Braille Monitor                                                                                                      June 2004

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Mermaid A-Calling

by Katie Keim

Katie Keim swims close to shore in the Pacific off Waikiki Beach, not far from Diamond Head Crater.
Katie Keim swims close to shore in the Pacific off Waikiki Beach, not far from Diamond Head Crater

From the Editor: Katie Keim is an active member and leader of the NFB of Hawaii. She loves swimming in the Pacific Ocean. In the following article she outlines some of her techniques and describes some of her adventures. This is what she says:

What kind of spear gun is that? I am asked this in even-numbered years in my neighborhood. Even-numbered years are when our ocean area is reopened for fishing. I walk down our retaining sea wall to the stainless steel staircase that allows us to access a natural, sandy-bottomed lagoon in the midst of a great reef.

"Snub-nosed," I respond. Most spear fisherman use a tri-tip, but I use a white cane with a metal tip.

"To fish with?" Not really. I am headed to my favorite place, the Pacific Ocean. My husband and I live in an apartment building at the edge of the Pacific. Front yard or back, the Pacific is my yard. Our apartment building is constructed on land, but the retaining wall is what keeps us from floating away. As I approach the ladder, I locate a five-inch tuck in the wall I call my locker. Storing cane and towel in this nook, I reach out into open space, leaning carefully out over a twelve-foot drop. Yes, the metal railing is there, so down the stairs I go into the sea.

As someone who has always had an affinity for the open ocean, I was afraid nine years ago, when I became blind, that I would never again experience the fullness of my previous life in the sea, but I was determined that somehow I would get back to play in my beloved Pacific again. True to my nature, I gradually found my way back to swimming and playing again in the Pacific, even participating in some sports I had never tried before, like outrigger paddling and ocean kayak surfing. I was inspired by a new friend and neighbor to do some long-distance rough-water ocean racing soon after my rehabilitation to blindness. The Waikiki International rough-water swim is held in Waikiki, Hawaii, each year on Labor Day. About a thousand people register, and who knows how many more do not, but participate anyway.

Since that experience and because of my membership in the National Federation of the Blind, many NFB members across the country have asked me how I do orientation and mobility at sea--a very long white cane? (The depth of the water in the areas where I swim near my home in Honolulu varies from twelve to fifty feet, so it would be a very long cane indeed.) People also want to know about mobility on the beach, and, most important, they want to know how I find my cane again.

We all have our own tricks. Mine depend on where I am swimming. But I usually stash my things near a permanent sound mark that I can locate from anywhere on the beach as I approach with shuffling feet, in case I happen across sleeping bathing beauties.           But here are my serious and detailed answers to the questions I have been asked.

My success has taken lots of love and hard practice. I have played in the ocean my whole life. My parents first introduced me to the water when we arrived back in California. I was eighteen months old when I crawled my way into the ocean waves, and that has been a comfortable place for me ever since. So when I became blind, I knew that I must return, without knowing how. I had never been a distance swimmer, but I was a strong one--endurance, slow but sure, is true to my physiology. So distance swimming seemed only natural.

When I decided to undertake rough-water ocean swims, I spent about 60 percent of my waking hours in or watching and listening to the ocean, reorienting myself to the special sounds of it and what they meant. I was working as a consultant for the Department of Education in Honolulu, and I did most of my work at home. This allowed me to work at odd hours and gave me the daytime hours to focus on swimming. I would sit for hours listening to the sound of the ocean while I was on land. It took me some time to figure out how far away the water was, how big the waves rolling into shore were, how far up the sand they came, and which sounds from shore meant high tide and low tide. All this was important to know before I began spending time in the water. I had figured out the spacial distances through sound rather than by sight. I knew that being in the water was going to be a whole new ball game and not always familiar from my previous experience.

I left Hawaii in March of 1995 because of my blindness and returned again that December for the same reason. Seeking shelter when I became blind in what seemed the only reasonable place at the time, I left my home in Maui to go to my mother's home in the Sierra Nevadas of California. While I was waiting to go to a residential rehab center in California, my mother got an interim job in Hawaii. So back I came to Hawaii for a brief spell. In those months of waiting I started to get back into the ocean water, but it was slow. At first I went only where I could stand. Knowing that currents, undertows, and waves could wash me away in a moment, I felt that I needed to be able to get and keep my bearings and stable footing. I had bought myself a folding cane, not knowing any better. I collapsed it and attached it to my suit with a bungy. Sometimes I used it as a depth sounder; sometimes I used my feet. Mostly it got in my way, but it was my first attempt at trying independence in the ocean.

My mother enjoys the water, just not for the lengths of time I always have. Eventually she would get out and sit on shore. In the first few months my mother was always nearby. But she often fell asleep, and I would call to her to find my way back to our towels, sandals, etc. When I returned to Hawaii from rehab in early 1997, my mother went back to California, so I got busy networking and making friends. When I began working for the Hawaii department of education, I made a point of making swim friends and then joining a swim club at my local beach. When I could, I spent hours with them in the water swimming and asking lots of questions.

