Over the side to bathe – 24 hours in the South China Sea

Six-minute story

Over the side to bathe – 24 hours in the South China Sea

Which is the best stroke for a swimmer? We had just got back to Mickey’s home from scouts. One of our friends, a member of our patrol, had been awarded his swimmer’s badge and we had talked about this for the rest of the evening. There was not an easy answer. Breaststroke was so slow; it was way behind anything else and backstroke meant you kept bumping into other people. The only trouble with the front crawl was that you were knackered in no time.

Mickey’s dad was there when we arrived and we asked him.

“Breaststroke,” he said and we asked why.

“You can keep going longer,” was his next answer.

“But front crawl is faster,” said Mickey. I thought of our swimming gala with our mates threshing up and down Hornchurch pool, reaching out each time they turned and grabbing the side before pushing off again.

“Depends how far you’ve got to swim and how long you need to swim for.”

Then Mickey’s dad told us.

In 1950 he had been called up for his National Service and joined the Royal Navy. Within a few weeks his ship found itself in the South China Sea. From time to time the ship would come to a stop so that the members of the crew could jump into the sea and swim. On one particular occasion Mickey’s dad and his mates were counted then over the side they went.

It was good in the sea, good fun to shout and joke with his mates, refreshing in the water, and good to exercise after being cooped up in the ship. After some twenty minutes or so Mickey’s dad found himself on the far edge of the group of swimmers when the ship’s siren sounded and a thin plume of smoke rose from her funnel. Reluctantly, his mates began to swim back to the ship.

Ahead of him, he could see his mates climbing back onto the ship. He was too far away to hear them, but he could imagine the calls to them to hurry up and get back on board. Suddenly he realised that there were no more heads in front of him, bobbing up and down as they made their way back to the safety of the ship. At her stern he saw the water begin to churn up white and frothy as the vessel got under way. For a few moments he tried to swim faster and even tried calling out and waving, but it was no use. As minute followed minute the ship got smaller and smaller as she sailed away towards the horizon and he realised that he was completely alone and hundreds of miles from land.

For twenty-four hours Mickey’s dad kept himself afloat, bobbing up and down in the South China Sea. We tried to imagine what it must have been like for him, as night approached and he knew that to stay afloat he had to keep swimming. Now I can imagine a desperate weariness, compounded by the terror of knowing that, once he packed it in, once he gave up, he would drown.

When the light returned he was still swimming, slowly, able to keep his head up long enough to take mouthfuls of air and force his arms and legs to keep moving.

Around the middle of the morning a Chinese fishing boat found him. He was dragged on board and returned to shore and to his ship. What he made of his shipmate’s failure to count properly and their failure to realise that he was still in the water when they set off without him he did not tell us. He did tell us one important thing, though – throughout his ordeal it was the breast stroke, slow, steady and less demanding of his reserves of strength and determination that had saved his life.

What do the answers that Mickey’s dad gives to the first three questions indicate about him?
In the fourth paragraph which descriptive details remind us how Mickey’s dad realised that he was being left behind?

Why is this story so convincing?

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