The Good Swimmer

by Martha Sprackland

I got in the sea the other day, on a warm October evening in East Sussex, to where I have recently moved. I’d thought I would go swimming the day I arrived, and every day since, but a week, two weeks passed, and I’ve been timid. I’m a good swimmer, and a good sea-swimmer – though no thanks to my childhood on the north-west coast of England, in a village whose beach, though golden, wide and sandy, sloped so imperceptibly, so diffidently, that to achieve swimming depth you had first to walk what felt like several miles in your swimming costume in icy, shin-deep water, like sloshing through a big puddle.

But I’m a good swimmer! I’m good at it. On Gran Canaria a couple of years ago, with two friends, I swam in the small, sapphire-blue bay for 40 minutes or so whilst the friends read their books on shore (though, true, I’d misjudged the height of the waves, and emerged without my sunglasses, bedraggled, bruised from head to toe, after hitting my leg on what I think was a crab trap and getting tumbled by a wave). OK, but apart from that. And earlier this year, when my mum and I went for a dip in the sea near Branscombe, staggering down the beach in our swimming costumes and hiking boots, leaving her husband and my boyfriend huddled under their raincoats with a flask of tea – that one doesn’t count, because the weather came in really suddenly, and we couldn’t have known, over the rise of the beach, how big the waves would be. So it’s really no surprise that we were hit by one, and fell over, and then couldn’t get up. That hardly speaks to our skill as sea-swimmers. That’s more about being clumsy walking on stones.

No, I’m talking about the deep, lifelong pull of the sea! The amniotic lullaby of the tide, the open water, the salt on my skin.

As a child, I would frolic in the waves, confident as a seal. I do remember one scorching, idyllic scene in northern France, me at the age of nine or so, swimming at my dad’s side through clear, sparkling sea, striking out for a tall rock that jutted invitingly from the ocean, onto which we planned to haul out and turn back to wave at my mum and brother on the distant shore. . . I don’t know what happened, there. Only that as we neared the rock it became less friendly, and suddenly the limpidity of the water allowed for the perception of a terrible, yawning depth, the black rock’s steep sides falling away beneath me, into the deathly abyss of the sea, and that all at once I was scrambling on top of my dad’s back, pushing him spluttering down into the sea, that I probably would have drowned him on the altar of my panic, to quell that consuming vertigo.

But that was long ago, and an outlier. These days, I’m a confident sea-swimmer, and anyway am a woman, and a writer.

On Sunday, on a beach dotted with others in swimming caps and swimming-shoes, people stripping off under towels and coats, I shuffled out of my jogging bottoms and picked my way down the pebbles, wobbly as a penguin, and, embarrassed by the idea that somebody might be watching (nobody was watching), threw myself too-quickly into the sea, and gasped at the cold, and swallowed a bit of water, and then wallowed around for a few minutes in a stunned way, thinking This doesn’t feel right. This is difficult! Something’s wrong with this bit of sea.

But then suddenly my blood acclimatised, I think, and stopped being sludgy and was able to flow again, and I could hear seagulls over the roar, and my scalp prickled like I’d taken nice drugs. And then – glory! – I swam for ten whole minutes, in the path of the setting sun, facing out towards the wind turbines and the oil rig and the horizon and nothing and France. And though I tripped over some tangly seaweed as I was getting out, and cut my toe on a piece of mussel shell, and though my T-shirt had blown away or been pinched so I had to zip my coat straight over my bare, cold skin; still, in those brief minutes in the water, on my first swim in a new place, I remember thinking: Hey – I was right. I am good at it! and I posted a picture on Instagram – my ‘post-swim glow’ – in which I look really great, and confident, and good at it; and it’s true that it felt improbably wonderful. And I’ll do it again today, and maybe tomorrow, and actually if you’ve ever seen a penguin underwater you’ll know that they do look like birds, sleek and fast and happy, absconding, for a time, from the gawky and inelegant self they are on land.