My days of being an open water swimmer are over. The sea is lost to me now and I don’t think I can ever go back.
Being a swimmer has been as important a part of my life for 10 years as a decent job or good health. It was something I did not foresee ending. You take these things for granted until they are gone. And now, it’s gone, in an impossible way. And I know you won’t understand, can’t understand.
Last Friday I went for what I expected to be my final Friday evening swim until spring of next year. We’d be “turning back time” the next night on the second-last Saturday of October and I knew that by the following Friday, while I might still be able to do a short swim, it would be dark when I finished. Attractive in the summer, not so much as the year unwound. So I’d swim a short two or three kilometres, and call it a year, revert to swimming open water on Saturday or Sunday mornings, open water season finally over with the rolling back of the clock’s hour hand.
It’s been a bit choppier than usual, with more wind than usual. Last Friday was similar. I could swim to the Metalman, through the chop into the Loneswimmer cave, out the Cave of Light west entrance, and then back through the gap between Newtown Head and Oyen rock.
Friday afternoons at the Guillamene are unpredictable. It can have a number of people all arriving at the same time after work with tourists in the car park, nudging each other about the crazy swimmers as they stare down onto the choppy bay. The sky is dull so “ze water must be freezing, yah“? Or the place can be deserted. The car park empty, the sky and water grey, a feeling of isolation down at the Guillamene cove, the Sun already occluded by the cliff and with the air and water temperature dropping.
Last Friday was the latter. I arrived and parked, one other car with two people looking out at the sea from the safety of a Climate Controlled interior. A slight wind from the south ruffled up some chop while the whole area was so quite it seemed like a radio warning had gone out that the area was unsafe, or the coast road had been closed. No anglers or scuba divers, no picnickers sitting at the tables, no towels or bags on the concrete. Just me and the sea again, as I like it.
I scraped a smear of grease under my arms, pulled on my Speedoes and cap, and walked down to the water’s edge. Splashed my face, set my ear plugs, started my watch. All my usual pre-swim ritual. Into the water now down to twelve degrees and wheeling out around the rocks, starting east and arcing around south and south-south west, just in case there was an angler further along the reefs with a hooked line out.
The chop was mild, the temperature also. I’d forgotten both within a few hundred metres as my mind raced and roared around the usual Friday end-of-week thoughts. My only goal for a Friday evening swim is to get out of my own head. I’m always tired, always stressed and always happy to be switching off, even a little. I passed First Arch, passed Chair Cove, passed The Garden cove and angled south-west to under the Metalman.
Out under the Metalman the chop had increased and was slicing across the reefs and hitting the cave entrance. For probably anyone else, and for myself for years, this is a no-entry situation. The water boils around the cave entrance, six or seven metres of whipped off-white foam between the hard and sharp irregular reefs reaching down from Newtown Head encompassing the entrance, with the water spinning in a slow gyre.
Entering the cave seems risky at first as the water forces you onto the entrance reef, and only experience told me that I should swim non-stop to pass within a metre of the reef before passing the boil and into a sudden verdigris-coloured calm in the centre of the long entrance. The buttresses of the entrance arch high above me as I start into the cave, until they join overhead in a vault when I am about 20 metres further. Sometimes, as last Friday I stop in the false twilight of the entrance to roll on my back and look at the natural cathedral above my head, and to see the cave sides narrowing.
In the evening the entrance of the cave was hidden from the westering Sun, so the delineation of shadows and light wasn’t as pronounced as during a summer day, and the cave entrance seemed brighter. But the long swim into the cave was consequently darker. With a high tide also, so much less light could reflect into the cave depths. Thirty metres in and the water was calm and the light under me had disappeared and I was swimming in void.
In the last few years the cave had still retained the power to occasionally unnerve me when I am, when I was, swimming there alone. I know that south-west swell and the right tide can produce a deep and off-putting booming from the cave depth as waves that kept me out for years as waves refract though the narrow west entrance and impact the table-shaped rock in the centre of the Inner Chamber. I know that the four to five metre tide height which we are used to otherwise changes the shape and the obstacles of the cave profoundly and how the water moves around inside. I know that seals are reputed to haul out on the shingle beach in the depth of the cave, though I’ve never seen them in there myself. Sometimes it’s the light that throws me, sometimes it’s the sound. Sometimes it’s myself. But that’s part of the attraction. Or was.
I wanted to take it all in, I’d probably still swim in the cave during Saturday morning swims before December, when the water gets too cold, rough and risky for winter cave swimming. But just in case the weekends are rough and I wasn’t to see it for another year, I’d go slow and savour this place I felt always privileged to swim and so proprietary toward. A few strokes, shade above the water, void beneath.
In the cave depths hazy light entered from the west-side Cave of Light and faintly illuminated the large table rock that sits in front of the shingle beach. The contrast made everything else pitch black. I stoked slowly forward, a couple of granny-strokes, back to front-crawl, then granny-stroke past the second and final narrower rock throat to enter the calm of the Inner Chamber. Two firm bumps against my side and right leg I ascribed to the invisible jellyfish trapped in the cave that I occasionally encounter by touch. As I passed the throat of rock, I first looked left as I always do to the huge fallen rock that blocks and splits the Cave of Light west entrance into two. Something in me always needs assurance that that other entrance hasn’t collapsed, when I don’t know if it will last another year, a decade or a millennium. The day I would swim in the cave, I always thought, and saw there had been a significant and noticeable new rock fall, would be my last.