At first the echo from the ocean floor often sounded as if something (a wall, a body, or the great white shark?) was in my way. Gradually I learned the difference in sound between coral and sand. I learned to approximate the depth based on sound echo. I am not really skillful at this between fifty and two hundred feet. Beyond this depth I am not at all sure, but I know at that depth that it is way too deep for most people's comfort. It is just very deep. Sound bounces off swells and can be very unreliable. If you have ever walked near the shoreline, even on a sidewalk, you may have noticed that sounds can seem to be near you, then far away, and then near again. This is due to the nearness of the water and the fact that its surface is not flat but undulating. Our ability to hear accurately depends on how high or low the ocean swell is and how much wave activity is going on. I may hear a voice but find it is behind me and not in front as I had first thought.

As I began spending time doing distance swimming, getting ready for several races ranging from a mile to 2.5 miles, I found many people eager to tell me how a blind person might navigate. Most of these suggestions were sound-oriented. But swimming at speed for significant distances would not work using sound. Each time I put my head up to hear, I would have some residual water in my ears, distorting the sound.

Other people devised tactile methods. Some suggested towing a mop behind a kayak for me to keep track of the whole way. I knew that this would not work either. Suppose I went off course, which is quite easy to do with current, swell, wind, and waves. I would just keep going or have to fall back on inaccurate sound cues, putting my head up, losing speed, and--if the current was strongly against me--losing distance and momentum.

I should explain that I use the sounds of the land to orient me to the shore. If I am too far away, I use the direction of the sunshine to orient myself, just as many other blind people do when traveling. I learned to use the sounds in water I had taught myself to interpret both underwater and above water, according to my needs. It is a bit like using multiple languages to express an idea. You choose the language that will express the concept you need to communicate. I use water sound to determine more or less what kind of environment I am in, safe or precarious. I use land sound and sunshine to get back home again. As I worked to solve the orientation problem, I concluded that a tactile form of navigation, communicating by tapping somehow, was essential to my actually getting efficiently from point A to point B, head down, arms moving, and legs kicking for all I was worth.

My first actual race was one mile. I used several swimmers to guide me. This was a problem since we all swam at different speeds. All but one of them soon swam ahead of me. That one was bound and determined to see me finish the race, no matter what. I learned that I was not as good a swimmer as I had always thought, and I found it hard to push myself to the finish line without visual cues to inspire me.

It took a while to learn how to interpret the information that I had a hundred yards to go, or only fifty yards left. But my big problem was handling the boom of the starting gun, the rush of adrenalin, and 400 people running for the surf line at the same time. Five hundred yards out I started to hyperventilate. Then the surf picked up, from flat to five feet. This would not have been too bad, but the race was on the north shore of Oahu, the famous Sunset Beach. In the summer the surf is small or nonexistent. In the winter this surf break has the world-famous, big-surf competitions--forty foot waves. This race took place in the summer, but this surf is not gentle at any height.

My swim buddy and I had an exciting Jet Ski ride that day. The lifeguards were pulling everyone out. The guard shouted to us to climb onto his Jet Ski. The back of a rescue Jet Ski has a full-length boogie board with handles for two people in case an unconscious swimmer is being rescued. Woo hoo! I had never been on a Jet Ski, let alone on the back of a rescue board. We flew into the face of a very strong five-foot wave and were airborne out the back. Many people needed to be pulled out of the water that day.

My next race was a 2,000-meter success. I completed the race and was not last. I had one person with me on a boogie board. She would tap my shoulder when I needed to adjust. If she had been swimming, she would have had to maintain my pace and work harder to chase me down if I got off course. She would also have had to focus on me as much as on where we were going. The system worked pretty well that day, but I went back to the drawing board to work out a better plan.

After my first race I learned not to kick for the first five hundred yards at least--arms only. Swimming is most successful when you expend 90 percent of your energy using your arms to propel yourself and only 10 percent on kicking your legs. This kept me from hyperventilating. Kicking accelerates the heart and breathing rates and keeps them running like nobody's business. As for solving my navigation problem, I finally worked out a system with two paddle or boogie boarders, one on each side. If I veered too far left, I got a tap on the left shoulder. Too far right, and the tap was on my right shoulder. This allowed me to stay focused and maintain my momentum.

In my longest (2.5-mile) and roughest rough-water swim, I put my head down and didn't come up for a sound check until my fingers touched the sand at the finish line. I thought I had only been swimming about an hour and a half; I had actually been swimming two hours, thirty-nine minutes, and fifteen seconds--forty-five seconds away from not having my completion counted as official.

Even though I never put my head up to listen, I had a good sense of where I was during the first mile and at the final turn buoy. I had spent a lot of time in these areas of the ocean, and I was familiar with the sounds under the water. But the stretch between those two points was not as familiar to me.

People ask me if I ever swim alone. Yes, but close to shore and on days when it is not rough and currents are not pulling out to sea. I never swam alone as a sighted person; why would I do it now that I am blind? What would I be trying to prove? The ocean is not an environment ever to turn your back on. There's a good reason why all safety classes teach buddy systems to those playing in and around water.

