CREATIVE SPACE is a series spotlighting local (Antiguan and Barbudan/Caribbean) art and culture. As a brand, it dates back to 2009, published exclusively in LIAT’s inflight magazine. It was revamped in 2018 and syndicated as of 2019 on Antiguanice.com. Its publishing partner, as of 2020, is the Daily Observer newspaper. It has its first print run in the paper every other Wednesday, with the online extended edition running here on the blog. It continues to expand across other media platforms (e.g. AntiguanWriter on YouTube). CREATIVE SPACE is created, owned, and written by Joanne C. Hillhouse – Antiguan-Barbudan/Caribbean author, journalist, producer, and freelance writer, editor, and trainer.
Here’s a link to the issue as it appeared on September 15th 2021 in the Daily Observer:
Below is the extended online edition (not a duplicate of the edition with publishing partner Observer Media) with extras.
For CREATIVE SPACE #19 and #20 of 2021, the focus is two remarkable women working in marine spaces, speaking about their journey and the culture around the sea in Antigua and Barbuda, what needs to change, how they are a part of changing things, and how more people can dip their toe in the water.
CREATIVE SPACE #19 OF 2021 – MARINE CULTURE 1 OF 2: FEAR OF SWIMMING, WITH CHRISTAL CLASHING O’REILLY
(click for CREATIVE SPACE #20 OF 2021 – MARINE CULTURE 2 OF 2: FINITE RESOURCES, OCEAN LAW, AND COMMUNITY ACTION, WITH TRICIA LOVELL)
Did you know that barracudas are attracted to shiny things? That’s what spooked Olympic swimmer and swim instructor Christal Clashing O’Reilly, who would someday swim with sharks, when she first started exploring the deep blue. “I was terrified of barracudas and I didn’t like not knowing what’s under the sea, but once I was able to do scuba diving, it took on a completely different relationship…these animals were now interesting, they were now to be marveled at and to understand them more…(to have) curiosity about them instead of fear.”
There can be a sense, if you’re a non-swimmer in the Caribbean, as so many are, of being fenced in by all the water surrounding us. Christal’s concern that a certain silver-sheened predator might mistake her earrings for fish illustrates that this sense can affect even water babies. The water has been for Christal “a very magical place, a very safe space” since she was signed up with Dolphins swim club at age 4 – she thought older but her mom Edith, who these days runs her own swim club, Wadadli Aquatic Racers, corrected her. Christal said, “It’s very easy to have a fear of what you don’t know.” For her, it was what lives in the water; for so many of her students, it is the water itself.
“Most of the persons I teach to swim, especially the adults have a fear of swimming and a fear of the water, and it’s something that I feel is a cultural thing and it’s very deeply rooted. I see where it comes from and it’s something that I really enjoy the process of helping persons to overcome. It’s one of the most rewarding parts of what I do…I have an opportunity to change persons’ perception of the water.”
There are numerous factors informing this disconnect of living on an island – literally a mass of land surrounded by water – and being afraid of the sea; from the traumatic arrival by sea of enslaved Africans (“it’s a place of fear”) to economic, race, and class barriers (“we haven’t, as people, generally speaking, had the institutionalization of swimming skill development”). Formal swimming lessons for most were limited, positioning swimming as an elite sport. An observation about swimming and skin colour from Christal’s early swimming days, “The pool clubs tended to be lighter, sea-based darker, but there is more crossover now.”
Christal was fortunate to have parents with the means and motivation to encourage her swimming. Swimming is an expensive sport – in terms of money and time. “It’s very much about the resources you have access to,” Christal said, breaking down the practices, 4-7 times a week if you’re swimming competitively, up at 4 a.m., getting to and from practice in a country where buses don’t run on a schedule, being able to eat right or even regularly. Christal spent three of her high school years living with an aunt in the Bahamas, where she went to access better training opportunities. “She’d come back and there’d be no food in the house because I’d have eaten it all,” Christal shared. Athletes burn through a lot of calories.