The faint light bouncing past two outcropping rocks knocked out the dark adaptation of my eyes as I looked back to the cave And in front of the table rock, into a pair of eyes.
It wasn’t a seal. I tell you I know it wasn’t a seal. Some people are terrified of being in the water near a seal, and I’m not one. I’ve swum past rocks with seals on them, had them pop up in front of me or seen them behind me or behind others in the water, seen them from kayaks and boats and land. A seal is as recognisable as a dog.
Seals don’t have large faintly luminous eyes and no obvious nose. Seals don’t look long and thin and scaly and somehow hard. Seals don’t have a head that tapers to a bony ridge or crest.
Seals don’t have eyes that evaluate you. That do more than see you, that look at you. That judge you, and find you insufficient.
Seals don’t have hands.
Wide hands that slowly scull the water’s surface to either side of a dark, crested head, and exaggerated malevolent light grey but human-like eyes.
I don’t know how, but somehow, in the water, in a dark cave, I could see, or feel emotion from that. Face. It was a face even if it was unlike any you’ve ever seen. And the emotion I could see or feel emanating from it was contempt.
I can’t describe terror. Terror is more than an emotion, it’s the abandonment of your humanity. It was abandonment of my humanity. Everything civilised in me disappeared as I splashed and fled. I made no rational decision, my usual abstract curiosity disappeared. I became fear.
In stories and movies when people flee they can run or they have the caveman options of rocks, sticks, fire or climbing a tree. In the water, you have nothing. We swimmers delude ourselves that we are Homo Aquaticus. What arrogant conceit.
But I couldn’t run or climb or fight. In stories people have something to use, something to grab or something to hide behind. I was utterly exposed. No rock to climb on, no light to protect me. I was in the dark, in the water, in a cave. With something.
I could only swim. Never has the inefficiency of a human in water been more readily apparent than in my terror. The cave I know became a black hole. The water was India ink, diesel and treacle. Like climbing out of a steep sand pit, the water slid off my hands as I flailed and beat the water. My legs pumped. I don’t know how I breathed. I can vaguely recall the black and umber rocks of the cave’s sides. The inner chamber to entrance exit is only about seventy-five metres. It is the longest distance in the world.
Time had no meaning. I’ve been in car-wreaks, almost drowned, gotten trapped under a boat, jumped out of airplanes, watched family take their last breath. Each of those was similar by how time froze and stretched. My swim had that never-ending but inevitable quality. My consciousness felt like it shifted from my brain to my feet. Every micro-moment, I expected hands, strange hands, to grab my ankles. I knew that I would be stopped, that the grip would be of the hardest and most immovable steel, and that there would be no chance of escape. And I knew I would be pulled backwards. And then pulled down.
Only someone who has neared drowning or asphyxiation can appreciate simple air. The cave that often seems short to me was a never-ending tunnel of dread expectation, the blue sky farther than the shores of France. Every impossible breath broke me. Every stroke shattered me. I didn’t look behind, couldn’t look behind me. You think you can. You think the movies are wrong. But the terror drives you, becomes you. You can’t look behind, all you can do is imagine the hands reaching out for you, and you throw your entire being into the attempt to escape.
I passed in the light and it made no difference. I passed over the reefs and grabbed the rock. I don’t recall climbing, don’t recall all these lacerations on my feet and legs and hands. I don’t recall making any decision about the best place to exit, but I was out, up on the sharp black sandstone, scrambling upwards. It didn’t take long before the rock forced me to look down behind me. I was alone.
Below the rock face, something dark and large moved slowly and sinuously under the surface and went South. Away from the coast, into the green-black that used to colour my dreams. A few hundred metres out, after I’d lost sight of the movement, something, some things dark briefly surfaced, and though I couldn’t see eyes or even a face, I felt it look at me. And I don’t know why it let me go. I can’t even guess.
Lovecraft wrote of the Deep Ones in Innsmouth on the other side of the Atlantic. But Innsmouth and the Deep Ones were fiction.
I had the sea-longing. I dreamt of the horizon and the green-black and there was nowhere in the world that I felt more at home. But the sea is lost to me now and in its place I have dread. I could probably wade and paddle in the shallows of a beach. But maybe not. Maybe some day I’d be at the Guillamene and there would be no-one else there, and I’d see wet prints on the dry concrete.
For all I knew and saw and swam, for all I stared unflinchingly into the green-black depths, I never before felt terror of the sea.
The sea is lost to me now. I hope I am lost to it.
But I haven’t told you it all.
I’d always thought of that rock in the Inner Chamber simply as the table-shaped rock. Why had I missed the obvious? It was an Altar-shaped rock, in a natural cathedral of stone, a perfect hallowed meeting place of land and sea. What ceremonies take place there?
For two days now, I’ve been in a fugue of terror and nightmare even while I’ve been awake. But during what little I’ve slept, the nightmares have gone.
And what I’ve felt is Desire.
Desire to see and to participate in whatever ceremony I’d interrupted in that awful cave. Desire for the Deep and the absence of light, and hard hands and pale grey eyes. And when I look into those grey eyes, I see my own pale luminous eyes and scaly face reflected back.