It’s the kind of outlandish idea that is conceived at the end of the night when too much booze has been drunk. We decide I’ll swim down to Jonny’s boat, then we’ll both swim back to mine. We are moored about 15 boats apart.
I wake and instantly remember the promise we made.
“I’ll do it if you do it.”
“You won’t do it.”
My insistence is going to be my downfall. No one wants to lose face.
I dress in my bikini with a t-shirt over the top. I know it’s going to be cold; it’s early April so the summer heat has yet to warm the river, and there is a chilly wind blowing downstream. The sky is overcast.
The longer I wait, the worse this will be. I step from my boat and sit on the concrete shore, my feet dangling in the water. My toes recoil at the chill. I lower myself in, steadily but decisively, knowing a tentative approach will only delay the horror. It is gaspingly cold and my chest contracts as the water seeps through my t-shirt. The cold shock is instant, my breathing shallow and panicky, and I cling to the shore for a few seconds to acclimatise, 1, 2, 3, then push myself out into the water.
I tread water for a while, trying to regulate my breaths which continue to come in short, shallow snatches. I remember swimming in the Firth of Forth when I was on my sailing trip: one of the requirements of our training was to be able to swim around the boat. It was a sunny day in May, but the water felt arctic, the cold rising from the depths beneath my feet. This feels just as cold, and instead of swimming around my boat I have to swim fifteen boat lengths, and there seems to be more river between me and Jonny now I’m in the water. I’m still struggling to breathe, and start to think about the process my body is going through. I know from my sea survival training that cold shock can lead to cardiac arrest. It’s little comfort telling myself the first 60 seconds are the worse.
I move out into the middle of the river and start breastroking downstream. Every so often I try to take a deep breath but the cold won’t allow it. I swim in rhythm with my shallow breathing. My arms and legs are soon losing feeling, and my skin feels as if it’s being pierced by needles. I stop for a second to clench and unclench my hands, seeing if I can coax some warmth back into them. The fingers move as if in slow motion. I can feel my heart struggling to beat the blood round my body, and my breathing has still not settled down. What am I doing?
Stroke, breath, stroke, breath. I have reached halfway. Someone is on their back deck and spots me in the water. “You’re brave!” they say. My reply comes out as a gasp: “It seemed like a good idea at the time!” Onwards I swim.
As I pass under the bridge, I start to seriously doubt if I’ll make it. It’s a two minute walk down the towpath between the boats. I have been in the water for around fifteen minutes. My body feels under tremendous strain and I keep imagining that, as I swim, my heart will decide to give up on the pressure of having to beat warm blood around my body, and simply stop, leaving me to sink like a stone. I haven’t told anyone I’m here. Will anyone notice if I just disappear?
I can see Jonny’s boat. There are five boats to pass until I reach it. Even though I’m within reach, I decide that I cannot swim that far – it is simply too cold. I turn for the bank and catch onto one of the mooring posts on the concrete. The bank is high: my weakened arms have no chance of being able to pull me out of the water. I am shivering violently and at last I can catch my breath. But I can’t climb out. There is no option but to continue swimming.
I return to the water with a steely determination – there is no way I will allow myself to die on this stretch of water. Each boat seems to pass more slowly than the last, my weakened muscles dragging me pathetically onwards. At last I pass his bow, and lift an arm to knock on the hull, then struggle to the stern and grab one of the rails. It takes all my strength to haul myself onto the deck and I lie on my front, dripping water, gasping deliriously. He opens the door.
“Jesus Christ! I didn’t think you’d actually do it!”
He gets me a towel and makes me a cup of tea. By the time I’ve finished it I am shaking like a leaf. My jaw is chattering to such an extent that I can’t speak, and my legs seem to have a life of their own. Half of the tea has ended up on the towel. Outwardly I laugh, but inwardly I’m bloody thankful that I didn’t drown.
We do not swim back.