around, which means—it's doing half the work.

There is also an element of adventure to it, even danger. Is the Y dangerous? Hardly. Every possible hazard has been designed out, with the possible exception of that old man who hangs around the locker room. But at the beach it's you against nature. There's the sun to contend with. You must go late in the day and use plenty of sunblock. There are creatures in the deep that can come out of nowhere and nibble at your ankles. I don't allow myself to think of sharks, but jellyfish are an issue you can't ignore. One sting and I call it quits for the day, as the pain can last for 12 hours. And lightning is a big issue. I'll swim in a drizzle, but at the first sight of lightning I pack up and head off to Big Olaf's for an ice cream cone.

I chose Siesta Beach for convenience and figured I'd branch out to less crowded beaches as I progressed in my exercise program. But Siesta has turned out to be the most interesting part. First of all, there are scads of almost naked people to check out. They all seem to be tourists. I have yet to bump into somebody from Sarasota, with the single exception of my friend, Chris Miller, who at age 41 has begun a second career as a county lifeguard. The beachgoers are typically family groups, and they are predominantly foreigners. Siesta was named the No. 1 Beach in the country in 2011, and it has really paid off. They're flocking here from all over the world. And as Chris points out contentedly, many of them are young women in bikinis.

I recently took an informal survey to try and figure out where they were from. I dog paddled from one group to another and eavesdropped until I could determine what language they were speaking. Here are the results of the first 10 groups: Spanish, Spanish, Russian, American English, Spanish, Urdu (I'm guessing here), Italian, English English, Spanish, and—I swear to God—sign language. The English English family was debating a question you don't hear very often: What's better for a vacation, Sarasota or Dubai? Sarasota was winning the discussion, based mainly on price.

In this melting pot of the world's vacationing humanity you learn so many interesting things. Like what Muslim women wear to the beach (leggings and a long-sleeved T-shirt). How there is hardly a young man on earth without a tattoo. (Or a young woman, for that matter.) How the most fun a five-year-old can have is playing in the surf with his or her father. How any woman who cares about her image goes into the water with earrings, a sun visor and designer shades. How you've got to bring a beach umbrella for Granny to sit under or else she'll go off, martyr-like, and wait in the car.

And how young—and not so young—couples have a tendency to stand neck-deep in the water and make out—just where I'm trying to swim.

On weekends you get some extra bonuses. Saturdays mean sunset weddings. Sometimes there are three different ceremonies, all right next to each other. I love to watch the guests arrive as they hike over the dunes from the parking lot and realize they wore the wrong shoes. And Sunday means the drum circle. People gather hours ahead of time and plant their beach chairs in a big circle. The drummers actually warm up, like a symphony orchestra, while a very thin older man in shorts and a ponytail performs for the crowd with what I imagine are yoga exercises, although they suggest, to me, anyway, a routine from the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders.

As with any exercise routine, the best part of swimming in the Gulf is when it's over. You rinse your feet off in the shower in the parking lot and ride home with a towel protecting the seat, all the windows down, shirtless, driving barefoot, past all the bars in the Village where your fellow beachgoers are now enjoying drinks and Jimmy Buffett songs. You are exhausted, but pleasantly so. It's that same exhaustion you felt after a day at the beach in high school. Your skin is a little itchy from the dry salt water and your body still feels like it's being buffeted around by the water. You're hypnotized into a state of bliss. All you can think about is a nice warm shower, followed by a drink and a good dinner, then falling asleep with the waves still lolling your body.

It's a vacation kind of feeling, and just think—here in Sarasota we can get it all year-round. Oh, maybe not for a couple of months in the winter unless you're Canadian. But barring sharks, sunstroke and lightning, it may well be the perfect way to exercise.

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