Staying afloat

AM could stay afloat before he ever had a formal lesson.

AM could stay afloat before he ever had a formal swimming lesson.

I woke from a terrible dream one day last week.

I was walking on a bridge over a deep canal with a small girl, the daughter of Ghanaian friends. I was thinking how confident and grown up she had become, when suddenly, she jumped off the bridge and into the canal.

As I started pulling off my backpack and shoes so I could jump in after her, I realised she was sinking deep down and not resurfacing, as I expected. I abandoned these preparations and jumped, or maybe dived. As is the way of dreams, in the instant of thinking it, I was under the green glassy water diving into the depths.

The sensation of holding my breath until almost bursting is so vivid that I wonder if not just my dreaming self, but also my sleeping body, had stopped breathing.

I couldn’t see her in the darkness. Panicking, I thought she’d gone beyond my reach. And then, my subconscious came to the rescue and began to control what was happening: I made her small hand reappear just within my grasp, a white glow all around it. At the limit of my lung capacity I grabbed it and pushed upwards.

As I surfaced from the canal, I was also waking up, so the details of getting her out of the water and resuscitating her are jumbled and confused.

I was relieved that I’d got her out of the water, but afraid she’d been under too long. I was horribly aware that for all my love of the water and decades of swimming and taking small children swimming with me, I don’t actually really know how to revive someone who’s drowned. My rudimentary knowledge of CPR dates back to my childhood swimming lessons.

For several minutes, I lay in this semi-doze, willing her to be alive, imagining that I knew the right things to do to save her. And of course, as it was all just a dream, she lived. And finally, with that achievement, I was able to force myself fully awake and into the real world, and notice that none of it was real. Except that had it really happened, I wouldn’t have known how to resuscitate her. A sobering thought.

I wondered what had brought on such a nightmare, until I remembered that the very last thing I’d seen on social media before going to sleep was condolence posts on Facebook about the deaths of three African Australian children when the car they were in plunged into water.

I’d scanned the posts in a few seconds, too grieved to read much about this tragedy. Apparently bystanders had tried to help but not been able to save the children.

My dream, and my sense of helplessness, was explained. If I’d seen that accident I would have tried to save them as well, and I know it would be hard to accept if I didn’t succeed.

Discovering the excitement of snorkelling.

Discovering the exciting world of snorkelling.

Swimming is an important part of my life. I swam all through my pregnancy, and as soon as AM was a few months old I was taking him to the pool. After him, I helped his brothers and sister learn to swim, and also one of their friends.

The little girl I dreamed about (let’s call her Water-baby) is the most recent child from my extended African family who I’m taking to the pool. She loves it, and it’s a joy to share her pleasure in discovering the world of water. I’m very pleased that her parents have asked me to take her swimming, because I think all children should learn to do it.

I’m not pretending that learning to swim would have saved those little ones in the car accident, they were too small to even get out of their car seats without help, but there are many other drowning accidents that are completely avoidable. The Royal Lifesaving Society says 266 people died by drowning in Australia last year. They have a number of recommendations for how to stay safe around water. These include learning CPR (which I now think I should do) and learning how to swim.

Their annual report states: ‘To prevent drowning, every child must have basic swimming, water safety skills and knowledge of how to be safe when they are in, on, or around the water’.

They also mention that: ‘Common barriers to participation in water safety education include the cost and time to access lessons, access to facilities, insufficient resources and insufficient capacity for instruction.’

Another significant barrier is parents not knowing how to swim and fearing the water. This is something I’ve had to negotiate with DadaK and Obapaa over the years, explaining that water safety includes being able to swim. Avoiding water isn’t the answer, because, especially in Australian society, it’s just not always possible. With the vast majority of our population living along the coastal fringe, the beach, the pool, surfing, fishing and boating are all a big part of our culture. DadaK and Obapaa’s children, growing up here, aren’t going to be able to stay away from all of that.

Many of the drownings in 2014 were among young people. I’d guess this is partly because young people who aren’t very confident in the water end up in social situations where everyone else is swimming, and because they want to join the fun they take risks like swimming in a current that’s too strong for them, or getting stuck in a rip and not knowing how to get out of it. Knowing how to swim won’t always save you, but I believe you can only truly understand and respect the power of water if you have immersed yourself in it and learned to swim — and that gives you a better chance than if you can’t even stay afloat.

Setting off on an adventure.

Setting off on a watery adventure (they never got any deeper than this).

I don’t think many African parents in Australia know how to swim. It’s rare to see African families at swimming pools or the beach, so I was pleased, and felt quite honoured, that Water-baby’s parents trusted me enough to ask me to take her swimming. They know that she’ll be safer once she knows how to swim, and also that she’ll have fun learning.

I’m encouraging them to come with us to the pool so that they, too, can have some fun in the water, but I haven’t had any luck so far. They’re busy people. At least I know that Water-baby’s another little African Aussie who will grow up with a love and connection to our watery culture.


Learning to swim, you need to know how to stay afloat.

By coincidence, I had this dream just a day before the WordPress challenge was announced for this week. The theme of ‘Afloat’ fits perfectly with the thoughts the dream inspired.

See other people’s response to the challenge here.


2 thoughts on “Staying afloat

  1. Kudos to you for getting kids in the water and learning to swim. In this ‘girt by sea’ country of ours it’s vital they learn to swim.

    I learned to swim at an early age and also gained qualifications in life saving, both Surf Life Saving and Royal Life Saving. If you’re near the sea (and a surf life saving club), I highly recommend you get your kids involved. It’s a great community, the kids will learn a lot about swimming in the ocean and they’ll learn first aid and CPR skills as they get older. Win/win/win!

    I think we’re all grieving with that family…

    • Thanks Diane, I don’t live close enough to the sea or they would have all been in Nippers, but these are all such important skills.

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