Tales of Al, the new book by marathon swimmer Lynne Cox, is the story of a trainee dog, Al, in the Italian School for Water Rescue dogs (Scuola Italiana Cani Salvataggio). The book begins in a hot summer in Maine, sweat sliding down the back of Lynne’s seven-year-old legs as she and her family make their way through mosquitoes and black flies to a dark pond, where they start to teach their dog to swim.
‘You work on things that you love,’ her grandmother remarks to Lynne later that evening, back in the family cabin, looking at a rug that took her three years to plait. ‘That makes you happy and helps you bring beauty into the world.’ One thing Lynne has worked on her whole life is swimming, and the depth of her love for that makes her new book a very beautiful thing, full of simple understated insights that come from a swimming life.
Lynne has had a long career in extreme open water swimming. She broke the English Channel record, for men or women, aged just fifteen. Since then, she has swum the Cape of Good Hope, the Cook Strait in New Zealand and the Bering Strait from Alaska to the Soviet Union to name but three.
Tales of Al is framed around 24 hours of food and swimming with dogs in Italy, but the story is longer and wider than that. In it we see Lynne spending an afternoon body surfing with three Newfoundland dogs off the California coast (straight to the top of my bucket list of experiences I’d like to have). We hear patient tales of teaching very scared children to swim (doggy paddle first, by copying their dogs), and we go alongside her to the midst of lives less lived: in one scene, she finds herself at a post-training tailgate party for the Italian lifeguards and their rescue dogs. A gourmet 24 month old Parmigiano Reggiano is handed to dogs and people without distinction, along with biscotti. (Drool towels, for wiping dogs faces, are standard.)
We get a glimpse of how dog swim training is so similar to human swim training: they have long endurance training sessions and drill sessions and coaches end them on high notes of dogs racing each other for shore amidst cheering so that they feel excited, bonded and motivated.
There is an innocent goodness in Lynne’s authorial voice, a spaciousness to the prose, and as a reader it’s easy to fall in to her rhythm, to take on her feeling of vast calm and hope. Do you meditate? I ask her, out of curiosity, at the end of our interview. ‘No, I swim 90 minutes every morning,’ she says, ‘that’s my meditation’. Of course it is! Here are some other questions I asked her about two great loves in her life: swimming and dogs.
They wear harnesses with handles that people can grip on to. When the dog approaches a swimmer and is an arm’s length from them, they slow down and begin circling the person in the water. Dogs know when someone is afraid. The swimmer then grabs hold of the handle on their harness, and the dog tows them back to shore.
Newfoundlands are such large, powerful swimmers they are able to pull in six people at one time, and labradors can pull in two to three people along with the instructor. Often when someone gets into trouble, other people go in to save them and you may end up with two and three people in trouble and sometimes at least one of them drowns. But if you have a Newfoundland and instructor they can pull them all in. That’s number one. Last July there where 14 children on blow up rafts that had been blown off shore on an Italian lake on their inflatables. There were two instructors and two labradors that day and they pulled in all 14.
The number two is that you have extra eyes on the water – you think it’s the person that’s watching the water but it’s four eyes on the water. You have the human being plus the dog.’
I wouldn’t want to insult any lifeguards, but they can be. Part of this whole interest is because years ago I was swimming off Laguna Beach when a man and his dog got into the water. The man was so much faster than me but the dog was twice as fast – it was embarrassing. One year a dog called Jake, a golden retriever, was allowed to do the Alcatraz swim with 5-600 swimmers in San Francisco. A veterinarian was put on a boat, and the owner and the dog went in with the swimmers. In the water Jake was picking up speed to keep up with the others – he thought he was swimming in a pack, he was looking at other swimmers, and his owner had to pick up pace to keep up.
Last month, with a dog called Lois, a golden retriever. She is the sweetest. Her owner Tom will throw the ball and we’ll both race to get it, sometimes I slow down and she gets it, sometimes I get there and throw it further. It’s a fun way to work out, something really different. If you have friends who don’t want to swim because it’s 8 or 10 degrees, the dog doesn’t care, so you swim anyway.
This is going to sound weird but I don’t think it’s the much different to having a friend that’s a swimmer. You go out and you look at the waves and you look at each other and go “do you want to go now?” “Yes lets go.” Then you go out through the waves and start swimming together. There are a few other dogs in the neighbourhood that like to swim in the bay with me. You get tired of doing the same back and forth, swim to the breakwater or whatever. So to have somebody or a dog in the water having so much enthusiasm to be in the water with you – to throw a ball and sprint to go get it – it’s a break from everyday workouts. You have a being besides you that says “Let’s go! This is so much fun! This is great!” How could you not absorb those feelings?
