It was a beautiful day. Blue sky reflected in diamond sparkles on the ocean. I felt very pleased with life. The fish were fairly jumping into my boat.
I smiled, Christmas was only two weeks away, I had already picked out a piece of jewellery for Kath, my wife and a life-size doll for my little daughter. I envisaged the look of happiness on their faces when they opened their presents on Christmas morning.
‘I’ll see you in the morning,’ Howard my brother reminded me.
‘OK, at 4 am,’ I waved him cheerio through the car window as he drove home.
Our fishing boats were moored at Cape Elizabeth, York Peninsular, South Australia in readiness for the next day’s fishing.
We dropped our anchors 10 kilometres south of the Cape and seven kilometres from the shore. Howard positioned himself six kilometres north of me.
A GREAT CATCH
I was so intent hauling in the fish that I hadn’t noticed anything amiss until the sun disappeared smothered by dark storm clouds. I looked up. I couldn’t believe how quickly the weather had changed. The ocean was being sucked up into great walls of green water by the wind and threatened to dump on my little boat. This was about 9 am.
Hastily pulling up the anchor, keeping one eye on the storm and heading for land, I allowed my boat to run with the sea. I shouted at the storm, ‘I’ve done this before and beaten you. I’ll beat you today.’ This was a race with death I had run many times, today I believed it would be a piece of cake. I was very familiar with the sea, too familiar, I’d been fishing all my life. It’s what I did for a living.
The boat had hardly drifted six metres when glancing behind, a wall of water dwarfed the boat, it broke with a deafening roar over me and the boat causing the boat to slew around. I was catapulted through air to fall into a boiling sea. Images of Kath and my daughter ran through my mind.
I screamed, ‘Help me, God. I don’t want to die just yet.’ I wanted to savour the love of Kath and my daughter for years to come. ‘I am too young to die,’ I yelled over the wind. This was not how I saw my demise from this world. It was not how I planned to beat the elements either.
I surfaced coughing, flicking water from my eyes only to see my brand-new boat hanging perpendicular in the water. The ballast had moved toward the stern when the engine broke its mountings.
I wasted no time in scrambling aboard the badly listing deck,
I wondered if I were going mad for I discovered I was talking to myself, ‘I will not be bait for White Pointer or Grey Nurse sharks,’ my imagination was in top gear. I remember fishing one day and watching a shark circle and come up under the stingray and rip it apart.
‘Life is cruel,’ I muttered to myself and shivered.
My boat was sinking, ‘I’m going to lose my boat, but I’m not going to lose my life without a fight.’ I had to hear a voice even if it was my own, to lift my hope indicator, resting at zero. I wasn’t much of a swimmer.
I thought no-one was listening, but someone must have been It was the God that Christians talk about. He never leaves or forsakes those who are his. I believed I was his child through faith in Jesus Christ.
To give myself a better chance I stripped to my birthday suit, took a bearing by marking a tall tree on shore and checked the time, 11 am. I’d lived three lifetimes in the last two hours.
I was no Grant Hackett, that was for sure, as I bobbed awkwardly through the water. Soon my arms and legs ached and I searched for an easier way to swim. Something or someone seemed to say, ‘Roll onto your side.’ I found I could then make headway.
I breasted a wave. Three fins circled me, slicing through the water. ‘Sharks,’ I groaned. ‘I’m going to make shark bait, after getting this far. Just my luck.’ In a graceful arc, three dolphins cut the air. I remembered reading that sharks hate dolphins so I was safe for now. The dolphins cavorted like young puppies, around me for ages. I forgot how much my body hurt as I kept stroking for shore. It was a few minutes before I realised the dolphins had left. The dolphins had kept my mind off my predicament. I now had plenty of time to think about sharks and what they could do.
‘My arms and legs are so tired, I think they have dropped off.’ Was that my voice, I heard? I was water logged and bemused and hardly moving.
Something entwined itself around my feet, ‘It’s a shark!’ I screamed. It had attacked from behind as I had seen them do, I waited for death. But the water hadn’t turned red and a bunch seaweed floated passed.
My steering mechanism was well and truly off course by ten kilometres. Fatigue had allowed the waves to sweep me into a line of surf which indicated a reef. I would not be able to get over the rocks without being dashed to pieces. Despair gripped me.
Suddenly in front of me, calm water appeared, was this the break that I had unconsciously prayed for? As if I was a broom in God’s hand, I was swept through the break in the reef up onto the shore but no sooner did I touch land than I was swept back into the boiling surf. This happened a couple of times because my legs were paralysed, and I could not stand, there was nothing to grab hold of. I was at the mercy of the undertow. I imagined I could hear the sea laughing with joy as it played with me, waiting for the moment to draw me under. I could not believe that I was so close and yet so far.
About to be washed out for the third time, was it a voice, a prompt, intuition? I dug my elbows into the sand, and the waves were thwarted of their prize. When the water rushed back up the beach I allowed myself to be washed in a few more yards, at the right moment, I dug my elbows into the sand. Another wave and I would be high and dry. I lay on the beach for an hour to let strength seep back into my arms and legs, contemplating the miracle of being alive. Someone, God, up there, and I glanced heavenward had been looking after me, of that I was sure.
‘Thank you,’ I offered thanks to God. I had been in the water five hours. It was 2pm when I was washed up.
I’ve got to get to our boat moorings, was my one thought.
‘Howard, are you there?’ I called in the hope he might be close and hear me.
Only the roar of the surf answered my yell. I wondered what had happened to him, had he been lost at sea or did he make it back before the storm hit?
A rocky beach and dense scrub were daunting. My birthday suit didn’t provide me with any protection. Every bush reached out to snag my bare skin and every rock a knife in my feet. It was the longest 10 kilometres I’d ever walked in my life.
The first thing I saw as I walked into the base camp was a group of fishermen looking out to sea. They turned and saw me looking like a victim of a tsunami, Surprise, horror and finally jubilation crossed their faces as recognition dawned.
‘You’ve survived,’ they chorused and rushed me.
‘We’ve been combing the beach for hours looking for your boat. We thought you were gone.’
‘Where’s Howard? Did he survive?’
‘Yeah, He got back OK. He’s gone into Moonta to get the police. We thought you were gone.’
There was no time to find out more or even get dressed because Howard and the Sergeant of Police drove into the base camp at that moment. Howard jumped out, saying ‘He’s gone-’ further speech hung in the air when he caught sight of a fleshy nightmare that was me.
‘You’re alive! How did you survive?’ he yelled in jubilation.
Somebody had shoved a bottle of whisky into my hand, and just as I was about to take a mouthful I gulped in air,
‘I need that more than you,’ Howard grabbed the bottle and took a healthy swig.
The sergeant held out his big meaty paw and took my scratched and bleeding hand, ‘Put it there. I admire your bloody guts.’ I was back on the endangered list again as he nearly swung me off my feet.
In borrowed clothes I was driven home. I was able to hold my two beautiful girls in my arms. ‘There won’t be any Christmas presents now,’ I apologised brokenly, ‘I’ve lost everything. We are bankrupt.’
Kath, was crying and laughing, saying, ‘You are the best Christmas present I could ever have.’