TO THE SEA: Open-Water Swimmers Gather in the Ocean and the St. Johns River

Duval Ocean Swimmers, Photo by Curtis Siver


Three simple words define how Jim Alabiso greets a new day. “To the Sea” is a spiritual roadmap that leads him to the sandy shores at sunrise and a metaphor for his relationship to the water. A distance swimmer, author, water conservationist and professional strategist, Alabiso rises before dawn several times a week for a mile swim up the coast just as the day breaks on the horizon.

It’s a transformative experience that he shares with his tribe of co-swimmers in the Duval Ocean Swimmers. Any number of swimmers may appear at daybreak; as little as two or three or a crowd of 10 to 15. Alabiso recounts the day over 70 people congregated at the water’s edge, crashing out through the waves in a joyful herd.

“It’s just glorious to go into the water with 70 people,” he says. “Open water swimming is a rare breed. To get up and be on the beach at 6:30 in the morning is another rare breed altogether.”

Most days, the group gathers at sunrise for a brisk, one-mile swim. On weekends, it’s not unheard of for them to swim five miles up and down the coast.

For Alabiso, his connection to the water plays a significant role in how he navigates all aspects of his creative, physical and spiritual life. He is a student of water and its effect on human chemistry, the relationship between the surf and the self. “Your brain changes its behavior when it’s near the water. It actually slows down. Swimming several times a week and the thousands of swims throughout the years, I’ve never regretted getting in the water,” he says. “Ever.”

Each swimmer that shows up on the sand at dawn has something within them that is nurtured by the sea. “All of our swimmers have a story; cancer survivors, accident survivors, addiction survivors,” notes Alabiso. “I’ve been in motorcycle accidents, bicycle accidents. I would be living with chronic pain if it wasn’t for swimming. For all of us, it’s really a healing thing.”

Recently, the sunrise swims evolved into something Alabiso calls the First Light swims. The unintentional discovery shed new light on his morning practice. Entering the ocean before dawn, he experienced the tranquil beauty as the sun slowly stretched over the horizon and cast its first light across the ocean surface.

“It takes about 30 minutes to swim a mile, so we get in the water 15 minutes before sunrise and about half a mile in, the sun breaks the water and we just kind of float there and watch the sunrise at eye-level,” he says. “It’s just the most beautiful thing.”

Alabiso has always been drawn to water photography and he sought a way to capture his view of the sea’s surface at eye level as he swims. His unique method captures a still frame of the water in motion. The brilliant watercolor display as the sunrise streaks across the morning sky in contrast with the frothy, bubbling tides creates a mesmerizing composition.

“I started capturing these still frames of the water crashing down and I was trying to develop points of view that we don’t normally see. We never see it still. Water is never still so to see it still is a unique thing,” he says. “As a swimmer, I’m always looking at it from surface height, so I wanted people to see what it looks like at the surface.”

Though he’s known as “the water guy,” Alabiso didn’t start swimming until he was in his 40’s and recovering from hip replacement surgery. His first experience with open water swimming fulfilled a desire to swim across the St. Johns River. He met his trainer at the Church of the Good Shepherd pool in Riverside. “He was the one who invited me out to Duval Ocean Swimmers, but I was too scared,” he recalls. “He said ‘c’mon, if you’re ever going to swim across the river’, which I did four years later, ‘you’re going to need to practice’ so he trained me up.”

Open water swimming is a lesson in endurance. There are no breaks, no passes on cold or rainy days. Lightning is the only weather condition that will keep them out of the water. They monitor on the tide and currents but only for informational purposes.

“We’re out there all year. In the ocean, if the current is going north to south, we’ll walk a mile or two north and swim south,” says Alabiso. “Sometimes we’ll swim against the current, but it depends on how strong it is. When we swim in the St. Johns River, we have to go by the currents. The St. Johns River, being that we’re an estuary, every six hours it changes direction.”

The group mentality keeps spirits high and the swimmers safe. Alabiso’s regular river swims are escorted by boats or kayaks in case the power waters unexpectedly shift. Since 2001, he’s held the annual Up the River Downtown swim from JU to the Riverside Arts Market. The six-mile river route takes swimmers under the Hart Bridge, Matthews Bridge, past the stadium and Metropolitan Park to the Main Street Bridge, past the Landing and beyond to the Fuller Warren.

In September, the same 10-K route will be the site of the city’s first open water marathon race. “We swim it almost every year, but we’ve never raced it,” says Alabiso. “We’ve been working for years to make this happen.”

After years of planning, a river-based triathlon is also scheduled to make a splash into the St. Johns River on July 14. Through his non-profit organization Jumping Fish, Alabiso partnered with DRC Sports to launch Jacksonville’s Olympic & Sprint Triathlon Series. Participants in the Sprint series will complete a .25-mile swim, bicycle for 15 miles and 3.1-mile run to the Main Street Bridge. In the Olympic Triathlon, competitors begin a 1.5-K swim, bike for 40 K and 10 K run at the Fuller Warren Bridge.

“For me, swimming long distances is like yoga. It’s a very meditative sport. It’s not like you’re out there running with your buddies and talking. You’re in the water,” he says. “It’s different for everybody but for me, meditation is not about clearing your mind. It’s just letting the different things come through. You don’t really ever stop your brain so if an annoying thought comes through, or something you’re worried about, you just don’t hold on it. You let it pass, like a cloud. No matter how we feel going in, we always come out feeling better.”

For Alabiso, he is never more inspired than when he’s near the water. Some ideas have revealed themselves through his art and photography. Many have taken shape as a short play or a concept for a column. Others are content to remain just as they are; a dolphin tale or a shark encounter; a memorable sunrise or the simple gratitude of being in the moment.

He recalls the time he discovered a small blacktip shark maybe about two-feet long flopping on the sand. Alabiso picked it up by its tail and as he carried it out to the water, he looked at it and thought, “Okay, Mr. Blacktip, I want you to remember this moment should we meet again. We’ll see if karma works,” he says. “When it really gets down to it, the coolest experience isn’t any particular day but those particular moments when everything just falls into place. Your stroke falls into place and it’s just you and the sea.”

Duval Ocean Swimmers has no charter, no bylaws, no board of directors and no leaders. To join the Duval Ocean Swimmers, sign up on the Facebook page, show up and swim. The group meets at 9 am every Sunday rain, shine or tropical storm near the north end of the Jacksonville Beach Pier parking lot. Swims are year-round with or without wetsuits or other protective apparel. Occasional weekday swims will be posted on social media.

Duval Ocean Swimmers Facebook group (ocean swimming) is

JumpingFish Facebook Page (river swimming) is

For more info: Contact: Jim Alabiso, [email protected]

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