Six random encounters with water in which the author almost died.

1. Wolverhampton Metropolitan Town Baths

Perhaps when I was about 14 I used to visit these baths in my home town in the English Midlands.

I have only ever heard them mentioned once outside of Wolverhampton. That was in a film I saw in Brisbane called The Alternative Miss World. That was a documentary about a contest held every year in a London park when a beauty context for transsexuals is held.

The judges are suspended aloft in a cage for their own safety. The staircase each contestant must descend is very steep, to accentuate their difficulty with high heels. One contestant was called ‘Miss Piss’, who fell down the stairs with a half empty bottle of Vodka (that was actually a quite accomplished feat of acrobatics).

Another was called ‘Miss Wolverhampton Metropolitan Town Baths’. It was an indication of how unglamorous those baths are – and sound. The baths are in an ornate Victorian red brick structure lined with old white ceramic tiles and there is a row of changing rooms with blue hessian curtain for either sex to change on either side. There are diving boards at the end and the air is thick with chlorine.

Instead of ‘lengths’ I was swimming ‘breadths’ across instead of along the baths. I was holding my breath and swimming under water. I miscalculated where the wall would be and my head crashed into it and I momentarily fell unconscious and woke up floating to the bottom. I might not have been noticed and drowned. It really scared me.

For some time later I occasionally blacked out when I raised my head. It must somehow have cut the blood off from my head. It once happened in the middle of a maths test when my head collapsed on the desk completely unconscious. The school master did not believe that was the reason I answered so few questions.

2. Borth Beach

Somehow my family acquired a very heavy canvas two-seater canoe. It had a fine wooden frame and cockpit with slats that allowed you to turn it into a three-seater if the extra passenger was very young and small.

We took it on the roof of our car down to Borth, our perennial seaside resort on the Ceredigion coast (which used to be called Cardiganshire) where we had a 22 foot caravan whose brand was Penarth Typhoon. The canoe had to be wheeled down the hill from the caravan site to Borth beach where with a certain effort it was possible for one person to paddle it.

I cannot sufficiently describe the speechless beauty I experience on certain summer afternoons spent gently paddling this craft in isolated bays not far from Borth along the coast towards Aberystwyth. Once I paddled it the whole 6 miles to Aberystwyth, the capital of Ceredigion, and back again.

My passenger, Alistair Pitblado was the son of a senior civil servant who rose to great rank in the British Law system was eventually in charge of looking after the interests of people who, due to mental incapacity, are unable to defend themselves. He became exhausted near our return and I had to paddle by myself. He was, and remained, except in the execution of his legal duties, a rather obnoxious person, who died of cancer last year.

Here is how my relationship with that canoe ended.

I launched the canoe on a rough sea near the jetty at the north end of Borth’s ‘nine miles of golden sand’ as its known in the tourist brochures. But the tide was in so the waters were on the rocks, consisting of rounded boulders up to 6 inches long that in those days were often dotted with unpleasant lumps of tar from passing ships out at sea.

Out at sea I paddled down parallel with the mile long village towards The Pantefedwyn, an alcohol free hotel of enormous size near the station whose distinctive shape and size used to form a landmark out at sea before it was demolished perhaps 20 years ago.

Turning round to return to the jetty the wind got up and the waves grew rougher. They were coming into the beach at an angle so I had to paddle out towards them at an opposite angle to make any progress at all. Otherwise they would slop in and threaten to capsize me. Against the wind and the waves I eventually managed to get back to the jetty, but there was still the difficulty of landing the canoe on rough breaking waves and a rocky beach.

The problem of bringing a canoe in from the ocean is a bit like surfing, but it is not just a matter of slewing too far to the left or the right, there is a ‘nose’ factor, for if the bows dip too far forward into the water it may dive forwards into the water and down to the bottom like a see-saw and break up on the rocks. That is what happened. The nose hit the rocks and snapped the whole frame in two, throwing me out into the waves where I staggered in and pulled out what was left of the wreckage.

My mother had taken carpentry classes and promised to repair it, but it was a hell of a mess and she never did. The whole event, particularly paddling back against the wind and the waves that threatened to slop in, was a huge effort and very frightening.

3. Dam Overflow at Abergavenny

My eldest sister lived near Abergavenny, where I used sometimes to visit her and her family at Christmas. One Christmas there was an enormous amount of rain and the controllers of the dam upstream let too much water out, as was admitted later.

At lunch time we saw whole trees passing through the arches of the medieval bridge outside the town. At 6 pm it was reported that the pub on the corner near the bridge, that hadn’t flooded since the nineteenth-century, was eleven feet deep in swirling flood water.

