The sky had draped a grey cloud over False Bay, Cape Town, and ash-green lines of marbled swell pulsed towards the shore. Standing on the beach, I imagined guiding my fibreglass board across the soft water, and was itching to get into the sea. The soft hue of dusk dulled my vigilance and I ignored the powerful currents and heaving waves which engulfed the ominously named Cemetery surf break.
At the back line I was the lone kid, just 10 years old, surrounded by grizzly, neoprene-hooded men who were welcoming the ever-growing waves with glee. On the horizon a set wave stood up, tripped on the sand bank, and avalanched towards me. I was out of my depth on so many fronts and instinctively jumped away from my board and dove beneath the thick sickle of water cutting us all down. I was tossed and corkscrewed into the depths. When I eventually breached the surface I took a gulp of sea water and foam with the last of my remaining breath. An even bigger wave then punched me in the throat and pushed me under again. By the third wave I could feel the life draining from my limbs, but in the nick of time, I was crumpled onto my board by a stranger and sent back to shore with water gushing out my nose and mouth. That was my last surf for almost a decade.
Fast forward over 30 years to 2019. I took my 9 year old son up the south coast of South Africa to a legendary point break known as Seals in Cape St Francis. The waves were warm and silky, but crashed powerfully along the western end of the bay where they eventually laid to rest with a thick thud of ruptured sea bed. We decided to avoid the rocky point break and headed to the seemingly sheltered bay. My son paddled for a sky coloured wave, which gently eased him forward for take-off, and then violently slammed and buried him into the shallows. He was pinned to the sea bed, thick particulate sand was pushed into his eyes and ears and his breathe stolen by the pressure of water. When he finally broke the surface his face was etched with fear and desperation. It was his Cemetery moment and I could see the love of surfing fading within him already.
Soon after my near drowning, my dad (and primary surf companion) left the country on a one way ticket. I had no one who understood and cared to process my fear and encourage me to head back into the waves. I have thankfully had the chance to be there for my son. It’s been a year since his big, sea scare and not only is he back in the ocean, but he is more committed to the sport than ever. The difference between our experiences was partially that I was left alone to deal with the fear and he wasn’t, but more importantly, the answer is just one thing – he faced his fear, and I didn’t!
Initially my son developed a hyper vigilance to all waves – he literally imagined them to be bigger than they actually were. He would look at the sea from afar and as if binoculars were at his cheeks, see the waves 3 to 4 times larger than they truly were. He would be panic stricken and insist that we head home. My role was to help him step into ankle deep water and learn that the only way to overcome his fear was to immerse himself in the crush of a breaking wave, and to dive into the foam of a tumbling shore break.
For him to overcome his fear of waves, he had to get back into the waves.
It’s a year down the line, and he is still very nervous of the sea. He has a healthy respect for it and I keep reminding him of the progress he has made. With each stretch into his wetsuit and deep-breathe, duck-dive beneath the swells, he gains small margins of courage. It’s a courage that is more butterfly wing strong than Braveheart resilient. It’s a courage that he cannot yet acknowledge, but that I see and feel compelled to help him celebrate – even when he routinely responds to my enthusiasm with ‘oh dad, you’re just saying that’.
I’ve learnt a lot about fear myself. There have been many times when I have succumbed to it, and a few occasions where I have endured immense danger (like being arrested in a foreign country or losing a landrover engine in the desert, many days away from help). Those terrifying moments however didn’t overwhelm or scare me, but probably because I had to keep going in order to literally survive. It seems so much easier to be brave when we have truly life-threatening situations before us. What is far harder, is to deal with all the other fears that are not as existentially threatening. I have let far too many of those non life threatening fears disable the richness of my living.
Fear can save our lives, but if we aren’t careful it could ruin them too. It has a long memory which is always eager to present itself. At times it wins, and makes us retreat from a new experience, but with time, and regular attention, our courage can grow, until before we know it, we are riding waves far bigger than we could ever have imagined.
2020 has been a year cluttered with troubles and tsunami scale waves. I have found it difficult to ignore the constant woes of economic despair, human suffering and inequality. I have realised that no one will tell us when this is all over, and so each and every day I feel like I am seeking an oasis of calm, to make sure I am not paralysed by fear. I struggle, then overcome, then struggle, then overcome – its an exhausting dual with an enemy between my ears – the fear of the known and unknown.
So here is my pep talk – mainly to myself. The fear you are facing is probably not life threatening and you are unlikely to drown or steeple over in a heap. So maybe we all need to find small measures of courage to step into our angst, to get close to it, and maybe invite others to hold your hand to greet it. Let’s spend time shadow boxing it and eventually, we’ll give it a knock out blow that feels like a braveheart sword swipe, but was probably more one-thousand butterfly wings of wind.
Last week my son paddled out into a 4 foot southerly swell. He duck dived a few 5 footers too. He was wide eyed and on edge, but never returned to the lip quivering fear of just a few months ago. As we stepped onto the beach I fist pumped him.
‘Those are the biggest waves you have ever been in’ I stated matter of fact.
‘ Really dad, are you sure? it felt a lot smaller’.
I think that was code for – Fear: 364 days of winning; Courage: 1 lifetime worth of winning!