How Pixar saved my life

A wave crashes over the reef (on the right side). The halfway rock is nearly covered by the high tide.

Sorry about the delay on this post. I thought I had a few scheduled to post automatically and somehow messed that up. Back to normal programming now I hope!

A few weeks ago – on the eve of my 27th birthday – I was working from home. My housemate Jerome had put on a big wash of bedclothes and our combined laundry while I was at the gym and when I came back I thought I’d return the favour by sticking around to hang it up and air it out. By the time it was all sorted, it didn’t make much sense to waste time heading to the co-working space and I resolved to get some stuff done at home.

As five o’clock rolled around, Jerome burst in the door in a hurry and excitedly asked if I would like to join him, Seph and Maja (a German WordPress specialist in town for a while whom we had met at the co-working space) for a quick bout of snorkelling while the sun was still up. I had just been talking with someone about how I should probably try to get one more adventure in before I turned 27, and this seemed the perfect opportunity – my first snorkelling experience. After a minute of humming and hawing, I changed into my swim shorts and met the crew down by the beach.

We rented snorkels, masks and flippers from a nearby hostel and readied ourselves next to a nice entry point – a gap in an area of jagged rocks where smooth sand ran down into a part of the water that was sheltered by more rock formations that promised lots of nice fish without having to swim too far.

At this point the sea was calm and the tide was high, allowing us to slip easily into the water. It teemed with marine life as promised, shoals of fish zipping away under our shadows like people under bombers in war movies. I loved the sensation of gliding through the water, scanning from side to side until some beautiful black and bright blue or rainbow-coloured fish caught my eye long enough to follow it around.

I was quite uncomfortable in the mask, admittedly. Breathing through the snorkel felt restricted and unnatural, constantly having to tell myself to breathe normally. I had once scuba dived back when I was a kid, in Spain with my dad. He had found the mask and breathing too claustrophobic-feeling and at the time I hadn’t really understood this, diving into the water with glee and thoroughly enjoying myself, even if I did constantly forget the correct hand signals and give the thumbs up to indicate my pleasure (this means “I need to go up” in scuba-diving sign language, whereas the thumb-and-forefinger-touching signal means “okay” or pretty much anything positive).

Suddenly I understood what my dad had disliked about the sensation. My nose felt stuffed into the mask and it didn’t have a perfect fit so the area kept filling with water. Having spent so long focusing on breathing through my nose, it was difficult for me to get used to never breathing through my nose. More than once – usually just as I was getting caught up in the calm majesty of the ocean scene around me – I absent-mindedly snorted up a nice amount of seawater which burned down my windpipe and had me pulling up coughing and spluttering. For some reason whenever this happened I would begin spasmodically and exhaustingly kicking my legs as fast as I could, even though with the flippers it really took very little effort to tread water.

I’m not a particularly strong swimmer. I did a lot of swimming lessons in Bolton as a youngster, but despite them I was never great at it, particularly with the front crawl. I always preferred breaststroke – and that’s not a double entendre – because I could keep my head mostly out of the water and not have to deal with the lack of easy breathing. It’s been so long now since I regularly swam that any swimming strength I still posess is purely physical and definitely not finesse in the water. Sorry, swimming teachers of Bolton School! One thing I had been good at back then was treading water with minimal effort, but for some reason nowadays the skill completely eludes me and I waste huge amounts of energy thrashing about to keep my face just above the water.

The problems are compounded in the sea, where tides, waves and currents all combine to really bring my lack of comfort in the water to the fore. This has been made worse in recent times as I’ve had a number of experiences where I’ve gotten out of my depth – quite literally – in heavy seas, and felt just how powerful the ocean can be. It put a healthy amount of fear in me that I nevertheless resent, as it runs against the prevailing theme of the past year; it built new, more conservative boundaries rather than the broad, expanded ones I’ve been making with most things.

Therefore when Seph proposed swimming further out, to a small “island” – really a section of reef a few hundred metres into the sea that gets exposed on the surface – it makes sense that I politely declined and carried on paddling about getting comfortable in the water that had at some point in my life inexplicably began to scare me while my friends went off for their adventure.

