La Jolla’s Rough Water Swim

Photo Courtesy of LJRWS

It’s 1915, San Diego’s World’s Fair, Pan American Exposition is attracting visitors from around the world. Babe Ruth is making headlines and Enrico Caruso records “O Sole Mio” for the Victor Talking Machine Co.  Pride pervades San Diego and the nation. The World’s Fair committee challenges the communities in the San Diego area to host events, and La Jollans decide to showcase their picturesque village by hosting an ocean swim.

The one mile swim, launched in 1916 to show-off La Jolla, was such a success that it was destined to become an annual event. By 1931, the La Jolla Rough Water Swim, affectionately referred to as the ‘Big Wet One,’ was an official event held yearly thereafter — except for a few cancellations in the later years.  For example, in 1959, there were numerous shark sightings in the area, which created somewhat of a concern, so the event was called off.  On the day of the canceled event, one brave soul stepped out on the beach and made the one mile swim. Fortunately, the sharks took the day off too.  In 1948, polio concerns caused another cancellation. And in 2014, because of construction, the event was canceled, disappointing thousands of swimmers.

Jump forward to 2015, this small community event — which hosted seven swimmers in 1916 — had grown. La Jolla expects thousands of swimmers; not only from all over the country but from all over the world.

The La Jolla Rough Water swim is usually held on the first or second Sunday of September.  The one mile swim begins at the Cove.  Events are broken down into age groups and genders, with a special junior event (250 yards) for twelve and under. The first swim is at 9:00 AM, and, the last, amateur girls, is at 1:40 p.m.  The swim is competitive for some.  For others, it’s just an opportunity to take a dip, and enjoy the camaraderie and warm water temperature that September often brings.  Although the course has changed a few times over the years, it is essentially triangular.  The first leg is in the direction of La Jolla shores, the course makes a left hand turn heading west out towards the open ocean, and another left, back to the Cove.

My Thoughts on Training

This coming September will be my twenty-eighth anniversary swim.  Over the last couple of decades, I’ve developed a training schedule that just might appeal to some readers. In June, when the weather warms up and I notice in the local newspaper that the ocean water temperature is around 65 degrees, I start thinking of the Rough Water Swim, and tell myself: it might be time to relearn how to swim in the ocean!  Following this revelation, I make a weekly pilgrimage to the Cove, and begin the process of relearning, starting with the goal of swimming out to the quarter mile buoy.  By early July, the routine is in place; swim to the quarter mile buoy with plenty of breaks and then back to the beach.

Over the years I’ve noticed that it takes time to become a part of the ocean environment.  After ten or fifteen minutes of swimming, the thoughts of the day, of concerns and issues vanish.  During the swim, I might spot a pod of dolphins, or a lone seal. Both the dolphins and the seals seem to understand my training program — swim, relax, enjoy.

After the swim, with a beach chair and favorite beverage, it’s time to blend with the rhythmic sound of the ocean waves, time to connect with the lovers strolling and feel the flight of the pelicans gliding effortlessly above.  It’s the afterglow of the swim in the ocean that puts it all in place.  The world of work, of freeways, of turmoil and conflict, ceases to exist.  I’m here at the ocean, the sun is beginning to set, people seem content. Sometimes I try to focus on my life, where it’s been, where it’s going, but I can’t. The swim has had a calming effect on my mind. The intellect surrenders to a deeper place within.  Now, I’m immersed in the sound of the waves as they roll onto the shore only to roll back out into the sea, again, then again, over and over.

By mid-August, I’ve extended the swim out to the half mile buoy. I’m feeling more confident knowing that I can swim the one mile course in September.  The routine stays the same though— the breaks during the swim — perhaps rolling over onto my back and allowing the buoyancy of the salt water to hold my body in a state of suspension; or maybe just treading water and gazing out at the beautiful surrounding hills that make up the La Jolla area.  Then it’s on to the beach chair — on to the afterglow.

Swimming offers the obvious health benefits of fitness to stress reduction, but there is so much more.  There is that time when the swim is over, when things, people, sights and sounds are richer.  This is the real value of swimming.

I’ll never win a trophy following my training schedule; yet, the routine: swim, relax, enjoy, is a trophy in itself. This trophy keeps me coming back to La Jolla’s Big Wet One, year after year after year.  This year’s Rough Water swim will be held on September 13.

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Robert Ross is a long time resident of Clairemont. When not writing or swimming, he enjoys travel and classical guitar.  He can be reached at

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