If foreigners were to be shown an aerial view of Portrush with calm ocean and relatively blue sky, peaceful harbour, small western and extensive eastern beaches, they would reasonably conclude that it was an idyllic location. And on a rare perfect summer day, they would be partially correct. But the water in the North Atlantic is never less than quite cold, there is a steep shelving beach and strong rip tides. On a rare warm day, swimming in the harbour can be pleasant, albeit bracing.
I never learned to swim when I lived there. My parents could not swim, few of their generation could, and of my age group only a handful, mostly those who had relatively prosperous parents, who took them away to more temperate climates on holidays.
When I was growing up, there was only one small indoor swimming pool in the area, that of the Northern Counties Hotel in Portrush. I recall that a small group from my school used to go there for lessons on a Friday evening, mainly those who were from the rowing club; to participate in rowing, the oarsmen had to be capable of swimming a length of the pool, a not very challenging task. The group was led by Dan Cunningham, our physics teacher, who, when a younger man, was reputed to once having swum from Portrush to the Skerries, a chain of islands off the coast.
When I first migrated to Canada, I stayed for a few days with my grandparents in Brampton, outside Toronto. The first weekend, they arranged for some older university students, grandchildren of their friends, to take me out for the day. Unfortunately, nobody told me that their idea of a day out meant a beach and swimming. We went to a nearby lake, where they immediately plunged into the water, leaving me ‘on the beach’. The students were quite incredulous that I could not swim and that I was not going to attend a university.
My day brightened up momentarily, when they offered me what I understood to be a beer. It turned out to be a can of something called Root Beer, a disgusting soft drink. When they told me that I had to be 21 before I could legally have a beer – I was 18 at the time, I felt quite discouraged.
It was when we were in Hawaii, on our way to Australia, that I decided that I had to learn to swim, at least well enough to survive. I swore that I would not leave Hawaii until I could swim out to a raft anchored a short distance offshore from Waikiki Beach.
But for day after day, I struggled. I had no problem with being under water, but I could not take my feet off the bottom. Sandra, who swam like a fish, tried her very best to encourage me, but to no avail. Both the problem and the solution were in my head.
Finally, I set off for the raft, swimming backstroke, and with no problem, I made it. And once there, I discovered that I could dive. It was a new element for me. Later, in Tahiti, I had the incredible experience of diving in the lagoon, and swimming among the multi-coloured fish. An unforgettable experience.
In Australia, I frequently went to the beaches – Bondi, Coogee, Manly etc. I even spent one Christmas Day on a beach. And when the waves were relatively friendly, I often managed to bodysurf. On one occasion I found myself caught in a riptide, and although I had no problem getting back to shore, it was a sobering experience.
When we lived in Kirribilli, across from the Opera House, we used to go to the nearby Olympic pool, just by the harbour. In those days, there was a 10-metre high diving board, and from it I used to throw a coin in the water, dive in and retrieve in from the more than five-metre-deep pool. I found that much more exhilarating than swimming length after boring length.
We only once owned a house with a pool, in Miami. After the initial surge of enthusiasm, the pool sat empty for month after month. Sometimes I would jump in after a run or while working in the garden on a hot day; there is not much else an adult can do with a small pool. I was left with the weekly chore of cleaning it and replenishing the copious expensive chemicals required to keep it relatively pristine.
I did once swim in the harbour at Portrush, during one of my fleeting visits. I tried to go into the water at the Western Strand, but the water was so cold that my feet pained me within a short time, before it was up to my knees. I went to the harbour and the water seemed to be more inviting, at least to tips of my fingers. In those days there was still a diving board near the harbour mouth and from it I dived in. I will never forget the shock of the cold water. I got out as soon as I could, and I have never been back.
As with the weather, I don’t do cold.
That’s why I follow the sun… 🙂