Except, I didn’t do that, of course. I have a stubborn streak that can get me into trouble sometimes, and as mentioned, the idea that I could not do what my companions – also not Olympic-level swimmers – could, grated on me. I followed them out into the – by now choppy – deeper water and we headed for the rocks.

Getting there was surprisingly easy, and until I turned to face the shore I thought it had indeed felt just about as close as it looked from land. Of course, when you’re actually in the water and feeling the power of the swelling waves, rising like hillocks around you, it really doesn’t look so near. Up close it was clear that the waves were crashing hard on the exposed reef, every fifth wave hitting it with such force and mass that water exploded across the top of it in a pretty frightening manner. Through my mask all I could see was air bubbles in the water, turning it white.

Given that the sea was getting rough and the top of the reef was clearly unsafe, we turned around and swam back, getting out, towelling off and heading for some orange juice.

I’m honestly wincing typing this, but obviously that’s not what we did. Seph made it over the last few difficult metres to the island with powerful front crawl strokes and hauled himself out to stand triumphantly on top of it. I followed, battling in a flat-out sprint to overcome the water swirling around the outcrop. I pulled myself out just behind Jerome, gasping and pulling my mask up onto my forehead. It was to be a miracle – and a very, very important one – that the mask was not ripped off my head.

Almost the instant I made it to a standing position on the reef, Seph called out an alarm, telling us to “lie down” to try and limit how much of the huge incoming wave would hit our bodies. I did so, but it didn’t work out for me or Jerome quite as well as it did for Seph.

The wave hit the reef with a deafening roar, giving me just long enough to get a clear look at it barrelling over the top towards me before I was blasted off the reef. I bounced hard on my hip as I crossed the edge of the rock and crashed deep into the surging water. I grabbed tight hold of my mask, thankfully, but in the maelstrom one of my flippers was torn clean off my foot.

We would never find it, I realised, surfacing and looking at my companions all spread out in the roiling vicinity of the reef. And then, for an amazing second, I thought I had found it, snatching a flipper out of the white water and holding it up like a trophy. Only, as Maja called to me, I realised this was too small to be mine, and belonged to her. My single flipper suddenly seemed a very small help in keeping myself afloat, let alone getting back to the distant shoreline. I handed it back to her, warring with the adrenaline starting to make ripples in my mind, trying to smile.

“I have to go back. I’ve lost my flipper! I’m going back guys!” I yelled out, horrified at the clear, high-pitched ring of fear in my voice. They all agreed, faces grim now as we each began our separate physical and mental battles to get back to land.

I struck out for shore, glad of the mask and snorkel now as I could stare down at the sea bed and swim solidly without having to worry about turning my head to breathe or fight to keep my nose and mouth free of the salty water. The lack of a flipper was immediately obvious. Even more obvious was why it had been so easy to get to the reef – the tide was on its way out, helped (or perhaps causing? My seamanship is clearly not up to scratch) a strong current matching its direction.

I fought to maintain control over my breath, purposefully trying to breathe slowly and deeply while kicking my legs front crawl-style and pulling in my preferred breaststroke method. I checked my bearings a few times too many by way of a huge rock that stood above the surface just over halfway back to shore. It never seemed to be getting any closer, and each check gave the panic more fuel. I began to seriously worry I was not going to make it back, and I thought of my parents and how sad they’d be, as well as how (justifiably) angry. I found the thought hard to push aside once it took hold.

I stopped checking the rock, stopped focusing as much on my breathing and started pulling water overhead in the method I knew to be faster. I was quickly panting – loud inside the snorkel – but I could feel myself moving through the water with more speed. I felt a little hope. After what felt like a long time I decided to check my bearings again, sure I was about to get the relief and mild embarrassment of being very close to shore by now.

Instead, I found that I had somehow gotten turned by the waves and had been expending so much of my reserves swimming parallel to the shore. At this point I nearly broke. I felt a sting in my nose – not of saltwater but of scared tears – and tried to push it down. I was tired, and getting more tired by the second as the sea swelled around me, the sun rapidly lost height in the sky and panic sucked my energy levels dry. There was never any question of me giving up, but the terrifying realisation that I genuinely might not make it out of this alive gained strength.

