I’m pretty well qualified to tell my gang of urban warriors about this. I’ve had some close calls I can assure you. My survival is self evident, since I’m still here writing rather than haunting you lot from beyond a watery grave. I’m good at this.
Let me see. The first time I must have been about three years old. My family had gone out on the traditional annual Round Table picnic, accompanied by the traditional annual deluge. It rained every bloody year. During a gap in this particularly apocalyptic rain, I was allowed out of the car we’d all been confined in for about a decade (or so it seemed to me) to go for a wander, as long as I wore my wellies; it was that sort of picnic. I fetched up at the edge of a stream, which while generally nothing but a rill, was by then a raging torrent of muddy water, branches, general detritus. Because I’m foolish I decided to ford it and see what was on the other side.
If you’re only about 3’ tall and you drop into 4’ of rapidly moving water, and you’re wearing wellies, there’s only one way to go, and that’s down. Fast. Fortunately, although I couldn’t really swim at that age, I had some of the moves off, having been taken to the local pool by my bro. I didn’t panic, I just struck upwards, and got my head above water. The biggest problem now was the overhang where the water had undercut the bank. I let the current drag me downstream while I steadied myself by holding onto tussocks of grass and tree roots. Finally found a place where the bank would have been fairly negotiable were it not for the fact that wellies full of water weigh about the same as a pair of old fashioned diver’s boots. Egress was not easy, but I made it. I found as I emerged that there was a good deal of excitement on the bank, as someone had seen me do my vanishing act. There I was, and the next second, there I wasn’t. Of course I was by now a fair way downstream from where everyone was frantically scanning the water for me. My mum was pretty relieved when I popped up in her midst and finally broke down into hysterics. I wasn’t alone in that behaviour.
Next time? About seven years old I suppose. Trying to teach myself to dive without using my hands. I didn’t work out on the first attempt that without your arms to steer you, you have to bend your back into a reverse banana shape to start bringing yourself up towards the surface and thus avoid smacking your head on the bottom of the pool. I know that now. Didn’t know that then. I was pretty dazed, but my inherent sense of self preservation got me to the top again, albeit haemorrhaging quite a lot from my mashed nose. Blood goes a long way in water, doesn’t it? Just as well there were no sharks in Hathershaw Baths’ plunge pool.
Then when? About 1985? No, 1986. In Makarska in Yugoslavia. The weather was unseasonable. It was hot and sunny, but with some very fierce katabatic winds roaring down off the mountains. I decided to go for a swim, even though the sea was carrying white horses. Walked in up to about my knees and a gale force gust of wind poked me in the chest so hard I flipped over backwards, stopping my descent again with my head. Saw a few stars, swallowed some water, but I got away with it.
A very good year for not drowning was 1992, on the beach at Bogmalo in Goa. The beach was a perfect horseshoe between two small headlands, and the waves came in such a way that they broke simultaneously across the whole width of the beach. The water just reared up and flopped down in one big ‘Flump.’ Perfect for body surfing and boogieboarding. Yes, I appreciate your concern that I was nearly forty and should really have grown out of such puerile behaviour. I was doing just fine till I misjudged the breakpoint and got buried under several tons of water. I really didn’t know which way was up. I felt strangely peaceful as I contemplated the end. Then the stirred-up sand in the water cleared enough for me to see which way the bubbles were going when I exhaled, and I just followed them to the surface. Lungs close to bursting, but otherwise unhurt, and remarkably Zen about the whole episode. A couple of day later some poor soul was not so lucky. He swam stupidly close to the rocks of one of the headlands, got caught in the undertow, pulled onto the rocks, and that was that. I never in my life want to hear again a scream like that of his wife when the lifeguards finally got him out. Never.
Then there was the episode when I was on a wreck dive in the Maldives… I got away with that one too. Obviously.