Rowan Salim explores what it is to learn to swim in the vast oceans of our lives - December 2017


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I learnt to swim on the Atlantic coast of Morocco. Between the ages of four and 10, I spent the summer months by the ocean. My parents would pitch a patterned parasol on the crowded beach and my sister and I would memorize its location vis a vis the myriad other parasols and run off into the waves. I remember my first few visits to the ocean; I remember jumping over the shallow foamy breaks before having learnt how to swim. I remember venturing further and further in, with waves breaking at my ankles, then at my knees, then my thighs. I remember laying down in the shallows and pretending to swim, floating in the breaking waves as I learnt to release my weight in the water.


I remember mustering the courage to jump over waves, and the first time I braved diving underneath a wave just before it broke. I became a pro at that. I remember being hit in the face by a wall of water, a wave I misjudged. I remember the first time I body surfed the length of the beach, not stopping till the sand had made contact with my whole body. I was thrown, pushed and pulled by unruly and powerful waves which refused to let me surface and had to hold my breath and be battered until they lost their energy. I remember being repeatedly pulled by the currents until I lost sight of the multi-coloured parasol and having to swim upstream through the salty ocean river. I watched older kids swimming beyond the breaking waves to the freedom of the calm waters beyond, and I remember the first time I swam past that boundary. I learnt how float there, and I even remember dozing off in the afternoon sun, bobbing on the water.


By the time I was 10, I knew I was a confident swimmer.


At 15 I moved back to England, and at 18 I went to university. The college I attended had an indoor swimming pool, and during my first week at college I went to the pool with my new friends. We all jumped and dived in and started playing and racing. But very quickly, my confidence sank. My friends swam the length of the pool in a third of the time it took me to swim it. Their strokes were an image of perfection I’d never seen before. Their shoulders moved at impeccable angles. They moved through the water barely making a splash. They wore goggles. They opened their mouths to breath just above the flat water line and folded back into the chlorine like it was their home.


Photo by Barry Thomas,


I got out of the water within 15 minutes. I was no swimmer. By comparison, I was like a bull in a china shop. And I barely ever went back to that swimming pool.


Years later I returned to the Atlantic coast on holiday with my friends from university. We rented an apartment by the ocean and on our first evening we ran down to the beach. The waves were high and the rough beach was steep. I tore my clothes off and ran straight in. But when I re-emerged beyond the breaking waves, I saw that my friends were still standing on the beach, too worried to venture in.


There’s a beauty and a utility to learning perfection within fixed parameters. There is also a joy and a necessity to learning to survive, adapt and make sense in the eddies and the chaos of the real world. Our education system today is teaching us to thrive in swimming pools; fixed exams, rigid curricula, narrow definitions of success, the four walls of the classroom. But the world will sometimes throw our children into the open water. Learning to swim in the ocean, you are never alone. You have to understand, respond and react to your environment. I later learnt to swim in a swimming pool, and even started to enjoy doing lengths. There’s a surety in solitude. But we live in a world where the only thing that is sure is change. A world where our interactions with each other and the environment around us is key to our collective wellbeing. Maybe it’s time to reimagine our children’s learning environments, to open our schools, to free our children from the confines of the classrooms, to play and learn not only in swimming pools, but also in the ocean.


Rowan Salim


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