I'll take you over to the reef in the dinghy, said Barney, the charter-yacht skipper, "and you can put on the mask and flippers and snorkel from there."
We clambered into the rubber ducky of the yacht, anchored 50m off one of the Great Barrier Reef's top snorkelling sites, and motored into 20m from the beach where he could see blue water darkening with shadows of coral outcrops.
He killed the engine and told me to pull on the flippers, dampen the mask before settling it over my face, repeated how to use the snorkel. He was wearing Polaroid sunglasses and could see just beneath the surface. "You'll see fusiliers and some parrot fish, as well as the coral," he told me.
"How deep is the water?" I asked. "Oh, about 10, 12 metres," he said. "Ready?"
"Sure," I said. "Just ease yourself over the side," he advised, "take a breath, and when you're happy, look for the fish."
I noticed he didn't say "look down". But as soon as I went over the side of the dinghy, I did. I saw the fish. I saw the garishly coloured coral.
Snorkel technique not quite right. Came up for breath. Went down again. Striped fish, yellow tails, huge brown groper. The only thing that could have made it more perfect would have been the sight of a giant sea-turtle. And all the while I was holding on to a line on the side of the dinghy.
But ... this was June. Last Christmas I was too scared to get into any water deeper than a warm bath.
So why, when I'm far closer to collecting Kiwisaver than joining the Sea Scouts, did I decide to learn to swim? Like so many things in life, a combination of circumstances.
Been thinking about it for decades: since I was 4. My dad, a champion swimmer and diver who taught kids to swim at Three Kings School baths in the evenings, had one failure, a tiny, scrawny kid who was morbidly afraid of water. I sat, shivering, cuddled by my Aunty Isobel, while brothers and cousins dived off boats and jetties in the Rotorua Lakes or Marlborough Sounds in school holidays. Or watching from a gulet in Turkey while everyone else leapt off the side and swam in warm clear waters near an ancient sunken city.
It's a Kiwi thing. Everyone can swim. It's part of the DNA, part of the culture, part of the rites of passage, and if you can't ... well, it's likely grounds for Internal Affairs to decline a passport. I don't have the statistics for people in my age and social group who can and can't swim but I know how it feels if you can't; it feels like one more tick in the social loser box.
There was a catalyst. Or two. My sister and I sat vigil as our mother died at the age of 99½; a relationship went up, or down, in flames.
Devastated, twice over, I could retreat from the world or challenge one of my greatest fears (the other is heights) and through that find some self-confidence, some self-esteem, start to rebuild. Get another life.
Coffee with a friend. "So, what's been happening in your world?" she asked, and probably wasn't expecting the answers. But she is a New Yorker and not too much fazes her. She pulled my little black notebook to her side of the table, and wrote down a name and a number. "You need to talk to this guy," she said.
Which is how I came to meet Emile. The next day, because my friend was acutely aware that if I was allowed to have second thoughts, I would. We had coffee across the road from a gym at Britomart.
Emile and I chatted in the sun for an hour. We didn't talk about swimming. Then he said, "So, do you think you would like to come and look at the pool tomorrow?"
It was on the fourth floor of an apartment building over the road from the café. There was no one else around. He told me to get into the water when I felt comfortable. By the end of the first session I had put my head under the water. Fifty years of phobia conquered in 25 minutes. Next day I had learned to float.
Small steps. Floating, floating and kicking, floating and kicking and big overarms. Some things with noodles. Some things with flippers and kickboards. I felt inadequate. Emile kept telling me, "Hey, you're doing great. Listen to me, I have had All Blacks, big strong men, I won't tell you their names, in this pool who were afraid of doing the things that you are doing." It worked. I would never be a big strong All Black but I could do this.
Big steps. Four big overarm strokes, take a breath. Then four big overarm strokes, take a breath, four more strokes, another breath.
One morning, a txt from Emile. "Come to the pool on Saturday at 11. Bring your adventurous self."
Three of us - me, a thirty-something chap who always had the lesson after me, and a younger woman who is training to meet the physical fitness test to join the police. "Come to this end of the pool," said Emile, and we lined up on the edge above the 2m-deep lane. He got into the water, something he never does when teaching. "Now jump in," he said. "I'm here."
Not one of us wanted to do it. The first time. Second time we were a bit more confident. Third round, he couldn't hold us back. Finding the inner 4-year-old that none of us ever were, we could jump, arms out, hit the pool floor, bounce up, swim to the side. "You look like a champion diver," grinned Emile after one jump, arms out, hit the floor of the pool and swim to the side. Nice of him to say so, but that was my dad.
Emile raised his eyebrows when I got to the pool for my first session after the snorkel dip. "What's with the fluoro pink togs?"
"It's a statement," I said. I'd worn them on that self-defining leap (okay, splash) from the dinghy. For the first time, no one had laughed at me when I got in the water. Least of all, me.