I dipped my head again, course corrected, and swam hard. I tried to ignore the burning in my lungs and the jelly feeling of my muscles (not helped by the tough morning gym session), focusing on landmarks I picked out in the seabed that lay along my line back to shore. My head was full of negative thoughts, which I tried to look at from a distance as if they didn’t really belong to me. This worked, to a degree. My hard kicking was an equal mix of grim determination and terror, but at least the terror was no longer intensifying. I remembered and then kept repeating a mantra made famous by Dory from Finding Nemo: “Just keep swimming, just keep swimming, just keep swim…”

When I did break the surface to check my direction I could see no sign of my comrades. I assumed they’d all made it easily back to shore, perhaps getting worried by now that I had not arrived. I was sure I had been swimming for a long time. Each surface break was accompanied by an almost sob-like gasp of air, ripping the snorkel from my gob and again spasmodically lashing out with my legs as if I was trying to fight off sharks. This thought reminded me that sharks were not unknown to these waters, and the sting from my knees reminded me that I had probably gashed them on the reef. I kicked harder for shore.

Looking down onto the seabed it was easy to gauge forward progress, even if it gave a truck wing-mirror-like distortion to actual distance travelled; the shoreline may be further away than it appears. What was scary was that the tide was pulling me away from land in a way I could really feel, and would surge every few seconds so powerfully that my forward progress would completely stop and in some cases even backslide. I experimented very briefly with saving my energy during these moments by not kicking or pulling forwards, but the rapid wholesale loss of metres took my nerve with it.

In my panicked state I did not think to take a brief rest on the halfway rock that I had been aiming for; every cell in my body was screaming for me to get to dry land as quickly as possible and that stopping for even a thirty second rest would doom me. “Just keep swimming, just keep swimming…”

I was finally approaching land, and I could not think straight enough to aim – so tired now that even this close I wasn’t sure I would actually make it. I wanted to get to the nearest part I could, and that meant the jagged rocks beside our entry point. I swam for them with renewed ferocity, the sea bed nearly close enough to stand on, but when I made it I was far from safe. I found myself stranded, powerful waves buffetting me against – and drawing me over – the sharp rocks as I struggled to make my way across them in one flipper, smashing down on my knees repeatedly.

Seph came out of the water behind me – instead of them being long safe on shore it turned out my panic had spurred me to sprint to shore ahead of my friends. That’s not something I’m proud of, though given my poor swimming it’s not like I would have been any help to them. He called to me that I needed to move across shore in the water to avoid the rocks, but all I could do was tell him “I need to get out man, I need to get out,” wild-eyed and desperate.

In a brief break in intensity I managed to scramble to relative safety, and from there pick my way across the slick rocks to the beach, conscious that with my legs as rubbery as they were I could not trust them to react if I slipped. I could picture dashing my brains out into the sea, so close to safety.

Finally I collapsed onto my towel, sucking in air as hard as I could. Somewhere in the confusion my snorkel had separated into two halves – it’s no wonder I was having such trouble breathing. I felt relief so strong it nearly had me in tears, staring around at the stragglers still packing up their belongings on the sunset-lit beach. I could not comprehend how they were walking around so normally while I had been dying a small death in the sea in front of them.

My body was soon wracked by teeth-rattling shakes – some combination of shock and expended energy leaving me weak, cold and hollow-eyed, “looking like a Holocaust survivor” to my friends as they made it to their respective towels around me. My jaw ached as my body jangled around, my towel and soon my hastily-donned t-shirt doing little to alleviate the bone-deep cold and weariness that washed over me.

Soon I was laughing uneasily along with the rest of them, but I had learned a good lesson in the dangers of competitiveness and unchecked comfort zone pushing that left me feeling sober and tired. Sometimes the warnings in your head are there for a reason. I was about to turn 27, but I’d nearly thrown it away.

The sea isn’t playing around. Be careful out there, people!

Addendum: Much like when I broke my leg playing American football and swore I’d play again (I did), I was delighted when the following day Jerome and Seph generously presented me with a mask and snorkel for my birthday, saying it would help me to get back on the horse. They know me too well.

I hit the water that weekend, sticking closer to shore for now, and had a great time. Thanks guys!

Jerome also found the damn flipper a few days later, forty metres further down at the base of the reef on a calm day. Some man, that Knoot.