We sat huddled by the fire as the rain lashed relentlessly against the windows. My wife was treating one child for mild hypothermia and another for sunburn. We were, of course, on a traditional Irish summer holiday.
The most accurate predictor of rainfall in June is the scheduling of the school holidays. It is an iron meteorological rule that, the very day that school ends, the weather breaks. This year, weeks of sunshine and even drought through April, May and early June were replaced by glowering clouds rolling in from the Atlantic on the day the schools closed.
Yet, for the kids, rain does not stop play. When we arrived at our holiday cottage, they had no hesitation running down to the beach for a “walk”, which gradually became a paddle, then a wade, and then fully clad swim as they were drawn delightedly ever-further out into the waves. It amazes me to see the magnetic attraction children have to the sea. Our youngest even converses with it, as though it were a living being, as she plays in the waves.
Thankfully, the caprice of the Irish climate can be ameliorated by modern materials. Good raincoats, waterproof shoes, wellies and wetsuits are the tools that make the Irish outdoors more comfortably accessible. We had brought a canoe and a dinghy to the beachside holiday cottage we had rented. The kids were all fitted out in new wetsuits, which I hoped would encourage them to spend hours in the water, enabling them to become stronger swimmers.
The older kids have had swimming lessons, and could manage a few lengths of a swimming pool, but I really hoped that they could take the leap towards becoming able sea swimmers. Upon their first immersion in their new wetsuits, they were like neoprene-clad ducks to water. Within hours, they were swimming over 100 meters along the beach, then graduating to 200 meters. They took huge delight in their new abilities and, on midsummer’s even, they begged me to take them for an evening swim. We had the beach to ourselves as the summer dusk began to wrap around us.
It was beautiful to watch the two older children swimming so strongly in the silence of that evening. Yet there’s always a slightly poignant feeling when you see your children take another leap forward, towards greater ability and independence. Each such leap, is somehow a step away from you as a parent. They no longer need to be held by me in the water, as they once did. It is a reminder that in less than ten years, they will no longer need us at all. The clothing of childhood thus slips away, piece by piece, to eventually reveal a fully-formed adult.
Yet for now, they remain children. They emerged from the sea brimfull of childish delight, describing the new feeling of how their bodies “just know how to swim” and saying “my arms and legs just do it automatically!” After all those years of driving to lessons in humid chlorinated pools, they had finally become swimmers. Even walking back up the path to the cottage, my daughter exclaimed: “My arms just want to keep swimming!”
The next day, they relished the challenge of learning how to right a capsized canoe, as well as learning knots and how to understand the weather and the tides. I remember, as a child their age, first learning such things and developing a love of the sea that never left me. I glimpse in them again that childhood passion which led to my developing skills as a skipper and instructor, which brought me as far as the Mediterranean, the Caribbean and Hawaii. It brought me along the mountainous seas of southwest Ireland, where I found many important things. For the sea is an element which reminds us of our vulnerability and our mortality. And in its beauties, it can reveal to us the sublime, and the divine.