3 February 2009.
It was the sound that got my attention, two terrible different sounds that brought me back. The second I had heard many years ago and it created instant fear, the sound of vertebrae snapping and being crushed, this time it was my neck and the explosion seemed amplified a million times underwater. The first I had no idea where or what that sound was or where it came from, it was a horrible sound a dull wet thud, kind of like if you hit a ripe watermelon with a baseball bat.
The sound however was not the only thing that had my brain in a state of total confusion it was the light which exploded in my head, an absolutely pure radiating bright white light that left me blind and confused for what seemed ages. It most probably was only a second or two, I guess I´ll never know for sure how long I was out for. Believe me when you are in situations where you are in real danger of dying time expands and slows down and everything seems to move in ultra slow motion. I know that day I should have died.
The dull wet thud I now know was my skull cracking against an underwater rock at my favourite surf spot in Jeffreys Bay in South Africa. The blow was horrible and when I came around I was very dazed and confused. I cant remember actually falling off my surfboard, I remember talking to George as the set of waves approached, I remember it was a stunning hot summers day, the waves were small and playful the water was emerald green and we just had to go surfing. George caught the first wave and I got the next one, I laughed as I flew past him as he paddled back up the point.
I knew I was in serious trouble when I saw the blood. I had been in a kind of dream state watching my hands floating and waving around in front of me, I had no idea what was going on, absolutely no idea where I was, what the hell those hands were doing slapping me in the face or what I was doing underwater bashing my face up against the rocks. The blood which was quickly staining the foamy water was what brought me to my senses.
The blood, the blood made me scared, scared of what I had no idea just yet but it made me scared, as only lots of blood can, I knew it was mine and something bad was happening. I had to concentrate, what the hell was going on, why was the water so clear. I could see the seaweed, a fish darted into my vision then disappeared into the foam and blood, everything was happening in slow motion.
Ever since the army days I have had this recurring nightmare, I have never talked to anyone about it. It´s been my nightmare, it´s always the same it never changes. I am in a tunnel underground crawling away from danger, the tunnel just keeps getting smaller and smaller, tighter and tighter and then it collapses. Total darkness dirt suffocating me, it never changes. I wake up in a sweat gasping for breath, I haven’t had this dream for years but things have been stressful lately, business is suffering with the global crisis, family life is going down the toilet, I had just come back from the police station to report my house had just been burgled and all the furniture was gone, even the coat hangers and pegs had been stolen for god´s sake. Real life had become a nightmare, but why had my nightmare transformed into this new version, it never changes. I needed to breathe, there was no tunnel, no dirt but I was suffocating all the same. A couple more seconds and I would wake up and breathe, it never changes.
The blood, the seaweed, the fish, those horrid sounds, this was not my dream this was real, I was drowning in waist deep water I needed to focus and fast. Survival mode kicked in at last and it came back in an instant, I had hurt myself surfing and it was bad. All I needed to do was stand up and walk the few metres onto dry land, help would be there soon George was there he would help.
Most probably only about 30 seconds had passed but my concept of time had moved into another realm, those rubbery arms and freaky hands that kept bashing around like a crazy rag doll were mine, why the hell did they not work, just push me off the bottom and stand up for God´s sake. The next few seconds I have no way of accurately putting into words, I was by now fully conscious and aware of what was going on and my brain was working at hyper speed while, everything else was in slow motion. I was in about 2ft of water face down bleeding like crazy, the only thing that actually worked was my brain, my arms and legs just did not respond to instructions and I needed to breathe NOW.
The wave saved me. It must have been a bigger set, as it pushed through with more force than any other. Up to that moment I had been pretty immobile just floating around face down trying to get a grip on what the hell was going on. That wave was a life changer, a small foamy a few feet from the beach was by far the most important wave I had ever come across.
Every surfer has caught waves they will remember forever, I have a few. My first wave caught at Ballito Bay way back in 1973, The day of the oil at Garvies when we were groms in the 80´s. The wave I paddled over at the SA champs in 1987 wanting the next one which did not appear. The 12 footer I got at G Land in 1997, my last wave as a pro in 1993, the list goes on and on. As a surfer waves have guided my life and in those quiet moments if I close my eyes I can surf them over and over, but that one I will never forget.
The wave saved me, it hit me side on and rolled me over face up. Breathe, breathe, breathe, instinct took over, I sucked in oxygen, water, foam, blood absolutely everything I could. To this day I wonder how I did it, do we get some kind of super powers when the adrenaline kicks in. Try sucking a glass of foam down your throat and not cough, that day I sucked in litres of water without so much as a splutter.
The law of physics states every action has an equal and opposite reaction, that day was no different the backwash of that set wave pulled me off the rock shelf into open water in the channel between the Point and Tubes and much to my horror back onto my stomach and face down. My brain was still in hyper drive and things seemed to be speeding up, which at the time worried me a bit, but my brain was at maximum revolutions. I had semi filled my lungs with air, I had a minute or two to work this out, George was there he would come.
Yes George was there he would come, GEORGE where the hell are you.
