Writing · 7 June 2013 · Ian Malpass

Drowning in politeness

In which I test the belief that an Englishman would rather die than cause a fuss.

One of the things about being an Englishman in America is that I’m often asked about stereotypical traits we are supposed to have. Love of the Queen, a tendency to queue, a preference for beer on the warm side, and so on.

When it comes to politeness, I’ll sometimes illustrate it with this story.

My wife is Minnesotan, born and bred. Her grandparents on one side owned a cabin in the north woods, while those on the other side had a cabin on a lake over in Wisconisn. On one of my trips to the US to visit her while we were dating, we went for a week up to the Wisconsin cabin, along with some of her other family. Lake Mackenzie is a lovely place—a lake that’s large enough to be interesting, without being so huge as to be intimidating, and messing about in boats was a splendid way to spend the hot afternoons.

On one of those afternoons, my wife and I, along with her cousin Scott and his then-girlfriend (now wife), took a small boat out to a nearby sandbar. We anchored the boat, hopped overboard, and sat splashing in the water while sunfish came and pecked at us, hoping we’d move elsewhere.

The day was hot, but with a stiff breeze keeping the temperature tolerable. “Wouldn’t it be funny,” we said, “if the boat blew away in the wind and stranded us on this sandbar?” At this point we turned, to see the boat blowing away in the wind, stranding us on the sandbar. In the chop, the anchor had started hopping along the sand as the boat was pushed by the wind, until it was simply dragging in the water and our boat was away.

Not far away. Nor moving terribly fast. Scott and I, apparently with one mind, leapt up and ran through the water before launching ourselves off the edge of the sandbar and swimming after our wayward vessel.

Scott was doing the crawl. I was essaying a fairly graceful breaststroke. We had, of course, gone off like the clappers. The boat was near, and just a few quick strokes would see us at the anchor line. Only they didn’t. The boat was closer, yes, but not much closer.

As the wind continued to propel the boat at almost exactly the same speed as we were swimming, our swimming started to deteriorate. (Mine rather faster than Scott’s, I’ll confess.) I looked back over my shoulder to see Sara and Heather waving frantically from the sandbar an alarmingly long way away. The boat, meanwhile, was tantalisingly close. Scott began to do sprints to see if he could reach the boat. I was in no position to do anything other than a rather dogged doggy paddle. The boat remained determinedly out of reach.

It’s an awkward moment to find oneself in the middle of a lake, drowning with your girlfriend’s cousin, and I was suddenly very much aware that drowning really was on the cards. I didn’t feel any particular panic (in fact I vividly recall imagining Michael Beurk doing the narration of our plight for 999) but rather I felt terribly embarrassed. I had done something colossally stupid and here I was facing an imminent watery death.

Fortunately Scott drew my mind away from such thoughts by trying to slip below the surface. I was able to persuade him to float on his back and regain his composure, at which point he repaid the favour by actually shouting for help. This course of action—causing a fuss—had honestly never occurred to me.

I think I had thought that I would recover and swim back. Quite apart from the absurdity of such a plan, my wife told me later there were a number of speedboats on the lake who would never have seen (or expected) a swimmer in the deep water with no boat nearby, and which could have smashed us both to smithereens at any time.

It was one of those boats which finally heard Scott’s shouts, and came and picked us up, with me apologising profusely as I flopped like fish on the floor, before being violently and spectacularly sick over the side.

I wanted the lake to just swallow me up, but fortunately had someone there to see to it that it didn’t.