Saturday, 13 January 2018

Aquatic adventures....

When I think of the water, I always think about swimming; when I see a stretch of water, I wonder what it would be like to swim in it, across it or around it. But there's a whole world of other ways to interact with the water that I've never really explored....and as my 50th birthday rolled around this January, it was time to try something new. In the summer, I was feeling pretty fed-up about my pending big birthday - my various injuries made me feel decrepit, and I felt a bit defeated. But then I thought....well, sod it. So I decided to embrace it instead, and to that end, used my birthday trip to the Canary Islands to try two new water activities - scuba diving and stand-up paddle boarding (SUP).

I was quite terrified when I turned up for my try-dive lesson at a sea front dive centre near our holiday bungalow, and I had no idea how I would feel about being submersed and reliant on what seemed like a very complicated and cumbersome set of equipment. After a short period of dry-land instruction covering safety procedures and in-water communication, we kitted up and waddled under the weight of the gear down to the beach and into the water. One by one, the instructor submerged us, deflating our buoyancy vests and guiding us down a couple of metres to the sea floor. Rather disconcertingly, my instructor grabbed a couple of rocks from the sea floor and shoved them into mesh pockets on the side of my gear to prevent me from rising. It takes a particular kind of trust to relax enough to allow someone to sink you so thoroughly under water. Once we were all submerged, we paddled along the side of a rocky reef, flanked by our instructors, and soon found ourselves surrounded by a school of fish with large, rounded bodies and yellow stripes, completely unbothered by our presence. Later on we saw cuttle fish, and this beautiful octopus.

Once I'd relaxed into it, I was completely blown away by the experience of visiting this vibrant aquatic world which I thought I understood from swimming at the surface, but in reality had no clue about. It was hard to let go of being a swimmer though - I couldn't resist using my arms and hands to propel myself forwards, even though I was wearing huge fins that required only the slightest flick to move me through the water. Using my hands also proved to be quite destabilising, and I found myself constantly tipping from side to side and then having to correct.

I slowly came to understand that while swimming is about constant movement, diving is more about not moving - of being in the water rather than moving through it and using the fins as rudders rather than propellers. It's about enjoying the view and visiting another world. 

We were only in the water for about 30 minutes, but I loved every second and was so disappointed when the instructor started pulling the rocks out of my pockets and slowly guiding me to the surface. In fact, I loved it so much that I signed up for a second session the next day, this time in deeper water and entering from a boat rather than the beach (although still with the same level of instructor support as my first dive - this was a diving experience rather than structured training). I felt like Jacques Cousteau as I tipped rather anxiously backwards off the dive boat, but it was as easy as, well....falling off a boat; my instructor helped me to submerge, and off we went, exploring a reef and encountering huge shoals of long, thin trumpet fish. 

The whole experience made me want to get a PADI qualification and learn to dive more independently, but I can already see that it's a hobby that eats time and money....and I already have one of those. But was an amazing experience. 

And so....on to adventure number 2 - an SUP lesson. While I took to diving immediately, I think it's fair to say that this was not an opportunity for me to shine. It was quite windy, and although we had excellent instruction, the entire session was punctuated by the sound of me scrabbling up onto the board, staggering to a stand, yelping as I lost my balance and then falling back into the water with a percussive splash. At the end of the lesson, we signed up for a 3-hour coastal SUP tour a few days later where I reprised my scrabble - pause - shriek - splash soundtrack but I soon discovered that by staying kneeling, I could stay on the board and still enjoy the novel perspective of being on, but above, the water. We visited caves, paused to go snorkelling, and had a splendid time. Towards the end, I found my sea legs and managed to both stand up and paddle, so there is hope for me yet. Peter, on the other hand, took to it immediately, and was able to draw on his skateboarding past and a very good sense of balance to strike a relaxed and effortless pose as he paddled away with impressive aplomb.

So two successful aquatic adventures - one deep below the surface, and one on / above it. It turns out that there is far more to a life of aquatic leisure than swimming. 

But of course, there was swimming too, although not as much as in previous years. I ended up doing a fairly modest 40km over the two weeks we were there - after my long lay-off, I'm still building my fitness and don't want to risk overdoing it and falling back into injury again. My confidence took a bit of knock over the last year or so, but hopefully all of the work I've been doing on my stroke, plus the prehab regimen which I do diligently every day, will bear fruit and I'll be back to full swimming capacity soon.  Happily, I'll be back in the Canary Islands for more in February and then again in April - I have a great deal of data analysis to do for the sugar project, and see no reason why this should not be done in the sunshine and combined with swim training. 

And in the mean time, I had a wonderful trip and a splendid birthday. If this is what it's like to be 50, then count me in.