I am not a water person.
My parents will attest to this: decades of swimming lessons, panic at being forced to jump in the deep end and the humiliation of school swimming sports have all left their scars on my psyche. As an adult I made a deliberate effort to acquire as much swimming skill as was necessary to not drown embarrassingly, but not a stroke more. The smell of pool chlorine still makes me anxious.
But later in life I have discovered something else – swimming in the sea is wonderful. It’s been a revelation for me. It took no small amount of courage to wade out, past groin-pickling depth, into water deep enough to swim in. My first instinct was to get out immediately. But something atavistic rumbled in the depths of my hindbrain which told me that it was safe, indeed that it was right to be shoulder-deep in salty water.
Dunking my head underwater, normally only achieved with great force of will, became perfectly natural. Saltwater in my nose was almost pleasant compared to the acric chemical burn of chlorinated water. Although there was no chance of opening my eyes, the underwater world of the sea felt like a womb, albeit a womb where you are occasionally tickled by passing lifeforms being swept along by the current.
I don’t know what it is about immersion in salty water, but it changes your entire outlook on life. The usual niggling cares recede into the distance and you are left with just the interaction between you and the oceans of the world. Whether you actually go for a swim or not isn’t important, it’s the action of merging with the primal broth which makes the difference. It washes away who you used to be, and you can briefly revert to being a simpler organism.
I still don’t enjoy swimming in pools, even ones treated with salt water. I find them artificial and uncomfortable, as if I were required to perform in some way. But put me in the sea any day. I don’t care if it’s cold, I just won’t stay as long. But I can never get enough. At the end of a day at the beach, gritty, hypothermic and tired, I still watch the waves washing up on the shore wishing I was back out there.