A Little Happier: Why Would a Sailor Decide Never to Learn to Swim?

I recently read Clinging to the Wreckage (Amazon), the memoir written by writer and barrister John Mortimer. In the preface, to explain the book’s title, Mortimer recounts a remark made by a stranger who was sitting next to him at lunch after they struck up a conversation:

“I made up my mind, when I bought my first boat, never to learn to swim.”

“Why was that?”

“When you’re in a spot of trouble, if you can swim you try to strike out for the shore. You invariably drown. As I can’t swim I cling to the wreckage and they send a helicopter out for me. That’s my tip, if you ever find yourself in trouble, cling to the wreckage!”

It was advice that I thought I’d been taking for most of my life.

To me, this story seemed to represent an important lesson, but I couldn’t figure out exactly what it was.

Maybe it stands for the notion that as we move through life, we should keep a realistic view of our abilities, so that we don’t put ourselves in a circumstance in which we’re sure to fail.

Or maybe it stands for the notion that in an emergency, we should fight the urge to panic and take reckless action, but instead be willing to stay where we are, evaluate, and allow events to unfold. Or, as the old saying goes, “Don’t just do something, stand there!”

Or maybe it stands for the notion that we should make an effort to create a situation where we have no choice but to follow the wiser course of action. This guy refused to learn to swim so he’d stay with the wreckage; perhaps someone else locks their cellphone in their car trunk so they’re not tempted to text while driving.

Or maybe it has another meaning. What do you think?




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