As a child you dream of drowning. Sinking down, down, down in a circular bottomless pool where the underwater lights glow yellow, green, blue as you descend. Looking up, wavering silhouettes of people stand at the lip of the pool, pointing and laughing. You wake gasping for air, glad to be in your bed, on solid ground.
Swimming lessons are short lived. You hate the indoor pool: the chlorine smell, the slimy floor, the drooping flesh, dust of baby powder and spider legs of pubic hair that crawl from women’s swimsuits. You hate how in the pool, the more you flail your arms and legs, the quicker you sink. Panicking, you take in mouthfuls of water. You avoid the gurgling drains, big rectangular slots on the blue-painted pool walls which are black inside. If you touch them they will suck you in and you’ll drown.
You learn to breast stroke and tread water like you don’t want to die today but you never make it out of the minnows. Your older sister learns to swim freestyle, your mother swims laps in her goggles and black swimsuit. She has a strong, sensible stroke. Your father does not come to the pool.
The closest you come to drowning outside your dreams is in Berlin on your sister’s birthday. It is a sweltering June day, the wave pool at Blub is packed, and you are alone in the crowd. You’re not ready for the force of the waves and when one pushes you under, you’re knocked off your feet. You come up gasping just as the next hits. Under again, mouth and nose full of water, you are trapped among a forest of submerged legs. Some large hand hauls you up, a big-bellied man rights you and shouts, waving for the machine to stop. They pause the waves. You cough up chlorinated water back on your towel in the sun.
In high school, you manage to avoid swimming. Friends do their lifeguard training – you would never pass the tests. You are on the rowing team, and you have to jump into a pool fully clothed and tread water for two minutes, to prove you would survive if the shell capsized. You survive, though towards the end your head is tilted all the way back, mouth and nose above water, sodden jeans pulling you down.
Your family goes whitewater rafting once. You are all wearing lifejackets, but on a Class IV rapid your father falls off the side of the bucking yellow rubber raft. Your mother screams: ‘He can’t swim!’ The guide reassures her, the lifejacket will keep him upright. They haul him over the edge of the boat moments later, water streaming from his glasses and beard. You have been told before, but it becomes clear at that moment: your father, a man who speaks six languages, is completely unable to swim.
‘I grew up in Nebraska in the 1950s,’ he says. ‘It was never that big a deal.’
When you move to Sydney in your twenties your fear of water becomes a big deal. After getting dumped in the waves you approach them with caution. You don’t go far, beyond where you can stand.
You sign up for stroke correction classes at the pool. The kind instructor is patient with your breathlessness, tells you that you have the long arms of a strong swimmer. You learn alternate breathing but never work up to more than five laps. The tightness in your chest, the sense of panic, remains. But you can swim freestyle. You have the basics down.
Still, you avoid water. You get in the pool with your babies for swim classes but hate the shivering cold afterwards, the endless palaver of getting changed and slimy floors and waterlogged swim nappies and echoey-loud pools. You move to Maroubra and the beach, a ten-minute walk from your house, is refreshing on hot days, but you never linger. Your children grow more confident in the surf than you.
Then, in 2020, COVID lockdown hits, and you are told not to leave your neighbourhood. Coogee looks like a lap pool, there are so many ocean swimmers. Then the beaches close. Deep down, you are four-year-old. The best way to get you to want to do something is to be told that you can’t.
When the beaches re-open, your friends are ocean swimming. Two are surf lifesavers, so you know if you come to strife they will help you. One lends you a wetsuit. You dig up goggles and a swim cap.
Your first ocean swim is across Little Bay on a windy, choppy day. You are out of breath right away, your heart in your ears. The water is murky and cold, slapping against your cap. A few strokes of freestyle and you swap to breaststroke. One length of the beach and you walk back on the sand, shivering while the others turn and swim. You are shaky, breathless, ready to quit the whole idea of it. But your friends are so kind when they get out: ‘You did it,’ they say. ‘Your first ocean swim!’
The next week you swim at Malabar, the week after Coogee. You pause frequently and someone is always waiting. You try not to think about sharks. When the water is clear and you see the bottom, the way the sand shifts with the current, the way sunlight streams through, it is beautiful. You find a rhythm, swallow lots of seawater, buy a wetsuit. The biggest change comes when you borrow a set of fins. The fins make you feel like you can keep going, calm your breathing and focus on form. You swim with a group out to the point at the South End of Maroubra and back in to the flags, more than a kilometre. It feels marvellous until it doesn’t, until you nearly spew from seasickness and you’re so hungry and tired that you’re not sure you’ll make it to shore. You do, and you learn to eat something before you swim.
Weeks later, you swim over the Hereward wreck from 1898, the mast and ribs of the hull poking from shifting sand. Margaret Atwood’s words in Cat’s Eye come to mind: “You don’t look back along time but down through it, like water. Sometimes this comes to the surface, sometimes that, sometimes nothing. Nothing goes away.”
The ocean, now, is different than it used to be. Writing has taught you that so much depends on perspective, and this is true for the environment as well. You are no longer sitting on the beach looking out, you are out in the ocean – looking down – out to the horizon – in to shore. Ocean swimming is a different way of being in the world, a different way of crossing space, tasting salt, feeling buoyant, and seeing.
Water is not your natural environment, but you are learning to move through it. It still scares you, but maybe fear can be a companion rather than an obstacle. You swim with fear beside you, blowing bubbles into the deep murky water beneath.
Try not to think about sharks.
Turn your head and breathe.