Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Not Waving

Ok, here's another expose to fulfill my obligation to Heather Cameron - I cannot swim.

I went to an extremely bad school in Surrey when I was a kid, and we didn't have swimming lessons until we were about 13 years old, and even then, I only had one. By that time, all the kids who were going to swim were already doing so, and the few who couldn't probably never would.

The whole class stood shivering by the side of the pool as the teacher told everyone who could already swim to stand at the deep end, and the non-swimmers to stand at the shallow. So I found myself huddled together with the rest of the classroom freaks - the fat boy, the boy with thick glasses and a spotty face, and me - six foot tall and about nine and a half stone in weight.

The teacher, who was a keen sportsman and had a body which all the female staff drooled over, swaggered over to us and started bellowing orders from the edge of the municipal pool. We splashed about in two feet of water, trying not to get our hair wet, and after about five minutes of this, Teech got fed up and went over to coach the Olympic hopefuls, leaving us to shrivel in the shallows. That was it.

Over the years, various incredulous friends have attempted to teach me, and they all - without exception - have promised to have me swimming within half an hour. One of my mates took me to the pool when I was about 35, and thought that the best way to start was to have me treading water - which he did, I have to admit. We both walked down the slope from the shallow end, and by the time the water was up to my chin, he - being shorter than me - was gently moving his arms from side to side whilst calmly issuing orders for me to do the same. I found that if I thrashed my arms this way and that at the same time as raising my legs briefly up to my chest, I did indeed stay afloat, but as soon as I stopped, I sank like a brick. After about an hour of this, we were forced to leave the pool, as the other swimmers were complaining about the amount of turbulence I was creating, not to mention the froth that had built up on the surface that made it difficult to navigate the lanes.

A few years ago, me and her indoors went to Cuba. Nothing could have prepared me for the beauty of the ocean vista as we broke through a small fringe of jungle and stood on the beach just as the sun was going down on our north coast resort. The sea was a perfect turquoise, and looked as if it was illuminated from the bottom with subtle and skillful, underwater lighting. There could never have been a better place to learn to swim, or so I thought, as the water was warm, crystal-clear and heavy with salt. The trouble with such a hospitable habitat is that things live in it. Lots of things. Lots of things for whom swimming is the primary method of transporting themselves. They are very good at it, and can come up to you in a second, long before you have noticed their presence.

The next day, after breakfasting on fresh, tropical fruit, we made our way down to the beach with our towels and swim wear. We lounged around a bit, then I strode to the water's edge and began wading in. Beautiful. Before long, I was up to my neck, and softly undulating to the rhythm of the approaching, gentle swells. Then I looked down just in time to see a three-foot long, black shark cruise past my kneecaps and swing round again for another pre-prandial sniff.

It is amazing how slowly you are forced to run when you battle your way through tons upon tons of salty water, but as it became shallower, so my speed increased until I burst through the last few inches like a mentally deranged Venus, and ran across the sand to safety at about 30 miles per hour. This little show provided the best entertainment of the trip for her indoors, and she still laughs out loud now when recalling it.

I spent the rest of the time sitting on the beach and admiring a huge, thick-necked, Russian lorry-driver who absorbed himself every day - eight hours a day - by building vast sand-castles with his enormous hairy arms. He looked like he had re-found his childhood, and it was a very touching thing to witness. He probably couldn't swim either, so I identified with him even more.

I haven't been back into the water since - not even a pool.


  1. I'm sorry to say this Tom, but you're missing out on one of life's great adventures. Why not do a PADI dive course; you don't even need to be able to swim because you breathe under water. Most of the nasties aren't as nasty as they'd like you to think!

  2. I would not do a diving course run by itinerant Irishmen, Cro. It's breathing underwater that is my greatest fear, so that's no help. As for nasties - what about those things that swim up your willy if you pee in the Amazon, then eat away at your liver? EH???

  3. Yes, aren't they a pain. The wee scamps.