And it was quickly obvious that Christal was more than a casual swimmer, that she was an athlete with potential. She was competing by age 8 and boosted to international competition by age 12. It was after seeing the level of competition out there in the world that she decided she needed to level up her training and moved to the Bahamas at 13. She went to the Olympics at 14, where her “inexperience” saw her finishing fourth in her heat in the prelims. In 2006, at 16, fresh from graduation at Queen’s College, she competed in the Commonwealth Games in Australia, and was promptly scouted. She trained there until 2008, a return to the Olympics on her mind but in the end not in the cards, except for a stint as a volunteer at the London Olympics in 2012. Of the Olympics, Christal said, “We do need to show up and each time we need to do better than the time before.”
To do so, of course, we need greater and more consistent investment in sports – and, Christal said, more creativity in channeling funding to sports (see the CREATIVE SPACE video on the Antiguanwriter YouTube channel for more of this discussion).
For medaling in swimming to even be a possibility, we also clearly need more swimmers, and Christal feels the culture is moving in the right direction in that regard. “I think we’re at our greatest enrollment, at least pre-COVID, in swimming, across different strata of societies in Antigua. …We’ve come a long way from where we were when I started.” We are medaling in regional and hemisphere games and more people are swimming generally. “…but we have a lot of work to still do.”
Some of that work, being done by Christal, along with other swim instructors from various other clubs, is in the schools – or was, pre-COVID. There were five schools – all public – whose students – all primary – were participating in classes, funded by the world governing body for swimming and run under the swimming federation, three times a week. “We give them the base skills and those who are able to take it on at a more serious level, we encourage that.”
She does feel that this COVID-interrupted programme has had some impact; sometimes she sees the children, in their branded sea caps, at the shore line practicing things they would have learned in the programme a year earlier. It feels good, Christal said, “just to know that what you’re teaching does translate in to their lives.” It’s a feeling replicated every time she helps a student swim. “It’s nice to just see transitions and see people grow regardless of age, grow in confidence and grow in ability.”
When they do, potentially, the marine environment could become as alive for them as it has for her. A ‘Blue Economy’, in which our at-sea resources are used but not abused, as well as the survival of the entire ecosystem, is kind of dependent on this shift.
“I think it’s a hard thing for persons to understand when they don’t know,” Christal said. “So I can see how there’s that disconnect in how we treat things, because we don’t understand the beauty of it …I really want to get persons to skill themselves up, to find those opportunities to learn (to swim and dive) and see what’s under there, so they can see for themselves what they’re destroying because it’s hard to know what you’re destroying when you don’t know.”
She really does think some of the environmental destruction comes down to not knowing. Our reefs for instance: “I hear stories about how beautiful our reefs were… even 30 years ago, which means that when I was born the reefs were thriving… by the time I got to the diving part, I’m only seeing a fraction of what used to exist, and now I’m probably seeing even less of that…there was so much diversity and beauty under the water I feel I’ve missed out on.”
Once you’ve seen the beauty of the coral reefs (even in an imagined memory as Christal references here) and understand how essential they are to life – as nurseries for fish and a whole ecosystem of aquatic life, as breakers that allow us to have calm beaches, as a barrier that both protects and enriches our lives – one would have to be truly care-less to destroy and/or ignore their destruction.
Christal has made a life of knowing and experiencing (she talks about swimming with sharks, free diving and swimming the open ocean as a member of Team Antigua Island Girls, the first all female, all Black crew to row the Atlantic in EXTRAS on jhohadli.wordpress.com and video on Antiguanwriter on YouTube).
But for now, Christal, on the cusp of pursuing a PhD exploring playfulness and technology in water spaces and in the process of writing a book, not about but inspired by “the row”, as she calls it, leaves us with this question, “what would drive somebody… (to be careless) and what would it take for that person to actually care.”
From the interview –
Answering her own question (about what it would take for people to be responsible about the water and what’s in it) …
“I think education does have something to do with it. …We have to keep other people accountable as well. Your company also influences your actions. So, if you yourself can be a voice, just say, ‘you want to think about this again…’… questioning persons on their actions…even you questioning can put pause in somebody’s actions.”
