Under the water can feel much safer than being on the surface. This is one of the many things I’ve learned so far on this trip.
I’ve written this before, but sometimes it’s better to be slightly out of your depth than trying to be in control and panicking on the surface and in the shallows.
I’m not a waterbaby.
I remember screaming in the bath when my mum was pouring water over my head to wash shampoo out of my hair.
When I started swimming lessons at school I refused point blank to let go of the edge of the baby swimming pool, even though my feet touched the floor.
I vividly remember the first time I jumped into a pool – I was 13 years old. I’d managed to avoid it all of my school life up to that point, and then we got a new swimming teacher, who told me even three year olds could jump in, and to get over myself. I leapt and realised mid-air the enormity of what I’d done, the edge of the pool behind me, and two metres of water in front of me. Everything slowed down, but there was no going back. I discovered that I wouldn’t die if I jumped in the pool.
I can do a basic breaststroke, like the old ladies with flowery swimming caps and oversized swimming costumes who swam alongside our school classes did. But that’s it. And as far as possible, all of my life, if I can get away with not swimming, I have.
It’s not the water or the swimming itself, so much as the way the water splashes all over your face, gets up your nose and in your ears and makes you choke. It makes me feel panicky and out of control.
So, not liking my face in water or being a particularly strong swimmer, I decided to go snorkelling.
I suppose I’ve got a bit of an ‘in for a penny, in for a pound’ attitude about this trip, and the only thing to do in Trincomalee except sunbathe is to take a motorboat out to Pigeon Island and snorkel on the coral reefs there. We took a bumpy ride over 13km of waves to this tiny spit of an island – literally a strip of sand with a spine of trees through the middle.
We were given flippers and a mask, shown how to make it seal, and then told to put our heads under the water. I felt a small amount of panic begin to rise, but did as I was told. Face under the water, breathe through your mouth, keep your eyes open and… I was fine. In fact the world beneath the surface of the sea was very calm and very beautiful. We swam away from the shore and out to see shoals of multi-coloured fish of all sizes and flashes of colour from coral. Gradually my fear slipped away and I began to relax into what I was seeing.
We took a break and swapped to the other side of the island. The water here was much choppier – ‘My brother has seen you all swim,’ said our guide ‘and he says you are all strong enough to swim against the current.’ I’m not sure the brother had been paying attention to my old lady breaststroke, but nevertheless we took to the water again.
The current was strong, but with your head under the water it suddenly felt much safer. We saw basking sharks and loads more fish than we had seen where the water was calmer. But my mask started to let in water. I surfaced to drain the water out and tried to reseal the mask to keep the water out. After a few attempts of this, draining, resealing, going back under and the water making its way in, I signalled to our guide that all was not well. On the surface he asked me to swap mask with him, but above water the sea was really choppy.
The things I hate about swimming began to happen – I had water up my nose, in my ears and I was swallowing lots of sea water. I couldn’t get his mask on over my head. I began to get anxious.
‘I want to go back to the shore,’ I said.
‘Okay,’ he said ‘You go. Stay to the left of the rock.’
I turned to swim with my old lady breaststroke to the beach, all the time the current pushing me towards the rock I was meant to be swimming away from. I couldn’t swim hard enough, and eventually I found myself at the rock, clinging onto it, breathing hard, wondering if I had enough power to swim from here to the shore. The guide eventually joined me.
‘Why didn’t you swim to the beach? I told you to swim away from the rock?’ he remonstrated.
‘I’m tired and I’m not a strong swimmer,’ I replied.
Once I’d caught my breath I was fine, and swam back. On the beach I looked at my legs and they were all scratched up from clinging on to a shell-covered rock. Our guide opened a coolbox and pulled out iodine and a bottle of whisky. Daubed in brown liquid all over my legs, I looked like a victim of something a lot more serious than a spate of illogical panic. I was a bit battered, a little scraped but all was well.
Back in Trinco I was asked by another guest at the place where we were staying whether it was a worthwhile experience. ‘I’m not a strong swimmer and I had a bit of a freak out, but it’s definitely worth doing. You’ve just got to keep your head under the water.’
That’s something I never thought I’d ever say.