Brush with Great(white)ness: The Dwight Crum Pier to Pier Swim


The night before the race it rained.  In August.  In LA.  What.

The morning of was cloudy, rainy, and super humid.  Fellow swimmer Vanessa picked me up at 6:30am. predicted “chance of storms” all morning.

Where sharks are normally the thing I like to freak myself out about before an ocean swim (especially in this case, given what happened off the MB pier last month), after living in Kentucky I also excel at panicking about weather.  And with the lightning incident in Venice last week and the humidity that high, I really started to stress out about a storm rolling in while we were out in the water, despite reassurances from the race director that they were “monitoring the situation”.  Because let’s be serious, beach guards might know how to deal with sharks, but nobody in LA understands weather.

IMG_20140803_131408pre-race registration.  the one picture i took the entire day

Before the race started the humidity mellowed out, and so did I.  By the time we hit the water I was feeling fine about everything on all fronts.

The start was way way way easier than I expected.  Not that crowded, no kicks to the face, no problem.

The water was super warm (almost 70), surprisingly clear given the fact it had been stormy, with a mild swell. Nothing crazy.  I could see shadowy patches of seaweed along the bottom, but other than that no sea life.  It was pretty pleasant, and I just decided to cruise along, avoid any big groups of male swimmers (who had gone off in the first wave, 5 minutes before us), zone out, and do my thing.

And that’s exactly what I did.  I zoned out to some music in my head for about 30 minutes and just kept swimming.

As the pier got closer, I realized that I hadn’t seen anyone from the women’s heat in a really long time (we were all wearing the same color cap) and that I had been swimming pretty much by myself for probably 10 minutes.  I guessed that the really fast women were in front of me and that the big pack was probably behind me.  And I was by my lonesome in the middle. I did a little calculating and figured if I could keep sighting fine and swim straight I would be done in about 10-15 minutes.  I was pretty happy to not be in the middle of a mass of agro dudes, but the thought did flitter through my mind that it might be nice to be a little bit closer to someone else for safety.  But whatever, I was almost there.

That’s when I saw the shark.

I grew up near the ocean, I surf, and I’ve done tons of ocean swims.  I’ve freaked myself out plenty of times touching seaweed and having seals or dolphins pop up next to me, but I’ve never seen a shark.  This was not a “dark shadow”, it wasn’t like “maybe a dolphin”, the water was really clear, I had clear goggles on, and it was very, very clearly a great white shark.  Not a super huge one, probably only 7 or 8 feet…but really, in a situation like this, does that matter?


This is one of those moments in life, one that you’ve thought about, like, “Hmmm, I wonder what I would do if I was in the middle of the ocean and suddenly I saw a great white shark.”

Well, predictably, first I pooped my speedo.*

Then, in a surprising second move, I popped my head out of the water and, trying to keep cool (NOT something I would have guessed to be a priority at a time like this), said to the guards on paddle boards a little ways away, “UUUH….UUUMMMMMM…UUUUUUUHHHH…THERE’S A SHARK.  THERE’S A SHARK LIKE RIGHTHERE.  IT’S SWIMMING THAT WAY.”

There were a few things that made this way less freaky than it could have been.  First: even though it was only maybe 10 feet from me (yes, that close), by the time I saw it, the shark was swimming away from me, not toward me (holy shit thank god).  Second: the shark seemed calm and not at all interested in me.  Third: though I was in big open space with no other swimmers around, there were guards on paddle boards all over the place…one of whom came paddling up to me, told me he couldn’t see the shark, and that I was “doing great, just keep swimming!”

I stopped and looked at him like, “How about I push you off your board and YOU ‘just keep swimming’?”  I don’t know what I thought the alternative was, but at that point I couldn’t care less about the race and did NOT want to put my head back in the water and come face to face with anything toothy.  I wanted second-by-second updates from the paddle board that the shark FOR SURE wasn’t coming back to eat me.

efab6612820cd6fcade8ed4f511d8582this is basically what i saw. this clear. that is not kelp.  via.

I’d like to stick a disclaimer in here that logically yes, I know the shark was “probably more scared of me than I was of it” (umm…false), and that sharks don’t eat people intentionally, and that it was just roaming its natural habitat and wanted nothing to do with me, etc etc.  But logic doesn’t always rule in these situations.

The guard said he would paddle with me until I hit the pier and keep an eye out, which I really, really appreciated and gave me a nice false sense of security.  He was so calm and nonchalant about it that after about five minutes of me swimming with my head up so I could talk to him and make sure he still couldn’t see the shark I was like, oh….maybe I’m being a little too dramatic.  At one point I actually think I apologized to him for “being such a wimp”.

Anyway, I (obviously) survived and made it to shore.

IMG_20140803_164050my hammerhead greeting party!  …and me looking rough
(and, as my sister would say, “what a cute little boy!”  we probably should put some bows on her or something, or at least dress her in not-grey)

The guard left me as I rounded the pier.  By the time I hit land I was a little bit shaky from my brush with nature, so no big dramatic sprint up to the finish line.  I remember seeing the clock at 54:xx as I was coming out of the water and being mildly  bummed that I didn’t have it in me to sprint and squeak in under 50 (as the second wave, we left 5 minutes after the official clock started).

Official time: 50:15.  First in my age group, whattup. Thanks, shark friend.  (But two 13 year olds beat me, along with a 50 year old, so…yeah.)

Most of the field was still out in the water when I came in, and I didn’t want to freak people out by running up onto the beach screaming SHARK!  SHARK!   But I couldn’t wait to tell SOMEONE, so Paul got an earful when I found him.  And when Vanessa got out of the water I immediately told her.  Because seriously.

So there it is, the story of how I convinced all of my non-swimming friends to never, ever do an open water swim with me.

Happy Shark Week.

*This was a figurative poo. Sorry folks.

8 thoughts on “Brush with Great(white)ness: The Dwight Crum Pier to Pier Swim

  1. Hi, I was five minutes behind you and saw them underneat me as well. I spent lots of time convincing myself that wasn’t what I was seeing!

  2. Great write-up. I was in the wetsuit group and 5 minutes behind you. I didn’t see the sharks but I took an outside path and my left google was malfunctioning. Like you, I did not have allot of folks around me. In fact, people kept letting me go first (and then would tap my toes, then disappear). About 1000 yards out, I was siting the pier pretty well but the swell was moving me backwards. I was outside of a ridge and could see the bottom pretty well at times (with my good eye). It got more choppy/backwards as I swam towards the pier. I did like seeing the lifeguards. Probably the most pre-race chatter that I have experienced in any race. You captured the mood well. I am glad it all worked out but wonder if we all are crazy. I know what my mother will say.

  3. I was paddling for a girlfriend of mine on Sunday. I left her just before the Manhattan Beach Pier. As I was paddling to shore – no more than 50 yards from where I left her a 7′ great white swam under my board headed out towards all the swimmers rounding the pier… Glad no one was hurt!

  4. I just want to be clear that I would NEVER say, ‘what a cute little boy!’ about Mora… though Joe HAS said that and I believe I relayed it to you.
    I’m glad you survived, I definitely would not have been that calm.

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