Douglas Adams, on the subject of flying

I think of this excerpt every time I ask my swimmers to try an unsupported star float for the first time.

If they could only put into words what they were thinking as I persuade them that it is good idea to take both feet off the bottom and go horizontal …and somehow not sink like a brick…??

Our head was keen for the school to participate in the swimming gala, so we had two weeks at the baths to practise. Assembling a team was fairly easy, we picked anyone that could swim a length. Every year our Year 3s start lessons with a large proportion of them never having so much as dipped a toe in a swimming pool.

I’ve got bad memories of the last gala we went to four years ago; our swimmers were struggling to finish and already the next race was being started. The large sports mad primary school came 1st, 2nd and 3rd in every race and scooped up all the trophies.

The Council’s Sports Development Team were ‘organising’ this gala and I use that word pejoratively and in the loosest possible sense. Despite a whole team of people with stop watches no one had thought to book a PA system, a large echoing swimming pool, hundreds of children screaming at the top of their voices – Hello! Chaos ensued, we couldn’t hear a thing.

“The Hitch Hikers guide…. has this to say on the subject of flying.
There is an art, it says, or rather a knack to flying.
The knack lies in learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss.
Pick a nice day it suggests and try it.
The first part is easy.

All it requires is simply the ability to throw yourself forward with all your weight and the willingness not to mind that it’s going to hurt.
That is, it’s going to hurt if you fail to miss the ground.

Most people fail to miss the ground and if they are really trying properly the likelihood is that they will fail to miss it fairly hard.

Clearly it is this second part, the missing, which presents the difficulties.

One problem is that you have to miss the ground accidentally. It’s no good deliberately intending to miss the ground because you won’t.

You have to have your attention suddenly distracted by something else when you’re halfway there, so that you are no longer thinking about falling or about the ground or about how much it’s going to hurt of you fail to miss it.

It is notoriously difficult to prise your attention away from these three things during the split second you have at your disposal.  Hence most people’s failure and their eventual disillusionment with this exhilarating and spectacular sport.

If, however, you are lucky enough to have your attention momentarily distracted at the crucial moment, by, say, a gorgeous pair of legs (tentacles, pseudopodia according to phylum and/or personal inclination) or a bomb going off in your vicinity, or by suddenly spotting an extremely rare species of beetle crawling along a nearby twig, then in your astonishment you will miss the ground completely and remain bobbing just a few inches above it in what might seem to be a slightly foolish manner.

This is the moment for superb and delicate concentration.

Bob and float, float and bob.

Ignore all considerations of your own weight and simply let yourself waft higher.

Do not listen to what anybody says to you at this point because they are unlikely to say anything helpful.
They are most likely to say something along the lines of ‘Good God you can’t possibly be flying!’.

It is vitally important not to believe them or they will suddenly be right.

Waft higher and higher
Try a few swoops, gentle ones at first, then drift above the treetops breathing regularly.


When you have done this a few times you will find the moment of distraction rapidly becomes easier and easier to achieve.

You will then learn all sorts of things about how to control your flight, your speed, your manoeuvrability, and the trick usually likes in not thinking too hard about whatever you want to do, but just allowing it to happen as if it was going to anyway.

You will also learn about how to land properly, which is something you will almost certainly cock up, and cock up badly, on your first attempt.”

Taken from Life the Universe and Everything written by the much-missed Douglas Adams.