These days I do not race but still swim, frolic, and play as regularly as my schedule allows, although I have just signed up for a race later this spring. Mostly I swim three days a week after work and then spend weekends doing water activities of all sorts. I shoot for seven days per week in the water, but not very often does this happen anymore. I always swim with someone, and I try to keep my fingertips brushing a hip or shoulder to maintain an accurate course. If we are out past the reef or in an open area where I can swim freely, I just go for it, not worrying where I am until I come up for sound; then I relocate my friend.

I swim just to swim and play, rather than to achieve the distances I did when I was racing. My network of people that I trained with no longer exists. It took me three years of serious work and then eighteen months of daily training to accomplish my final and greatest rough-water race: two-hour swims five mornings a week and seven afternoons a week--a minimum of three hours a day. I would need six months to get fully back into gear to do serious racing again.

I now have a full-time day job with the state of Hawaii as a rehabilitation teacher for the older blind. Swimming as part of my home teaching? Well, no, at least not to my consumers, just to brave friends who trust me and whom I trust.

I love being out in the ocean. I get to move without anyone in my way and without my cane. I like my cane just fine, but I enjoy the balanced movement I have not been able to achieve while traveling cane in hand. Maybe I should take up two canes. I guess I am a mermaid at heart. I still spend time listening to the sea, but my spatial awareness has become quite attuned to distance, height, and depth in the ocean.

I am thankful that I was able to create opportunities for me and for others to follow me in participating in what has always been my joy and even my health in life. As all blind people do, I have found that I often have to point out to my sighted friends when we are not where we are supposed to be--too close, too far, or wrong place--based on my knowledge of sound. The sounds of land, sea, and under water have become fairly integrated into my ability to orient and mobilize myself, whether on land or at play in the ocean.

I have now taught two blind friends who never thought they would swim, let alone in the ocean, how to do it with great love, joy, and confidence in their safety. They have been able to pick up quickly what it took me so long to teach myself. The time commitment for them has been in becoming comfortable in the water and feeling safe and not panicky. My experience was the opposite: I was comfortable in water but had to learn what it all felt and sounded like, even what taste meant--brine or saline, the daily differences of salt and mineral content, even seaweed (yuck), dead fish too. The worst taste experience, though, was when a friend and I were racing out to sea as fast as we could, breathing at breakneck speed. A surfer had recently passed in front of us. As we crossed his wake, we both came up choking. He must have put on a lot of cologne just before entering the water. We got a mouth- and lungful--sputter, spew, and spit!

My friends have been able to learn from my experience, and they continue to do so. One was out with me recently. She heard a wave coming, knew she wanted to get out of the way, but was too late. She called for help to direct her closer to shore, but the wave caught up with her and went right over her head. She did not panic, even though water over her head is still a bit frightening to her. But once again we talked afterward, and she learned another point of ocean safety: face the wave; dive through it. Do not put your back to it. When your back is to the wave, it will go over you and keep pushing you right along at the front edge of it. You will be under water longer than if you face it and push through to the back side, where it can not catch you and keep you with it.

She began asking me about being out in waves and the other things I do in water. I told her that I typically trust my environment. One time I was catapulted out of a kayak as I surfed down a wave. I flew through the air for twenty to thirty feet, hoping I would land in water and not on dry reef. For some reason in that experience I kept hold of the paddle, not letting go until I landed in the water. Then, needing my hands to swim, I let go. My friend had been holding onto some water dumbbells when the wave caught her and she did not let go either. After my story she realized she would have been better off if she had let go.

The next time she will be just that much better at maneuvering the wave. I enjoy sharing what I love with those who want to try, believe, and be a bit resourceful in the process. A little step at a time is all that it takes. My friends say they will never get to where I am, but they never thought they would be where they are today, so who knows?

If I had any doubts or fears about whether I would ever again have the fullness of ocean experience that I had before I became blind, they have certainly been put to rest. I have a different ocean life today, but it is as full or fuller now.

 

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  You can create a gift annuity by transferring money or property to the National Federation of the Blind. In turn, the NFB contracts to pay income for life to you or your spouse or loved ones after your death. How much you and your heirs receive as income depends on the amount of the gift and your age when payments begin. You will receive a tax deduction for the full amount of your contribution, less the value of the income the NFB pays to you or your heirs.

You would be wise to consult an attorney or accountant when making such arrangements so that he or she can assist you to calculate current IRS regulations and the earning potential of your funds. The following example illustrates how a charitable gift annuity can work to your advantage.

Mary Jones, age sixty-five, decides to set up a charitable gift annuity by transferring $10,000 to the NFB. In return, the NFB agrees to pay Mary a lifetime annuity of $750 per year, of which $299 is tax-free. Mary is also allowed to claim a tax deduction of $4,044 in the year the NFB receives the $10,000 contribution.

For more information about charitable gift annuities, contact the National Federation of the Blind, Special Gifts, 1800 Johnson Street, Baltimore, Maryland 21230-4998, (410) 659-9314, fax (410) 685-5653.

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