At home I’m usually swimming an hour and a half in the bay, at the start of the day. It’s a way for me to wake up, to think about what I’m doing, what my goals are, what my structure is for that single day. And also to meditate to get rid of things in my mind that I don’t need that are weighing me down. So by the time I come up I’m ready for whatever it is, what I will be dealing with for the day.
The goals I’ve had in the past have been to swim across channels and set new world records, and do things that have never been done before. Now each day is so different- we’re travelling this month, and I’m soon spending seven weeks on a book tour – so my goal during that time will be ‘where can I find water and swim for an hour?’. For a lot of swimmers – and for a lot of dogs who love to swim – that sense of being in the water makes you feel at home in the place you’re suppose to be. It helps mediate the moods – it can be an invigorator that gets you going, wakes you up, but it can also be a tranquilliser, so that you can come down after meeting all sorts of people, swimmers and dogs. Book signings are full of excitement!
Newfoundlands are the strongest swimmers, followed by Labradors, golden retrievers, flat-coated retrievers and German shepherds. Often you have a dog that will want to swim with you but wants to rescue you – my agent has a part Dalmatian, part English pointer, and whenever they swim together the dog wants to pull her out of the water. My mom’s Dalmatian is the same. I don’t know what you do for that, but it’s interesting for me that some dogs have this hyper-sensibility to make sure their person is okay in the water.
Retrievers are great: in Italy, the dog that looked the most relaxed in the water was the golden retriever. My friend had one named Roxy and she used to put her face in the water and blow bubbles – I thought it was the weirdest thing, that she knew enough to blow bubbles to keep the water out of her nose and mouth, and that she enjoyed doing it. There are dogs that duck dive – the Portuguese Water Dog are really good for that taking a breath and diving down underwater, helping fisherman pull up nets. That’s what they were bred to do.
Observing the owners working with the Italian Rescue Dogs, the owners were very gentle with the dogs, just like you would be with a child – where you would bring them into the water and help them and support them, make sure their head is above the water, and then allow them to start dog paddling. It’s important to get them feeling very comfortable and relaxed in the water and as they build up strength you give them less support. You don’t take a dog and throw it into the water – and I would never do that with a child or any age person. I know that children learn that way but some children are traumatised for all their life – it’s a horrible way to teach someone, you need to be gentle and reassuring.
But it’s true of people and true of dogs: sometimes you’ll put a puppy in the dog and you’ll see it just take off, and it’s like ‘this is where I’m meant to be!’ I know someone who just did this in California just the other day, they put their puppy in and it just swam out of their hands like ‘I am happy to be here now!’ It shocked everyone. But we see people like that – they’ve been in pools their whole life and now they go into open water and you’d expect them to be tentative about it but they get in, take a couple of strokes, and they just take off, because they feel so at home in the water. It’s a wonderful thing to see this happiness, for people and dogs.
(In the book, Lynne is dog-sitting and this happens, spontaneously when they go to the beach, and then for a swim).
Yes! Yes. That was just an incredible surprise – first of all to go swimming with them, and suddenly to be protected by all sides, like ‘we don’t want anything to happen to you’ [the dogs moved into formation around her in the water as they swam], that was really amazing and sweet. And then suddenly to start body surfing. I was looking at them thinking ‘this is the wildest thing I’ve ever seen: dogs: body surfing’. This happened way before I saw people putting dogs on surfboards, and it was just amazing, I kept thinking ‘COWABUNGA!’ I can’t believe dogs that know how to catch a wave. I couldn’t believe how long they wanted to keep going, I was like ‘come on! you’ve got to be tired by now, because I am!’
There are so many people who could not swim in pools during covid that decided to swim in open water – not just swimmers but triathletes. People have stepped into open water and felt exhilarated by it, so there’s been this enormous increase in the amount of people participating. I can just see that in front of our house – in summer the bay is like a freeway of swimmers, there’s so many people in the open water. And it’s really fun, you can see how excited they are, they are comparing notes about what the water temperature is, and where the current is stronger, and where you can turn around and how far that is…. some of them are looking at their watches and keeping tabs on every moment, and some of them are floating on their backs and watching the clouds go by. It’s really fun to see how many more people are getting into the sport, and I think many of them are never going back into the pool again because of the sense of adventure you get. When you jump in the pool you can be pretty sure you can and will make it from one end to the end. When you jump in the bay, or sea or lake or river, you’re not really always sure exactly what is going to happen during that training session, or that day you’ve just decided to explore the water. And I think people that are open water swimmers really enjoy that.