I am looking out the window at the velvety green hills in southwest Wales, driving with my Welsh guide, Dai on the way to Pembrokeshire to go "Coasteering," an adventure that includes swimming, diving, jumping, climbing, scrambling and rock hopping along the ocean. I sneeze. "Bless you," says Dai and adds, "In medieval times, if you sneezed, they thought you were exhaling the devil, so by blessing you, it prevented the devil from re-entering your body."
Maybe the devil's already in me because I'm beginning to have second thoughts. I signed up for Coasteering because a friend did it and said it was the best adventure she'd ever done; but she's an Ironman. Is it going to be scary?
"Do you know that Mount Everest was named after Sir George Everest, the Surveyor-General of India, who was Welsh?" Dai asks. I barely hear him. It's 57 degrees out. I'll have a wetsuit, but what if the ocean is freezing?
"So the world's highest mountain is named after a Welshman, and we also have our weird sports like Bog Snorkeling. One night, two customers, drunk in a pub, dared each other to snorkel through a peat bog. Now it's a yearly competition." Bogs don't have waves, I think, but I bet the Atlantic has huge ones. I never thought about that because you don't see waves on the Coasteering website. I'm afraid of huge waves.
We arrive in St. David, but we're early, so Dai takes me to the Cathedral. "St. David is the smallest and most holy town in Wales," he says. "Our patron Saint, David, established a religious community here. It was said that one visit to St. David was worth three visits to Rome and one to Jerusalem. David was known as the 'walker saint' because when he did penance, he walked in water up to his neck and often stood on foot in the water for days."
I shiver. Will the Atlantic be freezing? We enter the gigantic Cathedral whose floor slopes and pillars lean in due to a 13th-century earthquake. I look up at the enormous alter and pray that I can get through this adventure without panicking.
Back on the main street, I walk through a gauntlet of kayaks and enter TYF, the adventure outfitter with whom I am going Coasteering. Founder Andy Middleton, who has been jumping off rocks and swimming in the Atlantic since before he could walk and introduced Coasteering to St. David, greets me and the seven others who will be doing the three-hour adventure with me: five Brits and one Japanese couple.
After being fitted for wetsuits, PDFs (personal flotation devices) and helmets, we walk down a dirt path to the ocean. "Everyone ready?" the guide asks. "Just remember to stay on the barnacles. The rocks are slippery but the barnacles are your friends." I tighten the shoelaces on my sneakers and follow the others down the slippery rocks.
Our first challenge, "the toilet" is a six-foot-high jump into a horseshoe-shaped cove in the water. No problem. We are all treading water when suddenly, we ride a good 10 feet into the air, like an elevator in the water, then drop back down again as the wave recedes, all laughing hysterically.
We swim a short distance and scramble back onto the rocks for "Ski Jump Island," a diving board-sized rock jutting out over the edge. "Don't keep your arms out," says the guide. "Step off with one leg first." It's like walking the plank but not scary -- so I do a cannonball. One person does a swan dive and another a back flip. We all applaud before moving onto the "underwater challenge," swimming 20 feet beneath the water to the next cliff. It's impossible to stay underwater in a wetsuit, PDF, helmet and sneakers; only one guy is able to touch the rock on the other side.
I gingerly climb up a muddy steep embankment towards the next jump, a good 20 feet in the air. It's much too high for my comfort level, but everyone else has jumped it. I take a deep breath, cross my hands over my chest, and fling myself off the safety of the rock before I fall though space in slow motion. How long is this? It seems to take forever before I splash into the ocean. Relieved, I smile so hard I swallow a mouthful of seawater.
We've been in and out of the water for over three hours. Except for when I grabbed onto a rock and miss-timed the wave, scraping my hand, I am unscathed. We begin the climb up the path to St. David. I sneeze. "Bless you," says the guide.
"Thank you," I grin.
I did it: I swam, jumped, climbed and expelled whatever devil was in me -- and no way is he re-entering this body.