That evening we walked down the lane to visit it. My sister, who died last year, was a photojournalist. We saw that the road was breaking up in front of us. In the time it took to set up her camera to take a picture for her newspaper, the road had broken up and whisked itself off like a tablecloth. It was not life-threatening in any way, or really frightening, but for once I witnessed the sublimely overwhelming power of nature.

4. Being Dumped on Stradbroke Island

Sometimes things act like their names. When I lived for five rather unhappy years in Brisbane, Queensland, I once took myself off to North Stradbroke island, which is reached by a ferry ride of about an hour.

On a long, lonely beach I decided to take a swim. I had heard of waves called Dumpers and knew they were dangerous but didn’t quite know what they were or what they looked like. While swimming I got caught by a Dumper, which turned me through 180 degrees and brought my head down on the sand like a pile driver. I swooned, but regained the beach OK.

So THAT was a dumper. It would have taken a while to find the body. I now know what Dumpers are. They dump you, like angry underestimated girlfriends trained in judo.

5. Taken by the Tide on Stradbroke Island

One time on a bus from Adelaide returning to Melbourne where I lived at the time I met a young woman with whom I embarked on a short relationship.

She was an American tourist and we didn’t have much in common more than that she played the sax and I the harmonica. She was of small stature and Jewish, with rather beautiful sad eyes and a kind of inner detachment sometimes that spoke of a remote inner sadness. I remember that her hands moved rather slowly and hesitantly when she spoke, but she did not lack confidence or intelligence.

Soon she went back to her job in New Hampshire. I think she was a nurse. Then a couple of years later she visited me for a weekend and asked if I would be the father of a child with her but without any other commitments to being with her or looking after the child we would produce. If I was somewhat flattered, I was very surprised and not a little put out as there was no solid basis to our relationship.

Apart from any infatuation I suppose she thought that as an academic with no obvious murderous characteristic I was suitable genetic stock to sire a child from. I said I would think about it, but it didn’t take long for me to explain to her that although this was very flattering, etc., if I had a child with anyone I would want to feature in its life and help to look after it, so thank you very much but no thanks.

Nevertheless, in a slightly strained atmosphere, we went to North Stradbroke island off Brisbane where there is a hotel near two promontories where waves crash in and turtles can be seen hunting fish. They are rather violent. 

Not far away there is a beach where we went for a swim. I was day-dreaming, bobbing up and down in the water. She had more experience of the ocean than me and noticed I was drifting out on a current and cautioned me calmly but firmly to come back in.

I immediately started swimming back and only just managed to gain on the strong current to reach the shore, exhausted. It didn’t make much difference to the fate of our relationship, but in effect she saved my life that day (though it’s true I would not have gone there unless she was there).

I know enough to know that if you get really caught in a ‘rip’ you should go with it and eventually you will float round and have a better chance of striking back to the shore without resistance from a current, but that’s a rather counter-intuitive plan and panic might have seized me instead.

6. Toxic Flood Water

I had been driving with the family in the paddocks outside Perth along a highway we don’t usually drive down. I can’t remember where we had been or what we had been doing. There was a strange iridescent light on sheets of water that had flooded from the river over arable land. I instantly conceived the ambition to take the canoe there by myself while the floods were still abundant.

This is my own canoe, the one I still use here, a blue, quite light, broad-beamed affair that doesn’t go very fast but is quite stable and of small draft for shallow water (have you ever read a magnificent short book by an American landscape architect historian, John Stilgo, called The Shallow Water Dictionary?).

I always act on my whims and took the canoe out to this spot and launched it in quite a fast running brook near the road that seemed to lend access – the only means of access – to the flood plains I wished to explore. I instantly got caught up in a torrent, which might have been OK, but unbeknownst to me the brook was divided by netting every few hundred metres, which capsized me so that I got tossed out.

It was with difficulty and great discomfort that I got myself and my water craft out of the water and back onto the car. (At that time I did not drive a fancy new Subaru Forester but a very long white Ford station wagon with a V8 engine that took a lot of petrol but drove very well.) It was long enough for me to open the back door and sling my canoe in the back.

It was not the water that frightened me on this occasion, but the conviction, for which I had no evidence or testimony, that water from agricultural land is full of poisonous toxins that you would ingest if you capsized. Nature, in this modified form at least, is not necessarily clean. I have never since been able to shake myself of this conviction, and have held a more jaundiced view of nature ever since.

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