In at the deep end

Swimming pool ladder handrail at deep end

Preamble

A week ago I announced the launch of 7explorers and waited, with my breath held and fingers crossed, to see if anyone was interested.

The Oman 2017 expedition was sold out in just four days, in fact we had to respectfully ask some people to wait for the 2018 schedule of destinations to be published (probably in the next few months).

It was tempting, especially as we are a lean start-up, to extend the guest list for Oman, take more people and bank more money, but after a short conversation the founders agreed that it was more important to respect our core values and maintain an extraordinarily high ratio of “experts” to guests.

I want to to say a big thank you to our 2017 explorers, those on the waiting list for 2018 and the many messages of goodwill that I’ve had via social media and face to face.

I’m now confident that 7explorers is going to occupy a permanent place in my life over the years ahead and I’m looking forward to getting to know people in some unexpected places.

Story

My first ever trip to a swimming pool was with my father when I was about 8 years old, around 1961 and in a world in which beach holidays were something that wealthier people than us enjoyed.

The nearest I had been to the sea-side at that point in my life was a week in a caravan in Heysham, near Morecambe.

Then, it was the site of a coal-fired power station (nowadays nuclear) and the view from our cold, damp caravan was a set of cooling towers that regularly erupted enough steam to block out what little sun we saw otherwise.

The site was located on Heysham Head, which dropped down onto a beach of gravel and sand, the tidal variation in the area so vast that wandering further than the camp site exposed the unwary to a variety of terminal risks from quicksand to drowning.

The whole scene was post-apocalyptic and had me wondering why people craved their annual escape from the comforts of home.

Consequently, I had no idea how to swim and, clearly, my Dad eventually decided it was time for me to be educated, perhaps motivated by his former career in the Royal Navy.

We arrived at Chorlton-cum-Hardy baths which, like many such facilities up North, had been built by the local Council in 1929 to accommodation an expanding working class who had limited opportunity to travel and only basic washing facilities at home.

Manchester has a number of what were called “baths and wash houses” that date from the Victorian era and perhaps another time I will tell you a story about the recently restored Victoria Baths in Longsight, where my secondary school swimming lessons took place.

Chorlton Baths was an art-deco building that was slowly falling into disrepair but still actively used by local residents.

After changing into our swimming costumes, my Dad walked me out to the poolside amid the echoing cacophony of shouts, screams and splashes, there to begin my aquatic apprenticeship by demonstrating his own prowess.

“Watch this” he said, “it’s called The Periscope” and performed a spectacular leap into the deep end, surfacing to float on his back and slowly sink back into the water with one leg raised high in the air.

I was so impressed that, before he had a chance to prepare, I simply followed suit.

Even now I can remember the bewilderment of finding myself underwater, unable to see properly and wondering why my mouth was full of water. Immediate panic.

My opportunity to share the memory with you now is a spoiler for what happened next.

My Dad swam down to where my flailing body was sinking and managed to get me up and out of the water just in time for me to vomit back a lung full of water and then promptly scream the place down.

Exit, stage left, embarrassed parent and traumatised shrieking child.

I have no recollection of what my mother said when we returned home but I do know that this event was the precursor of a lifetime’s suspicion of the act of swimming.

Somebody asked me recently why I don’t enter triathlons, considering I have 23 marathon medals and I love road cycling again after a break of some years?

My answer is that when I run or ride I am in a meditative state of happiness. When I swim I am coping with a life-threatening situation that can go wrong at a moment’s notice.

I love boats, power and sail and I’m not afraid of the water. In fact I can passably swim.

I just dislike the experience, expecting at any moment the unexpected – a face full of water, a clubbing from a passerby’s arm, the caress of a jellyfish tail, the orchestral throb as a prehistoric predator homes in.

Conclusion

Having told that story to Chris Potts the other day, during an hilarious conversation as we travelled home on the 21:00 Friday night from Euston, he commented;

“so basically you’ve been doing the same ever since – jumping in at the deep end with little or no preparation?”

….and then smiled at me with that cheeky boyish expression he has mastered over the years.

There’s only one thing that’s worse than a friend – and that’s a friend who is right.

I’m a bugger for accepting dares, sometimes even before they are articulated, as my dear father discovered.

Maybe the gene that motivates me to take risks, lose money, choose lousy business partners (present company excepted), bash my head, fall off bikes and in love, lose 14 kilos in 14 days on a tropical island, say the wrong thing and earn the nickname “Marmite” was there that day in ’61 and is still crouched inside me, waiting for every opportunity to leap into the unknown.

Which brings me back to 7explorers and Oman 2017.

You can imagine how relieved I am to have three excellent and experienced partners in the enterprise – people who know what they are doing and will prepare meticulously.

When it comes to extreme expeditions, there will be no jumping into the deep end.

 

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