Refuge

Last weekend me and my mate Angela went down to the Dorset coast for the weekend.

We were relieved to arrive at our campsite while the sun was still shining, despite some rain having been forecast.

We pitched our tent, made it cosy with sleeping bags, cushions and blankets and stepped back to survey our handy work.

Our temporary home for the next three nights. How liberating to be sleeping under the stars, far away from the high stakes of London life.

We had a picnic that evening in the late summer sun and then hunkered down for the night.

My mattress was a bit too hard. I wasn’t sure I’d worn enough layers. It wasn’t quite as cosy as my double bed back home. But we slept and woke up early for the surprise that Angela had organised for us.

“Bring a swimsuit and a towel,” she had told me.

I thought we were going to a spa. I had visions of being enveloped in steam, sweating out my First World Problems and coming out refreshed and reborn.

But no.

Angela hadn’t booked a spa. She had booked a Kayaking Experience on the Open Sea.

We arrived at Lulworth Cove and Dan, our handsome instructor, got us some wetsuits and life jackets. They took the piss out of me for opting for the full-length winter version. But I felt a smug assurance I’d made the right choice. It may not be the sexiest of outfits, but this wasn’t the Mediterranean. This was the English Channel, and I couldn’t give two Syrians if it was the middle of August – that shit was cold. And I was prepared.

Dan warned that it was “a bit choppy” out there today, but since they’d cancelled yesterday’s Experience for similar reasons, we’d push on today.

However, he did take extra care to go through the safety spiel in detail and highlight the procedure to take in the event our boat capsized.

Check your rowing partner is OK.

Reach over and flip the boat upright.

Pull yourself back in the boat ASAP.

Forget the paddles. They float. Dan would retrieve them if need be.
And so we set off, two of us in a plastic kayak, getting into a rhythm and feeling out the new territory.

We were still in Lulworth Cove. It was calm and safe and I considered suggesting we just do a couple of laps around it and then head back.

But no.

We were heading out of the cove and into the open sea.

It got choppy very quickly. Dan encouraged us to dig in and keep rowing. Angela took charge, shouting out rowing instructions as we tried to navigate the increasingly impressive swells.

“Two to the right. One left. Oh shit. Do two more on the right. One left. OK, back to alternate…”

We were meant to stop along the way and sample some seaweed, ponder over some seals, perhaps even take in a dolphin if we were lucky.

But Dan kept us going all the way to Durdle Door – a natural limestone arch that juts out into the sea from the Jurassic Coast.

He gave us the option of rowing around it to the safety of the beach, or, if we were feeling adventurous, to have a go at rowing through the arch.

“The currents are pretty strong in the middle there, so there’s a higher chance of coming unstuck so to speak.”

I looked at Angela. She had a glint in her eye that was enough to confirm that we were, indeed, going through Durdle Door.

And so we gathered ourselves. We let two boats go through first and then Dan shouted “Go!” and we gave it everything. We battled against the swirling currents and the beach was so close, but then a huge wave came and one second we were really high in the air and then I was upside down and my mouth was full of salt water and my ears full of the roar of the sea.

And that moment when the wave lifted us up and I knew there was only one way this was going to end and I had absolutely no control or influence, I felt a calmness. An acceptance. A complete clarity about the futility of fighting it.

And then I learned something else about myself. Because despite my phobia of deep water, I went into some strange South London Survival Mode, barking out orders and sorting shit out.

I righted the boat, checked Angela was OK, pulled myself back into the boat and then grabbed Angela out of the water and plonked her on the boat too, all the while shouting “Fuck the paddles babes, Dan’ll get ‘em.”

We were getting shoved closer to the rocky edges of the arch, but then Dan dutifully retrieved our paddles and we got ourselves safely to land.

Oh the lols. The larks. The delight we took in re-telling that story. Re-living our moment of excitement. We were celebrities amongst our little group and I could tell even Dan was impressed with my chutzpah.

But our glory was shortlived as there was a “weather front” coming in and we had to get back ASAP.

And so we got into our godforsaken kayak and now we were tired, but we rowed and rowed and it seemed a lot further going back. And the lactic acid kicked in pretty quickly and then it started to rain and it was beautiful, watching the raindrops hit the waves, but it was also pretty fucking scary and the waves were really big now. And dark.

Another kayak capsized and Dan – a part time fireman as well as kayak instructor – came to their aid. But we rowed on. Because it suddenly wasn’t fun any more. And I really really wanted to get back into the cove. I felt very small and very powerless.

For a moment. A very brief moment, I remembered the article I’d read about a wetsuit that had washed up on a Norwegian shore some weeks ago. They had traced it back to a Decathlon shop in Calais, near the refugee camp they call The Jungle, and to a young Afghani man who had decided to try swimming the Channel to get to those white cliffs that seemed so tantalisingly close. Because, in his words, he had “nothing left to lose”.

But I quickly pushed it out of my mind, because it was all a bit too real. Even though we were only meters from actual land. Even though we had Dan and his mobile phone. And we had helmets, wetsuits and lifejackets on. And our boat had been checked and approved by some very thorough and very British safety standards.

And if, by any chance, things got really hairy and we really needed some help, then there were lifeboats and helicopters and ambulances and firemen who would all come to rescue our precious British lives. And we would make the news and everyone would care and be relieved that One Of Ours was saved that day.

We made it back. Safe and sound. And we brushed off that moment of darkness and instead revelled in the excitement of it all.
And took selfies. And put them on Facebook and got fish and chips. And then found a great spot overlooking the sea to sunbathe and text our mates and family about that crazy adventure we’d paid fifty quid each to have. And then we went back to our campsite and had a shower and settled down for a well-earned nights sleep.

And as it started to get dark and I started to snore, a few miles away, a group of people were embarking on a journey too.

They’d spent two thousand pounds each to get themselves and their children onto an overcrowded inflatable dinghy and that would certainly not have passed any British safety standards.

And that two thousand pounds wasn’t enough to ensure a wetsuit, a helmet, or even a lifejacket – not even for that five year old kid.

And the waves were even bigger and it was even “hairier” out there that night. But the trip wasn’t called off. Because even in that state, the sea was safer than the land they were fleeing.

So they got in the boat.

As we slept soundly in our tent, they made their way across that expanse of water. In the dark.

In the fucking dark.

And they didn’t make it.

There was no Dan. No RNLI. No helicopter.

Because they didn’t have the good fortune to happen to be born in this safe, stable country. To carry a passport that allows them access to pretty much any country they fancy visiting.

And we woke up to the image of that little boy’s body washed up on the Turkish beach.

This is your “Swarm”.

This is your “Hoard” that is such a threat to your way of life.

To the freedom you have to pay fifty quid for a Kayaking Experience on the Open Sea.

And I thanked a god I’m not sure I believe in. Over and over. That I am not one of those godforsaken wretches: The lowest of the low, who have made a career out of picking on the most vulnerable human beings in their time of unimaginable despair because it gets the most votes.

Who swaddle themselves in a blanket of Spin and Empty Soundbites while the people they are meant to serve run around gathering food and blankets and shoes.

I give thanks that I woke up this morning to find I wasn’t one of them.

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