Just When I Thought It Was Safe To Go Back In The Water

I don’t swim much. I cycle a lot and I run whenever my knees allow it but swimming has never been top of my fun list, probably because I’m a bit rubbish when it comes to being in the water. In a swimming pool I get cold quickly and bored even quicker and as for swimming in the sea, well I’ve never quite been able to banish irrational thoughts of an impending shark attack from my mind and so swimming in the sea doesn’t appeal either. I’ll happily paddle old lady style in the shallow water but I’d prefer not to go out any deeper.

Years ago, when I lived in New Zealand I went swimming with dolphins. We had sailed out to sea for about an hour and so I suspect the water would have been quite deep and there had also been sightings of sharks along the coastal waters at the time and so the chance of falling prey to a shark attack was probably more likely than it had ever been at any other time in my life and so nobody was more surprised than me when I had leapt overboard and swam about happily with the dolphins. I can’t pretend that the Jaws type scenarios that had haunted me for so long were completely forgotten but I did manage to keep a lid on my fear for a while. Yes, I did very well until having swum around underwater for some time, surrounded by a pod of some 300 dolphins and having squeaked along with them as we had been encouraged to do, I eventually surfaced and noticed that I was a long way from the boat. A long, long way. Immediately the door to my imagination was thrown wide open and the ‘Jaws’ type scenarios flooded in and they brought some friends with them, scenarios from ‘Open Water’, ‘Deep Blue Sea’ and even ‘Piranha!’. And so, in the style of a film character who is suddenly aware that they are being pursued by a shark and who is being urged to “Swim! Swim!” by a panicked friend onboard the boat and who is tormented by the unavoidable realisation that the deadly fin is getting ever closer I focused solely on the boat ahead and swam as fast as I could while trying to fight off the wild imaginings of what could be approaching me from behind. I of course made it back to the boat and suffered the obligatory heart stopping moment when I pulled myself out of the water, fully expecting a shark to grab hold of my foot, snatch me from the safety that had been oh so close but which was now oh so far away and drag me under the water never to be seen again. That clearly didn’t happen but it could have done! And this is why I don’t often go in the sea.

Last weekend I went to El Chorro which is famous for its beautiful lakes. They are absolutely stunning and the water is unbelievable. It is a glisteningly seductive shade of blue, the sort of blue that you just can’t help but want to leap into, especially on a hot, sunny day. Even me, little old water fearing, swimming indifferent me, I too wanted to be enveloped in the uniquely blue coolness. What could possibly happen in a lake? There could be no possibility of a shark attack, the lake was surely the perfect location for a quick, cooling dip. And so it came about that Miranda and I decided to go for a swim. We waded through the sticky mud underfoot and then swam out a short way and saw our friend, Helen who was in a kayak and sailing around the lake and soon after, on the horizon we spotted our friend Jackie, a serious swimmer who had set off a short time before we had for a ‘proper’ swim. Meanwhile, Miranda and I swam about a bit more sedately, chatting away and enjoying the whole experience. After a while we noticed that we had unwittingly swum some way from the land.

In my head I had been secretly entertaining the idea that I could possibly swim across to the other side. It was undoubtedly a long way off and I really wasn’t sure that I actually could swim that far and so I had kept the idea to myself. Whenever it surfaced I would push it back down again, thinking to myself, ‘Whatever you do don’t say it, for if you do you’ll have to do it.’ But again and again the thought insisted on popping into my head.

“This is so lovely isn’t it?” said Miranda.
“Oh yes, it’s wonderful!” I agreed.
The thought popped into my head. I pushed it back down.
“The water is fantastic!” said Miranda.
“It’s perfect!” I agreed.
The thought popped into my head. I pushed it back down.
“I think I can see Helen over there in the kayak.” said Miranda.
“Oh yes! Me too!” I replied.
The thought popped into my head. I pushed it back down.
“Shall we head back?” asked Miranda.
“Yes, we could go back now…” I said.
The thought popped into my head. I pushed it back down. It popped back up.
“…or we could swim to the other side?”

It was out.

“Do you think we could make it?” asked Miranda.
“There’s only one way to find out!”
“Ok! Let’s do it!”

And so we swam and swam and swam. We looked up, the other side was a LONG way off. We swam and swam and swam some more. We looked up, the other side was still a LONG way off. We swam and swam and swam some more. We looked up. The other side was STILL a long way off! The other side just wasn’t getting any closer. Why on earth had I had such a stupid idea? Why on earth had I let it out of my head? I’m not a swimmer, why would I think that swimming across a huge lake was a good idea?

