Over My Head

Pontoons are used for pleasure boating. They're made out of abrasion resistant PVC and nylon with frames for support and can be equipped with a motor mount, canopy, and a small anchor. Such boats are suitable for seas during calm weather.

One-by-one, my daughters, my grandchildren, and friends who were sharing this pontoon, climbed atop one of its billowed sides, and leaped into the bay. Only the skipper and I remained.

This bay in Provincetown Harbor is mostly 30 to 90 feet deep, but we had sailed close enough to the shore so that water rose just to neck height of the adults. The children -- all confident swimmers -- gleefully treaded water, or swam underneath to view algae, sea grasses, and fish.

I, the oldest, shortest, and most fearful passenger, was wearing an orange life jacket -- an early bonus from my daughter, Jill, who knew of my unease in deep water. As I sat, I eyed the calm sea, my carefree loved ones, and with trembling fingers, I untied the jacket. I did not climb the frame, but instead opened the latch of a small door on the pontoon's side.

Everyone in the water suddenly stopped swimming or splashing. They looked up and yelled, "Go, momma, go momma!" So, I did. I jumped overboard, into water over my head. I was able to stroke beneath its surface, move through the algae towards Jill and our other captain, Brandon. As I reached their legs, I felt myself being lifted upwards. "You did it!" they yelled.

Faith joined in, "I'm so proud of you, momma!" I was thrilled, as if I had just won an Olympic competition. "Way to go, grandma!" came from my bobbing grandchildren. And, "congrats, Elaine," from pontoon companions.

With Jill and Brandon at my side, I feebly attempted to tread. But, not wanting to press my luck, I chose instead to return to the boat. I released their arms, and swam a nervous stroke back to the ladder. One foot at a time, I climbed aboard, grabbed a towel, and took a seat as my heartbeat slowly lowered. I had done it; I jumped in and didn't panic.

Like many others who are water averse, it was a near drowning in childhood that turned me into someone afraid of going anywhere near pools, lakes, or boats. I think I was 10; it was at a public swimming pool, its shape starting out shallow on either side, but dipping several feet in the center.

Did I not know that configuration at the time? I can't remember, but the sensation of losing a floor under my wee feet remains clear. Did I flail? Did my friend witness my submersion and alert the lifeguard? Or did that wonderful sun-kissed adolescent spot me among the hundred of kids in the pool that steamy Chicago afternoon and foresee another rescue on his tote board?

 I do recall the relief of being lifted out, as floppy as a rag doll, being placed on the pool's cement, coughing out chlorinated water, and hugging the lifeguard as if he were the prince, and me, his just-awakened sleeping beauty.

With that frightening experience, future pool visits were spent solely in the shallow end. And at excursions to North Avenue Beach, I'd venture in the water only up to kneecaps.

For most of my adulthood, my favorite water exercise was finding the perfect spot for a lounge chair or beach blanket. But something changed after I married my second husband. Tommy had been a member of the Lakeview YMCA for 40 years. Because we lived walking distance to that Y, I'd accompany him and work out on the machines or with free weights.

Soon, the scent of the Y's chlorinated pool would tease my nose, but instead of being repulsed, I became intrigued. I signed up for group lessons, learned a feeble crawl stroke, and in the final class, jumped into the deep end and paddled nervously back to the wall.

Attempts at learning how to swim confidently continued at the East Bank Club, Galter Health Center, and now, at the indoor pool of my high-rise apartment building. And that's where I met my latest coach, Kathy. Encouraged by her faith in my future as a swimmer, I've been taking her weekly lessons. Her tips, my Speedo fins and kickboard, and my solo practice sessions have pushed my faith, that this time -- in the 78th year of my life -- I'll claim "swimmer" among my skills.

I have 342 days before our family's possible return to Provincetown, where I pray I'll easily leap off a boat, and serenely swim in water over my head.