Judge the Dread
If you did a vox pop amongst surfers and asked what their dream surf break would look like, it’d probably resemble exactly that which stood before me - an empty 3-4 foot beachbreak peak. Great odds for a tube going left or right, with the odd bigger bomb to keep it interesting.
Clear water, blue skies, and untrammelled bush as a backdrop.
It was obvious that the waves were going to get better as the tide filled in so there was no great hurry to get out there. On the contrary, I found myself putting off going surfing as long as I possibly could. At first I just took a bit longer than necessary to assess the conditions. Then I decided to fish the deepening gutter behind the shorebreak. Whilst this was productive and I soon had a feed of tailor fillets chilling on an ice brick inside a cooler bag, I soon realised that the prevarication was putting off the inevitable: I’d surf now or I wouldn’t surf at all.
You may be wondering why would anyone hesitate to launch themselves into such a dreamy little surf session?
The short answer is that I was scared of the large carnivorous fish known as the Great White shark, AKA White Pointer, AKA White Death. Scared to the point that I’d perhaps even deny myself the joy of playful waves in a beautiful setting. This is a debilitating level of fear no matter how you slice it. I sat on the beach and watched the perfect waves breaking metres away and imagined the self-loathing I’d experience if I didn’t paddle out. Then I took far too much time to get in my wetsuit and walked slowly down to the water's edge, scanning up and down the beach the whole time, silently willing someone, anyone, to turn up and join me.
No-one was coming, so I paddled out alone.
The crazy thing about fear is the way in which it warps rational thought. I approached the water as though it held certain death. I tried to go over the top of waves I should’ve duckdived due to the outlandish notion that by submersing I was somehow more vulnerable to attack. I’d normally feel grateful for the rip which drew me easily into the deeper water beyond the break but now it seemed to act as a conveyor towing me towards a very large set of hungry jaws. The whitewash, which would traditionally invigorate my senses, felt as though it cloaked the presence of a malicious beast lurking in the clear water below.
Despite the apprehension building to an almost physical sensation, as I sat on my board and waited desperately for a wave to momentarily lift me up and save me from the gory death surely about to unfold, a funny thing happened: No shark materialised to violently take me in a shower of bloody froth. Not a single one.
A rare coherent thought penetrated my adrenaline-induced stupor: Was my fear rational? Was it justified at all..?
I’d be the first to recommend trusting your gut and intuition as a reliable survival mechanism. I also place much faith in an animalistic sixth sense which alerts us to the presence of stalking danger. But when you begin to experience these feelings regularly and they invade your thoughts before the exposure to the threat, then it’s time to assume there is something less beneficial at play in your mind
It’d be stupid to think that no threat of shark attack existed; only a few days previously a surfer had his arm almost bitten off a couple of kilometres further along this very same beach. If he’d not been so lucky to have help immediately at hand he may have bled to death. It was also an area in which it wasn’t unknown to spot large sharks swimming through the lineup. A school of salmon had moved along the beach not long before I’d paddled out, and the odds of more salmon following were quite high. Despite the area’s low number of attacks over time, the last twelve months had at least three recognised attacks by white sharks upon people.
Quite the list of compelling factors.
Did this mean an attack was likely? No, of course not. While sharks regularly take up temporary residence in an area for a few days at a time, there was no certainty the shark responsible for the attack was still around and still hungry, or that any of its fellow sharks would be either. I’d surfed the same beach in the days leading up to the attack and had felt far less vulnerable than I did now. Commonsense told me that it was the sense of fear which had grown more imposing, not the likelihood of falling prey to a man-eating fish.
I sat out the back between sets, occupying myself with the macabre undertaking of trying to calculate just how probable the chances of a shark attack transpiring.
Sitting in the middle of the ocean under a clear sky meant that the odds were smaller than that of being killed by a toppling vending machine, more marginal than getting my brain stoved in by a rearing stallion, and much better than being struck by an errant bolt of lightning, all of which are, strangely enough, the usual comparators when it comes to an untimely finish.
After a while it occurred to me that any slight leaning of statistics towards one likelihood over the other was meaningless and distracting from the only verifiable fact: My fear of sharks was entirely disproportionate to the threat.
My fear was irrational. It had no relation to reality. The irrational fear of sharks is called galeophobia and people who suffer from phobias, including myself, can often totally forget that what they experience is not an appropriate reaction to the scenario at hand. A phobia is a mental tic which perverts the mind’s interpretation of the information provided by the senses. The strange thing is that often the tic can’t be sustained without at least a partial indulgence of the mind.
This makes the fear seem no less real and at times it doesn’t prevent fear from overwhelming rational thought. Like all things in life, sometimes we are stronger and sometimes we are weaker. The hold the phobia has over me waxes and wanes depending on variables I can’t even begin to understand. I’ve spent a life in the ocean and this has meant that sometimes I’ve been literally surrounded by sharks without concern, yet here I was, not a shark to be seen and an almost uncontrollable urge to exit the water without delay.
For myself, I’ve found that there’s no single best way to fight an irrational fear. Sometimes success can be found by simply trying to bullock it into submission, as I had by gritting my teeth and paddling out. Other times it works to mimic the fatalistic mindset of religion. Rather than disciplining yourself to override the dread which stalks you, choose instead to relax and accept that whatever happens, happens. The answer isn’t to fight a possible future beyond the realms of your control, it lies in embracing whichever future befalls you. If that’s your destiny, then so be it. The reason people take to religion so wholeheartedly is that the feeling of giving yourself over to a higher power is liberating and it’s hard to maintain fear once you’ve truly let go and have relinquished control to more powerful forces than yourself. This is what we do every time we enter the ocean anyway. If we were honest we’d probably realise that this is one of the main reasons surfers remain so attracted to surfing, long after the urge to perfect their cutback has paled into memory.
Unfortunately, the battle against a genuine phobia may be won on the day, but the war is ongoing. So while I managed to enjoyed the rest of my surf and caught enough waves to satisfy my needs, I’d be lying if I said that somewhere deep in the recesses of my mind, there wasn’t a feeling of relief that I’d somehow snuck another victory from the hungry sharks which patrol the waters of my imagination and beyond.
The very next day and conditions dictate that the best option is back at the same spot. However, the glorious bank from yesterday has been eaten away by the ceaseless currents which limit any decent set up along this stretch to an extremely temporary proposition. The sky is no longer blue and is instead an ominous dull grey. The surfing itch needs a scratch and I start to look for a rideable opportunity amongst the dribble before I see a shadow flit through the face of a wave.
Or did I?
Too late. The seed is sown and there’s no mental contortions which would get me into a lineup so shite now that my mind has populated it with a legion of murderous whites.
I turn the car for home and console myself the sharks will be gone tomorrow.
// JOHN DORY