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For most people, sun, sand and sea are the holiday holy trinity. But while I worship the former, and can tolerate the second between my toes, the latter is where I recoil in fear. Going into any body of water deeper than my ankles is something I have studiously avoided for my whole life. So, yes, I confess that never have I ever swum in the sea. Until this day, that is, when I’m due to be ceremoniously dunked in the glimmering expanse and reborn as a water baby, somewhere off Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast. 

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Of course, I’m terrified. I’ve been scared of the ocean for as long as I can remember. It might sound strange but, growing up in a big city, learning to swim was never really a priority. I once tried when I was 10, but I didn’t manage to dip more than my chin or the tip of my nose in the pool before dramatically spluttering and ‘coming up for air’. In truth, I’ve always felt perfectly happy lying on the beach, tanning and keeping an eye on everyone’s stuff while they splashed around gleefully. But this past year, something started to change. Maybe it’s the heat of summer, but the thought of being submerged in water doesn’t seem so horrible any more. Was it time to face my fear?

If so, the perfect place to do it must be Prvić, a small island about 800m from the Croatian mainland. I’m here with SwimTrek, which organises group adventures for keen swimmers to strike out between the picturesque bays of the largely uninhabited Šibenik archipelago. I’m taking a shortcut – cutting between the land on a speedy Rib (rigid inflatable boat) and holding on painfully tight.

When I catch up to the SwimTrekkers, none of them seem able to grasp the concept of an adult who can’t even paddle. They laugh politely, as if I’m telling a not-particularly-funny joke, leaving me to sit at the front of the Rib like a sad figurehead as they dive like dolphins into the technicolour water. I stare down into the abyss, trying to mentally ready myself for our rendezvous tomorrow by glaring at the Adriatic like it’s my opponent in an MMA fixture.

When you’ve left it this late in life to get in the sea, expert help is crucial, which is why SwimTrek’s Bruce is on hand. Like some other Aussies I’ve met, he was basically raised at sea, so I know I’m in safe hands.

The squad have already been for an early morning dip by the time I come down for breakfast at 9am, and are excited for my big day. “Are you ready?” They ask, to which the answer is: honestly, no. But if it’s not now, then it will probably be never, so we set off towards a secluded cove, with me clutching my giant rubber ring for comfort.

It’s finally time. I slip off my sandals and take a few steps into the clear, temperate water. So far, so good. Bruce congratulates me on my balance, something I have carefully cultivated during my many years on land. I’m up to my waist in the water now and I’m feeling... surprisingly fine. This is already way past my comfort zone and, to be honest, I would feel perfectly happy ending the experience here, but much to my dismay I’m told that I have to get my hair wet.

“Just relax your body into the water,” says Bruce, who is supporting my head as I look up at him. I feel like I am undergoing a particularly rustic baptism and start laughing uncontrollably – my go-to coping mechanism when faced with extreme stress and fear. Perhaps misinterpreting this as a sign of enjoyment, Bruce tells me the next step will be putting my entire head underwater. My head! The thing I breathe with! I try to channel the spirit of a Bond girl emerging from the depths after snorkelling in the tropics, but in reality I dunk everything beneath the surface for half a second before erupting like the kraken, flailing and spitting saltwater. Still, I did it. My salty face and hair prove that I have been underwater in the sea for the first time in my life.

Spurred on by this personal success and feeling comfortable enough to start throwing around nautical metaphors, I decide to push the boat out and give swimming a go. Bruce talks me through the motions, which you probably know include kicking your legs and moving your arms around. I try to coordinate all this while balancing on a rectangular float, and before I know it, I’ve managed to swim three whole metres with the aquatic grace I imagine would be possessed by a newborn mermaid.

As I return to land to towel off I feel good, both emotionally and physically, despite my stinging eyes. Accomplished, revitalised and – most surprisingly – thinking about when I can get back in. Bruce and the SwimTrek posse are impressed. It turns out that, despite a life resolutely lived as a land-lover, I’m a natural in the water. Plus, it’s not every day they get to teach an adult to swim. My friends will have to find someone else to watch their stuff the next time we go on holiday.

Images: Emli Bendixen

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