Grayson is Lynne Cox's first book since Swimming to Antarctica: Tales of a Long-Distance Swimmer "Riveting" -- Sports Illustrated; "Pitch-perfect" -- Outside). In it she tells the story of a miraculous ocean encounter that happened to her when she was 17 and in training for a big swim (she had already swum the English Channel, twice, and the Catalina Channel). It was the dark of early morning; Lynne was in 55-degree water as smooth as black ice, 200 yards offshore, outside the wave break. She was swimming her last half-mile back to the pier before heading home for breakfast when she became aware that something was swimming with her. The ocean was charged with energy as if a squall were moving in; thousands of baby anchovy darted through the water like lit sparklers, trying to evade something larger. Whatever it was, it felt large enough to be a white shark coursing beneath her body.

It wasn't a shark. It became clear that it was a baby gray whale -- following alongside Lynne for a mile or so. Lynne had been swimming for more than an hour; she needed to get out of the water to rest, but she realized that if she did, the young calf would follow her onto shore and die from collapsed lungs.

The baby whale -- 18 feet long! -- was migrating on a three-month trek to its feeding grounds in the Bering Sea, an 8,000-mile journey. It would have to be carried on its mother's back for much of that distance, and was dependent on its mother's milk for food -- baby whales drink up to 50 gallons of milk a day. If Lynne didn't find the mother whale, the baby would suffer from dehydration and starve to death.

Something so enormous -- the mother whale was 50 feet long -- suddenly seemed very small in the vast Pacific Ocean. How could Lynne possibly find her?

This is the story -- part mystery, part magical tale -- of what happened...


Booklist: Cox, author of Swimming to Antarctica: Tales of a Long-Distance Swimmer (2004), looks back to an unforgettable experience when she was 17 years old, training for a long-distance swim. This book is moving and thrilling in its simple language as Cox laments the inadequacy of words to express profound feelings but demonstrates the exhilaration of the effort.


Lynne Cox was born in Boston, Massachusetts, and grew up in Los Alamitos, California, where she still lives. Her articles have appeared in The New Yorker and the Los Angeles Times Magazine, among other publications.


Lynne Cox was relaxing at her home in Los Alamitos with her yellow lab, Cody, when I phoned. She had just come from several days of book signings, and was to leave again after the Labor Day holiday. We began by talking about some of her experiences with readers of Grayson . "I was headed to Vancouver, Canada, the other day. At the border, the customs officer asked what I was doing in Canada, so I pulled out the book and said I was going to a signing. He commented on what a great cover it has, and said I could go on through. Later that night I was talking with an artist, and his wife had also come through customs earlier. When asked at the border what she was planning on doing in Canada she said she was going to a book signing by Lynne Cox. The border guard said, 'Oh, she was just here a minute ago.'"

"How impressive that you can use it as a passport."

"One of the worst moments happened in Rockport. There was this whole auditorium full of people, and a five-year-old girl and her mom were sitting in the front row. All these people asked questions at the end, and then the little girl finally raised her hand. When I called on her, she said, in this sweet little voice, 'Do you like to take hot showers or cold showers?' The entire audience just started laughing, and the poor little girl burst into tears."

"The fact is it was a great question. When you're talking about being in the cold water and getting out of the cold water, you don't want to take hot showers because you're throwing all of that cold blood back into the core of your body really fast and you actually get colder very quickly."

Lynne has participated in numerous research studies on the effects of cold. Her body is unique in its ability to withstand low temperatures. This has enabled her to complete some of her most dramatic feats, including a swim across the Bering Strait and another from the tip of Argentina to Antarctica in 32-degree water.

"I tried to console her, but she was crying in her mother's arms. I made sure they came up after the reading and we talked until the girl was smiling again. She even ended up inviting me to go out with them for ice cream."

"Of all the many things you have done, what do you see as the major milestones of your career?"

"The biggest milestone in my career was getting Swimming to Antarctica published. It took 21 years to write and get accepted and then 2 more years to get through the publishing process. And it took swimming to Antarctica!

