This summer I went swimming
this summer I might have drowned,
but I held my breath
and I kicked my feet
and I moved my arms around
moved my arms around.Loudon wainwright III – ‘Swimming Song’
Contrary to all that I was building up to this year, I have not ended up spending these last few months having the Pacific and Atlantic lash into my face or deluge my boots. Unlike some of my team mates who did get to race in previous legs in autumn and winter 2019, I have not lived through the experience of being slammed by a rogue wave into the cockpit floor or main sheet traveller and losing my front teeth and breaking a few ribs in the process. 2020 has proved to be dramatic in other ways.
As for gig rowing, well, it’s definitely not happening for 2020, as it’s impossible to follow social distancing guidelines when the activity requires 6 oarsmen and a cox to sit together in a 32-foot clinker-built rowing boat.
But…(there’s always a but and an alternative somewhere)…without any intention on my part, I have started a weekly river swim with a dear friend and work colleague. Neither of us had river swimming noted as a 2020 new year’s resolution, but when options for access to outdoor space become very limited and the temperature starts to rise in a city, it is rather inevitable we have both found companionship and solace in a brief dip in a river located roughly halfway between our respective cities of residence – Bath and Bristol.
Luckily for both for us, this little foray into the River Avon enables us both to get away from our desks and home life, whilst following social distancing regulations. I also relish taking to the saddle and escaping the city for an hour or so along the cycle path and seeing a horizon without buildings.
The first time we met for our inaugural dip was 9am on a Friday, so the cycle path was quiet except for runners and racy cyclists who don’t believe in slowing down, even for a blind bend. Like us, there were other women swimming alone or in pairs and the day looked like it could turn out to be a sunny one.
My friend has a fear of losing touch with the ground beneath her feet; an irrational fear she disclosed she acquired after watching Jaws as a kid, and I have an irrational fear of touching something I can’t see in the water like an eel. I do not enjoy swimming in the sea when there’s lots of seaweed or in rivers where there’s long weeds, as just the brushing of them on my legs leaves me paranoid I am about to be attacked by an amphibian or reptile. So we made a good co-dependent team, each trying to calm and smooth away the other’s fears. We both made it into the river, so a big hurdle was overcome there. The next hurdle to overcome was getting my friend to swim out into the river and for me to stop mentally visualising that I am about to be attacked by an aggressive pike. All was going well, we both bobbed around in the serenity of the river’s bend gazing up at the clouds as we floated on our backs and sighted rabbits in the meadow that meets the river. We happily floated about delighting in sightings of swallows, house martins and red kite gliding overhead. Then I saw it, and I did a double take. My instinct was to scream (but I didn’t).
A grass snake (at least I think it was a grass snake because of the yellow and green colouring on its head) was snaking across the surface of the river a metre in front of me and between me and the river bank’s exit! Of all the things I had tried to push to the back of my mind whilst putting energy into trying to be in the present moment savouring my surroundings, a grass snake was not on the list. At first my friend thought my fear was a joke, but she quickly realised I was serious. Worse still, the snake decided it would swim towards the spot where our clothes were heaped half-hidden from view in undergrowth. I was mortified. Heart beating fast. Fortunately, my friend is not scared of snakes so she and another female swimmer came to my rescue by each swimming either side of me and cajoling me to the river bank. It took a while, but I did reach the bank to retrieve my clothes and catch my breath. The ‘incident’ with my fears did take me a while to internally wind down from, because it had promptly brought to mind two other incidents in my life where I have been terrified when faced with my worst reptilian and amphibian fears.
In 1998 I was hiking with two German guys, an American and a Canadian woman who I had randomly joined up with in one of the hostel dormitories in Gunung Mulu National Park; a protected rainforest in Malaysian Borneo (Sarawak). We were trekking the ‘Headhunter’s Trail’ having been on the steep trails to the Pinnacles at Gunung Api (tall, jagged limestone formations). I was not well at the time, suffering all the digestive issues that go hand-in-hand with a tropical disease, so already feeling weak, dizzy, nauseous and lagging behind the rest of the group…and then a green pit viper fell from a branch overhead where we assume it had been sleeping, landing with a loud thud within a few inches of my feet. I was utterly terrified and stood as motionless as the viper. Thankfully, we had an Iban guide with us who calmly instructed that we all stamp our feet, apparently the vibrations encourage the snake to scarper, whilst with a slight of hand I didn’t see coming, he grasped the snake in his palm and slammed it to the ground. I was too stunned to remember the details, but proceeded to walk on with a rapidly beating heart and hyper-alert gaze focused exclusively on the tree canopy above me.
After that incident, I just couldn’t relax on the trail and had a silent, mental battle with myself as my irrational fears had me constantly scanning my legs and ankles for leeches and the branches overhead for snakes. The rainforest closed in on me and I was desperate to get back to my flat in Penang surrounded by familiar urban life. I suddenly found the rainforest environment very threatening and claustrophobic.
For a year from 2002-2003 I was a VSO volunteer in Bangladesh doing research and advocacy work for indigenous knowledge in fisheries management. Once again, I had to confront my fear of snakes and leeches as they are common place among the paddy and in the monsoon season. Like with my fear of snakes, I have an irrational fear of leeches that similarly began with my first encounter in Sarawak, but at least nowadays I don’t scream when I see my blood-stained socks or trousers and I can tolerate someone else removing them – just don’t ask me to do it!
So, my encounter with the grass snake on the River Avon wasn’t just an encounter with a grass snake; it instantly recalled memories of times in the past when I have been utterly terrified and felt vulnerable to attack. It also reminded me of the time I was swimming off a 32-foot sloop that was my home at the time, living at anchor in and around the Bay of Islands, New Zealand. My then partner and I decided we’d head further out of the bay to go to one of our favourite fishing locations to catch some red snapper for dinner and whilst he was absorbed with the lines I thought I’d go for a dip off the boat as the sea was almost flat calm. I was swimming around the boat when he called in a serious, measured voice that was so unfamiliar for him: “Hannah, swim to the boat. Now. NOW.” Instinctively I knew why and it was my worst fear when in the sea; a shark. I didn’t hesitate and swam straight back to the stern’s steps and only once my feet touched the deck did I glance back to see the fin.
On all these occasions I am sure the pit viper, unidentified shark and the grass snake were just as scared as me, possibly more so, but that’s the thing about irrational fears though – it’s very hard to control them.
That’s why I was so proud of my friend when she called me a week later to suggest we met up at the same bend in the river, only this time we met at dusk and this time she swam further from the river bank and I was relieved not to be eye-balling my grass snake again. Feel the fear and do it anyway. We had fun and I was blessed with this sunset on my cycle home afterwards.