Yesterday I anticipated writing a short piece about the sea but instead I dived into it. The sky was clear, the day windless and warm. The beach I drove to, on the bay, is a familiar one: a short, steep incline via steps to reach the sand, biscuit-coloured in the bright sunlight, and from there the sea stretching to the blue horizon. It was more a necessity than a choice to go, to abandon writing about an enticing subject till, well, now. Yesterday I strode into the unusually calm water, up to my waist, and dived in. The experience was bracing. The few other people at the beach were there to sun themselves. Yesterday. Yesterday, as impossible to reclaim, except via a discernable hangover of longing, as a day four decades ago when I first discovered the beach and swam there—or indeed a day a thousand or thousands of years ago, low waves breaking, the sandstone cliffs looking on as now. Days, mostly, that merge into oblivion. Yesterday there was a freighter on the horizon. Fingerlings darted about in the warm shallows. Where I swam in the clear water—so clear and fresh that once in it you seem to immediately regain a sense of personal clarity—sunlight made restless shapes on the sandy sea floor, jazzy free-form patterns of light. On a much earlier visit, I saw a shark cruising in the water as I looked down from the cliffs. But not yesterday. Gulls, terns, cormorants, yes, both from where I stood in the water and later from where, drying off after my swim, I watched from the beach.
I am not a strong swimmer. Immersion is the thing. Though not when the sea and sand have been churned up after a storm or when there’s a thorough, gloomy covering of cloud and visibility in the water is low. Then I steer clear—with daring exceptions. I want to see a shark before it sees me, even though a determined shark’s swimming ability makes an advance sighting most likely futile. I imagine the fin crisply slicing the surface of the water at some great speed as it approaches me, as on many a daring occasion I’ve speculated a fin might—and forget that the probability of this horror happening is, in round figures, zero. Today it is cloudy, the wind is up, the temperature is down—Melbourne’s see-saw weather—altogether a better day to write about rather than enter the sea.
While we were chatting loosely about this briny subject recently, a friend of mine said, strikingly, you never regret taking a swim in the sea. I hastily agreed with her—it was an off-hand observation at a noisy social occasion—and I only recalled later an experience that might have checked my haste. The sea on a calm day when the sun is out always looks inviting. This is what I experienced one May bank holiday as I looked out from the foreshore, with my companion, across the English Channel. I hadn’t swum at an English beach since I was a boy; now I was a man of forty. You can forget a lot of things during that passage of time. The day was unusually hot, the beach composed of pebbles. We took our place among the holidaymakers. The thing about pebbly beaches in England is that the pebbles are never the right size. If they were a few sizes larger or smaller you could comfortably walk on them barefoot. As it is, though smoothed by the motion of the tides, they are of a size that to the bare, pampered human foot, used to negotiating flat surfaces in smart shoes, finds an agony to walk upon. They seem to drill into the soles of the feet. The best thing about them is that it’s possible to find the occasional one of a suitable size, spherical, that, with a correct arm and wrist action, can be made to skim niftily, with accompanying impressive leaps, across the surface of calm sea water. This would not have been a problem on the day of our visit: there was not a single swimmer in it. As we sat, perspiring on the pebbles, this puzzled me. I put it down to English reticence. There were hundreds of people roasting on the beach, the ubiquitous deckchair as ever in evidence. The water looked gorgeous. I stripped off to my togs and hobbled down towards the water, noting firmly to myself that should ever I visit such a beach again it will be with newly acquired beach footwear.
It doesn’t matter whether the pebbles are above or below the waterline, they are still crippling to walk on, so when I got to the water’s edge and saw that its depth fell away quickly, I wasted no time making a gingerly entrance but, spurning the pebbles, dived straight in. It seems like yesterday. The warm body adjusts to a refreshing sea temperature fairly quickly—in fifteen seconds? —and this I took for granted on that May bank holiday of freak summer weather in spring. Thirty, forty, fifty seconds later, a minute, though it seemed a lot longer, as I swam out into the English Channel, France the next landfall, I realized no adjustment was taking place. The water temperature was the kind people die quickly in. I swerved in the water and performed my best imitation of an exhausted Channel swimmer making his last strokes towards the shore where, gasping, I threw myself upon the hateful pebbles, grateful to have found them. I now knew why everybody, supine or sitting, was up on the beach. Impassively looking on, they could see a man collapsed at the water’s edge who bolstered their determination to remain dry. But did he, after he had at length regained his composure, regret getting wet? My friend was right. No, I did not. I had rarely felt, in the water, so startlingly alive.
A contrast to yesterday’s leisurely swim. But not totally. We—an audacious use of the pronoun to speak for all of humanity—never regret leaping into the sea because we emerge from the water changed, renewed and, possibly, astonished in a way no other activity offers. It is possible, swimming off the coast of a Mediterranean island, to stop in shallow water and stand on a sea urchin, the pain of its barbs shooting to the cerebral cortex and then slowly abating over the course of a long fortnight—my but not, I pray, a common experience—and even then not regret the swim, it being a separate matter to the blunder. Sea water—wild, limitless—deeply refreshes, buoys the body, briskly absorbs and relieves its land-bound stresses and obsessions. As such, and in such a manner earnestly expressed, immersion in the sea, if payment for entry were a requirement, could and should come with a customer guarantee—impossible, it occurs to me, for other forms of worship. Perhaps there is some deep, subconscious memory in all of us, amphibious in content, primogenitary in nature, stretching way back millions of years into deep geologic time, which attracts us to water, source of life, sea by choice, clean river or lake as consolation. Exactly as I might or might not have put it yesterday.
Andrew Sant’s most recent book is a collection of essays, How to Proceed (2016). His most recent book of poems is The Bicycle Thief & Other Poems (2013).