"In terms of other milestones in my swimming career, the way I look at it is that each swim builds upon the last. I wouldn't have been able to swim the English Channel if I hadn't first swam from Catalina to the mainland. So, to me, each swim is just as important as the one previous.

"Each swim is also as exciting and as challenging. Each one involves the training and figuring out the tides, the currents, the winds. Then there's finding the support crew and figuring out how I'm going to pay for getting myself there, which is always a huge and involved process. In the end, usually, I wind up giving corporate lectures and giving swimming lessons and writing magazine articles to piece it together."

I had assumed, erroneously, as it turns out, that Lynne had ample corporate sponsorship for these swims.

"In the case of the Bering Strait swim, nobody believed that the Soviets were going to open the border to me and nobody believed that someone could swim in 38-degree water. It's hard to get corporate sponsorship for something like that when even ordinary everyday people don't have a lot of confidence in its happening."

Lynne says that people are always surprised to learn that it often takes several years to organize a swim, aside from the actual training and physical preparation. Much of that time is spent on business and logistics.

"I don't know if you ever read Lindberg's The Spirit of St. Louis, but I think it's one of the best books of all time. Like me, he was hoping that some big American company was going to sponsor him, but it ended up being Ryan Airlines of San Diego along with Lindberg piecing it together with the support of friends."

"When did you make the shift from swimming for yourself and for personal fulfillment to using your swimming to promote ideas to a larger audience?"

"I think the experience that changed everything was when I swam Cook Straits between the north and south islands of New Zealand. There were people from all over the country that supported the swim. They called out to the boat and encouraged me to keep going. Ferry boats changed their courses so that they could come along and raise the American flag and be alongside us. A number of Air New Zealand flights changed course so that they could radio weather information down to us. Realizing that all of this was going on around me as I was struggling to swim across the strait, I came to understand that a swim could be so much more than just an athletic event. They were cheering me on, but they were cheering themselves on as well. As they were helping me, they were seeing the struggle within themselves. Maybe I'm reading too much into this, but I think they cheered me on because they wanted to be successful themselves by playing a part in what I was doing."

"How did you decide on swimming in the first place?"

"The truth of it is, I was so bad at so many other things. I was awful in tennis. I broke both of my feet in gymnastics, and I broke my elbow thinking that finally I would play basketball and be good at it. I was always dead last in running, and I couldn't do a pull up. As far as being a land athlete, you would never ever want to bet on me."

"When you are in the ocean swimming, do you feel at home there, or do you feel like you are a guest?"

"I feel very, very comfortable in the ocean, but I always realize that I am a guest. I have a respect for the marine animals there. I enjoy being immersed in another world, and yet it's a world that I go to visit. It's not a place that I stay all day long."

I ask Lynne if she has seen the documentary about Timothy Treadwell and his work with grizzly bears in Alaska. "I haven't seen it, but I've heard about it. I've also heard a lot about it from naturalists who think he pushed it way too far."

"Where do you feel the line is between humans and animals?"

"I see all animals as cats. You wait for them to come over to you. Dogs are so different. They want to be with you and see you and walk with you and drive with you. But cats are like, 'Maybe I feel safe enough to have you pet me and to be with you.' If something wants to come over to me, great. If they want to swim with me, that's great too.

"I was really tentative with Grayson because he was 18 feet long and a baby. I wondered what he knew about life -- whether he would push me and not know it was okay. On one level, I had this sense of awe, and thought maybe he would be gentle with me, but on another level, I just didn't know.

"And then when his mother finally came, I didn't get between her and the baby at all. I swam backwards a little bit and she swam over to me. I sensed that she wanted me to touch her, but something swimming toward you that's 45 to 50 feet long can be pretty intimidating. Still, there was that fundamental trust -- that sense that we were two beings in the water and that she was thanking me for helping take care of her child."

Lynne Cox will be reading from Grayson at Warwick's Bookstore in La Jolla on Thursday, September 21 at 7:30 p.m.

Knopf, 2006, $16.95, 160 pages

Share / Tools

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google+
  • AddThis
  • Email

More from SDReader


Log in to comment

Skip Ad