“I’m going to turn back…” Miranda said after a further 10 minutes or so of swimming.
Here was my chance to get out of it! It had arrived! The opportunity to avoid having to do this ridiculous swim across the lake to this seemingly unreachable target!
“…and swim backstroke for a bit.”
And there it went.
Oh.
Oh well.
“Me too. Maybe when we eventually turn back around the other side will be closer!”
We laughed about how the other side continued to be far off in the distance and we turned around to swim backwards.
We swam and swam and swam.
We swam and swam and swam.
We swam and swam and swam.
Eventually, after another 10 minutes or so, we turned around.
The other side was still some way off but by now we had come so far we were determined to get to the other side. As we continued on we laughed about our predicament, jokingly reassuring ourselves that Helen could always come and rescue us in the kayak, or maybe super strong swimmer Jackie could drag us both back to shore in the event of an emergency!

Eventually we did reach the other side. It took a long time but we got there. We were ecstatic! We had made it! We dragged ourselves up onto the bank which wasn’t easy because it was quite steep and muddy and I kept sliding back down rather inelegantly into the water. We sat on the side and surveyed our achievement. We had certainly come a long way. As we sat there we tried to work out the distance across the lake. Miranda thought it was about 1km. Our musings were interrupted by the sudden realisation that the wind was getting up. On the way over the wind had been behind us but on the way back it would be against us and it was getting stronger. The waves were getting bigger. We decided to head off, the sooner we set off the sooner we would be back.

We flopped back into the water. It seemed somewhat colder now after sitting in the sun and from this vantage point in the water the waves definitely looked bigger than before. And so we began our return journey.

I was initially buoyed on by the thought that we were going quite quickly. We were cutting through the waves and speeding along quite impressively. This wasn’t going to be so bad after all!

“The waves rushing towards us really create an illusion that we are swimming really quickly don’t they?” Miranda said.
She was right. It was an illusion. We weren’t racing along at all.

I don’t think time or distance has ever passed so interminably slowly as it did on that return journey. We were still laughing as we went and we were chatting away but nothing could change the fact that this was hard work. The waves were slapping in my face making it hard to see and difficult to breathe, I kept getting water in my mouth and more alarmingly I had a recurring cramp in my left leg. I tried to recall if I had ever heard of anyone drowning as result of having a leg cramp while swimming. I couldn’t and I didn’t ask Miranda if she could, I didn’t even tell her I had cramp. I kept it to myself. Whenever it cramped I would turn over and swim backwards and the kicking action would make it go away but I was worried that it could get worse.

We continued on for what seemed like hours. I tried to convince myself that we were getting closer, that we were almost there.
“I think we are getting close to being half way across now!” said Miranda.
“Oh, really? I was thinking that perhaps we had passed the half way point already.” I answered.
“I don’t think so. Not yet.”
Oh.
Oh dear.
We swam on.

The final stretch was a combination of fighting off cramps, obsessing about the packet of Doritos that Miranda said that she had in her bag waiting for us on arrival should such an occasion ever arise, meeting a fellow swimmer who told us that the lake was indeed about 1km across each way, looking forward to lying in the sun on blessed terra firma and trying to convince myself that a splash of water that I thought I had seen a few metres ahead while I was swimming backwards really wasn’t the flick of a shark’s tail.

We eventually came close enough to land that I allowed myself to believe that I was going to survive this and I said as much to Miranda.
“You thought we wouldn’t make it?” she said in disbelief.
I had thought that. For a momentary, fleeting second, as my leg was cramping and the end seemed so incredibly far off I really had entertained the thought that maybe I would just have to live out in the middle of the lake, that I really wouldn’t be able to make it back to land!

We finally reached the edge and staggered through the squelchy mud that we had previously felt squidging unpleasantly between our toes so long ago. We turned around to look back at where we had come from. We had done it! It had taken forever but we had done it! With my feet on dry land, the sun on my back and my mouth stuffed full of Doritos we regaled our friends with tales of our bravery and derring-do. I even had a little doze. I had earned it. When I woke up I felt a considerable amount of pride in my achievement and I even indulged in a little self satisfied smugness that I had swum so far and for so long.

My feelings of endurance, achievement and slight smugness were instantly crushed by the sight of Jackie, gracefully, athletically and only now emerging from the water.

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