Monday, January 28, 2013

Torquay 2013- 30 shades of grey


ALL the glamour and mystery and terror of the sea were on show for me during last week. All in three separate experiences.

The first- glamour- took place at nearby Jan Juc. A lovely jog of about one kilometre. The surging sea on the left, white capped waves hurled onto the sand. White, chalky cliffs on the right. Me, with the stretch of yellow sand, cushioned between. My soft sandy path suddenly ends. I have left the people, and the life saving flags, far behind. I can sing loudly, unheard and unencumbered:
"Oh, a storm is threat'ning
My very life today
If I don't get some shelter
Oh yeah, I'm gonna fade away."

Little rock pools. Tiny yellow and white shells. And then, just ahead, the path ends with a solid rock, but with the tide not fully in yet, I can skip around the corner over shin length water, and open myself up to an entirely new vista. You can pretend here that you have been transformed into a new, C S Lewis-type world and left ordinary life behind. There is a cosy hamlet of harsh cliff and gentle surf. A little boat could become shipwrecked here. The entrance to the hamlet is spacious and inviting. The sea here belongs solely to me, as do the shells and the smooth, untrampled sand.

The next evening, at about 9:00, I am on the long stretch of sand in Torquay that leads from the edge of the centre of town, northward about six kilometres to the beginning of the nudist precinct. I have run the six kilometres on a cool but hardly cold night, my feet damp despite trying to avoid every one of the waves that creep silently and stealthily in. I stop to catch my breath and look out, totally alone, toward the horizon. There are many shades of grey in this mysterious sea. They say that the sky reflects upon the water, and I think about this as I look across at the horizon, and it makes perfect sense. The grey in the water, however, is darker and more ominous than the grey in the sky. I try and remember the lines from Keats’ poem ‘On The Sea’:

"Often 'tis in such gentle temper found,
That scarcely will the very smallest shell
Be moved for days from where it sometime fell.
When last the winds of Heaven were unbound.
Oh, ye! who have your eyeballs vexed and tired,
Feast them upon the wideness of the Sea."

Even though I am running into a breeze on my return home, I somehow feel more light footed and at peace. Not exactly exultant- last year I was singing something by Marvin Gaye at the top of my voice- more melancholy in a way, but restful and calm.

The next day is quite hot and I am at the Torquay surf beach. It’s crowded and rough. There are too many people about, and in the rough waters, people on ‘boogie boards’ are streaming in, propelled by a wave, almost crashing into people closer to the shore who are merely trying to enjoy jumping the waves. I go beyond the ‘boogie boards’, closer to the surfers on surf boards. I am hanging around with some other people, strangers who, like me, enjoy going out deeper to experience the rush of a threatening, crashing wave and being bashed about. Someone on my right says to his friends ‘let’s go back a bit’, but it doesn’t register with me. I don’t really know anything about a rip besides what I’ve read in a Tim Winton novel. If I cared to turn around at this point, I would have noticed that I have drifted out further than I thought, and across, outside of the space between the life saving flags. I am about to experience the terror of the beach for the first time in my life.

Eventually I do turn around. The waves are big and seeing how far in front of all the casual swimmers I am, I realise I have to go back. I still don’t realise I am caught in a rip. I perform freestyle for a while, but I am not a strong swimmer, and soon I have to rest. Optimistically I try and place my feet on the ocean floor. There is no hope of that. I pull myself up and swim again and find myself having to rest, more quickly next time. The water makes me panic easily. I still cannot stand up. I employ backstroke, but get distracted by water crashing over my face. Treading water for more than a couple of minutes seems unrealistic. I am starting to think of drowning. It’s awful. What have I done?

People caught in situations like mine are apparently supposed to raise a hand for help from somebody on the shore, or tread water and drift out of the rip zone and swim in with the tide. I am not thinking along these lines at all. All I know is that I cannot get any closer to the shore, and my family, safely ensconced in their tent, seem very far away. A little further away is a surfer. I cry out to him, weakly- “Excuse me, mate. I think I’m in a bit of trouble. Can you help?”

Well, Edward, as his name turns out to be, effectively saves my life. He is young and strong, and begins hauling me in. I gratefully clamber onto his board, and he somehow swims in, hauling my by the attached rope. I see how far we are from the casual swimmers again and feel stupid. It is a slow process, and at one point Edward says ‘we haven’t gained any ground, but we haven’t lost any!’ It takes about fifteen minutes, and at one point I am certain we are both in trouble, but Edward is strong and incredibly mature, and I am thank him profusely when he suddenly says I should be able to stand up now.

I walk slowly past the other swimmers, and onto the shore. My chest is red and burning and my arms ache. It is incredibly sweet to rest on the sand. Minutes later, I spot a green dye in the water, just where I was helplessly swimming. A loudspeaker tells us that this is where there is a rip, and for everyone to be cautious. I bet someone with binoculars was watching Edward and me from some tower. Incredibly, shortly after that, the life raft bursts onto the waves and rescues someone like me, who has been caught in a rip.


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