It´s not like in the movies, floating face down. No nice outstretched arms and legs floating nicely on top of the water like a starfish. My legs where hanging straight down I could see them just waving around in the current, the same as my arms, what the hell was wrong with me, lift your arms and legs and swim, do something for goodness sake. Nothing happened, no reaction at all, just those jelly arms and legs dancing around in the pink blood stained water like some kind of fantasy below me in plain sight.
Think, think, think, have a plan work this through, brain redlining, heart rate just ticking over, I could hear it clear as a bell, dum dum, dum dum, dum dum. I felt no pain, not a thing actually, nothing and that was a worry. If you have ever snorkeled you will know underwater there is a lot of noise and when your eyes are seeing everything in slow motion I promise your ears hear everything with the volume pumped up and the sounds were amazing.
That morning I did something I never do, it was a stunning summers day, no wind, hot as hell, the sea was warm I could just tell it was. From the house you can tell, when the sea is that emerald green the warm Mozambique current has moved down the east coast and warmed the normally cold J Bay water to a very nice 20 Celsius. Why I chose to put on my wetsuit that morning is a mystery, normally I would have just run down the hill in my boardshorts, I always do. There was no one surfing, it was small but looked pretty fun, as I ran past Georges door, I stopped and shouted for him to come for a surf.
I knew the wetsuit would keep me afloat even in this bizarre posture, torso floating, arms, legs and head all hanging down. I could see flashes of daylight as the gentle splash of the ocean lifted my head up and down, my mouth and nose was only centimetres from fresh air but I might as well have been at the bottom of the ocean, it was no good. I must have been knocked senseless my whole body had turned into a jelly.
The feeling of helplessness is impossible to describe, fresh air and life was literally 5 centimetres away, all I had to do was lift my head and breathe. Come ON, concentrate for gods sake concentrate, my life depended on moving my head 5 centimetres, nothing else mattered at that moment every single ounce of mental power went into that thought.
Just like that my head moved, it lifted a little, not much but enough to raise my eyes and mouth half way out of the water and I managed to again suck in a small mouth full of water and air. I was floating by now out in clear water and by a chance of luck I could see up the point, I could see George. He looked a hell of a long way away he had his head down and was paddling back up the point and away from me.
What made George stop paddling sit up and look back I am not sure, one day I will have to ask him, but he did. He sat there looking back at me floating like a sack for what seemed forever. It was getting harder and harder to hold my head up I had to do something, I tried to call out. The sound that emanated from my mouth was startling to say the least. Jesus this was just not my day, a series of grunts and groans, my tongue was like a slab of rubber in my mouth and along with pretty much everything else was just refusing to follow even the most simplest of instructions.
Apart from confusing the hell out of me this really made me angry and I tried to shout for help. I made some really weird noises, but they got Georges attention and he started to move towards me, he seemed such a long way away too far away.
I had not read a book for years, I always was too busy, the twins, the surf shop, the business, the ASP, WPS it seemed never ending, I hardly surfed anymore. Why I picked up that book a week earlier and read it cover to cover in five days finishing just the night before I will never know. I had been given it as a present and it was just sitting on the bookshelf untouched for months. The reason I picked it up and read it haunts me, why I put on my wetsuit and why I read that book is a mystery I am sure I will take to my grave. Late at night when the lights are out and my mind is free I continue to search for the answer.
The name of that book by Tim Winton is “Breath”.
Breath, my whole life has been troubled by just that breath. For as long as I can remember and especially when I was young, I have had trouble breathing. As a child I suffered with bad asthma, it has always been a daily struggle to breathe, an ever present struggle for air it never goes away.
I could see George coming towards me, slowly at first but as he got nearer and nearer he was paddling more and more frantically, he was still so far away. I was not going to make it, I had swallowed and breathed in too much water, I couldn’t hold on any longer, my head slumped down and It felt like I started to sink. Reality and imagination from now on become a blur, I was dying, slowly drowning and I could not do a thing about it.
My life did not flash before my eyes, I could see the shafts of golden sunlight dancing in the water making amazing patterns on the sand below, my thoughts were crystal clear and I knew I would die. I was not afraid, not sad, not angry, I was actually at peace almost happy. I thought weird things, I thought about my life insurance, my wife could sell the house on the hill, she would be ok, my boys would be ok they would be cared for. My boys they needed me, they needed me. Concentrate hang on, hang on, not like this, not today. I had unfinished business I couldn´t leave it unfinished. I saw my wife`s face, my boy`s faces, they were worried and they looked sad, they gave me an inner strength, they gave me focus.
Breathe I needed to breathe, my whole life I had unknowingly been preparing for the next few seconds. The countless nights with asthma, the countless nights dealing with oxygen starved lungs. The memory of 1985 all those years ago when I had my lungs crushed my spine smashed and I nearly suffocated to death on dry land, my tunnel nightmare, I always pulled it off, I could do this. I felt a newfound energy, a new focus, everything was crystal clear, I put every single bit of my mental power into one thought. Do not breathe, do not breath, do not breathe underwater, whatever you do, do not breathe underwater. I had just read the book.
