I used to think that drowning would be a horrible death, partly because I had heard it was incredibly painful. This myth has been debunked by science; the pain is all mental, not physical.
Now that I've been on a sailboat, out of sight of land, I have a clearer perspective.
As early as 1878, Popular Science published a treatise by a physician describing the physiological process of death by drowning, detailing the relatively brief physical symptoms compared with the far greater mental agony. In conclusion, the author gave readers this sage advice:
"If death by drowning be inevitable, as in a shipwreck, the easiest way to die would be to suck water into the lungs by a powerful inspiration, as soon as one went beneath the surface. A person who had the courage to do this would probably become almost immediately unconscious, and never rise to the surface."
Well, well! Could I do it? I don't know. What I do know is this: if I get dumped off the boat I will likely swim for my life, even if the odds are grim, i.e., totally hopeless. I'm not as terrified of death as many people. I am far more afraid of the time spent waiting for my impending demise, watching as my vessel and lifeline drift farther and farther until they become a tiny speck on the crest of a distant wave. Oh, the agony. The despair. The panic, hopelessness, waves, hypothermia, sharks. The horrible realization that it's inevitable. Who needs it? Much easier to let go. Stick your head under, take a deep breath.
Nonetheless, the most powerful animal instinct, the will to survive, will kick in. We're hard-wired that way.
So I valiantly head off to the swimming pool in my pathetic attempt to build up my long-distance endurance. I count the lengths, 10, 15, 20, 25, until I reach my usual milestone of a half mile. It feels good, knowing I can get that far. Notwithstanding the fact that I know darn well a half mile is peanuts in a roiling, heaving ocean. And that being tossed overboard in calm water only a half mile from shore is the least likely scenario.
On I labor, arm over arm, faster, faster. 30 lengths. 35. All the while knowing that survival is far more dependent on water temperature, current, tide, wind, wave height, storm magnitude, and big and little fishies nipping at your thighs, and, in the end, whether there are any vessels in the vicinity to pick you up, and whether they will see you (a.k.a. "All is Lost," with Robert Redford).
Today, I swam a few extra lengths. What the hell. Build up my stamina a little more.
Tomorrow, and next week, I will do it again.