It started with a rainy day in a moat.
The idea of a long swim across the UK came to naturalist Roger Deakin at a time of personal sadness and isolation. The year was 1996: at the age of 53, he found himself at the end of a long relationship on his own. He also missed his son Rufus, who wanted to surf and adventure on the east coast of Australia.
Though breastfeeding across the moat near his home during a downpour seems like the picture of misery, the act gave Deakin a sense of buoyancy and purpose. When he saw how the bright raindrops danced over the surface of the water, he was enthusiastic: “I was convinced that following the water that flows with him would be a way to get under the skin of things … In water all possibilities seemed infinitely prolonged. “That day got him moving, leaving behind frustration and stasis. He would go on a water journey to find something new – and surprising and beautiful – in the wild waterways of his country.
He spent much of the next two years swimming and writing what would become the best-selling waterlog. First published in the UK in 1999, the book quickly became the bible of a modern game swimming movement, a word of mouth guide for those looking to dive into the waters it describes. While it is now a celebrated classic of the canon of nature writing, Waterlog was never available in the US until this month. The arrival on our shores could not come at a better time.
Of course, water connects us all. Planning his swimming trips made Deakin feel closer to his son, so many thousands of miles away but submerged in the same ocean. (We can name different parts of this ocean, but each map tells you it’s the same water.) In a fun kind of coincidence, Deakin was swimming during the time he was doing his iconic swimming exercises across the UK, as documented in Waterlog . I was in Australia myself, swimming and adventuring during a semester abroad. Maybe I even crossed Rufus in Byron Bay. I only know that a period of my own melancholy moved me on a journey towards water.
(Photo: Courtesy Tin House Books)
I was a 19 year old student and knew next to nothing about the world. It was the second year; The only international trip I had been on was summer visits to my grandfather in Canada. I was nervous with misfortune: my parents’ marriage was about to end, my relationship with my boyfriend imploded, and I couldn’t fix either of them.
“Suggested study location.” I had carefully examined the study abroad application on my desk and rolled the words in my mouth. Suggested study location. I asked myself the question that young people with heart disease ask themselves: what is the farthest place I can reach from here?
It turned out that the answer was Australia. And so I decided to go swimming in the waters of the Great Barrier Reef.
Like Deakin, I knew from the planning stage of my adventure that I wanted magic: to immerse myself in a world outside of me. I would learn to breathe underwater. In doing so, I would learn to surrender to the possibility.
I’ve always been a swimmer, so I’ve always been a seeker. Even as a child I often had the feeling that there was still something to see and that water could take me there. I’ve spent a lot of time over the past few years researching the global swim stories that led to the book Why We Swim. During many hours of research and reading, I came to know Roger Deakin, the bard of British open water swimming, through the eloquent, watery words he uttered.
What I loved first about his writing about swimming was the otherworldliness that he recognized so keenly. The enchanting quality of Alice in Wonderland is expressed in Waterlog: “When you go into the water, something like metamorphosis happens. When you leave the land behind you, you walk through the mirror surface and enter a new world … You see and experience things when you swim in a way that is completely different from any other. “
That passage ended in my own book. “Your sense of the present,” he added, “is overwhelming.” Time itself could be changed; how great that was! Furthermore, this was an accessible magic that could be felt by anyone who took the plunge.
It gave the pulse of life in exquisite, grainy detail: the rolling squeaks of star birds singing, hairy tangles of seaweed, innocent tadpoles decanted from an aquarium into the wild.
Reading Waterlog again this year, I noticed a character’s shifting moods reflected on the spot. When Deakin visited the Norfolk coast – “close to home yet remote” – he found that there was “no antidepressant like swimming in the sea”. Holkham was the place he usually went when he felt blue: “I plunge into the vast expanse of the cold sea over the vast sand and dive like the fox getting rid of its fleas. I leave my devils on the waves. “
I leave my devils on the waves. I am writing this, it must be said, at a time when our peripatetic pathways have been profoundly, perhaps forever, changed by a global pandemic with no final end in sight. So many days can feel dark and disjointed. But there are small joys, escapes, pinpricks of light. Although the radius of our travels is smaller and closer to home, there is so much to notice and appreciate.
Deakin explaining the sensory delights of his surroundings reminds me to pay attention. It gave the pulse of life in exquisite, grainy detail: the rolling squeaks of star birds singing, hairy tangles of seaweed, innocent tadpoles decanted from an aquarium into the wild. Dipping into an alpine rock pool meant that one jumped out “at the knife edge between pain and glow”.
He reminded his British of the rich history of swimming that was anchored in their everyday lives. He communicated with eel fishermen in the Fens, traced limestone swimming holes in the Yorkshire Dales, and observed (with an air of concern) bridge-jumping traditions in Norwich. At the edge of an icy high-altitude lake in Wales, he shivered naked, pondering the geological age of the surrounding rock. He saw the humor: “I was a prehistoric creature in my glittery wetsuit ready to be petrified if I didn’t keep moving. “
Deakin was a traveling salesman for outdoor swimming; I mean that best. His eye noticed and noticed how a particular river, with its salmon runs and coastal grills, for example, connected “the game of wild life to the game of human life.”
For one thing, I was sold.
As I swam around Australia as a student, I immediately saw that the country’s obsession with swimming was something I could get over with. I ended up in Sydney, a beautiful, sun-drenched city that was so shiny and exhilarating to me. I’ve spent more time exploring the public swimming pools and gorgeous beaches than I studied. Months later I left, my skin tanned from the sun and scratched with rubber fish stings and other love bites from the marine life.
I made trips to points west, along the Great Ocean Road from Melbourne and north, to Byron Bay and the Sunshine Coast. After all, I worked enough to earn my way to Cairns, the starting point of the world’s most famous coral reef. I remember the moment the first time I sank into a pool with a scuba tank and let myself breathe underwater. My body tensed and resisted. Not once had it been completely submerged and asked to breathe in at the same time. It took conscious deliberation, a conscious struggle with primal, instinctive fear. The first inhalation through the regulator in my mouth was deafening to my ears. It opened the portal to the underwater universe.
I spent two weeks on the reef learning how to be safe in the water. Eight of us travelers from all over the world had come together to live on a boat with our captain and our divemaster. We logged dives twice a day and wrote cryptic messages to each other underwater. We saw eagle rays, puffer fish, nurse sharks and huge mountain ranges of blooming corals. We learned to be gentle with the reef, the fish and each other. In the end we weren’t strangers anymore.
It’s been 25 years since I first started a career as a writer, swimmer and, more recently, surfer. What I learned from this era of global swimming lessons – from diving into the wild, the world – is that water cannot wash away your problems. But it can give you a boost long enough to register a new perspective.
I never met Roger Deakin; I wish I had. But I feel like reading his words and discovering our parallel journeys brings the world a little closer and brings the swimming community a little closer, at a time when so many of us feel isolated and deeply alienated from our fellow human beings . More than two decades later, during a year-long pandemic that left most pools closed, swimming in open water has taken on a new appeal for Americans. I have had so many letters describing the writers’ enthusiasm for the freedom and magic that swimming in the great outdoors has afforded them lately.
To cope with loss, pain, and grief, we keep moving. We are looking for something new and beautiful to move to a different way of being. In the first US edition of Waterlog, Roger Deakin, one of our wisest Aquarians, shows the way.
Excerpt from WATERLOG: A Swimmer’s Tour of Great Britain by Roger Deakin. Published with permission from Tin House. Copyright (c) 2021 by Bonnie Tsui.
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