One summer, when we were 10, our auntie Margaret hired a caravan on Coll beach, just outside of Stornoway and near our granny’s house. It was a typical Lewis summer. Grey sky. Cold wind. Rain likely. So, perfect weather to go paddling in the sea. We lasted 30 seconds.
I’d brought my trunks to the caravan, wrapped in a towel, of course. We changed there and ran down to the water’s edge. By the time we got there we’d invented Avatar, 25 years before James Cameron thought of his race of blue skinned people. The water was even colder.
We ran back to the caravan.
And that was my outdoor swimming experience. One dip. Barely up to waist. And that was it.
Today, people say it’s invigorating. Soul clearing. But when you’re 10 the only thought you have, when the waves reach your crotch, is “Eeeeeeeek! I can’t feel my balls!”
I didn’t venture back to the sea until I was 25. I was on holiday in the United States, I was driving from New York to New Orlean via a book called “Roadside Attraction of America”. Every night I’d decide a different attraction – the house shaped like a shoe, the dinosaur park – and drive there while generally heading to New Orleans. Yes, it was a boy’s trip. What gave it away…?
We’d reached Florida and was staying near the oldest town in the United States, Augustine, which was settled in 1500s then comprehensively rebuilt by to be a Walt Disney version of a historic town. If you like your McDonald driv-thrus to be housed in a replica Spanish villa that looks like it was just built by a Spanish conquistador, then Augustine is the place for you.
We have a motel beside a beach and we decided it would be fun to swim in the sea, despite the fact I’d not swum since school and I didn’t have any trunks or, naturally, any goggles.
“It’ll be okay,” I thought, “I’ll soon get used to it!”, remember my school days in halcyon terms and not the chlorine induced acid eyeball bath they actually were.
Waves were crashing on the shore as I waded out. The water was warm, which was the first shock. Water could be warm? The ocean could be a bath? The second shock was when I ducked under a wave. Salt! What the effing eff was salty water doing to my eye. It was like Tom Cruise had taken my acid eyeball bath and placed it in a mixer with a cheese grater and was recreating his finest tricks and flicks from Cocktail.
Disorientated, eye shut, frantically trying to clear the water from them, I swam out further and further until I thought I should really turn back. Except I couldn’t.
I couldn’t understand it. The waves were going towards the shore. They were big and powerful and heading in the direction I wanted to go but why, when I swam towards the shore, was I not going forward?
I tried to swim faster by kicking harder, the only way I knew how to swim faster because my arms were as much good to me when swimming as Douglas Bader’s legs.
I went backwards.
I thought of shouting, there were some people on shore, when I had another idea. There were surfers up the beach. They were further out but they were making it back in. And the only difference between them and me was that they had a board. So, I should pretend to be a surfboard and I’ll surf back in. Genius.
Next wave. I lay as stiff as I could and kicked forward just a s the crest of the wave passed through me. I did the same again with the next wave, and the next until I reached the shore, thankful and ecstatic that I’d discovered the secret to not drowning. Don’t swim.
So, I didn’t. Not for another 10 years. And during those 10 years I can confirm that I didn’t drown once.