Cliona Saidlear is taken on a delightful and inspiring swim by two SwimTrek guides – on their day off!
Even after a week in the sea I doubt I can make it. Two islands, skirted with sharp rocks, stretching into the horizon. The sea looks a familiar Atlantic dark even under this Mediterranean sun, the white tell-tale scratches on top of the waves are warnings, and from the small haphazard quay where the three of us stand, it looks too far.
“I won”t swim that,” I said, knowing that even with my flippers I will slow the two SwimTrek guides down and it’s their day off.
“We’ll swim to the edge of the headland and you can have a look. I’ll swim with you,” Yves says, adopting me as his pilot fish.
“Ok, I’ll look, but I can just swim up the sheltered side and meet you as you come round,” I offer, and in we two get. Trish waits behind to give us a head start.
The jagged volcanic rocks containing the land are home-laid with concrete at this spot to form a platform onto which is tethered one small fishing boat with a red flag fluttering on a pole in the middle. This is our last foothold. Ungainly on this terrain, we plop into the shallow sea and find our bearings among the millions of sparkling fish weaving and folding in upon themselves under the ceiling of the boat.
Coming through the gap between headland and island over a maze of underwater fortifications, remnants from when the island was reluctantly ceded to the sea, I rise with the first wave and fall all the rest of the way. Waiting for that feeling of adjusting to the waves that doesn’t come, I pause to assess the situation. Turning my back to the water’s relentless heft, I can see beyond where the arm of the land hushes the sea to a soft pulse.
“I should go back; this is too much for me.”
“Come on” Yves says, “you’ll be fine.”
I don’t quite believe him but I reach with my arm, thinking I should go some way before turning back, slapping into the facing wave, I pull.
With my next stretch I find only air, my head extends beyond the top of the wave, suspended, before falling through the space to receive an ear-ringing smack against the base. I’m grateful for the extra breathing space it gives me, accepting the sting to my reddened cheek as a small price for the momentary fullness in my lungs. Already my other arm is cycling, readying, but like a drunk boxing my shadow I straighten my pulling arm into a rudder as the wave turns me. I reach again trying to get my mouth high above the pattern-less waves and on I go.
I look for him. I’ve drifted far into the open water. His white-capped head is tucked up under the cliff-edge between the white surf powdering the air and the dark waves. I wonder if that is the sweet spot as I flounder back closer to shore towards him. By now I realise we are beyond any point of rescue, we are together out here but I’m on my own. I comfort myself by asking him the first of my questions:
“Does it get easier around the corner?”
He gives me the answer that reminds me I’m not ###em
“No, it’s like this all the way.”
The next time we stop I try for sympathy:
“I suppose it would be easier if I could breathe both sides?”
“So time to start breathing both sides,” he says as he flings an arm over his Channel swimming shoulder and sails into the next wave, over the crest, and out of sight again.
Sitting in the waves I swallow more water. Seeing no advantage in staying still I move, with no help for it I open my mouth to the sea. I focus on my right shoulder, my cheek finds its firm roundness and gets a nudge and I turn my head over the rim of the sea, looking for air but drinking salt. I try again and it feels wrong. I resign myself to my usual left-side-only breathing.
Finally, I resort to the most futile of questions:
“Where is the turning, are we there yet?”
He gives me the answer we both know is coming;
“We’ll be there when we get there.”
I take a breath and dip my head into the next wave and pull.
I gather the cup-full of air from the crook of my armpit before a mask of water washes over me; one, two “phaaww”, one two “phaaww,” on and on. It’s all right, I know I have a few strokes left in me and I’ve stopped thinking so far ahead that I need worry about when they will run out. Slap under, air over, arms splayed, flailing, “phaaww”. All the finesse and the stroke improvements I’d been working on abandoned to the sea; until it strikes me that I’ve had enough.
I’m not your bitch, I rant silently to the sea, you don’t get to have me. I think the sea sighs and I imagine it lets me go. The waves are no less fierce, the wind no less precocious, but we are each to our own now. I am as nothing to the sea, it is nothing to me.
I try to follow the coast by following the rock-shelf spilling out into the sea beneath me as raising my head above the water for anything other than air seems flagrantly wasteful. The island’s volcanic perturbance tricks me and soon enough I am drifting out into deeper water again. Between waves I spot the jagged corner and it’s close now. I pull and flail, gasp and splutter, heaving without air the times I emerge to find only a wall of water before me. Rounding the rocky edge, the waves now coming from all sides, I find it’s not the turning; that is still ahead.
I clear the point and Yves is waiting for me. Somehow he has me tethered to him even through this maelstrom. I ask him something. He can’t hear me. We close the distance between us, and he asks me to say again. I circle my arms and legs to keep my head clear of the water and between snatches of air I drop my next question and simply say, “let’s just keep swimming,” and louder “keep swimming.” He nods and our faces disappear into the next wave and we swim.
There is another corner jutting out in the sea ahead but I’m no longer reaching for it, I’m just swimming. Suddenly my bum lifts up on a wave. I’m heaved forward, carried up and over and around the corner. I’m surfing through the gap between the two islands. Yves is there, a big grin on his face and we regroup, our legs dangling as we carousel along the current.
“We can cruise back now to the start point,” he says pointing landwards “or,” he turns back and pointing out to sea, says, “we can go around the second island.” My flummoxed silence goes un-noted as he continues, “it’s the figure 8 around the two islands, it should be smooth this side, then a fight around the back before that chop again but this time in the other direction.”
I look at him and out of my salt-swollen mouth slide the surprising words, “well we are here now.”
He shrugs, “might as well.”
“Might as well,” I echo and we dip our goggles and reach. I find my rhythm and before I can form a thought we are round and I feel the now familiar surge of the waves behind me as I surf back between the two islands.
Trish has caught up with us and she slides in beside me, slowing to a paddle as I haul and pull, lift, pull and pull. She dips beneath the water and plays about in the cerulean underneath me before shooting off, her dolphin blood confirmed.
We three meet and they high-five me. Trish takes off for another lap of the second island and Yves and I start the glory run down the becalmed side of the island, the current pushing us home to the bobbing boat.
The water, now a kindness all about me, is lit by the sun all the way down to the bottom, fish socialising beneath me, I relax into a meandering route, nestling into the island’s edge.
And then he says something truly magic. Lifting his elbow behind him, clear out of the water, he tells me to look at the sun at our backs through the triangle between my high elbow and the water when I breathe. And so I do, again and again until I realise I’ve begun breathing both sides, effortlessly, my focus instead on catching glimpses of the setting sun.
And then under my left Capricorn arm, I see a brown goat with a white underbelly watching me move around its kingdom’s perimeter. With every glance he is joined by more goats; the gang of goats, a solemn procession alongside us for the length of the island until they run out of ground.
The near-full moon rises in the daylight sky. We flow home with the lowering sun now under our left arm over Turkey and the rising moon to our right over Greece.
Arriving at the blue and white fishing boat that marked our beginning we dive under to play with the tiny silver and green fish holding this spot. He pops up, “they are all still here.” I immerse my head for a moment before retorting, “no. There are some missing.”
Yves checks again and confirms, “yes. Three have escaped.”
The fishing boat at the start
Trish Brennan, me and Yves Watt straight after the swim
The island from Kaputas beach (second island hidden)
Yves and I swimming
The view from the swim starting point
The sun setting over the two islands and the headland