A tongue-in-cheek look at my fear of water with ridiculous real life events including a circling shark to nearly crashing a yacht.
“Just row yourself in!” my dad shouted from his deckchair.
“I CAN’T” I screamed, bobbing up and down in my inflatable dinghy, “I CAN’T GET BACK!”
“You have oars, of course you can!”
“PULL ME IN” I wailed, now becoming hysterical, “THERE’S A SHARK!”
I was 11 years old and 50 metres off the beach at Pwllheli, North Wales. There was as much chance of a shark as there was of Tom Jones losing his tan.
“Don’t be so daft,” my dad continued, “I’ve attached the rope to my chair so you can’t float off,” although after all my screaming, he might have considered untying it.
It was no use I decided, I was going to have to get a grip on reality and on my bloomin’ oars. I eventually rowed to shore unscathed reserving my scathing glower for my dad.
I’d been on a rowing boat in the botanical gardens. What could possibly go wrong?
Under Spielberg’s Spell
My fear of open water began when I was seven. I was wide-eyed after stumbling upon Jaws on TV with his human chomping fetish. It was as real to me as if David Attenborough had been narrating it. (I also had no idea that Dick van Dyke wasn’t a Cockney. I was seven, OK.)
I only learnt to swim when I was 10 and by the time I was a teenager I’d perfected my forged note to excuse me from swimming lessons: ‘Jane is on her period’. Again.
“You should go and see a doctor,” my terrifying PE teacher hissed after the fourth week in a row.
Open water remained my nemesis through my travelling 20s. I went snorkelling but would bolt back to the boat when I was surrounded by scaly fish or surrounded by nothing at all. Clearly there must be an impending shark attack, why else would all the fish have scampered?
I was terrified; the fin began to circle me.
“You can wade out for about a mile and the sea will only come up to your knees,” a Scottish girl told me in Australia which ironically is where I started to get over my fear. “Just watch for the stingrays.”
I knew all about those things seeing as Steve Irwin had only two months earlier been impaled by one and died in his stunt. Aussie TV couldn’t get enough of it. I carefully avoided all rays but there was something else nearby. A FIN! And it was coming straight for me.
I should have anticipated this and known what to do, I was after all in Shark Bay. But that would hinge on me planning, the thought of which sends me into convulsions.
“Shit! Shit! Shit!” Should I kick my legs to deter it or would it think I was a flapping, dying fish? My body decided for me – fear struck me and pinned my feet to the seabed. My heart physically stopped beating. The fin began to circle me. “Shit! Shit! Shit!” I knew it was a black tip reef shark and it wouldn’t eat me, but it could take a chunk out of my leg and then all the ruddy great whites within a three-mile radius would be feasting on me. I have never been so relieved that my legs clearly disgusted a passerby so much in my life. The unimpressed fin swam off into oblivion. Now I simply had the small matter of wading a mile to shore without dying.
Crossing swollen rivers when my balance is akin to Mr Blobby on a tightrope is no easy feat.
A few days later, six of us were on a different beach. “Look! Stand still! See that?” Aussie Craig asked, pointing to two dorsal fins about 40 metres away. “It’s a six-foot hammerhead. You can tell its length by the distance between the fins.” We let out a collective terrified gasp. We were already 300 metres from the shore. There were 12 legs and as I was sandwiched in the middle, I figured I’d be alright. Ten minutes later, the other 10 legs had swum to a protruding rock another 300 metres away. Now there were just my two legs all alone. I flapped behind wishing I hadn’t skipped so many swimming lessons and no sooner had I arrived at the rock than the ten legs were going back in the other direction. I couldn’t even sigh in exasperation without swallowing a gallon of sea water.
Despite my fear, I hate it getting in the way of an adventure. So after seven years of living abroad, I’d decided to hitch on sailing boats around the Pacific Islands. Not attractive enough to work as a hostess on a super yacht and with my cooking skills climaxing in dubious looking scrambled eggs, I’d have to learn to sail. I’d been on a rowing boat in the botanical gardens where I had screamed like a baby when my sister had stood up and the boat rocked. What could possibly go wrong?
I joined a beginners’ course on the bloody freezing glacial lake in New Zealand, but I had no idea what the 18-year-old instructor was talking about. Clearly unfazed by my complete lack of understanding, the best thing, he decided, would be to put me solo in his NZ$10,000 sailing boat. Despair raced through both of us as I was snatched by a gust of wind and headed on a crash course towards the wooden jetty. The instructor broke every 100-metre record known to man as he raced to shove his hands towards the yacht, saving his pride and joy with only a few seconds to spare. I was relegated to the patrol dinghy and was too mortified to finish the course. The Pacific Islands would just have to wait till I could fly there.
Rivers in Spate
My water phobia has also gripped me on hiking trips. Crossing swollen rivers when my balance is akin to Mr Blobby on a tightrope is no easy feat. Precariously balancing all my weight on one leg which is wobbling on a wet stone as the force of a gushing river surges past is as appealing as being given a ticket for the Titanic. It takes me ages (and I mean ages) to cross rivers even with walking poles.
“Why can’t they just make bridges?” I’ve moaned in the past.
“Because then all the wimps would be coming along, wouldn’t they?” I was told.
I guess I can say I’ve progressed beyond wimp status but I’m still no water baby. Although, sitting on dry land writing this, I think I might like to try paddle boarding. I do, however, have a feeling it will all end very quickly in tears and bruises. That said, anyone fancy giving me a lesson?!