On free diving with Sharks…
“I was in a situation where I was surrounded by sharks, by choice, it was by choice… I went outside of the cage… I was with persons who knew those sharks, those persons knew how to handle those sharks and told me how to handle them…it was managed risk.
“I did it twice in one day. The first time I did it I was quite nervous and sharks can sense that, so you have to really work on slowing down your heart rate and just try and stay calm… by the second dive I was super comfortable and I was actually trying to go down and meet them and coming back up. That was really fun. It was freeing to not be with equipment, one, and then free to be with them out in the wild. It felt, exhilarating.”
On swimming in the Atlantic Ocean while rowing across it, 47 days over 3,000 nautical miles between 2018-2019, as a member of Team Antigua Island Girls…
“It was colder than I expected but not as cold as I thought it could be…
“It was like this magical thing…in this great expanse, I felt very very lucky to have the opportunity because I know a lot of people won’t have the opportunity…I treasured it. …also every time I was in the water, it was like relief, because I was in the water and water is my element.
“I would go in to clean the boat of barnacles on the side of the boat, and when I came out I was always rewarded with some chocolate which was a very scarce commodity…so even if we were running low on resources, I would get some chocolate.”
On how being a part of Team Antigua Island Girls changed her…
“It’s given me more confidence in myself… When I signed up for the row my self-esteem was on the rocks. I was going through some really challenging times and it was just very very difficult understanding in terms of understanding who I was and where I was supposed to be…I was just very lost. The row gave me something to work towards, gave me a bit more purpose in life, and so, by the time I had crossed it I felt like I could do anything I wanted to do, anything. It allowed me to see that I could work through the process of confidence-building which has extended beyond the time of the row…I’ve been able to be stronger because of what that row was able to represent for me, it showed me that I could be stronger than my circumstances at the time …it kept building; my confidence in training kept building and by the time I was on the ocean, I had a moment out there where I felt like I wasn’t supposed to be anywhere in the world except right there. So that was like this confirmation that I was in the right place at the right time somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic, dark at night, with just the stars above me, but that’s where I was supposed to be and there was no doubt. There was just clarity…I’m where I am supposed to be in life right now, which is great to know.”
This is from Christal’s web page.
On her book in progress…
“I am writing a book right now. It’s been inspired by my row but it’s not about the row. …It made me seek out experiences of others, as well, and their relationship with the water. So, it’s not a book just about me; it’s a book about water people of the Caribbean….I feel like we need to share that more…other persons need to know that they’re not alone. …we are anomalies…persons coming up not only need role models, but they need to know people like these exist, as well. So it’s not such a strange thing to love the water, and it’s not such a strange thing to go after those kind of dreams when they seem unlikely.”
On what the sea has given her…
“It’s given me a sense of belonging.”
Clashing trivia – she’s been a finalist for sportswoman of the year at least four time and she’s completed as a triathlete. Here’s a link to an article I wrote about Christal all the way back in 2009 when she won the Rotary Ambassadorial Scholarship at age 19.
Here’s a link to more excerpts from our video interview.
Clashing trivia – she’s been a finalist for sportswoman of the year at least four times and she’s completed as a triathlete. Here’s a link to an article I wrote about Christal all the way back in 2009 when she won the Rotary Ambassadorial Scholarship at age 19.
Ocean bits –
“The high seas generate most of the world’s oxygen, is one of the largest havens of biodiversity on the planet, and is critical to our fight against climate change.”
(Source: the High Seas Treaty for Life Beyond the Law, EAG Talk, p. 18, The Daily Observer, Thursday 18th July 2021, by Britney Hay, High Seas Youth Ambassador). Per the article, which discusses an international treaty under discussion at the UN, threats to marine life include pollution, climate change, and overfishing.
As I told Christal, if I had not had my own snorkeling adventure and gotten to see the coral reefs up close, I may not have been able to write the world I imagine in my children’s picture book Lost! A Caribbean Sea Adventure.
The OECS project to reduce marine pollution in the Eastern Caribbean is supporting initiatives in several countries. This includes, in Antigua and Barbuda, Sound Land Based Waste Management Technologies . The project’s aim is to “implement a Community Based Waste Management System leading towards the reduction of marine debris (including Plastic).”
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