It is my hope that putting this voice out into our world has value, not only for me, but for others, as well. I admit to sometimes entertaining dreams of it going viral, of infecting the world with my vision. But most of the time I am content to be motivated by Gandhi's assertion: whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it.

Wednesday, February 27, 2002

Into unknown depths

Vision Quest, February 2002, Fish Hoek. During the initial days of this amazing process, all the participants are given a task, by Judy and Valerie, that is to be completed in the days before going to the mountain. Mine is to swim out to the buoy that bobs around in the sea in front of their house, quite a good distance from the beach and off the cat walk. I planned it for the Saturday morning, the day before our departure to the mountains. The idea to swim at sunrise was my own. And my plan was to sit in stillness on the beach, waiting to enter the water in the moment that the sun broke above the horizon - a kind of soundtrack in light to a heroic moment in my journey. An imagined blue sea on a warm and windless February morning. The aim of the task from Judy and Valerie’s side was to feel the support of the water, and the fact that one could flow through it, supported by it.

At this stage there was very little public awareness of the danger of sharks in Fish Hoek.

The meaning of the extremely powerful experience I had, has always perplexed me, and perhaps increasingly so because of the postscript to the story. Ten years later though, I am beginning to make more sense out of it. The Vision Quest was probably a life changing experience. Did this swim perhaps mark initial, definitive strokes towards depth?

The description below was written straight after the swim, on Judy and Valerie’s lawn, my skin tingling but warmly wrapped, and with a cup of Earl Grey tea and a rusk.

The swimming task is entirely dominated by fear, even terror, which comes as a great surprise to me. Have I in my maleness denied fear? Fear, of the four basic emotions, is the one that speaks most to me at this stage in my life, but it speaks from a comfortable distance of mutual respect. When I climb I work with fear. But we respect each other’s positions, fear and I. We have strategies. We play by the rules. Martial artists, we come from our respective corners and bow neatly. In these rules fear is not allowed to engulf me explosively from an unexpected angle.

Darkness in the mountains does not make me afraid. Darkness underneath me in the sea makes me very afraid.

It is an ominous morning. Cold wind off the sea. Grey mist. The buoy in this light is black, not white. But the sunrise is beautiful, if uncertain. How long to wait? Things have lost the clarity of a sunrise above a cloudless horizon. But in the uncertainty there is beauty, there is a challenge.

While sitting in stillness on the beach, I am already shivering. It would be easy to blame it on the cold. There are some people around me, old people, which is comforting. Some of them enter the water before me. The mist bank rises with the sun, obliterating any separation with the horizon. Some moments before the sunrise, though, the mist draws aside to give clarity to a horizon of mountains, at the point from where the sun will rise. So I am swimming towards the mountain. There is some comfort in the rightness of this. Right placement.

When I enter the water, it is freezing. I think that it is probably only the initial shock, but it continues through the first strokes, and I seriously consider turning back. But my will is committed and it forces me on. I start out fast in defiance of my body’s unwillingness, but I cannot keep it up and must soon slow to a breaststroke. I try to relax but can only fool myself into relaxing. The fear dwells in the murky darkness below me, menacingly threatening to ascend as shark, or whatever. An unknown. I open my eyes, knowing I will see only murky darkness, and I do. No comfort. Suddenly something is brushing up against my leg, from the darkness below. My fear screams, ‘Shark!’, in a split second of shear panic. My rationality says, ‘kelp’, but cannot begin to compete with fear for the split second that it is happening, even when it happens again a second time.

Then I notice the woman in the red bathing cap swimming back stroke behind me. The calm presence of someone who does this every single day and has not yet been eaten, is tremendously comforting. We are allies in this quest.

There is a calmness before reaching the buoy. A calmness in the wind, in the ripples against my face. But it is a calmness contained in the surface only.

The buoy itself is menacing to me. Irrationally so. It floats on the rhythm of the darkness, dark itself. And I do not want to even think about the rope descending beneath it, connecting it to the dark, murky depths below. I do not want to feel the buoy below the surface. Above all I do not want the rope to brush against my leg. My fear knows that it can drag me down.

I force myself to touch the buoy, firmly, definitively, and then I kick off, hard, towards the shore. Like reaching the summit of a mountain, I have only reached the halfway point in my journey. My goal lies in feeling sand under my feet. I have just as much chance of being eaten by a shark on the way back as I had on the way out. I swim towards the woman. I want the warmth of human contact.

There is barely eye contact as we pass. But there is some kind of acknowledgment, that flows between us. We are the same species. We share the same aspirations. We share the same fears.

And after that the going back is easier, calmer. It is a journey towards light, rather than darkness.

The postscript to this story is that two and a half years later, the women with whom I swum, Tyna Webb, aged 77, who did this swim every morning of her life, was brutally taken by a huge great white shark, during what turned out to be her last morning swim. She was swimming back stroke, as she always did - back stroke out, crawl in. So she never saw it coming. The attack was witnessed by several people. No trace of her was ever recovered, but a red bathing cap believed to have been hers, was found.

The buoy had been removed before this, to discourage people swimming to it, because there was increasing public awareness of the danger of shark attacks. Judy and Valerie had stopped the swimming task as a Vision Quest task before the removal of the buoy. But Tyna Webb, described as a a remarkable person who followed her own mind, a moral force, humble in the extreme, exceptionally kind and totally fearless, chose to continue her daily swim, despite the danger.

Six years after Tyna Webb, Lloyd Skinner, 37, was also killed by a shark in shallow water near the beach.

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