The bright light started from the outer circle of my vision, slowly at first but increasingly brighter and brighter, getting smaller and smaller. The smaller my circle of vision got, the brighter the light became, the brighter the light got the quicker it closed until in a flash of white, everything switched OFF.
No, there was no tunnel of light, no cool guy in robes standing with a smile on his face to greet me, just a black nothing.
What happened next is just a big confusing mess, George was there, out of focus inches from my face speaking to me, but the volume was off I could see his lips moving but nothing was registering. Then BANG the sound was back on, I had no idea what he was saying, I tried to talk, but again my tongue was on strike, just garbled sounds. I could see fear on Georges face, this snapped me back and words came out of my mouth, I can´t be sure what he was asking or what I said. I know I was swearing at him that much I can remember.
Ever since that 3rd Feb 2009, I have sat and stared at the ocean from those rocks down at Tubes, I have run this through my mind a million times, tried to work it out. How long was I under the water? How did I survive? Why did I wear a wetsuit? What if George arrived 10 seconds later? Just questions, never any answers.
From out of nowhere a longboard appeared, George and someone else were rolling me onto it and they started moving me towards the beach as they worked their way through the surf zone a set broke, my board which was still attached to my left foot on its leash it was being dragged behind me like some kind of bizarre accessory to this whole drama came crashing into us with the foam of that wave. It bounced nose first into me, it should have hurt like hell. I did not feel a thing.
I had spent 24 years trying to forget the last time I had been dragged from disaster on my surfboard, but right then it all came flooding back. Freddie was there for me in 1985, my surfboard had saved my life and spine then. Some things you can never forget no matter how hard you try. The memories poured back, I could not believe it, it was happening again.
They say fear is all in the mind. Bullshit. Fear is a real tangible touchable thing. People watching Discovery Channel who cover their eyes when they see a spider or a snake, no that is not fear. No not that fear, real fear based on real life events, the kind of fear you silently fight every day, the kind of fear that keeps you awake at night, the fear that drives your nightmares, the fear that changes your life. When that fear strikes there is nothing you can do.
I was being dragged up the beach we had made it in through the channel easily my mind was clear and extremely focused. Self-preservation mode was fully activated I had done this before it came automatically as if in a trance. I heard myself rattling off instructions, go to Glen and Cathy´s house call the paramedics, don’t move me, someone call my mother, get my phone and wallet from the house, nobody panic. A small crowd had gathered by now, I was lying on the sand on a slight slope, I was safe. I had to stay focused, keep talking, keep talking , keep spirits up, don’t show any signs of fear, tell jokes, keep talking.
Until now the struggle had been to stay alive, there had been no time for fear, no time for anything else. The struggle had been to float and to breathe. I knew now I was safe, I knew I was doing the right things, it was by the book. I had been a lifesaver, I had been a safety officer with a St Johns certificate, just follow procedure, do not move, not even an inch, stay warm and get into a hospital as soon as possible.
How bad could it be, this seemed a walk in the park, the sun was shining, I was staring into an impossibly blue African sky, I was surrounded by friends my home was just a few hundred metres away. There were no terrible sounds of impacting screeching, grinding, crunching metal. There were no sounds of screaming pain. There was no sign of collective fear and panic. There was no copious amount of splattered blood. There was no death. Compared to 1985 this seemed a walk in the park. How bad could it be?
George was standing talking to me, I was watching him he had my hand in his, he was talking I was not listening I had to force myself to come back, to concentrate. George had my hand in his, what was he doing, concentrate, concentrate. George had my hand in his he was asking me to squeeze his hand, oh ok yes of course, what for?
That was when the fear struck.
George squeezed my hand, I could see him doing it, I could hear him doing it. Jesus, I could not feel him doing it and no matter how hard I tried I could not squeeze back.
Fear struck in the form of ICE, an icy cold came over me. There was no pain, my brain went into overdrive again. George was now fiddling with my feet, again not a thing. Those freaky jelly arms and legs I had watched dancing in the current just a few moments earlier were mine. At the time of course I knew that, the harsh reality just did not register. I had more pressing needs then. Suddenly I was cold, not even the harsh African summer sun could warm me.
Not fifteen minutes had passed since I had glided past George laughing on what most surely was my last wave ever. This time I was done, it was over for sure, the unthinkable flashed into my mind, I felt a twinge of anger that I had made it. It had been so peaceful under water, I had been ready, life had treated me well, it had been good. I felt so cold all of a sudden, a lifetime of emotions in such a short space of time. I felt so cold and suddenly so very tired.
I know I am a logical person, science over faith any day. Logic, science and faith all kicked in at that moment. I had done this before I had lived through being told I would be paralyzed before and it had worked out, keep positive, keep the faith, never give up. The emotional rollercoaster I felt on the beach in front of the channel at the Point that day is absolutely impossible to put into words. There was no pain and that terrified me, last time the pain was all consuming, nothing has come close since, not even the day I crushed and pulled the end of my right index finger off came close. There was no pain, it was very, very cold and it was terrifying.
I was going into neurogenic shock. The danger was very real and it was far from over.